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5 things my chronic illness has taught me about rest

I thought I knew what rest was. I thought I knew what it meant. Doesn’t everyone? But it turns out rest is actually really complex, it’s not as wholesome as it seems, and I absolutely did not understand it like I thought I did.

So here are some things I’ve learned over the last ten years; some things chronic illness has taught me:

Rest does not need to be earned

What a revolutionary concept? We’re taught that resting is something that comes after, always. We learn through this that rest is a luxury, it’s not a right, and it’s not something you get for free.

I call bullshit.

Rest is not something that belongs at the end of a to-do list and it’s not a reward for good behaviour. Naps are morally neutral, you don’t need an “excuse”. You’re allowed to rest before the to-do list is finished. Hell you’re allowed to rest before it’s started, or before making one. You’re allowed to weave rest into the very fabric of your day, week, month or year. More people should be afforded the flexibility to do that.

You don’t need to justify your rest. To others, or yourself.

Rest doesn’t need to be earned, and no one should be making you feel like it does. That goes for you too.

Rest can look different for everyone

There is no one way to have a rest day. They look different for everyone, and sometimes they look different over the course of a week or a month. I know mine do.

A busy day will look different for everyone, but so will a quiet one. A rest day for some people might look like a day off work. It might still involve washing, dressing etc. It might even still involve leaving the house. That’s valid.

A rest day for some people might look like staying in pyjamas, not leaving the couch, and watching films all day. That’s valid. A rest day for some people might look like lying in bed staring at the ceiling without any sort of stimulation. That’s valid.

I hope you don’t feel shame over the ways you spend your rest days. We’re all individuals with individual needs – even if we share a diagnosis. Stick to your guns, don’t let anyone make you feel badly for it and do what you need to. You should be proud of yourself for resting, no matter what it looks like.

Rest is harder than it looks

Rest can be really difficult. It can be boring, isolating, frustrating and more. We miss out on things for rest, we cancel plans for it. We don’t make plans because of it. It’s not always a wholesome and peaceful process.

Sometimes rest means absolutely no contact with anyone, sometimes it has to. Sometimes rest means zero stimulation, no music or tv or books, sometimes it has to. Sometimes rest means not thinking too much about anything, even going over memories of the good stuff. That takes energy too, and sometimes you don’t have any to spare.

That’s not easy. That’s hard. And sometimes it feels like it’s dragging on forever.

Rest isn’t always peaceful and enjoyable for those with chronic illness. Ever tried falling asleep when your legs feel like they’re on fire? Our symptoms don’t disappear while resting. They’re perhaps not exacerbated in the way they would be otherwise, but they’re still there. Somewhere. Rest can be helpful and necessary, but it’s not necessarily what we want.

Rest doesn’t make me feel better

Something I think healthy people struggle to understand is that I need a lot of rest, but it doesn’t make me feel better. I don’t feel better for resting. But I would absolutely feel worse without it. Does that make sense?

Resting is a way to keep myself safe, but that doesn’t mean it feels good. I don’t wake up feeling refreshed after a nap, I don’t feel filled up after a day of “doing nothing”. But it’s still so necessary.

For me, rest is about management and not treatment. It helps me manage my symptoms, but it doesn’t necessarily lessen them. Does it stop them getting worse long term? Maybe. But we don’t have as much control over these outcomes as we like to think we do.

To anyone new to life with chronic illness, through Long Covid perhaps, I would definitely suggest you rest as much as possible. It does help, but more so because pushing things could make you worse. Pushing my body is dangerous for me, and so I rest instead. But that doesn’t mean I magically feel better for having the nap. I just needed it.

You might not be enjoying your rest, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Or it’s not worth doing. It’s just more complicated than we’re led to believe.

Rest can be productive too

What does “productive” look like to you? Does the conjured image involve lying in bed? It could, and maybe it should.

Resting is often thought of as “doing nothing”, and while it can often feel like that, or look like it, that doesn’t mean it means nothing. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value, or it’s time misspent.

Rest can be a valuable resource, and everyone needs it. It’s just that how much a person needs might differ. That’s ok. Nothing I do could be done without rest. Rest is a vital part of the equation, even if it takes up more time than I’d like.

Resting is productive, regardless of whether or not it leads to something more conventionally deemed so. It doesn’t have to spark anything to be productive. Your body needs it, and therefore it is. You’ve not failed at rest because it didn’t lead to something more. You don’t have to justify rest before you take it, but you don’t have to do so afterwards either. Nothing has to come from your rest for it hold value.

It wasn’t a waste of time, I promise. Even when it feels like it.


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