As I sat in a cinema at the Napa Valley Film Festival today, I could barely contain my joy. Had I not been balancing a lovely, local Zinfandel on my knee, I would have jumped up and done a little dance. I was delighted because, for the first time in a long time, it felt good to be alive.
And that’s because this year I got sick. Really sick. The kind of sick that makes you question everything you thought you knew about yourself. The kind of sick that brings some friends closer and makes others disappear. The kind of sick that makes you wonder if you’ll ever be well again.
For the better part of a year, I battled through one illness after another and, with each one, the sick periods got longer and the well periods got shorter. When my body started shutting down, my Doctor ordered a month off work and got serious with the tests. After being told so many times “it’s just another virus”, it was a relief to finally be diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease – an autoimmune condition that causes my body to attack my thyroid. I wasn’t a hypochondriac, I wasn’t “having one of those years”, I wasn’t depressed: I was sick.
Of course a diagnosis is only the beginning and with it came plenty of anger, sadness, and fear, as well as a long, slow journey back to health. But what does all that have to do with gratitude? Well, it’s coming up on Thanksgiving here in the US, a holiday that is all about gratitude, and as I sat in the theatre in Napa I realised I was overflowing with the stuff.
Napa was planned before I got sick and the idea was to combine it with a trip to DC for a conference. But when it came time to book the flights, I was so sick I could barely leave the house. The short walk to the letterbox left me breathless and shaking, and I had no idea how I was actually going to pack a suitcase, get on a plane, and spend the better part of three weeks racing around the US. So to be sitting in a Napa cinema four months later, drinking beautiful wine, and laughing with friends was definitely something to be grateful for!
Here are a few other things I’m grateful for… The friend who filled my prescriptions when I was in so much pain I couldn’t even cry (and bought me a Dora The Explorer neck pillow when I had to sleep sitting up!). The colleague who had never been to my house before, but arrived with a bag full of groceries, took over my kitchen, served me a three course meal, and then washed the dishes. My acupuncturist and massage therapist, who cared for my body when no-one else could. My fabulous boss, who didn’t hesitate when I said I needed a month off, but instead arranged extensions, called regularly to check on me, took me out for dinner, and supported flexible working arrangements when I returned. And How To Be Sick, the book that helped me work through the anger and the fear, and put me on the path to acceptance and self-compassion.
I’m also grateful for getting sick. That might sound strange, but it was an experience I needed to have. It forced me to listen to my body, to prioritise my health, and to pay attention to the good things, no matter how small they might be.
There is a growing body of academic literature on the benefits of gratitude, mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion, and even before I got sick these were concepts I wanted to incorporate into my own research. But now, more than ever, I realise how important it is to be compassionate, to act mindfully, to take the time to appreciate what you have… and to watch films and drink wine.