Sunglasses in December — 5 Things I Learned When I Was Ill
Sometimes, the biggest learnings happen when parts of us die
One day in November, I woke up and my eyes had blown up to the size of two poached eggs. I felt like I had been in an accident; every time I moved, I experienced blinding and sickening pain shooting through my spine down into my hips and up into my brain. I could still see through the slots in my poached eggs, but anytime I moved my focus, my head felt like it was going to explode and I felt dizzy and nauseous. My tonsils had swollen up so immensely that I had a hard time breathing, and swallowing became a dreaded chore.
After thinking about it for like one and a half hours, I cancelled work for that day. Painkillers are some powerful stuff, I thought, in the right dosage. But then again, I look really weird right now.
I called my boyfriend, who I had seen the day before. “Are you okay?” I said. “Because I feel super sick.” He was fine, which meant he couldn’t have given me a flu or anything.
So I came to the conclusion that I was just extremely allergic to my eyeshadow and had additionally somehow blocked my spine during training — nothing a physiotherapist couldn’t put back into place with the right hack. And being nauseous and weak can come from a blocked spine, as well, I thought. (Sometimes, I’m good at building reason where I want it.)
This morning was followed by fifteen horrible days until my final diagnosis, the highlight of which was my doctor calling me up to ask whether I had been tested for HIV, because my symptoms matched it. I almost got sick all over my bed.
Long story short: It turned out I had Mononucleosis, also known as glandular fever. Mono is also likely to become chronic and damage the liver if it’s not cured thoroughly. There’s no generally approved treatment so far except for waiting and taking Ibuprofen four times a day. So, no, a physiotherapist couldn’t fix it — and neither could anyone else. Only… time.
Mono isn’t dangerous, in the sense that you can’t completely die from it. (Even though that’s totally what it felt like was happening.) However, in the following months, some parts of my ego for sure died an uneasy death.
1. The Athlete Dies
I remember sitting in my doctor’s office to discuss my blood test results. He explained something about my liver and my spleen. I was, as usual throughout Mono, only half catching what was going on. I was preoccupied with a) trying not to faint, by inconspicuously holding my hands up higher than my head and b) thinking about out by how stupid I looked in front of this very nice and handsome doctor who was just about my age.
“As for physical exercise…”, I heard him say, “you’ll have to give yourself at least…” He paused. He seemed worried to upset the frog girl. “Four months at least. Could be six.”
You should know, I’m a dancer. Before mono, I was teaching and training every day, except for “recovery Wednesday”, on which I mostly cheated by going to hot yoga.
I looked at him in that moment through my ugly eyes that were unable of any expression except for a feverish glare, and the news seeped into my slobbery brain. Then I started smiling and shaking my head, while the tears started running down my face, collecting in my mask. The smiling and the shaking was because, how else do you express disbelief if your eyes can’t really open; and I was crying, because I knew that I had to radically change something about my purpose of life at least for the next four months.
2. The Stage Diva Dies (Cuteness Is Born)
Time is weird. Sometimes, I feel like everything exists simultaneously. It’s just distributed along a road called time. Nothing doesn’t exist. Things are only stored at different points so that you only ever see one part of the reality at a time.
So my younger self and my fit self and my Mono self and my granny-self all co-exist in a way. Now, as I am writing this, I’ve gotten over Mono. But I know Mono-Lari as a form in which I exist, and an archetype to sometimes apply in life.
I came out better equipped than I was before. Not because of what I gained; I didn’t gain much in that time at all (except some weight). In fact, I lost so many things: money, my partner, my health, my figure, my full force, almost aggressive optimism, the idea of myself belonging on stage, two jobs, and lots of beliefs. The weird thing is, as I was already in shedding-off-mode, I even somehow ended up giving away about fifty percent of my belongings.
I came out stronger not because of gaining but because of losing; because of letting illusions die and letting myself live instead.
When I couldn’t train and teach anymore and couldn’t envision myself on stage or choreographing, a part of me died which I had carried since I was a kid. I had read Laura Rubin’s book A Dream and Two Feet — a story about a girl who came from nothing and became a dancer. And since then, I dreamed of being on stage myself. Back then, I already experienced performing a lot through my musical education, but I wanted more than to recite Telemann neatly and historically correctly after the sheet music. I wanted more sweat and tears, more intensity. More youth. To be seen, and to be admired for my skills, beauty and personality and for my hard work. So I did work hard, every day, aiming to be on stage at some point. And soon that aim felt like something that “made me”. I am a dancer, a hard worker, a performer.
So when I wasn’t all these things anymore, because I looked like a weird frog and kept randomly collapsing in my hallway, I obviously thought, now I’m nothing. That feeling is very distinct; it’s what people are most scared of. To be no-one. I was mourning after my inner performer for a pretty long time. But it had happened, I couldn’t change it, she wasn’t available— and somehow, I was still there. Not shining, not dancing, looking goofy, but also not completely dead. I still existed, so my person had to be “made of” more than just a dancer.
