When Rest is Not Restful

There’s no rest for the wicked—or the chronically ill. 

When friends tell me, ‘Take care,’ or ‘Look after yourself,’ I seldom know how to respond. It’s hard to take care of myself when I live with chronic illness. Things can flare without warning. Pain can knock me sideways. Sometimes I have to say no to things I really want to do, or pull out of important commitments, because I need to rest and recover. 

But I find rest difficult. All. The. Time. 

For those of us living with chronic illness, resting is harder than it sounds. Which is unfortunate, because we need it more than most. Rest is not always restful when we are in pain all the time and can run out of battery at the drop of a hat. Even when we stop, stopping does not equate to resting. 

For those of us living with chronic illness, resting is harder than it sounds.

I yearn for that true rest, that utopian place of physical and mental relaxation. It’s hard to find that elusive place. I feel like I’m searching for that pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. Rest implies a state of contentment, calm, even bliss. These are rare treasures for me. 

I am always ‘on’. Living with chronic illness requires a peculiar form of self-policing, monitoring my body for symptoms and flares (relapses). This behaviour is not anxiety-driven. My health professionals constantly ask about my symptoms. Being chronically ill means being able to answer my doctor’s frequent questions about them. 

Rest is slippery when illness is unpredictable. Small things can knock the wind out of my sails: being in a place that is too hot or where the lights are too bright; standing up for too long; eating lunch later than usual; doing one errand too many; a slight increase in the daily pain with which I live. Even losing half an hour of sleep can ruin me for the day. 

Small things can knock the wind out of my sails.

Sleep is often the single solitary place of respite. But this can be difficult when pain or neuropathic symptoms interrupt sleep. I may have fallen asleep, but I can wake up feeling like I’ve hardly slept at all. The notion of waking feeling refreshed is completely alien to me. 

There’s another reason rest is seldom restful. Important tasks often get shelved because I am not up to them. I put them off because I need to something else that is more important: picking up medication, eating, or simply stopping. So when I feel even slightly better, it’s tempting to try and fit all the ‘shelved’ things into the space of one day. Yep—you can imagine how that turns out. 

No rest for the wicked. 

What do we do about this? We still need to rest. Rest is necessary for survival. But because true rest is so hard to come by, we may need to settle for the next best thing: total collapse, time out, sleep—things that prevent us from getting worse, even if they do not make us better. 

Because true rest is so hard to come by, we may need to settle for the next best thing.

There are things we can do for refreshment. I find certain small things to be replenishing: a cup of tea, a cuddle with my furbaby, listening to the rain, a cozy blanket, lighting a candle, looking at something beautiful like a sunrise, the magical sound of music. When chronic illness takes everything from us, including our sense of control, we can control little things like these. Regaining a sense of control can be refreshing. 

God invites us to rest. He knows the value of it, and he modelled it for us when he rested on the seventh day after six days of creating. He invites us now to rest in him: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavily laden, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28) He can be a place of respite for us, a retreat from the world and the labours of chronic illness. 

God can be a retreat from the world and the labours of chronic illness.

Next time someone tells you, ‘Take care of yourself’, I hope you can. And I hope God’s rest meets you there. 

Do you find it hard to truly rest? Are there times when rest is restful for you? What things help you feel refreshed, even when living with chronic illness? Share your story. Let’s have a countercultural conversation. 

2 thoughts on “When Rest is Not Restful

  1. Thanks for sharing about rest Steph, l can really relate!!
    ‘Pacing’ is my doctor’s buzz word…but as you have listed so well, reaching that limit or boundary line, can be as simple as 1 errand too many or pushing lunch back too long because lm busy finishing off a work task, then ending up feeling weak and depleted. Reading my body and monitoring how l pace myself with rest VS productivity is a constant challenge!
    Along with your great suggestions, audiobooks with my furbabies are a god-send to pass the time when my body gives me no choice but to stop and rest. Xx

    • Thank you Roz, pacing and audiobooks are such great ways to conserve energy and recharge when you’ve done too much! I totally relate to that desire to be productive; it’s a constant inner wrestle between doing what I *think* I should do and doing what I actually need to do, ie. rest! Good luck with listening to your body, it’s a lifelong process I reckon 🙂

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