by Jennifer Crystal
Spring is a time of rebirth and renewal. Many people engage in some kind of spring cleaning, whether it is airing out their homes or themselves. People open their windows and shake out their rugs. Some do a dietary cleanse. Even religious customs at this time of year are about cleaning out and letting go—Jewish people rid their houses of chametz, leavened food, for Passover, while Christians give up something in observance of Lent.
These customs have good intentions. I respect them and understand the purpose they serve. But this year, after reading a friend’s recent social media post, I started thinking about them a little differently. On Ash Wednesday, which starts the period of Lent, my friend announced that instead of giving something up for Lent, he was going to treat himself to one small, special thing each week.
I stopped to consider this bit of reframing. What if the season wasn’t about denying ourselves something, but instead about adding something positive to our lives? What if it was about nourishment, the way we nurture early spring flowers so they can grow? Refusing ourselves something can hold a negative connotation, but nourishing ourselves has a lovely ring of self-care.
As a patient of chronic tick-borne illness, this reframing especially struck a chord with me. Lyme patients already are denied so much. At our sickest, we can’t work; we can’t socialize; we can’t take care of our daily needs. We’re restricted, and that can make us feel guilty, sad, ashamed, and angry, on top of feeling physically wretched.
Treating Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses means giving up a lot: for me, it means refusing gluten, processed sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. I cannot stay up late, skip my afternoon nap, watch fireworks or a stimulating show, or over-exert myself physically or mentally. These are my needs and they’re in place for good reason. I’m grateful that they allow me to keep ticking.
But sometimes I do feel like I give up a lot—and certainly have given up a lot of bigger things over the years, like long-distance travel, friends’ weddings, financial security, and full-time work at a time when I was supposed to be starting my career and building my life. With those losses came depression, anxiety, and self-blame. It took me a long time to accept my needs and to love myself in spite of them.
This spring feels like an excellent opportunity to renew that self-love. Part of caring for yourself, of course, is recognizing certain things are toxic to you and you must get rid of them. Elimination of foods, stressful people, and negative emotions that hurt you— all are important for self-cleansing. If you are a Lyme patient eating batches of chocolate chip cookies, you are probably overloaded with gluten and sugar, suffering from a candida infection, and jeopardizing your ability to get well. Getting rid of those foods would be a good way to nurture yourself toward optimal health.
But what else can you add that is healthy and feels like a treat? There are lots of great recipes for gluten-free, naturally sweetened brownies and ice cream. These I still eat in moderation, but that makes them all the more special when I do indulge. Dark chocolate is low in sugar and has many health benefits. Eating one piece every day puts a smile on my face.
How else can you fill yourself up rather than deplete yourself? I recently started treating myself to monthly massages. I couldn’t have done this when I was in the throes of Lyme, since a massage likely would have spread toxins further around my body, but now that I’m in remission, gentle massage is good for me. I leave feeling relaxed, my nervous system reacts in kind, and I am able to nap and sleep better.
Your treat doesn’t need to be something big, though. If you are bedridden, there are still ways to nourish rather than deny yourself. How about flipping through photos of happier times, to remind yourself of what will again be possible once you’re well? Or writing down three good things about each day? Or rubbing a nice lotion on your hands and feet? Or finding a favorite new fruit or vegetable to add to your diet?
Cleansing is important. This season, I’m going to make sure the things I do get rid of are things I really don’t need, rather than things I want but am denying myself. In this way, giving things up will be a way of treating myself. In addition to getting rid of things, I am also going to add goodness, to think of more ways to be kind to myself, so that I enter summer ready to blossom.
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her work has appeared in local and national publications including Harvard Health Publishing and The Boston Globe. As a GLA columnist for over six years, her work on GLA.org has received mention in publications such as The New Yorker, weatherchannel.com, CQ Researcher, and ProHealth.com. Jennifer is a patient advocate who has dealt with chronic illness, including Lyme and other tick-borne infections. Her memoir about her medical journey is forthcoming. Contact her via email below.