The sniffles: where psyche and soma collide

I had a minor cold last week. When I feel weak and tired and achy and can barely stay awake, I bump into this knot where psyche and soma collide. I hate being ill.

The combination of stale cigarettes, oily sheets and milky, un showered body still make me nauseous. It is the scent of neglect and depression, the scent of a human being composting into their own bed. To me, despair is a smell. Its sickly and sweet like greasy hair. It is the smell of chronic illness, of an immune system that is propped up with naps and pills and endless offerings of coffee from an eleven year old daughter. My mother’s illness was both an absence and a presence: she was absent in her daily stretches of sleep but her sickness was tentacled, slithering into me, gluing me to her, suctioning onto my guilt and my pity, sucking me further into her pull.

And my conflict when I’m ill is: do I become the needless young carer, the invisible good girl who does endlessly for others and is never a burden. I have been known to power through kidney infections and check myself into the hospital without telling my husband so I don’t worry him. I can very easily find myself quietly, stoically ‘getting on with it,’ and erasing myself. This martyrdom is infinitely preferable to becoming my mother, the other possibility when I feel like shit.I experienced my mom’s sickbed as just another outpost of my mother’s imperial quest for total devotion to her- in her desperate thirst for love and care. Will I become a grandiose despot, calling the shots from my sickbed, weaponising my victimhood to control my intimates, to pull them into the orbit of pity. For many years these were the only two relational options open to me- both were unbearable to inhabit. At least the first didn’t hurt anyone else.

I’m still haunted by my past as a young carer. But. I am learning how to exist, to not erase myself. I think maybe I’m able to do what my mother never could: take responsibility for how bad I feel, check in with myself, own it, figure out what to do about it instead of making others shoulder the guilt and responsibility of making care decisions for me. If I feel up for it, as I did, I walk to the shops and lavishly treat myself to posh orange juice and Belgian chocolate Champagne truffles and some nice food and then I tell my kid I’m going to be on the sofa for the rest of the day. And I accept offers of help. And I asked my talented sister for a massage, trusting that she would say no if she didn’t have capacity. I am learning now that there is a difference between asking and demanding. The first one comes from a place that believes in relationship and generosity and the second is the language of zero sum games and power struggles and is the grabby, greedy love-child of fear and woundedness. I want nothing to do with that mode of relating.

Although my history is unique, I don’t think I am alone in grappling with these questions. Infirm bodies always put us in touch with our dependency fears. And everyone has to negotiate inside themselves how they behave when they need support or care from intimates. Is care something that can be requested open-handedly, respectfully, trusting in the abundance and generosity of the universe? Or is care something that is scarce, that needs to be milked out of others?

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

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