On The Restorative Power of Illness

It’s 3:05 AM, and I am sitting on my couch, sipping tea, wide awake from the six (yes, six) medications my doctor currently has me on in an attempt to boot a particularly nasty virus out of my system.

I hate being sick. I know, I know: “Emily, most people hate being sick.” But I have an intense psychological, emotional reaction to being sick, and this has a direction relationship to how I perceive work (and how I am perceived at work and as a worker).

As a professor at three universities (another post for another time), I do not have “sick time” or a substitute teacher who can fill in for me. When I’m sick, I have to cancel class, and because I am hyper-aware of how I present myself to my students and how available I am to them, I tend to push through illness. I tell myself:

“It’s only four hours.”

“I’ve scheduled one-on-one conferences, and those students who want to do well will feel shortchanged if I have to cancel now and reschedule.”

“I’m just making more work for myself later on.”

But when it’s whispers have been ignored, your body tends to begin speaking up. And then it starts shouting.

I finally went to see a doctor today after I spent the night gasping for breath after several severe coughing spells. Now, I didn’t go to the doctor as soon as I could, because I had conferences scheduled with students, I was still hoping it would go away on its own, and frankly, I felt to awful from being sick to go. I spent the entire car ride from my house to the university crying, but it was only when my husband told me that I really needed to go that I finally decided to. I called on my way home from the university, when straight to Urgicare, was seen immediately, and I left with a list the length of my arm of scripts to take to the pharmacy. By 6 p.m. I was surrounded by bottles of pills, a nasal spray, and because my husband loves me, Panera tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich.

I have also cancelled conferences with students tomorrow, my equivalent to calling in sick. And, sure enough, they’ve emailed me their work (as I asked them to do) and any questions they have, and I will be able to get them feedback via the comfort of my own home (and have time for a nap…or two…or three).

I get sick like this once a year. Although I don’t work with small children, I work interact with approx. 140 college freshmen each week, and college freshmen are a close second to kindergartners in terms of their rate of illness. They are 18-year-old germ factories, and I spend hours in windowless rooms with them. So I get sick. And then I ignore being sick. And then I get really sick until I finally give up and remember I am a human being, too, and just as I excuse their absences for illness, they will need to excuse mine.

And of course they will (or won’t, but those are the students who resent everything you do, and you might as well give them to God and move on with your life).

My hope is that as I continue to reflect on and revise my teaching practices and lifestyle choices, that I will begin to equalize the attentions I give to my students with the attention I give to myself. Like in parenting and other aspects of life, I simply can’t function when I am tired, sick, overtaxed, etc. I consciously know this, but still try to be a hero. Still, I think it’s a gain that I am becoming aware of these habits, reflecting on them and why they are as deeply ingrained in my sense of self and lifestyle choices as they are, and looking for ways to make positive changes.

I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Brene Brown’s Rising Strong, and in it she discuss perfection, judgement, and failure. She discusses the belief that we are all doing are best, and this resonated so strongly with me that it has become an involuntary mantra that plays in my head throughout the day. A student is sick? He’s doing the best he can. A student missed a conference without notifying me? She’s doing the best she can. I’m sick and can’t make it to campus tomorrow? I’m doing the best I can.

By integrating the belief that we are all doing the best we can, we free ourselves from judgment–that of others and of ourselves. This can be difficult for those of us in management, teaching, and other professions in which we have to hold other people accountable and assess their work, but recognizing that people are doing their best does not mean giving everyone A’s or ignoring real problems. What it means is that you free yourself and that person from a preconceived notion regarding their efforts. When you believe that we are all doing our best, you are free to act mercifully and wisely–you take the bitterness, me vs. them combat element out of the equation.

I am doing my best; I’m just sick. And that realization opens up the ability for me to truly see what needs to be done (go to the doctor, get medicine, cancel class) and be more merciful/less judgmental when my students are sick and have to miss class or have other obstacles that impede their success.

We’re all in this thing together and we’re all doing our best. Sometimes it just takes a humbling, hellish viral infection to remind me of it.

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