And it wasn’t even like I was only an empty shell of a human, lifeless and numb. After I had stuck out the worst pain, I actually started smiling at some things again.
At cute dogs on the street, for example. Which I hated before. But a friend of mine was always stopping at them and freaking out about their cuteness, and I got so bored of those moments that I tried to see what he was getting so hyped up about.
Today, I can hardly go down a public street with a straight face.
3. The Proactive Doer Dies (Coziness Is Born)
My sick time, especially in the first two months, was insanely painful, helpless and depressing. I was highly contagious for more than five weeks, so I didn’t get visitors and hardly left my bed. I spent the entire day either in feverish nightmares or staring at my timer, counting down to the next “pain killer time”. I was upset about my breakup, hated myself and some nights, I was in so much physical pain that I researched “who has to pay if I call an ambulance”.
But in between all of that — there was a tiny, tiny, TINY feeling that wasn’t all bad. I will call it coziness. I think what happened was that I surrendered. This virus had clearly defeated me. “It’s okay. I give up. I can’t do this anymore. In fact, I can’t do anything anymore. Everyone, treat me as if I didn’t exist.”
And with my surrender, all external expectations shifted. No one could expect me to do or accomplish anything for a while. I quit a lot of my work. The second lockdown simultaneously shut down most of Berlin, including dance studios, which cost me two jobs anyway. I tried talking on the phone with some friends, but my brain didn’t work; even short conversations wore me out. My ex-partner had been the only one I would have wanted there, and that wasn’t a thing anymore.
So I gave up. I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to do anything. I don’t even want to be happy for a while, I have been trying so hard to be happy, and I’m just sick of it. I just want to lie here in my bed and wait.
Funny how we always call not doing anything “waiting”. It just shows how it’s human nature to move forward and somehow make change. I also think that’s reasonable and healthy; I enjoy looking forward and planning actions that lead me to new realms.
But I also think there’s something very powerful in “waiting” sometimes; it means allowing change to happen, instead of always trying to make it. It’s no secret that there’s an intelligence in us that’s much greater than our frontal lobe intelligence. Our subconscious is kind of like a powerful deep-sea octopus ruler. We don’t really understand it most of the time, but that’s normal, because we usually operate in a totally different habitat and commonly use a different language.
It is skillfully manipulating our lives from below, tentacles always busy, always aiming at freeing us and showing us more and more so-called reality. It knows so much about our being, it sees the things we don’t see yet with just our eyes and frontal lobe, which are comparably limited tools. It’s so shape-shifting that we often fail to even recognize it.
But we get glimpses of its influence. That’s when we intuitively know what to do. When we think A and then do B and then, magically, C happens. When our lives go differently from the plan our frontal lobe had made, and we say they’re “off track“, when really, they’re on a shortcut to a place we’ve always wanted to see.
Maybe we have to step back more often and let the octopus do its thing.
Unfortunately, the octopus can be tied up, gagged and put down with the help of man made drugs such as floods of addictive information that artificially keep the brain awake and alert. And once the brain is non-stop babbling and jabbering, multiple times more than it normally would, the octopus never gets a word in. At some point, it’s so neglected and we haven’t seen it for so long that we get scared of it and just kind of pretend we never knew it.
Cultivating a close relationship to the octopus in an anti-octopus culture isn’t the easiest. But I generally try, by making a point of noticing emotions and physical sensations (pretty much the same thing, and both are vocabulary of the octopus), by looking inwards, always asking questions to myself and waiting for an intuitive answer. I also go dancing regularly, which is something where you turn down the brain volume a bit and make space to listen to the octopus. (I am a little too hyperactive to meditate so I had to find a special-needs solution.)
4. The Sunny Kid Dies
I used to be the sunshine everywhere I went. That’s because I discovered fairly early in life that many people are very un-sunny, and that spraying a bit of cheerfulness and love around generally makes everyone feel better about themselves. Also, as a dance teacher, being extremely enthusiastic —borderline to hyped up — gets everyone motivated in solidarity and improves their learning curve. One some days, being the sunshine the hardest part of the job. (Which is why many of my friends need energy drinks before and during teaching — and a cigarette afterwards.)
When I was no longer delightful to be around, I didn’t know how else to be valuable, or even tolerable, in the presence of other people. I isolated a bit, assuming no-one could possibly enjoy being around me. But what was I supposed to do? Seeing that every small task in my life — walking up the stairs, buying groceries, talking to my boss — felt like an impossible hurdle, I didn’t have any resources left to even think about being cheerful in order to keep people happy. I was busy coping. Busy trying to leave my bed every once in a while in order to slowly, slowly take a shower without passing out, congratulating myself on the success and then slowly initiating the journey back to my bed.
