For the past two days, I’ve been lying in this bed, drifting between sleep and the drowsy half-awake that comes with the flu and/or walking pneumonia, the two potential diagnoses bestowed upon me by my out-of-town nurse-for-a-mother. The nausea of yesterday has passed and today I finally managed a bit of reading – significant progress from the state I was in just 24 hours ago when even the thought of reading made my head spin and stomach churn. I still feel exhausted, and my cough (which has kept me company for two weeks now) lingers, but I feel a tiny glimmer of hope that perhaps tomorrow I’ll have the energy to do the simple everyday tasks: shower, dress, eat three meals…That is, of course, if self-doubt doesn’t take me out first.
When it visits my home, physical illness is often accompanied by self-doubt. At first, self-doubt seems the more tentative guest, hovering in the corners while I alternate between naps and waking to sip tea or chicken broth. Only when it seems that the moment is right – when I am again able to think coherent thoughts and stay awake for longer stretches of time – does he begin his attack.
I’m still too weak to have much defense against his negative taint, and his presence is reflected in the thoughts that start appearing in my mind: “I will never get better.” “What if I was never really sick; what if it’s all in my head?” “I bet other people feel like this without spending all day in bed.” “I should get dressed and go to work.”
The thoughts are nothing new. I’ve heard the same refrains each time I’ve fallen ill, for as long as I can remember. Why is it so hard to let my body rest? The healthy version of me has no desire to lie in bed all day – doesn’t that alone speak volumes?
My mother was diagnosed with a chronic illness when I was a pre-teen, and I’ve known others who’ve had Lupus, Lyme disease, etc. Those folks were sick. Yet they pushed themselves to live life, didn’t they? Perhaps it’s partly a result of this comparison that I feel unjustified in taking another day off work. The thought runs through my mind that, if I really tried, I could just push through it.
In my mind, being sick equals letting people down. My son, who had to spend the weekend at his dad’s, is not only worried about me but is distraught at losing time with me. My coworkers will not receive the work I was to do if I’m not in the office on Monday, and some of my deadlines will likely be missed. All of these are understandable, yes, but they still weigh on me.
I agree with the saying, “Your health comes first,” but it’s always hard for me to accept that my body needs a time-out. An objective, outside perspective can give me the permission my mind needs to refrain from activity and truly rest, not just physically but mentally as well. Last summer, I had back surgery, and one of the many accompanying blessings-in-disguise was the doctor’s orders for post-surgery restrictions. For six weeks, I was Not Allowed. Those restrictions were, in a sense, the most freeing part of the experience. No self-doubt, no uncertainty. There was no grey. I was simply Not Allowed.
So on Monday, if I’m still not feeling well, I’ll go see the doctor. If she says, “Why, yes, you have the flu!” I’ll be relieved because I will have ammunition to blast away the doubts inside my head. If she says, “Well, it’s not the flu, probably just a virus,” I’ll ask if I’m still contagious and if I should return to work the next day or rest a bit longer. She will be an ally as I face this uncertainty.
Because even though I’ve begun to doubt myself, I still know that I am sick. The symptoms are clear. It really isn’t grey at all. But that’s what self-doubt does, he makes you doubt the very things you know to be true. And he is powerful. He may show up at my bedside alone, but before I know it he’s brought guilt and regret and comparison to others to join the party. So now I will call in reinforcements; I will gather my own army to defend myself. I’ll share my thoughts with others and they’ll remind me what I already know to be true. Their words will be like spears and cannonballs, driving self-doubt back from his attacks. And lastly, I will visit the doctor, not just because I may need medicine, but to help me conquer self-doubt and his friends, so I can fully recover without his whispered incriminations: “You should have gone to work.” “You didn’t need to get a sub for Sunday School.” “You’re just being lazy.”
If left unchecked, self-doubt could easily become more detrimental than the flu itself. It may still be a struggle, but perhaps I’m learning to trust myself instead of his lies.