One day, in a future you cannot yet imagine, you will wake up one day with a burning pain that will signal your transition into the world of chronic illness. You will not know it at the time, but your life will be forever altered, upended in a way that will, quite often, seem grievously unfair. You will be scared. You will be angry. You will cry. And you will wish with all your heart to go back in time, but you cannot.
To make the transition easier, I offer the following advice:
1) Run with abandon. Right now, you think nothing of running barefoot through the huge field behind your parents’ house or lacing up running shoes for a jog or local 5K. Go! Do it! Run and run and run. Feel the wind in your hair. Feel the expanding of your chest and the pounding of your feet – sensations that are so familiar to you – but exalt in your ability to run without significant pain of any kind. You will tire and you will sweat, but you have a killer closing sprint. Use it and fly!
2) Look in the mirror, a full length mirror, and find something every day to compliment. Do not waste a moment wishing for a different body. This is the one that you have and it is beautiful. Admire the un-mottled skin on your feet, the curve of your wrist as you effortlessly glide it in a circle, the naturally blonde hair that will slowly turn to brown. Smile when you look at yourself. Say positive things about your body, out loud and in your head. Do not spend decades hating your body, ashamed to be seen. Start to develop a partnership with your body now. Learn its signals and heed them. Nourish it. Pamper it. Let it do what bodies need to do.
3) When you are the right age and responsible and can make adult decisions, have a lot of sex. With someone you love or at least someone you like quite a bit. With someone who takes your enjoyment as seriously as their own. Revel in the power of human touch. While you’re at it, explore other ways you can be touched that bring you happiness. Sex may become too painful, too complicated, too exhausting to contemplate later on, so while you have the energy and the right partner, enjoy yourself! And never forget the backrubs and foot rubs and the handholding that also feel nice. Those are activities you can continue to enjoy for many years. And if sex is not your thing, don’t have any. Find something else to do that releases endorphins and stress, something you make time for and look forward to. Maybe it’s reading. That’s a great passion to pursue. Maybe it’s March Madness brackets. (One year I successfully picked the men’s and women’s champions. This may come as a surprise to you, as we have never been sporty. I won no money. It is something I put on the fridge and highlight each day during the tournament games. I still don’t know how to play basketball, but selecting teams brings me joy. So I look forward to it every year. My wife -- yes, you get married -- reads the match-ups to me and writes down my answers, often shaking her head at some of my picks.) Maybe it’s quilting (I doubt it) or lawn bowling (also unlikely), genealogy (even more dubious) or making papusas (this has potential). Passion comes in many forms and can take you many places, so find what makes you tick.
4) Say no. To sex with the wrong person or at the wrong time, to anything that does not feel right to you, to requests from supervisors who do not value your contributions or coworkers who always ask you to cover for them, to that neighbor who wants you to bake desserts for the community potluck you dread, to participating in weddings or other activities that are simply beyond your budget at a particular time in life, to leaning in or leaning out or whatever current trend is not agreeing with your sense of how things should be for you in this world at this time. Say no with abandon. No explanations needed. Walk away with no regrets.
5) Find a living being to love. This could be a spouse or a relative, a beloved canine family member or the UPS employee who smiles when knocking on your door bearing a package. Or, most importantly, it could be you. (I was well over 30 before I embarked on the process – and it has been a process – of learning to love myself. Get a head start on that.) Send love to that person with your thoughts, show it with your actions (socially appropriate ones, of course), and tell it with your words. Once you have learned how to love one person, really and truly, expand that love to others. Grow the circle of love you send out into the world. There are so many people to love in this world, so many animals and plants that could use our attention and care. Now this is the challenge. We must learn to lose these people we love, because lose them we will. And it is hard, so very hard, to say goodbye. You may see people who cut themselves off from others after a great loss. This is understandable, but find the strength to keeping loving. Even when your heart has been broken, smashed to the floor. These are terrible times, but we carry on, and love is how we do it.
Be mindful, be present, take chances, and breathe. Life is glorious, even when we cannot see that it is. Hold on tight to the things that matter and let everything else go. This is what I wish I had known. This is what I wish I would regularly do, even now.
May you be happy. May you be loved. May you be you.
Sarah Bigham teaches, writes, and paints in Maryland where she lives with her kind chemist wife, their three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. Find her at www.sgbigham.com.