I’ve kicked off the spring season with another allergic reaction. At least, I think that’s what it was; over the course of three days or so before my birthday (April 3, if you’re interested) I developed an itchy, bumpy rash on my arms and legs, a wheezy, sore feeling in my lungs, and increased sinus pressure in my head. It wasn’t as bad as the reactions I’ve had to antibiotics, but it’s been an itchy and largely unexplained presence in my life for two-and-a-half weeks now (campus health diagnosed it as ‘heat rash’ and sent me on my way), and it was enough to tip me completely out of my daily rhythm of school and dance to which I had acclimated and into an oatmeal-bath-filled, Benadryl-fogged pit of despair.
I’m a bit better now, and trying to get back into a semblance of daily routine that actually involves me leaving my apartment, but working through physical and emotional problems concurrently is tough! As I’ve said to my mother, if I was dealing just with anxiety or just with allergies, I could probably have pushed through and done the two dance performances that I dropped out of last-minute, feeling shaky and unprepared for new performance venues, the physical demands of choreography, and the feel of unfamiliar costumes against my misbehaving skin.
It’s amazing how a small thing like a rash can completely alter one’s daily life so quickly. I stopped dancing, one of the mainstays of my existence– refrained from all physical activity, in fact, fearing it would make the rash flare up into an itchy nightmare once more. I dropped out of my dance classes (I would have failed them because of the absence policy otherwise) and stopped going to even my academic classes for several days. I just wanted to hide in the safe, predictable comfort of my apartment until it was over and the mystery trigger found.
I was trying to help myself, but between sleep deprivation and anxiety I ended up making myself feel more weak and isolated than healed. When you have anxiety, it can be so hard to distinguish rational avoidance (I’m going to stay home from class today because I might have a contagious illness) from anxiety-induced avoidance (what if I’m too itchy to sit through all of class?). For me, the wires of logic and fear simply got a little crossed, and figuring out my motivations was really tough, even in hindsight. While my mother was visiting, it was briefly easier– having the accountability and rationality of an outside person to bounce my experiences off of was helpful, not to mention comforting. When she left, though, the unknowns and self-doubts insidiously reinstated themselves, and I started leaving the apartment less often than I probably should have. This, of course, brought on a disempowering cycle of anxiety and self-doubt, which I trapped myself in even though I was self-aware enough to know the ramifications of what I was doing. The less I did, the less I felt I was capable of– and the more I berated myself for avoiding things that just a few days ago had been perfectly manageable, the more unhappy and disengaged from my routine I became.
It took a long, tearful phone call to my mother, the advice of a dear friend, and a fair bit of journalling to realize that, actually, I did a lot of things right in this situation as well. The reality is that my allergy symptoms aren’t and weren’t a figment of my imagination; the rash and its accompanying symptoms represent a real situation that anyone might have found uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. Not knowing the cause of my symptoms is legitimately challenging, though I now have few good guesses, which helps. Being far from my home community is tough; I don’t have a lot of friends and mentors here, but instead of just freaking out and feeling alone I’ve employed such wonderful modern inventions as the telephone and the internet to create a long-distance network of supporters, and I’ve used this time to remember that creating a community around myself is a goal for me for next year. Most importantly, while I did make some less-than-ideal decisions in terms of avoidance, I have finally broken out of a major pattern that I created for myself in the past: when faced with an anxiety-inducing situation, I didn’t immediately run for home. I came close, twice: minutes before my mother left to catch her train home, I tearfully asked if she thought I should come with her and see my doctor; she encouraged me to try to stick it out for a few more days at least, and I did. When a friend came to visit, a week of very itchy, uncomfortable nights later, he offered to take me home if I felt I needed it, and once again I ultimately decided to stay here and stick it out for at least a few extra days. I’m now getting close to three weeks out from the day the rash started, and while I don’t really have answers, I’ve been managing my symptoms in accordance with my home doctor’s telephoned advice and lots of guided meditations, and I’ve managed to continue to take care of myself, at least getting my basic physical needs met, here in New York. I’m now working on improving my mental state as well; I’ve started going to the park again, despite my pollen allergies, because I know that being outside helps me feel better. I started practicing daily yoga, first in my apartment from videos found on YouTube, then at a wonderful studio in my neighborhood– a healing step toward getting myself back into the world. I’ve kept up with my schoolwork, stayed in touch with my professors, openly and honestly, about my physical and mental situation, and have continued my daily practice of mindfulness, both in formal meditation and in my life beyond it. I have used this as an opportunity to connect more deeply with family members and to feel increased empathy for others’ suffering. I’m recognizing how high the standards are that I set for myself, and am trying to work on developing an attitude of ‘compassionate curiosity’ toward my own mind, to be nonjudgmentally self-aware in the present moment. Writing this, I realize, more and more, that I am not a failure. Perfect? Certainly not. A work in progress? Definitely. There will always be room for improvement, but I have a willingness to grow, and I think that’s kind of the point. I don’t know what choices I’m going to make beyond this moment, and it’s possible I will still feel the need to go home early to be closer to the support systems I have established at home. But no matter what I do with the next two weeks before the end of the school year, I’ve made progress toward learning about who I am, what my values are, and how to take care of myself when the going gets tough– and that’s undeniably significant. When I dedicated Year 22 of my life to resilience and growth, I didn’t think I’d be tested quite so soon, but it seems I’m on my way to passing this test, as my dad would say (I miss him!), with flying colors. Baby steps add up to survival, and survival builds strength.
Here’s to being a work in progress!
Love and gratitude,
(Photo credit: Serena Ingram Photography)