In December of 2020, being exhausted, I treated myself to a holiday in a tiny caravan park in the middle of nowhere. A creek ran alongside where a hot spring and cold tidal river mixed to flow along a limestone gully where wildflowers bobbed against the rocky banks and pods of baby mullet leapt for joy in the summer sun. Wild orchids bloomed beside walking trails, flocks of black cockatoos screeched back and forth to one another as I trekked by, and I met an old hippy and young kids running just for the pleasure of it, miles and miles into a hike into the bush. And I got sick.
One morning I woke up with glands swollen and a runny nose, and the next I was completely fine. I didn’t have Covid. The day after I was aching, and the next, again, perfectly well. After PCR tests, ultrasounds, an Xray, blood tests and a CAT scan all that could be determined was that at some time in the past I had picked up glandular fever, and that I now had a nasty sinus infection. Three rounds of antibiotics, steroid-sprays, and rinses with saline and mauka honey failed to set me right. At which point the GP told me there was nothing else she could do, and goodbye. I never really got better.
The slide from loving to work up a sweat several days a week to waking up with flu symptoms if I exerted myself cleaning was dispiriting, and although I work with women living with chronic and often invisible illnesses, I spent a healthy chunk of the following months in denial. Perhaps Isolation and lockdowns masked some of the symptoms, or living in a time when everyone was miserable, stressed and ill made it difficult to gauge my own health. Until I tried to train for a fun run and simply could not get anywhere close to the fitness, I had taken for granted before the pandemic, regardless of trying.
I tried the pills, sprays, steams, and bed rest. Tried hydration, herbs, minerals, and vitamins. Took ginsengs, ashwagandha, medicinal mushrooms and doses of pure sunshine. I bought a brand-new mattress. I was proactive. I was optimistic. But I also had to work. I had to keep up with the social habits of friends and loved ones lest I fall completely off the face of the earth. Needless to say, I got no better.
Recently I stumbled on a lovely piece of writing by Dr Gavin Francis, a UK physician who describes a concept called viriditas or ‘greening’ – an idea drawn from the writings of the medieval nun and mystic Hildegard of Bingen referring to an almost-lost attitude to the process we used to call ‘convalescence’. I found this a liberating phrase. A metaphor not for getting ‘back to it’ after illness, or the appalling (if essential) notion of finding a ‘new normal’ after unwanted changes to health or hopes, but something more sinuous, more flexible, and frankly, more useful.
In Australia we’re familiar with the image of regeneration after bushfire – startlingly coloured growth against black bark. In terms of rethinking what it means to ‘get well’ this coexistence of the charred and the vivid – the greening – is important. It acknowledges that the notion of starting ‘new’ is both unrealistic and harmful. ‘New’ is a wish to escape the parts of us that have been through the fire of illness, and it means living in denial. The way I saw it, to become ‘greened’ is to become not ‘new’ but vivid and invigorated – from a place where generative energy has been in short supply. I was looking not for a ‘new normal’, but for a wild offshoot. Or, as the nerds would say, a side quest.
In Australian culture we do not ‘green’, in fact we are not okay with ‘greening’. We honour our ‘no-whining’ Protestant-colonial roots and push on. In times of actual illness, we look to paracetamol, codeine, and pharmaceutical speed to get us out the door. Add a cough suppressant if you need to take the tram. If you’re not sick but garden-variety burned out and miserable, then throwing some yoga and an expensive mushroom coffee beverage on top of the routine is recommended. Piling the remedies on. ‘Hacking’ our way out of crisis to ‘wellness’. Although I’m not sure that ‘hacking’ has ever been a useful metaphor for finding a path to healing.
Aussies are obsessed with productivity. Even in leisure. At some time in the past – far enough away that the memory is still familiar but slightly faded – it was expected that a proportion of a child’s summer holidays would be spent propped on her elbows in the tv room watching re-runs and being bored with her friends in various cul-de-sacs and neighbourhood parks. Of course, the landscape has changed – hyper-palatability is just as much a problem in the content we consume as it is in fast-food, but in that far off summer the girl I am imagining could likely watch only so many hours of re-runs of M*A*S*H before she would call a friend and beg a lift to the pool.