Other people and what they might want to see from me dimmed out in the background for once in my life, simply because my own tasks became so consuming.
Once you look at it, this whole sunshine-thing is a pretty desperate attempt, anyway. People who are unhappy will continue being unhappy after you leave the room. People who need someone else to put them in a good mood should invest some time in finding their own joys and ambitions. Students who hate dance should go look for a better hobby, instead of staying with the teacher who temporarily makes them feel good about themselves.
And besides— shouldn’t I be happy because that’s fun for me?? Cheerful, because to me there’s a reason? Because I want to be in a good mood, in order to make my day yummier? And if I don’t feel like being happy, don’t I just get to be grumpy and sullen and ill-tempered until I want to be in a better mood again? As un-sunny as people might be — I can’t always be the sun warming up a room full of damp, pale, half dissolved clouds. That’s just exhausting.
I analyzed my Zoom-meetings in the following months and concluded that this is definitely also a woman-thing. Men will reliably just sit and say what they think with a neutral face, while some women put on a whole show about how enthusiastic and positive they are and THANK YOU SO MUCH EVERYONE and HOW AMAZING!, while incessantly grinning. Other have found a more quiet, but still very smiley and uplifting solution. The women who, just like their male colleagues, choose not to change their facial expression, are rare and right away strike your attention.
Please don’t get me wrong — I still make a point of showing up in the most optimistic, empathetic and cheerful way that’s authentic in that moment, and it feels natural and good to me. But I’ve also found a way of wearing a neutral face if I simply don’t feel overjoyed right now; of expressing when I’m not satisfied with the way something is done, and admitting if I’m having an off day so I can adjust my motivational energy to a level that feels human.
(Plus I also quit my contract at the workplace of motivation slumps.)
5. “The Tough One” Dies
To be fair, there was one point in my life where I wasn’t “the sunshine” everywhere I went: during my last years of high school. In this time, I overworked so massively that nowadays I wonder how I didn’t carry away long-term damage. (Or maybe I did, who’s to judge.) My days were packed from early morning until 10pm. I was working in four different jobs, one of them being waitressing at an Italian family-business restaurant (which, alone, can give you stress-related acne), while playing in five different orchestras, participating in music competitions, going to dance training seven times a week and, on the side, writing final exams. I was so mad at being pressured a lot before that I now proactively exponentiated the pressure to show everyone exactly how things could go down. (I told you, I’m good at making sense where I want it.)
People were joking about me constantly looking as if I was moving house, since I was always running around with a massive bag that contained everything I would need for my two billion appointments on that day, plus my violin and my school things (which, for practical reasons, I reduced to “pen” at some point. School was the easiest and most boring one of my errands.)
I was pale, wearing chronic, dark purple circles under my eyes and weighed 48kg at 1,75m. Looking back, it’s no wonder people were always scared of me. Whenever I could, I broke into the small gym room in the basement to practice the violin or dance. I didn’t care about any of the that’s-not-even-a-problem problems my classmates were discussing, and didn’t flinch at teachers getting choleric at me. I was autonomous and provocative-on-the-edge-to-insulting.
So, yeah, not so much the sunshine. (In fact, if I had smiled, it would have just brought the creepiness to a whole new level.) Instead, I had built the reputation to be unapproachable, and — something I was very proud of — tough.
But I didn’t stop overworking after graduation. Some people think dance training is glamorous, like in “Dance Academy”, and maybe exhausting, but in a sexy way. Sorry to disappoint you — it’s not. Sometimes you get so exhausted that you almost pee yourself. It was considered perfectly normal for people to break down crying for no specific reason, just from the general exhaustion and stress that came with the training program. By Thursday, no one looks sexy anymore and wherever it’s tolerated, people wear their pajamas for at least some consolation. And I was still working in multiple jobs on the side, to pay rent.
I just never stopped, really, until Mono. The truth was, I had only ever overworked in order to hide how exhausted I was. Somewhere, I knew that. Sometimes, I heard myself quietly say: “I’m so exhausted. I can’t do it anymore.” Then I would say, “Well, good thing you’re always so tough.” And I would take a painkiller and get back up, proud of my toughness.
I don’t have to elaborate on the many small self-care habits I incorporated when I was ill. It took me a while to actually cave in and do anything of the sort. In November, I was still punching myself in the face for not being tough enough to keep working.
But one day in December, I found a pair of big sunglasses and started wearing them everywhere. Even my Skype calls it took wearing my sunglasses. As I had been super embarrassed and shy around my puffy eyes, this small, shiny object made me feel significantly better. (Even though, it being December, I most certainly looked more ludicrous with than without them.) I thought I was extremely cunning. Hehe, I thought. What other things can I find that make feel even just a liiittle bit better? And that was the beginning of my self-care mission.
