This quarantine—that threatens to bring us in and out of it— takes me back to when I got shut down a few years ago. I found myself on the couch in pajamas indefinitely with a mystery illness. In what became a long-term battle with chronic Lyme disease, I never thought my days lying supine in the same faded Johns Hopkins sweatshirt, and ripped flannel pajama pants could have a moral to the story. Yet the most meaningful lesson of my life came from those interminable days logged at home, and it suddenly seems worth sharing.
I am reminded of my struggle with my own ambitions put on hold when I look now at Instagram stories and blog posts from driven, creative individuals sitting at home in sweatpants befuddled with this abrupt shutdown. Everything was taken away from us before we even realized what was happening. Our rituals. Our hugs. Our livelihoods. After having sustained this period of immobilization for a few months, we are now told that there may be future flare-ups, that we must persevere with strength, resilience, and patience.
What has been happening behind the dormant curriculum vitarum, or the social media pictures on the inside of people’s minds right now? Having experienced multiple lockdowns while chronically ill, but having come out of them unexpectedly with even more verve than before, I empathize with those mourning their former lives. Based on what I see on social media, people have been giving in to desires for enormous bowls of ice cream and vats of wine partially because they fear they will never get their old lives back and be productive again as the world enters a new era of abnormality.
In the summer of 2012, I went from being a professor with a Ph.D. in hand—and a long goal list that included publishing academic books and articles—to feeling like someone came with an industrial vacuum and sucked out my memory, my ideas, my energy, and my health. Before I knew it, I had no job, no conference papers to deliver, no chance of writing a decent publication, and no idea who I was anymore. I had lost my identity as an academic and a high-functioning member of society. I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t leave the house. I was immobilized without an exit plan.
As my days went by isolated at home in bed or on the couch, I began to have a string of tiny epiphanies. I closed my eyes and replayed my thoughts from the time I had been dressed in suits giving lectures and teaching classes. Even then, when I was contributing to society in what felt like a meaningful way, I had an invisible inner dialogue that would have seemed brutal if it had been amplified audibly to those around me.
My inner critic rattled off a string of complaints most days: “Your dissertation should have been stronger.” “You should have published it into a book by now.” “You should have published more articles by now.” “Maybe you just aren’t good enough.” Nothing ever seemed to be good enough for my impossibly high standards and ideals.
As weeks passed like an amorphous mass of time and I was still in no shape to go out, let alone drive, read, or write, I noticed that the messaging in my head began to change. Compassion got planted and it took root. An accepting voice appeared inside my thoughts that sounded unfamiliarly kind, no matter how low I sank.
The part of me that prattled on about how I should have been smarter, more productive, and more driven softened. I adapted to a new normal that included deciding how important breakfast was to me. Because to get it, I would have to slide down the stairs from my bedroom to the first floor on my bum, and then lay at the bottom to rest before I could muster up the strength to get to the kitchen. My body was so beat up that I didn’t have the heart to beat myself up anymore in my interior monologue.
Yogi Swami Kripalu once stated that the highest form of spiritual practice is self-observation without judgment, which had always seemed like a wise philosophy that was wildly out of my reach. Suddenly, it clicked for me without me even having to strive for it. My fingers couldn’t dance over the keyboard the way they used to as I wrote out lecture notes? No problem. Had to slide down the stairs on my bum to get to the kitchen? That’s okay, too. Face in the mirror looking pale and drawn? What a lovable face. Can’t concentrate? Nothing needs to get done right now other than resting. Check. Done. Fine.
With mounting astonishment at the new voice inside of me, I came up with a slogan for myself, like a used car ad: One Miche: Lovable As Is. As Is. No matter how broken I looked on the outside, no matter if I couldn’t get anything done and didn’t know if I would ever work properly again physically or mentally, I was lovable just the way I was right then and there. The key part of this phrase was “as is.” I couldn’t think straight. I had no job. It sounds so simple, but it was the most elusive thing imaginable for so many years, even while I was a gainfully employed professor.
When the voice of anxiety shouted inside my head, “What if things are like this forever?” I imagined that my body was a pressure cooker boiling, until the valve opened, and the fear shot out into the atmosphere and evaporated. I imagined filling myself up with peace, light, and calm. Some days I closed my eyes, and did this over and over again until I had a modicum of calm within.
I would lie in bed thinking about the quirky things I actually liked about myself. Things from my past life that were big and small from tutoring English at the anti-human trafficking center, meeting a friend at the Gare de Lyon in Paris as a grad student with an overnight bag and picking a random weekend destination based on the timetables, taking my bathing suit off when I’m already immersed in the ocean and tying it around my waist so I can swim freely without anyone seeing me naked, or dancing with my puppy to funky music while making dinner for friends.
There I was at home looking and acting like my former definition of a sloth—slow- moving and lethargic—but feeling better about myself than I ever had in my life before. When I suddenly had my memory back after radical treatments, my body back, and my energy back, that voice didn’t go away.
I was able to move freely about the world again and I lapped up the gift of mobility. Post-Lyme lockdown I used up my second chance at life by romping from Iran to Cuba with glee, all the while using every spare moment to write the memoir I thought could help countless individuals rise back up and reclaim their vitality.
I never thought Lyme lockdown could have given me a gift. I thought it was something to survive and endure. But it gave me the greatest gift of my life: the ability to love myself as is. The perfectionistic drive seemed to die off along with the Lyme disease. I was cured, and I was left with an inner voice that admired whatever it was that I was able to do, whether it was tiny or grand. Most of all, I didn’t have to do anything to win myself over. As I think back on it today, I wonder if what I learned from Lyme could help others through Corona.
I would like to offer that in the era of Coronavirus lockdowns when many of our former livelihoods, routines, and even identity markers vanished overnight, that the “Lovable: As Is” slogan can function as a mantra gifted to us in the form of heightened self-love and self-acceptance by the conditions of the virus itself. The upswing is there inside of us, waiting to be claimed.
When I came out of Lyme lockdown–which I write about in a memoir I am seeking to publish, Starving to Heal in Siberia: My Radical Recovery from Late-Stage Lyme Disease--I felt like I had reincarnated in the same lifetime, in the same body. But this time I was shining, thanks to my peace within. I didn’t do anything to achieve this and you don’t need to either. When our social selves are in hibernation, our inner selves get teased out. When we witness ourselves struggling, we naturally develop compassion for ourselves. When we do emerge from sheltering in place and venture out, we can bring our new kinder voices with us. We can love ourselves as is. As is.