On the Patience of Being a Patient
Previously, I carefully plotted my day squeezing the time from one activity to the next, often layering tasks upon one another. Over the years, I have cultivated and continue to practice (because it’s much more difficult than it looks, at least for me) mindfulness and immersion in a single activity at once. I have read numerous research and articles that lament the cost and ineffectiveness of multi-tasking and how rarely true it is that an individual can multi-task but caution that they are instead emulating a shell of it with taxing code-switching. Through a multi-car accident I suffered multiple injuries, some quite significant, in my early 30’s. Satisfying an insatiable curiosity even as I faced the looming spectre of an acquired brain injury and months of intensive physiotherapy, I came to undergo several in-depth neurological tests and was assured that I happened to be one of those rareties who could indeed multi-task but I was still encouraged to develop the practice of utilising “exo-brain” tools to ease the mental load. Essentially, I was taught “Why fatigue a muscle when you could reserve it for more interesting, useful, and demanding tasks?” I have continued this practice in the years since and it has complemented other practices in meditation, mindfulness, studies, and work.
Mindfulness is not a new-age novel concept for me, but the guise it wears and this name it bears is the one I have grown accustomed to using for the ease of more effective communication in the world and culture I currently navigate most often. It is a way of being I saw reflected in the people around me, when I was younger. I saw it in the raised thresholds of sacred spaces throughout Asia; respect required you to step with deliberation, care, and presence of mind. I felt it in the quiet that I was expected to honour in family homes when the occasion asked it of us, no matter how young we were and how tempted we might be rowdily chase one another on the cool dusty concrete floors. I tasted it in the way certain meals were punctuated by ritual, imbued with the flavours of tradition. It is something I have come to value increasingly on both intellectual and emotional levels. Yet, recently, mindfulness has been simultaneously a retreat and a challenge.
There is a frustration and an enduring level of patience that seems required in living with chronic illness and disease. (Disease: I feel a resistance against that word, the way it reflects how often people instinctively shy away from illness, the way it echoes the distance you live from a life of ‘ease’.) It seems to be largely unspoken that those of us with certain conditions can simply and ably (irony of this word intended) navigate the unpredictable and often wildly disparate waves of ill-health amidst days of better functioning, lesser pain, reduced fatigue which weighs upon you almost as heavily as any single other symptom might. This oftentimes requires an equanimity and resilience of mind and heart, well beyond what the body may be facing. Depending on where you are along the uncharted and largely unguided journey with chronic illness, particularly an autoimmune condition (or if you have multiple like myself), the triggers for a flare may be virtually untrackable given there may be so many other factors contributing to onset, severity, and duration. This makes them inherently more difficult to manage, and particularly difficult to predict, or avoid. And so, you learn to let go of plans made, or hopes to enjoy the nice weather because today, your body is embroiled in more pain than when the last time this same set of weather conditions felt enjoyable and comforting. I learned to take what I could of this very moment, and whatever I could do.
My time management is finely honed as a result. I do not put off until tomorrow (or even later today) what I can do now because I do not trust in the promise of tomorrow. The physical capacity that is available today is not assured tomorrow. However, I am also reluctant and careful not to list all the things I have achieved and managed to do with my particular set of health challenges because I am also conscious that I am unusual. My specialists repeatedly remark at their astonishment at how high-functioning and well I continue to present, how little my body is marked by the typical scars and deformities that many others come to be tattooed with over the years living with similar conditions. But many of these conditions are, in truth, phenomenon and not diseases with specifiable parameters and knowable trajectories. These titles we give them are names for clusters of symptoms we are still learning about, demystifying, observing, seeking to unravel. For me, this attitude of do what I can when I can and embracing the now is freeing for me and has been my way of life since my youth. Procrastination simply robs me and I refuse to have another thief of time in my life. I also realise I don’t know any adult life without pain.
In recovering from recent major surgery, progress going much slower than projected for most patients who have undergone similar procedures, I am caught in a strange mixture of feelings. I posit this is the feeling of impatience, mixed amongst the familiar frustration that I often must wrangle, the hope that I cultivate in my mental garden, the equanimity that I nurture, and the ever-present bedrock of fatigue. I had prepared myself in many ways for this chapter, anticipating I would struggle with staying still enough to recover and rest. I had not projected how hard I would find being patient with being a patient. I am grateful and aware of my good fortune at accessing high quality medical care, including some notably joyous and considerate nurses who brightened otherwise unpleasant procedures. However, as I wait to feel stronger and be allowed to effectively rejoin my life on my own terms again, hitting roadbumps and complications, I have already grown tired of being patient.
My sense of disconnect from my own life is stronger than I recall facing before. (This isn’t my first treatment or surgery.) There are many specific factors that contribute to this and I can examine these and distract myself by immersing in thoughts and analysis. There are projects at my fingertips, including writing, art, and studying, that I am privileged to be able to partake in during this period. But perhaps, the lesson I could be investing in is the feeling of discomforting patience. I understand and support the value of being patient with others, but where is my patience and compassion for myself? If my body is demanding more time to rest and heal, why am I agitated with impatience against this? There may be factors outside of me contributing to a sense of urgency, or even a sense of failing to meet expectations of others, but these are not mine to take on unless I choose to. What I can feel that is unequivocally mine, is an impatience and a demand of and for myself to be stronger, healthier, healed. Now. Being patient as a patient is an opportunity to practice more than patience. It is an opportunity to practice kindness and compassion towards myself.
And so, I end this post with a commitment. Not to be great at this, but to practice something because expecting a higher standard when I am still learning, is in itself, also not exercising kindness. I can only practice being patient with myself, allowing the healing process to take whatever path it will take and accepting the opportunities it contains therein. I can hope to become better at this. With practice.
Hope to see you again soon, a little more patient with myself.