Recently asked how I feel about my body; this was a question that completely threw me. Because like many of us, if we’re honest, such self-reflection measurements can shift regularly. Feeling at odds in my case is mostly down to a chronic health battle which has challenged me emotionally and physically since the teenage years. Fighting endometriosis pain and undergoing several intrusive operations, including a hysterectomy at 31, leaves a disconnected feeling and significant trauma.
I’m faced with the same inner voice questions over-and-over again. How can I embrace this body of mine when it causes so much pain and anguish? Where do I find the mental strength to dig deep and carry on? Will this conflicting seesaw between perceiving my body as strong or weak ever level out?
With the help of an incredibly supportive women’s health psychologist, I’ve reached a point where I appreciate that my body image and mental health are inextricably linked, and always will be. The physical illness ongoing, and an auto immune disease now knocking me sideways, I regularly experience thoughts of powerlessness, and worry about self-worth too. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with this year’s theme being #BeBodyKind, there seems no better opportunity to talk about it.
Last night, a trauma nightmare jolted me into a wild panic, as I gasped helplessly for air and screamed out. This currently happens quite often, as my brain tries to process triggers it has experienced during the day. Offhand comments or even TV ads can flip the switch, reminding me of an event or difficult experience. An alarm in my brain goes off and all hell breaks loose. Hospital corridors, consent forms and operating tables will fill my sleep, while other times it’ll be about the babies that I can no longer have. Away with my best friend last month, she had to soothe me six times, while wide-eyed and distressed, I desperately sought reassurance. The next morning, I always feel exhaustion and frustration- even anger- that my body has caused my mind so much torment.
I’m learning how these thought processes work, and to manage health challenges, I don’t always need auto-pilot warrior mode. Instead, this can be counter-productive, as I should try and feel it when times are tough. Being stoic and strong is a part I play; yet letting those emotions in will lead me forward with acknowledgement and that can bring comfort. At times I grieve, yearning for more energy or even missing the fact not having periods puts me at odds with my peers. This physical illness can make me feel like I’m going mad, and that in turn, leaves a very real disdain for my body.
Psychologist Wendy Dignan explains that acceptance therapy is crucial for working with the connection between mental and physical health, “as with physical limitations it is so important to remember the brain and body are trying to do the best they can for you”.
Wendy highlights, “People assume that acceptance is the same as giving in, but it’s not, it’s the opposite. Once you reach that level of acceptance, you can work with it.”
And with that, somehow, I’ll continue this journey I’m on, one of a slow-burning love for my body. Yes, I have stretchmarks and scars, and I feel wildly irritated when it attacks itself, causes me agony or needs a hideous operation. But I need to show myself more kindness and empathy. Asking whether you’d speak to your sister of friend that way is a reliable benchmark, because you definitely wouldn’t slag off their tummy or bum. My body has grown two babies, and like everyone else, I’ve been faced with a few curve balls, but look at how powerful it, and yours, is.
I’ll continue nurturing this gradual appreciation because if there’s one thing I know- your incredible body houses your beautiful heart. And that, above all else, is the body image kindness I want to teach my daughter.
It’s ok to not be ok, both mentally and physically. And the acceptance of this has come as a huge, much-needed relief.