It’s the most drab time of the year. Sparkling holiday decorations have been put away, couples are severing their ties during what is known as ‘break-up month,’ the winter doldrums are in full effect, and the party has ended—pretty much until spring. It’s no wonder that during this time, immunities are low, and illnesses run rampant as this is the most common time to get sick. While most people will, fortunately, only deal with a common cold or two, others feel the chilling effects of influenza, bronchitis, and in some cases, pneumonia.
That was how I found myself bedridden for three months last winter, with a severe case of pneumonia. Among the obvious symptoms (coughing, fever, and fatigue), I also suffered from an incredibly painful compressed lung and developed asthma and temporary muscle atrophy as a result. I also spent quite a lot of time alone, as I was isolated in suburban Connecticut, away from New York City, where most of my friends reside, and my boyfriend was called away on business trips for several weeks after I was diagnosed.
While this time period was nothing short of horrendous for me, something surprisingly positive came out of the experience, giving me a much needed boost in my freelance writing career. I may never know exactly what prompted this temporary surge (though I’m sure my stint on prescribed steroids certainly didn’t hurt), but what I was able to assess more than anything was the ability to detach myself from the insecurity of worrying what others think, and to “give zero fucks” (GZF). As the self help book by Mark Manson with a similar title states, GZF is “the key to confidence and success in life.”
GZF which, coincidentally, is a anagram of my initials (GFZ), means different things for everyone, but for me, it meant not caring about putting myself on the line and pitching to a publication that I deemed out of my league. Also, given that I wasn’t able to work as much as I normally do, and had no social obligations to attend, I had ample time to ponder anything and everything that popped into my head (tip: don’t search for what illness you have). This resulted in crafting better ideas, and getting more of my work accepted by editors.
This newfound attitude contributed to acceptance of many of my pitches, and my most successful outcome was being featured on the “Great Reads Around the Web” list by the New York Times, and being awarded gold in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition for my story, “A Very Comprehensive Guide to Getting Drunk at Disney World.”
Dr. Michael Alcee, PhD a clinical psychologist based out of Tarrytown, NY who specializes in college counseling and works at the Manhattan School of Music, spoke to me about this phenomenon: “Often out of sheer necessity, a physical issue can open up that space for reinvention, and surprisingly allow the paradoxical freedom to do what one wouldn’t be able to when one was ‘stronger.’ Psychological and artistic creativity come from the place of humility and letting go, where you have ‘nothing to lose’, where your desire outweighs your fear, and the sheer necessity of growing overcomes the risks of failure. [There’s] nothing like a physical challenge to bring us to this place.”
A situation like mine can also prompt not only an attitude change, but a complete career overhaul. Alcee goes on to explain that “a physical setback can become a transformative and creative opportunity if it is linked to a psychological process of making new meaning and possibility. [An] example is Robert Schumann (a German composer).” His story, though possibly apocryphal, says Alcee, “claims that in order to become more of a virtuoso, Schumann overexerted his hands with preparatory exercises, and in so doing, ruined his chances of being able to perform competitively. This seeming destruction of his career led him to instead prioritize composing, which set in motion the trajectory that led him to become one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era.”
One final benefit I experienced during this period goes far beyond career help. It was life enhancing, and that is the amount of gratefulness I felt as I recovered. Having watched friends and family fade away from cancer, dementia, and a host of other awful diseases kept my pity party in check, and made me treasure the things that I once took for granted. After not having drop of alcohol for a quarter of a year, for example, finally enjoying a glass of wine at night almost tasted like my first sip ever. I also became more appreciative of friends and family who were kind enough to reach out to me and especially care for me while I was sick.
Above all, the major takeaway I’ve had from all of this is perhaps, also the most cliche, that which doesn’t kill you, does indeed make you stronger. In the vein of Marcel Proust, there is something to be said about working from bed. Being unable to literally not carry on business, as usual, is exactly why I was able to fully pour myself into the things I was still able to do. As Alcee points out “creative work and psychological growth happens in the unexpected moments. And as Robert Frost once said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The surprise of a physical obstacle, for me, spurred exactly the kind of psychological leap I needed to surpass what I previously thought I was capable of.