Do you listen to your body?
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend some time living in Naples when my father was posted to work there for three or four years during my teenage years – and not just because otherwise I’d never have met the magnificent Mariacristina… My happy memories are soaked in Italian sunshine, fresh buffalo mozzarella and the sounds of passionate Neapolitan arguments, but in spite of the thrilling chaos of the setting, I did still have to contend with various everyday challenges such as getting one over my siblings.
Unfortunately, however, in the first domestic memory that comes to mind I was on the receiving end. I have never been a great morning person, but that characteristic was perhaps exaggerated by my status as a teenager, as well as by my enthusiasm to adopt as many aspects of the more relaxed Italian way of life as possible. In short, I wasn’t good at getting up.
One morning, I was last to rise, and thought I had successfully defended myself against the forays of my brothers and sister by dragging myself out of bed for long enough to lock my door from the inside. Alas! It was hot, so I had left my window and blinds open, and soon enough my bleary eyes were assaulted by the vision of my elder brother flying through the window to swipe my bedcovers and turn my stereo up. I had no option but to raise the white flag and drag myself to the kitchen, where fortunately I soon perked up with a delicious Italian espresso.
Now, six and a bit months after my stem cell transplant, there are many mornings when I’d rather stay wrapped in the duvet with my eyes closed than to leap into action, grasping life by the horns and making the most of every minute and every second that I am alive. Perhaps those blissful half-awake minutes (or hours?!) of warmth, comfort and relaxation before you confront the cold, exhausting world are among the moments we should treasure.
It’s easy for me to convince myself that if my body is telling me it doesn’t want to rouse itself and get up, it’s because I had a transplant and it needs some more rest in order to give me the best chance of recovery. But then I remember my brother flying through the window and swiping my bedcovers in Naples, and have to admit that my body was telling me not to get up for years before I had leukaemia.
“Listen to your body,” everyone says – including me – when dishing out advice on how best to manage the ups and downs in energy levels when recovering from a transplant. And I mean everyone. It makes sense (at least on one level) and is comforting: I am in control of the state I am in, and I can decide what I can do, and when. It’s true, too, that nobody will know better than I do just how tired and capable I am feeling at any given moment.
I’ve come to realise, though, that my body isn’t nearly as vocal or as trustworthy as the advice would seem to assume. I’d love to get a whisper inside my head before setting out for some event that says: “Woah! Easy, boy – this one ain’t for us!” or, preferably: “Yep, we’re ready and raring to go – buckle up and put your foot down.” Instead, I tend to err on the side of adventure, throw myself into the resumption of a normal social life, and end up exhausted – but usually glad to have had the experience. So my body does talk to me – but almost inevitably post causam, when the decisions have already been made and it’s too late to change them.
It’s fairly normal for me to feel quite tired these days, but if I let that hold me back from doing the things I want to do, seeing the people I want to see and throwing the dance moves I want to throw, I’d probably be a miserable wreck cowering in my bedroom all day. Sometimes my body does manage to squeeze a message through to me that going ahead will leave me feeling wiped out later, but that’s often a price I’m willing to pay. It’s important to me to challenge myself, and I like to think that helps my recovery, in the same way people training for a marathon need to keep pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones to reach the necessary level of fitness, in spite of the pain and tiredness that inevitably follows.
My body’s confused, too. In addition to the second invasion of leukaemia, it has been bombarded with all sorts of chemotherapy, drowned in medicine, battered with biopsies and forced to welcome a new guest (although of course my donor’s stem cells were extremely welcome) – it’s hardly in a fit state to give an accurate diagnosis of what I can or can’t do. And if I’d followed its advice in the past, I’d probably still be in bed…
Is it just me, or does anybody else struggle to listen to their body? I’d love to know what other people think: scribble a comment below or drop me a tweet!