The point is that at some point it became not enough to just exist as you are: A little bored, with a store of un-spent energy that made riding your bike at dusk or sitting on a fence at the park feel low-grade electric. The over-scheduled-kid’s holidays of day camps, clubs, sports, and trips became the norm, or at least a free-floating expectation for working parents to feel guilty about.
As adults the suggestions for how we should be spending our time are relentless and insidious: Every on-screen home is filled with friends and neighbours that pop endlessly in and out. We laugh delightedly at our salads. Alcohol accompanies every meal, film, swim, camping trip and even breakfast date. On screen we spend our evenings going to the cinema, or (improbably) on boats where we drink champagne as the twilight settles. We kite sail and drink whisky around fires in unrealistic places. We do Pilates and go running through bushland as though no one ever works. We work. We dash into and out of meetings, and somehow use a lot of welding equipment before cheering our children at after school sports and cooking dinner for four from a box of pre-prepared ingredients. Then we have a drink.
Times of ‘rest’ are curated and instagrammable. We swing in hammocks a lot. We go to beaches where we lie flat beside a cocktail or climb temple stairs or wander through markets. We photograph our food. We do yoga. We recline on designer couches and embrace our children as the film of the week starts in our private cinema rooms. We serve dinner for twelve. In some ways the more familiar story of binge-watching streaming tv, binge-playing games or scrolling social media and shopping channels for hours at a time with a glass of wine in our hands feels like a rebellion from all this fuss – as though we’ve ‘downed tools’ and gone on strike.
This is unsurprising when the culture around health has developed a kind of steroid-rage. It’s no longer enough to have a quiet night in to recharge or spend your Saturday doing nothing but maybe just going for a nice walk to unwind and let your brain go on random mode. We have productivity guilt. If you spent the night in did you meditate? Have a bath with wellbeing salts and candles? Do yoga? Meal prep? I hear this from so many people. Relaxing feels out of reach and so we strive and hack until we’re completely exhausted and then we go into ‘collapse mode’ with our screens, which we have come to mistake for rest.
In this context the old-fashioned idea of convalescence seems to rub uncomfortably close to laziness or malingering. The message we get from our culture is that to ‘recover’ we need to ‘do something about it’. The weirdness of this ‘hacking’ health message becomes stark when we contrast it with the other, equally strong, message we get – that while we’re going to the dietitian, getting massages, and setting out on meditation retreats, we should also be enjoying margaritas and partying till dawn, shopping like there’s no tomorrow, and continually surrounded with laughing people.
At this point I would like to note that I am not blind to my own contribution to this dilemma: I wrote a whole post a while ago about using ‘active rest’ to counteract burnout. Sometimes we do recharge better when we’re walking somewhere green or going to a workout class rather than being numbed by tv, snacks and booze. As a mental health practitioner, I want to support my clients to feel that positive change is happening, and in many cases that means I advocate for choosing to be proactive about how we spend our time. But I’m also aware that we can’t self-care ourselves out of dysfunctional situations.
I’m not sure where I first heard the fish-in-river analogy: Imagine a polluted river. Runoff from the dirty landscape goes into the water and so does garbage from the surrounding suburbs. Decayed plastic bags, electric bicycles, face masks, toxic car cleaning products someone hosed down the drain, illegal industrial runoff, cigarette butts. There’s a fish in the river who is sick. Diseased scales and insides all screwed up from chemical waste. In this analogy we take the fish out of the river and pop it into a huge, clean tank with a lot of healthy green river weed, a couple of other fish for company, some fish medicines, and a great filter to keep the water clean, and then we leave it alone. In time the fish gets well. Shiny scales, happy grazing behaviours, healthy fins with bright colours. Then we return the fish to the river. Guess what happens?
