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Issue 39 Lifestyle

Just (Don’t) Do It

by Porochista Khakpour

January 6, 2017

By the time I was 12, I had written two novels. I had read Shakespeare’s most famous plays. I had created a glossary of a thousand words and phrases; English was my second language, after all, and I—a new refugee from Iran—felt compelled to master it. In my elementary school diary, I wrote that I would move to New York after college, publish my first novel before 30, write for The New York Times, and be “the proud mom of a shaggy dog.” I had many goals—most of them seemingly unrealistic—and yet, I achieved them all.

To say I was Type A would be an understatement. I checked off all of the associated traits: competitive, outgoing, ambitious, impatient, aggressive. I was a “high-achieving workaholic,” according to numerous online personality tests—an embodiment of the American ideal. That description felt like a bonus. After all, who is more American than an immigrant?

Then, somewhere around 2012, I cracked. The paint chipped, the gloss peeled, the canvas scraped. This was no decision of mine—I would never have abandoned my career fetishism willingly. I became very ill with late-stage Lyme disease, and I suddenly had no choice but to become an entirely different person.

What happens when your dreams become interrupted—chronically, but perhaps terminally, too?

First, the chronic illness robbed me of critical cognition—including my capacity to read and write. Then I was bedridden at times, able to maneuver around with a cane or wheelchair at others. At one point it took away my ability to swallow, and I had to consider a feeding tube. In my mid-30s, I moved back in with my parents. I went into a sort of hiding. Assistants pushed out posts on my social media so I could feign wellness for old work contacts while I spent days in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how my story could end like this, but no longer having the imagination to put it together. I began to think: What happens when your dreams become interrupted—chronically, but perhaps terminally, too?

While Lyme ravaged my body, it ultimately elevated my spirit. It took disability to slow me down, to finally heed my therapist’s counsel, to try meditation because I could do nothing except…nothing. I grew into the kind of person who took walks, read self-help books (the really good stuff, from psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön), and listened rather than orated. I became a sponge for advice and eventually a repository of self-care.

I dream of complete release from that paragon of American virtue.

I now strive to work less, to be less informed, even. I dream of complete release from that paragon of American virtue, the hyper-vigilant, hyper-conscious, hyper-productive model of a “successful” human—while still being fed the pervasive narrative by society that the tortoise beats the hare, that sometimes the story of Western ambition does not end well. How to “just be” but also “just do it”? Merging the two signals seemed an impossibility—if it weren’t for that ever-elusive sparkling concept, balance. The sick-me had to teach the healthy-me the unexpected serenity and expanse of simple existence.

Gone were the days where I could barrel through a full day of teaching followed by back-to-back meetings, then drinks with a colleague, plus a party or two, minimum sleep with an early morning alarm to get to the gym. That life was no longer an option. I even became that person who would really chew my food, while recalling the months prior when I couldn’t manage to swallow. This gratitude, coupled with an aversion to my old life, led me to dismantle anything that induced stress, from people to places to habits. Now, I observe more than I act. I prioritize sleep over production. I make sure friends and family are part of my daily life, and reserve time to check in with myself. Not much happens, and that’s the point.

Illustration by Sally Thurer

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Just (Don’t) Do It