Descansa – Tiffany Maria Christopher-Ward

Listen to your body. One step at a time.  Slowly slowly, as my Nonna always used to say.

But I didn’t go slowly slowly. I was so determined to make this my year that I burnt myself out within the first month. For the last 4 weeks I have seen nothing but doctor’s rooms and pharmacists. I have contracted one virus after another and I am completely exhausted. Remember how I said there’s only so much any of us can handle at one time? Well I learnt to swallow my own medicine: the hard way.

At the Language Assistant’s Orientation in October, we were recommended to say yes to every invite, every event and every activity that we were offered during our time here in Spain. I absorbed this advice, doing everything I could possibly do; from Muay Thai classes, to salsa and flamenco, social dances, hiking, drinks with friends and dinners. At the same time, I was pushing my training in the gym, studying, working, and preparing for my application to The British Army next year. (My decision to join the Army? I’ll leave that for another blog.)

By the end of October, I was feeling tired, but not your average tired. I was worn out. My body ached constantly, I couldn’t sleep, and I felt an over-powering tension that would not go away. After taking my exam in August, I had made a very conscious effort to stay on top of the first YA Assessment. I started my research, I prepared my draft and I was in a comfortable position for the upcoming deadline, so I decided to take a break. I went to work, I slept, and I tried to use the time to find myself again, to re-centre my thoughts and to focus. I stopped going to the gym, I stopped studying and the days slipped by. I began to feel guilty. I don’t think I can ever truly relax for when I am physically not doing anything, I am thinking about all the things I should be doing: I work myself up, mentally draining myself greater than any physical fatigue. And then I reached my breaking point. A few days before the deadline I learnt that I was mistaken in my grasp of the assessment, and my preparation and plan completely worthless. I was back at the beginning: a failure.

The next day I awoke with a migraine which made me sick. I felt dizzy and weak and the simple 4-minute walk I would take to work took its toll.I didn’t feel well. I didn’t feel like me. As always, I put these symptoms down to depression. The mind is powerful, and in the past, I have often developed physical symptoms as a direct result of my mood and thoughts. I therefore endeavored to keep going and I only got worse.

Soon I was so bad I had no choice but to go to the doctor. It turns out it wasn’t in my mind after all: I had multiple viruses, and over the coming weeks I was given 7 different types of medication as my symptoms would develop and worsen. I was told to stay home, and rest and I missed 2 weeks of work. Again, the guilt ceased to invade my thoughts and the sheer panic I felt at having missed my first YA Assessment deadline overwhelmed me. I also hadn’t submitted my second blog. I felt useless and I sent email after email to the staff at QMUL apologising for missing deadlines. I felt like nothing had changed after all, I was still that girl who didn’t complete her coursework on time.

But today I realised something. And that realisation is what prompted me to write this blog in place of the one I originally intended. Why did I send dozens of emails apologising for and trying to justify being unwell? One email would have sufficed. I have never been so sick in my life. I have spent nearly every day with the doctors, going to the hospital for analyses, x-rays and emergency treatment. And yet every moment has been dominated by guilt and worry for not having done my coursework and terrified that my colleagues would think badly of me for taking time off. But I’m not well. How many times do I have to say that to myself? I’m allowed to sleep, I’m allowed to spend the day watching films or reading books, and I’m allowed to not think about all the things I THINK I should be doing. My mummy has always given me the best advice in these situations, she simply tells me to ‘do what you need to do to get better’. Forget everything else. Today that is the lesson I have learnt.

Making the most of your Year Abroad isn’t about doing 100 activities every week. It’s about making the most of you. Our minds and bodies are limitless in their ability, but they need to be looked after. We need to rest. We need to make time for ourselves and we need to say no…. and not feel guilty. Just because we are prone to anxiety and depression, doesn’t mean that we are not justified in feeling unwell or down and needing to take the time out to get better. Our mental struggles are no less real than being physically sick.  I imagine in the beginning my feeling unwell was brought on by low mood and exhaustion, but by not giving both my body and mind the time it needed to recover, my immune system lowered its defenses and I became vulnerable. I’ve effectively missed the whole of November and I will never get that back. I shouldn’t have pushed myself so hard nor dismissed what I was feeling just because I thought it was a manifestation of my mind.  But more importantly I should have listened to my body at the first signs of distress.

Sometimes being tired or being sick, can affect us far more than a person who doesn’t face such mental difficulties. We feel guilt and anxiety for not staying on track and achieving all the things we reason we should be doing to be ‘normal’. We should never have to feel like we must justify our need to rest, nor our need to take a break, just because we don’t have physical symptoms like a running nose or tickly cough. Our battle is on the inside, but we still must take the time to treat it: without ever feeling we are wrong or a disappointment for needing to do so. Listen to your body. Take your time. Descansa.

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