New Year, Old Guilt

January is, without a doubt, my least favourite month of the year.

Not because of the long dark nights, the cold wet weather, or resumed isolation after time spent with family, but because of the social expectation that the New Year should bring renewed ambition and personal betterment.

January is meant to be a time of new beginnings and hope for the future. We talk of starting the year as we mean to go on by making resolutions for change, and while our good intentions rarely last, we have the consolation of at least having tried (and maybe even succeeded for a while). For those living with chronic illness though, Christmas can be a gruelling time no matter how carefully you moderate your activity, and the detrimental effects can make January particularly difficult.

Exhausted from the overexertion of Christmas, my functional ability this month has been lower than at any point since the previous January. I have predominantly spent my time resting and what little energy I’ve had has been spent on benefit renewal forms which always expire at the one time of year when I’m least able to deal with them. In the meantime, correspondence goes unwritten, distance-learning books unopened and blog comments go unanswered for the second month running. While friends boast of New Year fitness routines, I have had to halve my normal physiotherapy. While they talk of healthy eating regimes I resort to overreliance on convenient carbs (bread, biscuits and cereal bars) till I’m well enough to organise healthier meals.

A quick perusal of the blogosphere is enough to show that I’m by no means alone in the struggle to make up lost ground in January. Other bloggers’ accounts of days spent in bed or on sick leave from work, and of New Year’s resolutions that never even got started, paint an overall picture of implicit guilt. We reassure other sufferers that they’re doing the right thing by resting and de-stressing, yet all the while feel guilty when we’re forced to do the same ourselves.

Of course guilt is a common emotion for people with chronic illnesses. We feel guilty for not working; for our reliance on the state while the public and media brand us malingering skivers. We feel guilty for medical costs we incur and the drain we impose on the NHS. We feel guilty for burdening our loved ones, for not doing our share of housework or taking care of the family. We feel guilt for every passing day that we fail to be ‘productive’.

We try telling ourselves that guilt itself is unproductive. We push our guilt to the back of our minds and try to accept family reassurances that they don’t view us as a burden. We attempt to justify our existence by finding little things we can do for other people. We mentally list achievements, however small, that help us feel that our day wasn’t entirely wasted. And with time the guilt grows easier to live with, we dwell on it less, but it rarely, if ever, goes fully away.

For most of the year I assuage my guilt with bite-sized chunks of whatever ‘useful’ activities I can find to fill my time. I blog and study and send postcards for charity, in no small part to have a reply to the question ‘what do you do?’ that won’t provoke the disdain so often shown to those who are too sick to work but have no obvious outward signs of illness. In January though, I am forced to abandon all pretence at productivity and simply rest. I begin the New Year as I don’t intend to go on, doing nothing at all. Over the years I have learned to accept that the first weeks of the year are always a write off, and I do my level best not to feel guilty about it.

As January finally draws to a close, a month’s rest and unproductivity starts to reap some reward and I find myself returning to the levels of health that I had back in November. I hope the same is also true for all my friends that are chronically ill. With any luck, in the next few weeks I can start to re-establish some semblance of normality. At least then I’ll have just one less thing to feel guilty about.

Yes, January is without a doubt my least favourite month of the year.

But I always look forward to February!

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24 Responses to New Year, Old Guilt

  1. quiall says:

    I used to agree with you. But years have made me less stupid (I’m not so arrogant that I would say I was wiser) January and February are difficult for me but I judge things differently now. And I don’t feel guilty, that is a negative emotion that is beneficial to no one. Now I blog and I am proud of what I say. I have met people in this cyber world that inspire me, like you. When I need to I put on a weepy movie and cry. Then I give thanks for what I can do.

    • I agree that it seems to get easier with time. When I first became ill, I felt guilty almost all of the time but with each year that passes, my expectations change and I find I feel guilty less and less.

      I also agree that guilt can be very destructive and it is an emotion that I work very hard to stay clear of. Ninety percent of the time I succeed as I learn to value different things to mainstream society. Occasionally though, social conditioning kicks in and I find myself looking at my life through the world’s eyes.

      I know people who are at very different stages of this journey and it is important for people to know that guilt is a normal response to illness but that it can and does get better.

      • quiall says:

        very well said!

      • Qatmaster says:

        I found this entry such a balm to my aching body and heart! I’ve got disaster movies/shows on right now so I can celebrate all the bad things that AREN’T happening to me while I feel this bad… If that does’t make sense to anyone reading this, then that’s just not your way of coping. It works for me, tho. And guilt, such a useles emotion, on so many levels, is just another thing to cope with. I am continually grateful that I live in a state where medical marijuana is delivered to my door at a reasonable price, five days a week. It’s hardly a panacea, but it does lubricate the clock on long painful days. And it makes it easier for me to concentrate and read uplifting blogs like yours. Thanks for the effort you are able to give — you put it to excellent use! Thank you for sharing!

      • Thank you so much. I might have to try the disaster movie trick. Sounds like my kind of coping strategy!

