If life is a painful mess right now, you’re in the best possible place. Trust me. I’m right there with you, but I’m likely a bit ahead in knowing how to access this as a gateway to well-being: I’ve been socially distancing for many years now because of environmental illness. Like many people, when I first started dealing the problem, I was just choosy about where I went and who I was with to limit my exposures.
Then the reality of illness set in, and I had to stringently isolate and quarantine myself to protect my health from mold and toxic chemicals. For me, that meant I gave up my apartment in the city. I now live in a mobile environmental containment unit (MECU) — an 11 foot aluminum camper — where I have lived mostly in nature since June 2019.
Protecting my health demanded that I separate from people I love, the work I love, and the places I love. As you are probably experiencing now, this new paradigm was deeply difficult. I no longer had the coping mechanisms of distraction and addiction, which I began to recognize for what they are by witnessing my yearning for people, places and things that I could no longer access.
For me, working and socializing was how I escaped the troubling thoughts in my head, ones that gnawed at me about love, self-worth and fears of economic insecurity. I had been a theater/art/nightlife/sex columnist over the course of a couple decades before my tolerance of environmental pollution tanked and couldn’t access theaters and venues where I was close to others and couldn’t move away from toxic assault. Fortunately, I was able to continue working as an adjunct English instructor for many years longer.
Then, as you have now experienced, there was a tipping point that required sharper and more stringent isolation. When my body simply gave out and could not endure another toxic injury, I had to go on complete lock-down, much like the rest of the world is facing now, simply to protect myself from the threat of being “infected” by the second-hand fragrance and mold spores in the air and on public seats and tables. I cautiously went to grocery stores and other shops, and opted for outdoor spaces when I could. Much like you are doing now, I had to start decontaminating myself when I would get home, shedding the clothes that wore and showering to protect myself.
Like a lot of you, when I took precautions, especially early on, many people thought I was just being compulsive, persnickety, weird, or overly cautious. The cleaning products, laundry products, personal care products all came laden with toxic chemicals that made my head spin; induced headaches, nausea, and musculoskeletal pain, and short-circuited my ability to think. I was buying giant bottles of Advil and always had them on hand in my purse. I took sometimes 8 or more a day just to function (which actually worsened my body’s toxic burden, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)
Like most people, I WANTED TO FUNCTION. I loved my work, for which I spent a fortune and trained my whole life. But I couldn’t. Continually assaulted by toxins, including mold in my apartment and in the classrooms where I taught, my body succumbed so that my brain no longer functioned. I woke up one morning and couldn’t read. At all. And soon I was having trouble sitting up, walking, and doing basic life tasks.
Being without a job, I was stripped of my greatest addiction: I had held my identity as a writer and teacher in a tight grip that gave me monetary and social value as much as it provided my sense of self. My intellect elevated me, without it, I was no longer “better than” the ignorant and idiotic.
Strip all that away and who was I?
Meditation would answer that question for me. And it took time. It supported me through the challenges of giving up Life As Usual over the last two years. The challenges keep coming, too, as much or more from the inside as the outside.
My first coping strategy was to look for an opportunity in my new circumstances, even though I didn’t like them. I encourage you to do that, too. I was forced to be home alone and couldn’t read and often couldn’t follow a narrative on TV, so even my at home distractions were taken away from me. I began to meditate and pray every day for long stretches. This was my “Monk In The Cave” opportunity.
I also cried. A lot. I would lie in the bathtub and sob. I would do my dishes and sob. I would collapse on the couch unable to sit up any longer and sob. I deeply yearned for safe physical contact, a hug without consequences. But mostly I was alone.
This was a good thing. An uncomfortable thing, but a good one.
For the first time in my life I was able to really become aware of what I was feeling. My distractions were gone, my thinking self was on hiatus, and my feeling self was begging to be witnessed. Without being able to access the ego-self of my intellect, I began to really descend into my humanity.
That’s a weird thing to say: “descend into my humanity.”
But it’s clear to me now that the things I was trying to learn by study and writing, through the intellect, for so many years were really only accessible to me once I dropped out of my mind and into the feeling self, which includes the heart but also the whole body. I became aware that grief had had a vice grip around my throat for my whole life and rather than let it silence me, I’d been using my voice and my words like a sword or a hammer to break through and be heard. I didn’t realize how much aggression poured out of my mouth just in my tone of voice or word choice even when I meant to be helpful and loving. Isolation provided time and space to safely witness and become more aware.
What a wonderful gift illness and isolation gave to me, even if it came unwelcomed and I kicked and screamed (literally) a lot of the way through the process. I learned how to be vulnerable, how to ask for help and to articulate the things I needed, and how to self-soothe in a non-addictive way. And I learned to forgive myself and others for our limitations (like not being able to show up in the ways that I wanted or needed.)
I also encourage you to acknowledge your feelings and emote safely as your body asks to express itself.
There’s no telling how things will unfold or what life after illness will look like. It’s possible it may kill us. Perhaps full recovery is possible. Perhaps partial recovery. I know that we very much want to survive and thrive. But given that we all must die eventually and usually we don’t make the choice when and how it happens, illness has taught me that the important work happens when I both acknowledge my humanity and all the messy feelings that come with it and when I detach from the things that make me the most “me.” Those things that I identify with so strongly that I think of them as ME (my beliefs, values, preferences, etc.) cause a more painful feeling of separation than social isolation or physical distancing.
So I invite you to really take this time to honor your feelings, to watch them for those things that you miss the most at this time when people/places/things are being stripped away, and to dive into that awareness for opportunities to let go of what really isolates us, which is a sense of separateness and lack of compassion (compassion = to feel with).
This is an opportunity.