The fish analogy illustrates that we can never get so well that we’re immune to illness, and that no amount of self-care can ‘cure’ an unhealthy situation. You can’t face mask and yoga yourself out of burnout if your job is exploitative or just a bad match for you. If the structures and habits in your life aren’t supporting your recovery, then to start ‘greening’ you will need to start changing them. Proactivity is essential to making change. But isn’t a one-size-fits all solution. Gavin Francis, in “Recovery” cites Hildegard of Bingen’s method for healing, which involves fitting the remedy to the individual and abandoning the quest for a perfect resolution: “If something is too cold then warm it, too dry then wet it, and so on. It is a gardener’s view […] because it holds at the centre of its vision that concept of balance – health as the equilibrium between extremes, rather than an end to be ‘reached’ or ‘achieved’.”
In a recent episode of the podcast ‘Hidden Brain’ host Shankar Vedantam interviewed Engineer Leidy Klotz about the notion of subtraction as a counterintuitive method for making improvement. In writing, for example, the rule is that prose is improved by removing unnecessary words. Klotz goes on to describe other examples of how problems have been solved by subtracting rather than ‘doing more’. This seems appropriate to our conundrum. At least as a way to re-set when the old ways are no longer working for us. Perhaps proactivity can also be about taking something away?
Jenny Odell, in her magnificent book “How to Do Nothing” relates the story of a redwood on a steep hillside in San Francisco that was lifted from obscurity when it became apparent that the tree was vastly older than the city, and alone among the remaining forest for the simple reason that the tree was knotted and weird, shaped by climate and aspect so that it was not a good prospect for timber, and was also on a hillside so steep that it was impossible to develop. The tree had outlasted everyone by being un-useful and out of the way.
I want to suggest that maybe an alternate way to cultivate wellbeing is to sit on the porch and watch the neighbourhood go by. Just pass time. Rebelling against the barrage of ‘shoulds’ by not routinely sinking into the distractions, the busyness, that meets the needs of the moment but makes us feel sad tomorrow. What might happen if we let a little boredom creep in? What if stillness made some slightly scary space in the business of life – enough space for newness to leak in. Space to notice what isn’t helping. For the new growth we have lurking under the skin to gather the urge to become a shoot?
In Mental Health Recovery Work, the goal is to support people with ‘big’ mental health diagnoses to build a life that they enjoy and value, with the understanding that the symptoms are unlikely to ever really go away. This means trying to connect people to support structures both formal and informal that people feel confident in accessing and that suits them. Partly it’s about being proactive, partly it’s about acceptance of what life has dealt us – an end to pouring energy into things that are no longer working, or work a bit, in a self-defeating way, and only some of the time. Putting down the struggle for denial.
Perhaps true Recovery, true ‘greening’, is hard to come by because it requires that we swim a little out of the mainstream so we can see what actually is. Some distance from whatever it is we have been using to manage our stuck-ness. It requires boredom and courage as we put down distractions and get enough perspective to figure out what’s poisoning our river. What’s taking the shine from our scales. It takes even more courage to then remove that thing, especially if we have to push up against the stuck-ness of others or go against cultural expectations to do that. We need space to gather the energy for healing and change. It takes courage to heal.
Is there something you’ve been longing for a break from but are a little scared to try? A week or two off alcohol or weed? A few nights with a book instead of streaming or gaming or going ‘out’? Perhaps it’s engaging in some gentle movement or a long hot shower rather than collapsing with a screen at the end of a day, or booking a holiday with the leave you have accumulated? Give it a go.
For myself the balance has been between doing less (I quit my second job), tuning in to what’s happening (I was struggling to hang on to the idea of myself I had before 2019) and proactivity (using ‘pacing’ to find a level of exercise that feels good and doesn’t prompt a fatigue ‘crash’). The progress is slow, but that’s okay. It feels like progress.
Keep in mind that our bodies and minds love ‘subtraction’ and often heal if we just get out of their way: Doctors will send us home with a prescription for fluids and bed rest for this exact reason. Sometimes the best and most ethical care is to be deliberate about doing nothing.
