Being a chronically ill young adult is draining. There is an expectation on the youth that we must be, well, youthful. To go out with friends every weekend, to party, to rebel, to have experiences we have labelled as ‘normal’ leaves anyone who falls behind as weak, feeble, flaky. When life hands someone a rough patch, we are still expected to follow along with the ideas of normality.
I was on a train at the end of the summer, a long journey to the north of England. As I approached my stop, I ended up talking with two elderly women by the train doors. One of them was complaining about her illnesses and medication. She was on blood thinners, a pill for her heart, something for her legs and another thing for her eyes. There was a pause, before she flapped a hand in my face and said, dismissively,
“You don’t need to worry about that yet, dear, you’re still young!”
An awkward pause followed before I told her, well, no, sorry. I have an autoimmune disease;I inject myself once a week and I must take several medications to keep myself going. Then followed the usual, sympathetic ‘oh’ followed by the frustrating phrase:
“But you don’t look sick.”
When you’re chronically ill you learn to smile and thank people for this kind of compliment. It can be hard for people to know what to say, but it can be equally as hard to have your illness dismissed by someone who doesn’t know you.
Summer took a toll on my body, a holiday with friends, many days out and an attempt to live in a ‘hot girl summer’ left me with stomach pains, exhaustion and painful dry skin across my body that left me feeling like an old woman more than a young adult. Being chronically ill often means that living as the world expects you to result in your body paying the price for months afterwards. Recovery time is slow. It often leaves chronically ill people searching for comfort in any form. This comfort is unique to everyone who suffers, ranging from baking to video games and knitting.
My comfort takes the form of birds; bird watching was something I grew up doing. Inherited from my mum, who to this day keeps a notebook with a list of all the birds that come in and out of our back garden, bird watching is second nature.
Birds are sporadic animals, sometimes none will come into the garden, but sometimes we can get twenty species in a day. Their routine is not set in stone, they are fluid, changing routine due to the weather, the food that is around. Their flighty nature means a gentle approach must be taken. They are not stuck to one place, but they change with the days and the seasons.
When summer starts the birds in our back garden often retreat to the surrounding woodlands. They often loose their plumage around this time, as mating season has ended, and they don’t need to search for food for their babies. The garden becomes quieter as summer begins. Summer is often the time that I, by contrast, push myself to do more. It is easy when you’re at university, writing and working to not ‘get out’ and do as much stuff, it makes a chronic illness more tolerable. But when summer break hits, I want to do things. The birds leave the garden and so do I, but whilst they search for peace and quiet, I seek out the energy.
As October has rolled around, and I am back studying from my bedroom, my Crohn’s making me exhausted every day. My tiredness and repercussions of summer have left me like a bird in summer, retreating from the world with an attempt to collect myself, regain my plumage and find some courage once again.
Whilst I hide, the birds return.
Time seems to move differently for birds. The cold weather revives them, bringing them back to life and bringing them back to our garden. My body aches, but the birds are singing, talking to each other, bathing. The birds bring signs of life to a landscape that is leaving the blooms of summer behind. They sit atop the newly trimmed hedges, watching, safe in numbers with their fresh feathers. The birds bring a freshness back to autumn. A reminder that whilst times are changing, there are constants. The birds will always come back, health will always recover.
Even sat at a window, watching the birds with a cup of tea feels reiving and comforting. Birds act in my life as a stability, a consistent theme of changing seasons, a reminder of a childhood spent in bird hides and binoculars. Nostalgia and comfort often feel like the same. A hazy look at when life was easier, a gentle reminder that by bird watching, that nostalgia is part of me, it is a comfort. Being comforted by nature and its routine changes from the comfort of behind a window creates a gentle healing. It is not aggressive, nature is gentle, willing to bend but resilient in its return. Normality will arrive, but as the birds change, normality changes. Finding personal comforts within these changes makes new normality tolerable, comfortable, full of bird song.
Bird watching heals me, reminding me that sometimes it is okay to remove yourself from the world, there is always time to come back.