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  • The Reflective Doc

Allowing Yourself an Emotional Winter

I forgot how old I was recently. My husband laughed incredulously, but I truly couldn’t remember what early 40s year I was in. I wasn’t approaching a new decade, and I am long past any transition to a new privilege, such as driving, voting, drinking cheap beer, or renting a car. I guess I don’t feel particularly upset with each passing birthday, and they tend to blend in my memory.

More striking, I find, is how much my internal perception of age varies from day to day. In one moment, after acquiring a small but satisfying new skill like helping to build my son’s latest Lego set, I’m a young girl, just beginning life’s adventures. In the next, I’m unexpectedly fatigued or acutely aware of my body’s limitations, and dismayed to be a fragile, aging woman.

I’ve played sports throughout my life, drawn to the competition and purposeful exercise, and was fortunate to avoid serious injury, even when I may have pushed too hard. And though my body image has gone through intense lows as well as periods of general acceptance, I typically expect to participate in physical activities without significant limitation. Therefore, adjusting to what might be a lifetime of back pain, coupled with the inability to “work harder” to fix it, has been a humbling struggle.

One certainly has time to think, lying in bed after surgery, staring at the recessed lighting while time slows to a crawl. I scanned previous years, guiltily recalling the good health I had taken for granted, and trying to figure out what I had done to make myself vulnerable. Many of my patients undergo this same search, feeling perhaps, as I did, that if they can understand how they reached this point, they can prevent a recurrence and regain control over the inherent uncertainty of life.

Pain is also isolating. Energy must necessarily be turned inward, leaving little remaining for close friends or family. This withdrawal then adds to the feeling of life carrying on without you, while you are alone, suspended in time. And there are no simple solutions. Indeed, the most difficult parts of this experience—the vulnerability, dependency, even boredom—are not amenable to a quick call to my surgeon’s office.

In Katherine May’s moving book, “Wintering,” the title refers to emotionally dark seasons when one experiences “a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, side-lined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” They may occur in the setting of difficult events such as illness, loss, or unexpected change, and are usually “involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.” They are also, she continues, “inevitable.”

I heard my own unspoken self-criticism in her writing. “We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves.” Frustrated by my lack of control, I have definitely responded to these difficult periods in my life with avoidance and shame. Words like grit, resilience, and fortitude float past while I lie in bed awake at night, wondering why I can’t push through to a more hopeful attitude.

The gift I found in her book was the reminder that even though we may believe that life is linear, it is, in fact, cyclical, and none of us are spared winter’s recurrent withdrawal. In this, we find common ground with all of nature. As Katherine May writes:

Nature shows that survival is a practice. Sometimes it flourishes…and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn’t do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever.

2021 could be a year for rebuilding and strengthening. I find it such a comfort to think we are all a part of the natural cycle of life, with the ebb and flow of energy and fatigue, joy and grief. The challenge we face is to listen the needs of our body and mind, resting when we must, treating ourselves kindly even when we are in the deepest winter, and accepting the full experience of being human. When summer finally returns, we will emerge again from our sheltered repose, forgiving ourselves for what we’ve missed, and willing to try again. The world will be better for it.

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