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!