In 2017, I wrote my dissertation for my Master’s Degree in Transformative Practice on the topic of ‘not-doing as a way of being’. I wrote this not just to fulfil the requirements of my course but because I wanted to share a story that would resonate with others, to write something “that is useful for everyday living, that speaks to the essence of what it is to be human”. I have returned to reread this piece of work and I am glad I did. It contains some learning that I had forgotten, and that seems particularly pertinent now, in 2020, in a world upended by Coronavirus. And it occurs to me, that if there is something useful in here for me, that I should take a risk and share, trusting and hoping that you might benefit too. I am aware that for many of us, a side effect of this situation is feeling overwhelmed, so I will be simply sharing snapshots of a larger piece of work, trusting that even a small part of a larger story can still contain its essence.
I was thinking again this morning about surrender and me. I realised that I don’t have a relationship of surrender with my M.E. Instead I separate it from me, and get frustrated when this thing-that-is-not-me affects my life. I don’t think I have ever adopted an attitude of ‘well this is part of my life now’. That’s not to say I don’t manage it (or try to!) but my struggle to not be defined by it means I carry this tension and resistance all the time. I hope I can learn to yield. I feel (know?) it would be a happier and more peaceful place to be.
Email to a friend, 2016
I’m angry at my body for being so limiting. I’m angry about the days wasted being ill. I’m angry at myself for so much striving.
Journal entry, 2016
This process has cast a light on all areas of my life and has shown me how striving is my default position, my safe place; and that this has had an impact on my body. In 2005, after 9 months of debilitating illness, I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.); also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (C.F.S.). With the support of professionals and careful self-management, I am now much more able to function ‘normally’, but it has been a long road of recovery, and is still something that affects me every day. This heuristic journey has enabled me to finally see a way of being that my body has been crying out for, for over twelve years, even though I continue to fail, to struggle, to strive.
It has only been during this process that I have realised the damaging impact that striving has had before and since my diagnosis. Research by Issa (2010) and Deary and Chalder (2010) has shown that personality factors, particularly perfectionism, play a role in both the development and perpetuation of M.E./C.F.S. This resonates with my own experiences, and I can see that my own striving behaviours, particularly my attitude of ‘I’ll just push through this’ when I first started to exhibit M.E. symptoms, may have made my eventual crash much worse.
Likewise, since my diagnosis I have resisted having the label of ‘M.E. sufferer’ attached to me. In part, this has been because of the treatment and response I get from others. M.E. is a widely misunderstood illness, and I continue to receive both implicit and explicit messages from the media and people around me that ‘it’s all in your head’, ‘you’re actually just lazy’, and ‘you look fine to me, you can’t be ill’. I have also resisted the label in order to maintain my own self-image; in an effort to cling to an idea of myself as hard working, capable, reliable and worthy, I have kept the label of M.E. at arm’s length. Likewise, I have rejected my body in disgust at how little it can do, and become disconnected with it. This disconnection has enabled me to cling to my striving self-image, but at a great cost. It has only been as I have learnt to reconnect with my body as part of my heuristic journey that I have realised the extent of what I rejected, how I have betrayed my very being through separation.