I love fall: mottled yellow leaves carpeting the ground, pulling out sweaters and big bulky scarves, the smell of cooler air when I open my windows — and, of course, pumpkin spice everything. Fall is my favorite season…at least, it used to be.
In recent years, fall has become harder and harder to love. Each October the temperatures drop and along with them my energy levels, while my pain increases. As animals begin preparing for hibernation, I too find myself in bed for longer and longer periods of time. Crisp autumn hikes are now just memories, taken over by heating pads and Epsom salt baths.
Weather Changes, Body Changes
The correlation between shifts in the weather and changes in pain levels has been discussed for many years. In fact, Hippocrates even believed there was a connection between the cycle of seasons and the occurrence of various diseases. While there is mixed research on whether weather causes physiological changes, current studies show that about three-quarters of those living with chronic conditions report that colder and wetter weather can increase pain.
I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where our thick forests and lush greenery thrive thanks to large amounts of rain. Each year, around October, the skies become gray and overcast, and they predominantly stay that way throughout the fall and winter.
It used to be that I craved those dark skies and rainy days. As fall came on, I’d begin celebrating, excited for both it and the winter that was to follow. Once I became sick with ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia, however, I began to see patterns in my pain. My journals speak of struggling to get out of bed during these months each year, hurting more, and having more flare-ups. “I’m a walking barometer,” I tell my friends, joking about how it felt like my joints could predict the weather.
Grieving the Changes
This year, as the fog rolled in and I found myself more achy and tired, I got very sad. Instead of excitement, I found myself feeling dread. I knew that along with the weather I’ve always loved, I’d get joint pain, hours in bed, and muscle spasms.
I am no stranger to grieving bodily changes. Coping with grief is something that comes along with chronic illness and disability, as we move through shifts in our bodies and changes to our lives. This year, I found myself grieving not only the change in my body during these months but also my change in attitude toward this time of year. I don’t want to dread the autumn, nor do I want to anticipate with trepidation the changes my body will go through. I want to still be able to celebrate all the things about fall I’ve always loved without that being overshadowed by pain and fatigue.
Slowing Down and Letting Go
I fully believe in the importance of feeling my emotions, so I’ve allowed myself to grieve the changes I’m facing in my body and life. But as I start moving to a place of acceptance, I realize that there are still ways I can enjoy this season and the beauty it brings with it.
Historically I’ve viewed autumn as a time to go pick apples, take walks down leave-strewn streets, and pull out my Christmas decorations to totally do-up the house. It has been a season full of activities and “doing.”
Maybe I need to look at fall differently though. Maybe instead I should see it as a time to focus on some of the themes of the season: transition, slowing down, letting go. The Earth is doing those things, so why can’t I?
While my increased pain and fatigue slows me down and puts me in bed more often now, that allows me the time and opportunity for reflection. It gives me space to rest, to think about the year behind me, and to dream about things I want from the days to come. I know that when the weather shifts back to warmer and drier times in the spring and summer, my body will once again shift, and I’ll be more able to do some of the things I want to do.
For now, I’m going to be thankful for the gift of rest and imagine myself a tree shaking myself loose from the past, preparing for new growth and new buds of beauty.
This morning I lay on a heating pad listening to argumentative crows out my window and watching yellow leaves pirouette on the wind. Next to my bed was a steaming mug of coffee, and I pulled up a fuzzy blanket around me.
My autumns look and feel different than they used to, but I’m letting go of those past ideas of what it should look like, and once again allowing myself to take in the beauty of my favorite season.