How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
MY EMAIL IN-BOX “Have you tried eating nothing but sweet potatoes and romaine lettuce? I think it could really help you and your health issues. I healed myself doing it.” — Total Stranger
I took a moment to appreciate the absurdity of receiving this e-mail from a complete stranger, and then moved on with my day. By now, I’m quite used to receiving unsolicited advice about how I could improve my health — the trends I could try in order to make myself well again.
In fact, ask anyone with chronic illness, and you’ll probably hear that one of the most frustrating things is having to deal with the plethora of unwelcome health advice.
From well-intentioned friends and extended family you haven’t heard from in years, to strangers at the farmers market, upon finding out you’re sick, people seem to want to share their advice on how to get well.
I’ve found these intrusive words of wisdom often fall into three main categories: advice about movement and exercise, advice about diet, and advice about attitude.
While I truly believe that this advice usually comes from a place of compassion, it’s often hard to know how to react or what to say.
For many of us with chronic conditions, we’ve tried everything we’ve heard of or dreamed up in order to help lessen our symptoms. Hearing unsolicited advice can cause us to question ourselves and can be really frustrating.
But over time (and with much experience!) all these volunteered opinions on my health have taught me some valuable lessons.
Movement-related advice: ‘But have you tried yoga?’
When I began experiencing chronic pain and severe muscle spasms, one of the first things suggested to me was yoga.
At this point, it’s been suggested countless times by multiple people, and the recommendations are still flooding in.
On the surface, it seems like yoga would be a good solution to my muscle pain and tightness. In fact, there are plenty of research studies and personal anecdotes that show the benefits of yoga for individuals with chronic pain.
I was apprehensive to try yoga, as my pain and spasms tended to worsen with exercise and extended use of muscles. But if all these people were suggesting it, I thought, it must be good for me.
While I held Downward Dog, I breathed through my spasming muscles, silently repeating the mantra, “This is good for me. This is good for me.” I pushed through the pain, thinking that quitting this thing that would supposedly soothe my body would just be a failure on my part.
What if failing to get through a single yoga class meant I wasn’t invested in my healing?
Obviously, neither of these things is true, but as I struggled through Sun Salutations, those were the thoughts moving through my mind. Those thoughts stopped me from listening to the message my body was sending: stop.
So, did persevering through the pain end up showing me the healing powers of the practice?
Nope. It turns out that yoga isn’t good for me. In fact, yoga landed me in the ER in severe pain and debilitating muscle spasms.
TAKEAWAY Trust your intrinsic knowledge in what your body needs. I learned to listen to the advice my own body gives me, rather than the advice given by others. Weigh suggestions for potentially helpful exercises against your internal knowledge about your body before proceeding. Nobody knows our bodies better than ourselves.
Diet-related advice: ‘You should really go gluten-free’
As someone who’s dealt with chronic health issues for several years, I’ve been given a shocking amount of voluntary input on how to change my diet in order to cure myself.
According to the advice given, I should: eat more garlic, eliminate garlic, eat more meat, become vegetarian, go gluten-free, go paleo, cut out sugars, cut out dairy, and — my favorite — cut out everything other than sweet potatoes and romaine lettuce.
Not only are many of these suggestions contradictory, but they’re also confusing and overwhelming. Still, I tried a handful of them before becoming frustrated and just keeping it simple, aka eating whatever my body responds well to or food that tastes good.
I wanted to have the results my friend did when they eliminated gluten, but I just didn’t, and I didn’t understand why.
As I began to listen more intuitively to my body, though, I found that switching to dairy- and soy-free, and not eating asparagus and eggplant, was what my body needed. It needed me to intuitively eat and pay attention to how I felt, not try every wacky diet in the book.
TAKEAWAY What works for one body doesn’t work for all bodies. Our bodies have different genetic makeups, have different environmental factors at play, and live different lives. It would make sense, then, that our bodies would all need different things. I’m trying to find the things that work for my body, not cross every odd diet that’s worked for other people off a list.
Attitude-related advice: ‘You really just need a better outlook’
Some of the most frustrating advice, and the most painful to hear, are the suggestions to change my attitude. “Just focus on the good and be more positive,” I’ve been told by some people, while others tell me I need to have more faith, and when I do I’ll be healed.
I’ve spent multiple days lying in bed, sad because of my pain levels or angry about the activities I’ve had to cancel due to fatigue, but also feeling guilty over those emotions.
If only I were more positive right now, I’d think, maybe then I’d not even be in this bed. I’d beat myself up, convinced my attitude was keeping me sick, but uncertain how to change it.
I would try to “fake it ’til you make it” and push through my physical symptoms with a smile on my face. But instead of making me better, ignoring both my bodily and my emotional needs made my symptoms worsen.
TAKEAWAY We’re each at our own place on our own journey. In order to get to a place of acceptance I needed to be able to progress through — and return back to, as I experienced them — the full range of emotions. Being chronically ill is hard, and it’s not reasonable to expect someone to have a positive outlook about it constantly. In allowing myself to experience the emotions associated with my illnesses, I’m helping myself to heal.
Now, when someone approaches me with a piece of wisdom they think will help me, I simply respond: “Thanks for your concern and for wanting to help me feel better. I’m glad that worked for you.”
Through the unsolicited advice of others, I’ve learned valuable lessons about listening to myself, and really, maybe that was exactly the advice I needed.
Angie Ebba is a queer disabled artist who teaches writing workshops and performs nationwide. Angie believes in the power of art, writing, and performance to help us gain a better understanding of ourselves, build community, and make change. You can find Angie on her website, her blog, or Facebook.