Redefining "Productivity" When You Are Chronically Ill

Throughout my whole life I felt as if I needed to be doing something “productive” at all times- working, studying, going out, exercising, etc. 

Enter Lyme. I was stuck in bed, unable to work, unable to move, in physical and emotional pain. My brain felt like mush and it was hard to read, think, or talk. I could barely do anything, let alone anything “productive.” At times, all I could do was sleep, eat, and shower (and even those were a struggle.) I felt guilt, shame, and embarrassment. 

I realized I had to change my definition of productivity to fit my new life. What if being “productive” now meant doing everything I could to heal? That meant sleeping, going to doctors’ appointments, and taking baths were actually productive. At this time, my main goal was health, so any healing activity was actually helping me accomplish my goal. 

As I started to get better, I changed my definition of “productive” once again, to mean doing anything that made me happy. Listening to music? Productive. Going for a walk? Productive. Taking a nap? Productive. By doing things that brought me joy, I was actually more fulfilled emotionally, which took away a lot of the negative feelings I had experienced at the beginning of my illness. And I found that this emotional fulfillment gave me the confidence, strength, and wisdom to accomplish the physical goals I wanted to accomplish.

Although society’s definition of being productive is go-go-go working super hard to accomplish things, I believe this is not attainable for everyone at all times and ends up making us feel unworthy, less than, and like a failure, especially when we are healing from a chronic illness (or going through anything where we need to take a step back and focus on our physical and/or emotional health.) 

Maybe there will be seasons in our life where we go-go-go (for me this was my life before I got sick) and then seasons in our life where we need to just be, rest, and spend time with ourselves (this was me while I was healing from my illnesses.) And maybe there are times that we balance both at the same time. The time I spent healing in bed was necessary for me to understand myself on a new level, listen to my body, change my perspective on what’s important, cultivate creativity, and get clear about my needs, goals, and dreams. That sounds productive to me.  

So instead of a “one-size fits all” approach to productivity, maybe we need to consider that productivity looks different for everyone, and that it may change for us at different points in our lives. And maybe we can embrace where we are and what we are capable of at this moment, allow ourselves to find joy whenever possible, and know that that in itself is productive.