Two weeks ago I sprained my ankle.
I was exercising at home and for no obvious reason, maybe I wasn’t fully paying attention, maybe I was being a little gung-ho, I went over on my ankle and fell to the ground. As I fell I heard a loud snapping sound, turning my stomach and convincing me it was broken. I shouted, a lot and loudly. Then I tentatively undid my trainer, eased my foot out and removed my sock. I watched, with fascination as my ankle doubled in size before my eyes.
I was in pain and I was angry. This was incredibly bad timing and if it had been broken as I feared, would cause me huge inconvenience. I thought of all the things I would now be unable to do: exercise, walk by the river, carry things up and down the stairs easily, shower (if I was in plaster), do the gardening I had been looking forward to, and – worst of all – drive my car.
By the time my husband picked me up to take me to the hospital my foot had swollen to such an extent I could not fit it into any of my shoes.
Ten days later, my foot still fairly swollen and now also black and blue with bruises I made my way to see Hector, my lovely Scottish physiotherapist.
Until this point I had seen the swelling of my foot as nothing other than a right-royal pain in the backside. There was (and still is) only one pair of shoes I can comfortably wear and my ankle looks ugly and oversized. As Hector examined my foot and watched me walk and stretch my ankle he talked to me explaining the important work swelling does in allowing the body to heal.
My ankle had swollen as a result of the injury – yes, but the swelling was not a negative consequence. The swelling signalled the start of the healing process. This out of shape (in my eyes ugly) swelling was allowing the injured ankle time to recover. The swelling was necessarily slowing me down, stopping me from trying to carry on as normal. It had prevented me causing further damage by trying to push past my own pain receptors.
I have been arrogant.
In the past I believed I was somehow above pain or injury. I was brought up with a strong work ethic, convinced illness was optional – it was something we chose not to experience. We did not succumb to it. We fought. We battled. We carried on regardless.
This outlook had many good outcomes: I know how to work hard, and I have little time for self-pity or wallowing.
However this belief that illness is nothing more than a mindset that can be pushed past, has also got me into bother, because sometimes you have to stop.
The pause swelling demanded was an indication healing was beginning. It allowed healing to begin.
For a long time I was unable to stop, and allow myself time to heal. And because my illness was invisible (anxiety and depression) I believed with enough willpower, I could fight through the pain and disappointment and force myself to be well, to cope like everyone else seemed to. I believed that if I just kept going eventually it would pass and I would come out stronger on the other side.
I didn’t know how to be gentle with myself.
When your ankle is swollen and painful, you treat it gently. The physiotherapist was not forcing my foot into positions that were uncomfortable. I have not been trying to run on it or force it into shoes that don’t fit and cause pain. I have been gentle with my ankle. At times this has been frustrating, but it is allowing my foot to heal well.
I have learnt to treat myself with gentleness as I deal with my mental illness. I have learnt a new way to live, new rhythms, a new pace. At times I become annoyed with myself, and try and push myself beyond what I know is good for me. This doesn’t end well and in a couple of cases has set my recovery back by months. I need to be gentle with myself.
Gentleness isn’t a very word we use often. We prefer words like achieve and succeed. We prefer to think of ourselves pushing onward, reaching forward, not giving up, being strong.
But sometimes not giving up looks like practicing gentleness for ourselves. Sometimes strength looks like kindness and treating yourself tenderly – strongly ignoring the loud shouts for your attention and focusing instead on your health.
Practically this might look like cancelling plans, or doing less than you thought you ‘should’ do. It might look like having a nap before picking the kids up from school or nursery, it might look like building a schedule where rest is as important as work on your calendar.
It might take time to figure out how to practice gentleness in your life, for your life. But it is essential. Just as the swelling of my ankle forced me to take my time and treat my foot gently, so the onset of a depressive or anxious episode should act as a reminder to take our time and treat ourselves gently.
The Bible teaches gentleness is a fruit of the spirit.
Practicing this is as important as practicing joy, or peace, or patience, or self-control. And not just gentleness for others, but gentleness for ourselves, because it is also written, you can only love your neighbour to the extent that (as) you love yourself. Loving you has to come first.
How might you treat yourself with gentleness this week?
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