This body of mine is compromised. Labeled as chronically ill, immunosuppressed, and incurable. All the labels still seem so foreign to believe. Nevertheless, simple things like digestion and elimination are not easy. And we all know when those things are out of whack, well, everything is off the rails. With Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), it’s more than an upset tummy and the runs. It’s a lie-down and stay close to the bathroom kind of day.
The worries of the heart and mind felt soothed as I attended to my mental and emotional health with mindfulness and therapy. But I wasn’t embracing the whole self; I was shut off from the body, the incredible vessel which moves me through life. Perhaps because being unwell with an unpredictable autoimmune disease was just too much to process.
During all the years of battling flares, I rarely offered comfort to the suffering the body was going through.
The stronger and more catastrophic the physical symptoms, the more disembodied I became. Even when experiencing smaller flares, I would take more medication and still push onward. At the time, I was unaware of the disconnection from the body; I just kept hoping it would all go away.
The fear was holding guard, separating me from the sacred temple I found difficult to inhabit. I felt embodied while meditating, practicing yoga, and exercising. But when I was unwell, I was rarely in the body; I was mostly caught up in the mind.
Living in a chronically ill body can feel like you’re trapped in a confined dungeon with a stranger breathing down your neck. With no escape in sight, the dungeon is the body, and the stranger is the disease. Trapped by fear with the wild mind running the show, I only detached more. It’s a terrible way to live.
Almost two years into battling an ongoing flare, I started studying and practicing Mindful Self-compassion.
I learned to extend the same kindness I have so generously given to others to myself.
I started to acknowledge the wars the body has been through. I no longer turn away from the suffering. I open to the physical experience of a flare and attend to the body like I would a dear friend in need of support.
During a flare, the first thing I do is recognize what is happening in the present moment to get my head out of the future. Noting the multiple symptoms, the fatigue and pain, and what a toll the disease has taken. I also appreciate how difficult all of it is. At the height of a flare I spend most of my time horizontally on the couch or in the bed with barely enough energy to make it through the day. The body is unable to digest food, absorb nutrients, or have normal bowel movements.
Then I allow the confronting reality of living with IBD to be here, just as it is. I open to what is present: the physical pain, the fear, the resistance. And as best I can, I allow the arising sensations, emotions, and thoughts to be here without moving away from them.
I tune into the sensations buried deep and low in the belly, a feeling of soreness and burning simultaneously. I listen to the gurgles and squeaks speaking to me from the depths of the bowel. I open to what is here and what is happening. I practice feeling into the body.
Instead of seeing the pain as bad, I become curious about it.
One time when a flare escalated in the middle of the night, I was awakened with explosive bloody diarrhea; the colon seemed spastic. The pain pulsing through me was so great I was grasping my belly curling on the toilet. I would say 7/10 on the pain scale. An 8 would have brought me to my knees.
At that moment, I started practicing self-compassion. The mind was catastrophizing into the future, saying I would definitely be hospitalized. So I reigned it back into the present and asked, “What is actually happening right now? I answered, “Right now, I am on the toilet with uncontrollable urgency at 2 am. It’s bad, but I can make it through the night and call my doctor in the morning.” Saying what is actually happening helps me ground to the present moment and move from the anxious what-ifs of the future.
In the next moment, I got curious about the pain. I felt it located on the lower-left side of the abdomen. The sensations were stabbing, hot, and contracting. Then it would stop. This happened every 30 minutes for a few hours.
I would provide words of support to the body like, “You poor thing, you’re doing the best you can.” “You are so wise, striving for perfect balance even though you are unwell. I’m so proud and thankful for all you continue to do for me.” I would even visualize my colon looking healthy with everything flowing freely. Saying the words is one thing but believing and feeling into the sentiment is essential.
When I would consciously investigate the pain with curiosity, it became more manageable. I was able to navigate the flare with more ease.
Rest is also essential. My chill-time varies based on the severity of the flare. Usually, it involves a lot of lying down, keeping the schedule to a minimum, and doing as little as possible.
The practice of befriending the body has softened me and opened me to a kinder relationship with both the body and the IBD.
Connecting to the well of compassion within takes practice. I still sometimes go into panic mode, but then I remember to treat the body with the same care I would extend to a dear friend.