Reflections on Illness in a Wellness Economy
Illness is a difficult word. When I hear it, I envision the obvious, the worst case: that cancer patient sitting in front of the hospital, gown asunder, sucking back a cigarette. It looks chronic, hopeless, and painful. Mostly, I picture someone worse off than myself; it must be other to my own "ordinary" miseries. Yet, mental and physical health are never constant for any of us. The circumstances (and microbes) of life will demand an S-curved view.
My last year has been plagued (pardon the pun) with routine health setbacks. I have been sick 9 times in 12 months and am currently sitting on day 99 of my whooping cough adventure. Working full-time while aggressively pursuing creative passions wore my immune system down to something bordering on useless. After 8 weeks of sleepless nights and choking on my own throat tissue, I emerged with a great loss: I had no productivity collateral for the current DIY economy of perfection-chasing.
The internet is flooded with ideas on how to live "your best life". These include finding your perfect body through endless efforts, from "teatoxing" to the latest raw/macro/paleo, solutions. You could learn to run a marathon, you could meditate every day. You can take control of your mind, body, diet, soul, and transcend to new heights of humanity. You can heal your thyroid with coconut oil. You can become so flexible that women like me will be in awe of your graceful yogini instagram feed. You can post a drawing EVERY day and be filled to the brim with creative admirers. You can find inner peace. And maybe you can. I'm not discounting any of these things as good, or healthy, or productive. But with the economy of "wellness" at it's greatest height, where does this leave illness and those who deal with it, from the most mild case of anxiety to the cancer patient? In this culture that equates perfection with success, what are we teaching people who, for the moment, aren't well enough to become a yoga goddess or functional food guru?
The most surprising thing that I noticed while sitting outside of the game was the close association between guilt and goals. Don't misunderstand— I believe in and love goal-setting; however, I believe goals based on subconsciously matching the highly edited achievements of others will never be truly fulfilling. Moreover, it became apparent that somewhere in my brain was the idea that achievement was a mandatory component of personal value. So, when my only priorities became getting enough sleep and growing a new esophageal lining, there was a definite crisis waiting to spring, fed by social-media platforms that often showcase a distorted view of value and success.
Our internet personas are often selling half a product. Success and wellness take a support system— an army, really. In a household, everyone has to be on board for the special diet to work. Alone, we mostly do very little. This self-help economy markets health for the healthy. It markets overall wholeness as something to be chased, achieved, and documented rather than something to be simply lived. In the end I see that the looser I hold my life, the happier I am. This leads me to believe that instead of focusing so much on personal mastery, we should invest in a wellness economy that redefines success in terms that let everybody play. In a climate where success looks like doing the splits from a handstand or losing 150 lbs we should celebrate little victories and, perhaps (humour me), we should encourage success in others OFFLINE as we meet small goals together.
I am lucky in the sense that all of my health setbacks have been impermanent. Still, it's worth remembering that large-scale perfection chasing has one guaranteed outcome: it excludes those who, for various reasons, can't play the game. When there's no teatox for cancer, success must be relative, inclusive, and most of all: personal.