By January, I was carrying a little pouch with me everywhere I went. It contained painkillers, supplements and emergency throat medicine. I also found some people that had a similar effect as the sunglasses; things just felt a liiittle more bearable with them than without.
Now it’s August. By today, the sunglasses would actually be appropriate. And self-care has become a non-negotiable daily project. It’s like being a mom, I guess. You constantly have to take care of this human. Does it get exhausting? Yes. Do you therefore let the kid rot in the corner? No. Some things just have to be done, because the small acts of care add up to a powerful declaration of value and love.
“Death Is a Stripping Away of All That Is Not You.”
And if someone is valued and loved no matter if they might be ugly, whiny, unproductive and sick… Then they can probably do anything, don’t you think? They can probably get strong by training steadily and patiently. They can go out with an unbreakable self-confidence and perform on stage, if they want. They can make plans and stick to them, if those plans help them grow. If they’re in the mood, they can be as sunny and cheerful as Mei Kusakabe from “My Neighbor Totoro“. And while they’re working through challenges, they can gear up and show their tough side.
But the only way we can access this fluid, fast-learning, elastic, versatile, and “wonder-full” being — our self — is by losing things.
Losing “who we think we are”.(Which is a contradiction in itself: we can’t think what we are, otherwise we would be thoughts.)
Losing “what makes us”.
(What does that even mean, it makes you? You don’t need anything that makes you, you already exist. If anything, you make things.)
Losing “who I am”.
(Just test it. If you can lose it, it wasn’t you.)
Letting go of illusions is very painful, but considering that someone after all, is still dying, that’s perfectly understandable. In fact, I believe that most of the strong pain we feel actually originates from “someone’s life being at risk”. An idea of “who we are” is threatened.
The perfect mom. The loyal friend. The husband. The person everyone likes. The responsible one who’s never late. The teacher’s pet. The world saver. The successful one. XYZ’s partner.
This picture of who we dream and aim to be varies from person to person.
That’s why, if you tell someone “you’re a terrible dancer”, some people will laugh, agree and keep doing the “The Cowboy”, while I know people who would experience a serious identity crisis and would have to seek professional help after this comment.
We wear our illusion like shells on our bodies, pretending… no, believing they are us. “I’m a dancer.” — “I’m just very shy.” — “I’m just a very controlling person.” — “That’s just the way I am.”
As soon as someone says “You’re a terrible mom”, or “I’m breaking up with you”, or even just “You’re late”, these illusory selves are endangered.
This is someone telling us: “Take off that shell, it’s not the truth.” And we say “NOO IT IS THE TRUTH, YOU STUPID BASTARD, I HATE YOU”, instead of saying „Oh yeah. Thanks for unmasking me. It was actually getting stuffy under there.“
There’s a safe way you can tell it’s not you who’s in danger. Living beings can’t die by a disapproving look or a jealous comment. Only illusions are that fragile.
And at this point, once your illusion is in pain because its life is under threat — I hate to say it, but it might make sense to let it die. You can hug it goodbye, thank it for the nice times together, and take some time off to mourn. But clinging on, providing artificial respiration and setting up tent next to the dying illusion isn’t worth it.
It’s like having to let go of an imaginary friend, because you grow up and it’s time to engage with the real world. Do you miss this friend at the beginning? Of course, I mean, you guys were super close! But after a week, reality seems so much more vibrant and exciting that you can’t believe you kept yourself busy with a ghost for so long.
Eventually, losing those shells one by one only brings us more in touch with the world, making us agile, flexible, sensitive. More vulnerable, too, but aware, empathetic, responsive, agent and free enough to react appropriately to all attacks and challenges.
Once we lose our shells, people can actually see us and relate to us. They might no like us anymore, since we’re no longer “the person everyone likes”. But then, because we’re not “The Sunny Kid” anymore, we can just be with them neutrally, without pretending that love is everywhere, and because we’re not “The Loyal Friend” anymore, we can even decide to no longer spend so much time together.
I don’t think you have to go sit down and think about what shells you are wearing and how to get rid of them. Of course you can, if you want. But the beautiful thing is; the octopus takes care of that for you.
All you need to do is to examine your emotions. Authorize them to pipe up and point to your uncomfortable, limiting shells. Anytime you feel terrible, hopeless, insulted, defeated, anytime you feel you no longer want to live — then die. Let the archetype that’s in this anxious and depressed state pass away from exhaustion.
Just keep your body. Let the body get back up and see what it wants to do with the day.
Maybe today it wants to be a sunny kid.
Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to “die before you die“ — and find that there is no death.
This story was originally titled: Sunglasses in December | A story about glandular fever, death of self-images and octopus rulers — and how they can show us a more sensitive, agile and shape-shifting way of being in the world.