Notes on a Nervous Planet
19th November 2018
Illness has a lot to teach wellness.
Next month I turn 40. I am alive. I have endured the burnout, grief and madness of this decade. Slowly, slowly I emerge from the fug of it all and realise so many of the lessons from this time were ones I’d been taught before. I just wasn’t ready to listen to my pain, intuition, shame and desires all those previous times. Instead, I ignored the whispers of my soul, denied my behaviours and choices, and I forced my body to plough on despite the agony of my emotional sorrows manifesting in my spine.
Eventually, I collapsed; my body gave up. That was over five years ago. It’s been a longer process to realise how tender my mind has been and how my high-functioning tendencies did me no favours.
Life looks unrecognisable today compared to when I entered this decade. I see myself in the mirror and wonder who this woman is. I look around my new flat in a part of London I hardly know and try to make it home. I walk down unfamiliar streets and navigate my way towards 40. All I can do is listen to what my body and behaviours want to tell me. Choosing slow in a city addicted to speed is the first step in making space to hear those whispers. This way, I learn to accept the teachings illness – physical and mental – offer me about how to thrive. And maybe in doing so I will flourish in my forties. Who knows?
Illness has a lot to teach wellness. But when I am well I forget these things. The trick is to keep hold of that knowledge. To turn recovery into prevention. To live how I live when I am ill, without being ill.
Mental health is intricately related to the whole body. And the whole body is intricately related to mental health. You can’t draw a line between a body and a mind any more than you can draw a line between oceans. They are entwined.
Physical exercise is know to have a positive impact on all kinds of mental things, from depression to ADHD. And physical illnesses have mental effects. We can hallucinate with flu. A cancer diagnosis can make us depressed. Asthma can cause us to panic. A heart attack can cause mental trauma. If you have a bad lower back – or tinnitus, or chest pain, or a lowered immune system, or a painful stomach – because of stress, is that a mental or physical problem?
I feel we need to stop seeing mental and physical health as either/or and more as a both/and situation. There is no difference. We are mental. We are physical. We are not split up into unrelated sections. We are not an existential department store. We are everything at once.
– Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet
- How has illness taught you about wellness?
- Are you in tune with your body or is it simply the vehicle that gets you around?
- What actions can you take or avoid in order to avoid getting physically or mental unwell?
- Take a few moments to write down what a life of thriving and flourishing looks like. What’s stopping you? What can you add or subtract from your life in the pursuit of thriving?
[I took this pic at the Saatchi Gallery in November 2018. How great and slightly unnerving is it?]