I hate jigsaw puzzles. I have neither the attention span nor the inclination to make sense of their colorful chaos. But my husband loves them and last weekend was his birthday. So we sat down together to complete a puzzle.
Thirty seconds after dumping the box’s contents onto the table, I panicked. I ran to the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. And I hate unloading the dishwasher.
Up for the challenge of both puzzle and me, my husband asked me to sit back down. He gave me a strategy. Because whether I liked it or not, I was helping him with this puzzle.
Chronic Illness is an Ugly, Confusing Puzzle
A chronic illness like lupus forces you to sit down at the table. You scramble. You panic. It’s too big. It’s too hard. But if you want any life at all, you’re forced to confront the giant mess before you. 4
As my husband explained in his puzzle lecture, you start with what’s easy: The corner pieces give you structure.
For my illness, these were my doctors—primary care, rheumatologist, neurologist, and my therapist.
Once the corners were in place, I had to fill in the rest of the structure: the medications; the lifestyle changes.
With the edges in place, he suggested I start with the next easiest thing. For the most part, this strategy worked. But like chronic illness, it was still frustrating. The pieces all looked alike. Pieces that seemed to fit, didn’t. I tried forcing them. That didn’t work. Then pieces seemed to be missing. Some were trapped in the box. Some fell of the floor. One got stuck in the lining of my boot. I wanted to throw things. I wanted to throw things at him.
I wanted to quit. Instead, he’d tell me to take a break. And after a lap or twelve around the house, and more than a few deep breaths, I’d come back to the table. Renewed.
What a relief it was when I connected a few small pieces! Seeing how it fit into the bigger picture was, dare I say, exhilarating.
The puzzle took such a long time. It took far more patience than I knew I had. We stuck with it and soon sat in front of a completed puzzle.
I’m still working on the puzzle that is life with a chronic illness. It has required me to find a resolve I didn’t know I had. It has required me to overcome my tendency to run away from things that don’t come easily to me. It has been a lot of trial and error.
Like anything in life, it’s all about your approach. Knowing that there are necessary cornerstones and structures will take you a long way. But prepare to be frustrated. Prepare to need help. Prepare to be angry, to be sad, to be frustrated with yourself; to be frustrated with others.
Whatever you do, dive in. And stay seated at the table. Even if you really hate puzzles.
Have you ever had one of those poor mental health days, one in which you find yourself driving home from Target with a load of bags that, later in the day, you’ll angst over, both in terms of the decisions you made and the money you spent; a day in which you nearly drown from a sudden downpour of tears; a day in which your brain won’t shut off and you obsess over every thought that pops into your consciousness, such as why you’re so unhappy (when you have so very much to grateful for) and how much you have to do and how you’ll never get it done and why so many people in this world have so little and how people can be so filled with hate and why you still get acne despite nearly 40 years of living on this planet?
A day in which you force a smile yet you allow yourself to dive deep into intrusive thoughts that range from whether you need Botox to why your dog has to get old to wondering if your sister is angry with you over a comment you made that was meant to be flippant and self-deprecating but later ruminations reveal may have been perceived as insensitive?
A day in which you’re certain your stomach, which is particularly sensitive to your emotional well-being, has teamed up with your autoimmune disorder to stage a hostile takeover?
A day in which you’re certain if you look at said stomach, it will resemble a snake that’s just eaten a rat, but when you glance you see nothing but a well-insulated gut, which triggers your anxiety over the extra pounds you’re carrying, anxiety that is not at all relieved by unbuttoning your jeans?
A day that, by the time you pull into your driveway, you forget the unbuttoning and give your neighbors a show of your ample backside as you reach across the car seat to wrestle with those Target bags that by now you’re sure you’ll return because you pick out terrible gifts and Why-Oh-Why did you spend so much on groceries when you could have easily braved Wal-Mart and spent far less?
A day in which you tweak your shoulder as you lift those stupid bags onto your kitchen counter?
A day in which you bark at your loving partner, about what you can’t remember, but who, bless his heart, sees you’re not your normal happy self and tells you to sit while he starts you a hot bath?
A day in which the barrage of your brooding thoughts gnaws and nags until you know you must make it stop! so you try deep breaths and counting those breaths but you can only count to 5 before your brain again takes center stage to berate you for not walking the dog and missing your great aunt’s funeral and telling your daughter she ate all her Swedish Fish when, in fact, you spent the greater part of last night devouring everything in your pantry with high fructose corn syrup on the label?
Have you ever had one of those poor mental health days?
A Break from My Self Indulgent Drama
Post hot bath, post nap, post breakdown, I recognize why I feel like shit: I’m not taking good care of myself.
So today’s “to do” list includes: Yoga (gentle), quiet time, hot tea, Epsom salt bath, easy walks in sunshine, chat with a friend, take breaks, read a good book. Etcetera; etcetera.
I hope my ranting and raving sounds nothing like your internal monologue. But in case they do, it’s probably time to slow down and take care of you. And in case you don’t think you need to practice self care or self care doesn’t come easily to you or you haven’t stopped to take a breath in years so you don’t even recognize you need self care, check this out:
Now then. What are you waiting for? The holidays and all the fun and stress and worry and excitement they bring are coming. It’s a great time to remember how to be good to you.