It wasn’t until I returned home and talked with a friend that I realised what I had done.
I had turned into a character from 1800s England, where they take to the sea air for all the health benefits. Jane Austen, Louisa Alcott, and now the Lady in the Lighthouse.
It’s 2021, decades later, and the best decision I’ve made for my health in years was ‘convalescing at the coast’.
Since convalescence is a word that hasn’t been used very often in modern day life – the usage of the word has been in steady decline since the Vietnam War – what does it actually mean?
Convalescence is the resting period between feeling acutely ill or injured, and gradually returning to full health or to the state of health prior to the illness or injury. The word convalesce derives from Latin, from the prefix com- “with, together, jointly” and the verb “valescere” “to grow strong” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
Historically, it was the time between being in hospital and returning home, where patients would stay at a convalescent home, on the outskirts of a city, near the seaside or in the mountains. During World War years, large estate homes were used as places for some soldiers to have further rest and recovery time with medical assistance available, between being in hospital and returning home to normal life.
If you have experienced an illness or injury that may have been traumatic or life-changing, convalescence can also be a time of grieving the past and reimagining a new future which includes your new insight from the experience.
In the modern age, we are encouraged and applauded if we recover quickly or faster than expected. Convalescence seems to be a part of the recovery phase that is missing or severely diminished in our health services and productivity prioritised world.
Back to my recent experience – I knew for months that I needed a long break and I knew that timing and resources would be opportune by this winter. I realise how privileged and lucky I am to be able to have had such a long break (especially during COVID times) and know that this is not accessible for everyone.
I had clear ideas of what I wanted and needed from this break – rest and recovery from intense stress and my chronic conditions, quality time with my Grandmother, to be offline, more nature and exercise, and rediscovering my creativity.
The first few weeks of the holiday break I was so burnt out from the last nine months of personal stress and the last eighteen months of global pandemic stress, that all I could manage was watching lighthearted movies, long baths and full afternoon naps.
It took me weeks to relax. When your body has been in a high stress state for too long, it doesn’t give up that stress too easily. I had to be really intentional about cutting down any stress triggers and over stimulating activities (goodbye social media!), and doing the things that quickly restored my energy – time in nature, a gentle walk, meditation, making something creative with my own hands.
Gradually, a shift started to happen.
Each day I would have a little bit more energy than the previous day. I was able to go about my normal routine and daily medical requirements, and still have a little bit of energy left over to do something ‘extra’. This was game changing for me, as it had been years since I had had extra energy and not running on empty all the time. That bonus energy allowed me to do more activities that are usually the first things to be removed from my lifestyle when considering my chronic pain needs. That energy meant that I could spend longer exploring the town, or an extra half hour with my Grandmother, or be able to drive myself to the beach or the shops. I had energy to give to other people. I had enough brain power to ask interesting questions and fully listen to the responses. I could follow instructions and learn new creative skills. I still had pain and symptoms to deal with, but that little extra energy meant an increase in quality of life for me.
Staying in a small coastal town also meant that everything was incredibly accessible and a short manageable drive from where I was staying. I could get to multiple cafes and shops, the library, the beaches and marina, my Grandmother’s nursing home – I had so many options – which isn’t always the case where I live now.
Although I didn’t spend much time at the beach, just being in the vicinity, seeing it daily and hearing the waves in the distance at night was therapeutic in its own way. You get caught in a moment of mindfulness, appreciating the glorious sunny day or the neighbours saying hello as they do in small towns. The pace is slower than the city; it is matched with the pace of nature. I believe the pace of an environment has a lot to do with the effectiveness and efficiency of recovery and restoration.
Part of the importance of being in a new space away from doctors and practitioners is that physical distance helps the mind to release the ‘waiting for the next appointment’ feeling or ‘when the home feels like a hospital’ environment. When you have chronic long term conditions and are always at home, it becomes your sanctuary for your healing but also your hospital. Having a break away from that environment and the predictability of the lifestyle is just as necessary as taking a holiday away from your workplace. I was travelling back to home every 3 weeks for a few days for medical treatment and recovery time, and that was enough to get what I needed done without losing the holiday relaxation feeling.
While I was staying at the coast, I was spending a lot of time in the nursing home visiting my Grandmother and doing some crafting activities together. The local library was running a community art project which included crochet and wool crafts – my Grandmother’s current speciality. We spent time working together on the project and being able to have the energy to contribute to a project that is bigger than yourself and with a community is another thing that is highly beneficial for a person’s wellbeing, but can be the first thing to be removed if there is no energy for it.
Another shift happened while visiting the nursing home was that the resident’s lived a very similar lifestyle to me and we had a mutual understanding and compassion for each other. However, we understood our similarities and swiftly moved on to other topics, because there are way more interesting things to discuss than conditions, especially when there is an exciting craft project and a new person to talk to right in front of you. It was nice to be a part of a little community for a while, getting to know the residents and the staff during my frequent visits and experiencing joy from intergenerational friendships.
My identity changed, my personality resurfaced, I remembered who I was when I was around people and fully independent. The conversations I had weren’t starting with or revolving around pain. I was a person first and foremost, and it’s been a long time since I have felt that identity be present. I could walk into the nursing home and be welcomed as ‘Shirley’s Granddaughter’ or be a regular at a cafe, instead of being ‘the next patient’.
As with all good things at the moment, COVID restrictions and lockdowns kicked in rather abruptly, and my holiday was slightly shortened and it killed off my wish for a possible extension. I’m so incredibly lucky that I got the time that I did. I wish I had more time to see what else I could uncover within myself that had been buried under the chronic conditions and dependent lifestyle. I feel like I just scratched the surface.
Once I returned home and saw my doctor and psychologist, they both agreed that the extremely positive effect that this convalescence break had on both my physical and mental health was so worth it, that they prescribed that I should try it again next year – starting earlier and for a longer period. No complaints there!
So until then, I’ll be dreaming of beaches, bush land and birds, and small-town communities, and the little safe haven I found this winter.
Take good care, Readers. I’ll keep the light on.