If you’ve been on the treadmill of healing for a long while and have come to an impasse, perhaps it’s time to swim out of the current, to get a different view.
Helpful Resources to Explore Your Own ‘Greening’:
Book: “How to Do Nothing – Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell:
“Far from a simple anti-technology screed, How to Do Nothing is an action plan for thinking beyond capitalist narratives of efficiency and value. Provocative, timely, and utterly persuasive, it shows us how to preserve our inner lives and bring about change in a world that needs this more than ever.”
Nina’s review: Categorised very misleadingly as ‘self help’, this is actually a book of wild essays about refusal, adaptation, transgression, art, community, human ingenuity and cultural weirdness and it’s TREMENDOUSLY inspiring. I have read it twice and some chapters three times over these recent end-of-days feeling years.
Book: “Recovery – The Lost Art of Convalescence” by Dr Gavin Francis*:
“When it comes to illness, sometimes the end is just the beginning. Recovery and convalescence are words that exist at the periphery of our lives – until we are forced to contend with what they really mean.
Here, GP and writer Gavin Francis explores how – and why – we get better, revealing the many shapes recovery takes, its shifting history and the frequent failure of our modern lives to make adequate space for it.
Characterised by Francis’s beautiful prose and his view of medicine as ‘the alliance of science and kindness’, Recovery is a book about a journey that most of us never intend to make. Along the way, he unfolds a story of hope, transformation, and the everyday miracle of healing.”
Nina’s review: this is a tiny book overflowing with kind, counterintuitive and sometimes radical ideas about human wellbeing. A perfect $10 purchase for a lazy Sunday spent with a good read and a series of cups of tea.
*Note – the link above goes to a Guardian Longread by Dr Gavin Francis, excerpted from the short book. Here’s a link to the book.
Podcast: Do Less – Hidden Brain Episode June 7th, 2022:
“The human drive to invent new things has led to pathbreaking achievements in medicine, science, and society. But our desire for innovation can keep us from seeing one of the most powerful paths to progress: subtraction. Engineer Leidy Klotz says sometimes the best way forward involves removing, streamlining, and simplifying things.”
Nina’s review: This interview is based on Leidy Klotz’s book “Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less”, which is now on its way to me via the magic of the postal service. Shankar Vedantam is one of the most affable podcast hosts around, and Hidden Brain is a reliably fascinating take on the oddity of human behaviours.
Podcast: Burnout and How to Avoid It – The Happiness Lab Episode Feb 21st, 2022
“If you dread getting out of bed in the morning; if you are bad tempered with co-workers, clients, or customers; if you leave work feeling an exhaustion that goes way beyond tiredness… it could be that you’re burned out.
Jonathan Malesic felt all these things as a successful academic and reflected wistfully on his previous job working as a parking lot attendant. Could it be that taking a high status, high paying job was making him miserable and pushing him beyond the limits of his endurance? Jonathan shares what he learned about burnout while researching his book The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us, And How to Build Better Lives.”
Nina’s review: The Happiness Lab can be hit and miss, with a ‘hack your wellbeing” attitude that can be grating, but occasionally an episode comes along that’s worth its weight in gold. This is one. If you like the format I can also VERY highly recommend the Faith Harper episode “How to be Angry Better”
Essay: How to Fail by Marcus Westbury
[Content warning – this essay, while lovely and heartening, also mentions suicide and some dark times. If this is a trigger for you, consider skipping this essay. If you need support please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, or the suicide callback service on 1300 659 467]
A glorious commencement address by the activist behind ‘Renew Newcastle” and the movement to reinvigorate areas in urban decline – by giving them to artists to use for free.
Essay: Athleisure, barre, and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman by Jia Tolentino
A healthily enraging essay about the tyranny of the demand that we ‘hack’ our way past health to ‘optimal’ womanhood. Not so much about rest, as about exposing the structures for what they are.
Nina Green Counselling can’t offer crisis support. If you’re in urgent need of help please consider calling 000, or Lifeline on 13 11 14. Many people in need have found the suicide callback service helpful. Contact them on 1300 659 467.