  2. fibrofandango says:

    I totally understand. Im frustrated, because I can’t work even part time, but feel like I *should* be grateful for the little I can do, because im chronically ill, and chronically ill people are supposed to be grateful for the little things. Well sometimes it just isn’t enough, and I get pissed off, because I know what my potential could be. But then if I maintain that train of thought, I’ll just get bitter, and my life will have even more problems (or ‘challenges’, as we are supposed to call them). Roll on spring, when I can distract myself with crocuses and shit.

    • This gave me a much needed laugh though that may not have been your intent: ‘I *should* be grateful for the little I can do, because im chronically ill, and chronically ill people are supposed to be grateful for the little things’ – yeah I hear you.

      Sometimes I can sit and enjoy the flowers, other times I want to be climbing mountains and nothing less will do. Glad it’s not just me.

      • fibrofandango says:

        Glad I made you laugh 😀 I guess we could try to be ok with whatever feelings arise – because they are *our* feelings, and they matter.

  3. fibrofandango says:

    Great post by the way. 🙂

  4. Great to hear you look forward to February…Almost there!! I used to dislike January when I was healthy but my new hobby, moon watching, and star gazing, and bird watching has reminded me its just another month. One, like you say… leading to February. We need winter to enjoy spring, otherwise we’d take the long evenings for granted. And I always think of those poor people in Alaska with six months of darkness.. just imagine…Mad. Maybe I’m completely delusional by nature… but that’s my take on January! 🙂

    • I guess with hobbies like those, each month brings a whole variety of its own. I would love to visit Alaska or Scandinavia at the height of summer and the depth of winter to experience the twenty-four hour nights/days, but I think, for the sake of my sanity, a single weekend would be my limit.

      • I’m with you on the single weekend limit!! LOL

      • You write so eloquently about guilt, feeling like a burden on the state, feeling like you have to justify your existence when people ask you what you do, and all the other things that go with chronic illness. I relate so much! I am very happy I found your blog! The Christmas/New Year’s/Hanukkah/Thanksgiving
        (I’m American) season is exhausting … I’m glad it’s done. I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas (I am Jewish and my boyfriend is Episcopalian) and it’s a LOT with fibro, Lyme, a wonky thyroid, and my other conditions. Keep going — I really love your writing.

      • Thank you. I thought Christmas and New Year were draining enough; struggling to imagine throwing Thanksgiving and Hannukah into the mix as well.

  5. At least you have learned that January will be a month of R+R. I’m still learning, and I’m going into year six of this circus!! I still beat myself up with guilt, push myself too hard to compensate, and start the sick and twisted dance all over again. I am getting better though. I am learning not to be so hard on myself, to try and make sure that my expectations match my current health (which changes daily, heck – hourly!). Some people learn these lessons faster than others. If you are one of them – I salute you. I’m serious. It’s not easy learning to live well with chronic illness.

    • Thank you. Accepting there are times you just need to rest and let your body recover is such a vital part of living with chronic illness and one I think I will always struggle with no matter how much time passes. Everytime I think I’ve cracked it I catch myself trying to please other people or beating myself up for being unproductive and I have to learn acceptance of my illness all over again.

  6. Reblogged this on Chronic Pain Heroes and commented:
    This post sums up so well what December and January have been like for me. It’s sad but comforting to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

  7. Juliette Wills says:

    A beautifully written, engaging, heartfelt and honest piece, as always. Thank you

  8. Claire says:

    Thank you – I read this just when I needed it! I’m super exhausted after a hectic Christmas/New Year/Moving House – I just need to remember that I need time to recover from all of this! Time being the key word.

  9. Tanya says:

    Oh wow…you totally hit the nail on the head with what you said about guilt. I work part time from home and a lot of the time, it’s pretty much all I can manage to do, so I feel guilty for not doing more of the housework. When I’m not able to see my friends for weeks at a time or have to cancel plans at the last minute, I feel guilty for being a bad friend. I keep catching myself in these moments and telling myself “No. You do NOT have to feel guilty because you haven’t done anything wrong!”. I’m starting to learn to believe myself about that, but it’s a long road.

    • Thanks for highlighting such an important point. It’s so easy to feel guilty for not keeping up with our healthy friends and colleagues but the reality is that we didn’t ask for this illness and our inability to live a ‘normal’ life and meet ‘normal’ expectations isn’t our fault. Like you I have to remind myself from time to time that I haven’t actually done anything wrong so shouldn’t have anything to feel guilty about.

  10. hubertwrites says:

    Thanks for this post I must say I have been rebelling against almost everything in my life lately, and yes “False” guilt is a big big ball and chain! I was raised with guilt and shame from my youth, so I know it well, and though I get it, and understand its a lie the tentacles of this lie are firmly rooted in my soul, I am starting to think maybe its an integral part of CFM,CFIDS, and a lot of other so called invisible diseases. I have had this from childhood i’m 54 now, lol I could honestly say “Life sucks!” But, but I am a believer in Christ Jesus and still I know some day it’ll be okay forever .

    No illusions about now though…

    Hubert

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