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Don't Blame Yourself for What You Didn't Create in Survival Mode
A love letter to all those stuck just surviving
Unboxing Chronic Creativity - 6 min read
Illness, especially invisible illness, robs people of many things. Its notorious card to play is keeping us in survival mode. One moment we can skip through the fields, and the next, we’re bound to the bed or bathroom. As soon as we feel free, we’re caged again by the claws of pain, fatigue, and unease.
Physical illnesses aren’t the only culprits of this either.
Mental illness, paired with our own doubts, insecurities, and perfectionism, keeps us toppled. We may finally have found a therapist who better understands us. We may have found the perfect balance of meds. Yet we find festering childhood wounds left unattended.
When we start setting boundaries, anger rises in us. When we try to rest, our mind becomes more rabid. Everything is an uphill battle we fight day in and day out, even as we recover.
Then we compare ourselves to the outside, edited world. This writer I’ve followed for years got their book published! Why can’t that be me? We groan to ourselves, forgetting the years part.
We look at those selling their art and compare their website, vendor setup, and wonderful personality. They post every day, non-stop. We forget it’s their full-time job. We wonder why we, with our full-time jobs, can’t do the same with our art side hustle.
I’m sure some of you think I’m doing so much and so well.
Yet you don’t know how long it took to get where I’m at. I fantasized about selling my art and poetry for years. In August 2019, I posted on Facebook to see if anyone would buy digital zines and prints from me. The response was good, considering I barely post on Facebook.
I applied for my current job that month. Then, I spiraled downwards as my job search tanked. My health sputtered as it did nearly every winter. I had little energy to care. Even though I needed a new job soon, I didn’t start applying again until January. That’s when I received a phone call that I had the position I applied for in August.
My life became a whirlwind of change.
I got a new job, temporarily moved into my parent’s place, purchased a mobile home, had to evacuate my parent’s house at odd times as they were selling, moved, got a cat, helped my parents move, got another cat, purged all of the things from childhood I didn’t want, helped my parents downsize, bought a new car, and finally settled into a rhythm by the end of the year.
My health was doing better. I was going to a therapist to help me work through my anxiety, self-deprecation, etc. Eventually, I wanted to try dating again.
Cue in some terrible e-Harmony dates, two low points where I thought I’d found someone, then the sudden dating of my now husband. We got married, went on our honeymoon, and collapsed for months before doing things again.
That’s when I started making art, art connections, and selling my art.
This list doesn’t include the years I lived in survival mode. When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I struggled with finding a med that worked. I entered a toxic relationship for four years, which escalated my illness from mild to severe.
When I flared, I couldn’t do much. I’d get into bad habits of binge-watching YouTube and scrolling mindlessly through my phone. I’d download a game, fall down its rabbit hole, and uninstall it.
Worst of all, flares of any such illness can last minutes to months. It was hard to determine when I could switch out of survival mode. Sure, I could feel better. But I didn’t know if I actually was good enough to start doing things again. Because of this, many of the habits that helped me through survival carried into the good days.
I began staying on the phone and the toilet longer than needed. My focus remained on the one distraction that got me through the pain — my phone. Soon, I realized I hadn’t stayed in touch with anyone. I was alone in my apartment, scrolling. Even when I felt good, chores stayed difficult as before.
But I slowly built better habits.
When I shed the bad habits (mostly) and felt good, I built routines. Each time I flared, I relapsed. Yet every time I felt better, I placed one more brick onto the wall of good habits. This pattern continued for years.
With time, I learned to transition better. It never was or will be perfect. I learned how to care for myself and do the necessary household chores. Eventually, I volunteered and attended a Bible study again. That’s when I hit a speed bump.
I didn’t know how to make time for fun or creation.
I could create small and incomplete things. But longer works were like climbing a mountain leaning towards the ground. My mind didn’t want to let go of the idea, but I blanked when I sat down to write.
I still had a terrible lack of confidence, an inability to relax, and a lack of fun. Yet, I had the time and space to write I didn’t have before. I’d still come a long way. It may seem like something that should be so easy. After all, everyone else does it!
Illness, however, is relentless.
It teaches you how to survive, not thrive. When you finally come up for air, you re-learn everything that comes so easily to everyone else. That’s not your fault or a weakness on your part. You’ve learned to survive things most people don’t know how to. Every step you take to learn how to thrive despite it is monumental.
Don’t bring the shame of everything left undone in the years you could do nothing but survive. Don’t beat yourself up for all the ideas you didn’t (couldn’t) chase. You did and are doing the best you can.
Don’t forget how far you’ve come in this journey.
Remember what you’ve re-taught yourself. Take a moment to be thankful you could. And if you’re still stuck surviving, remember you’re doing great too. You’re on a rougher journey, but you’re not alone.
Keep on trekking.
One day you’ll look back and be amazed at your progress.
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