I grew up in Africa, so I lived my early life in fear of malaria. I know plenty of people who died from the parasite and as a child I used to take my weekly chloroquine pills with solemnity, followed by a square of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk to chase the bitterness.
In Liberia, I became rather blasé about malaria, partly because it was hard to tell at the lab if I actually had it. The technicians were terrified of accidentally killing an expat with a false diagnosis, so they handed out blanket positive diagnoses like Halloween candy, better safe than sorry, and told us to take the meds.
Now that I live on a malaria-free island in Indonesia, I don’t have to worry about checking every headache behind the eyes or effervescent, flu-like symptoms at the clinic. But we do have dengue, and so do – or did – I. It’s hard to tell when it’s really over, since there’s no cure and the symptoms burst in like a neighbor’s backyard fireworks whenever I push myself too hard without resting. Dengue has taken weeks to really go away, and as I sit here under my mosquito net, carefully aware not to get any bites and accidentally weaponize a mosquito, I’ve felt into what it has to teach me.
Last year, when we did our 8-Week Mindfulness journey together, we read Rumi’s poem “The Guest House.” Since then, I’ve had pieces of it rise to my awareness at unexpected moments, like a gentle teacher reminding me to see all things as “a guide from beyond.” Lying in bed these afternoons, sweating and tossing under a slow fan, I interrogated the parasites wreaking havoc in my blood. “What do you have to teach me?” I asked them, before sinking in the deep unconscious sleep that comes with tropical fevers.
As I lay slowly awakening in the twilight of another misspent afternoon, I began to feel into the gift of the illness: how it took me out of commission and tore up my to-do lists without a second thought, how it forced me to stop doing so much and allowed me to just be for a while – for a long while. I saw the things that I was missing out on – my project work, my mindfulness coaching, a consulting trip I was looking forward to – attach themselves to my mind like a late-night mosquito, incessant in its droning, and I tried to remember Rumi and instead of wishing I was somewhere else, I tried to stay where I was.
What I found in those moments astounded me with how deep of a pattern my over-doing had become. I like to joke that I am an over-achiever because when I am joined by others’ nervous laughter of agreement, I feel better, absolved because I am in good company. But in truth, my tendency towards self-punishment through overwork is only mine to reap the consequences of.
There were a handful of times, before I became sick, that I was acutely aware that I could not continue with the level of activity or the pace of work that I’d taken on. I felt myself physically tire and begin to experience a burning sense of fatigue, like overworked muscles asking for rest. I saw that I’d become more irritable and short-tempered, as I stretched too thin. I found my mind running away from me, jump-starting itself awake too early in the morning and rushing headlong into tasks, demanding that I soothe my over-thinking by taking immediate action. I felt my sense of purpose, usually bright, become burdensome and overly-responsible, and the world started to grey and the shadows darken.
I wish I could tell you I acted on these symptoms of tire and wear. But they were ignored, like smoke signals of warning on the horizon that I could mistake for clouds, out of willful ignorance and the obstinacy of wanting to be invincible. I preferred to tell myself how I couldn’t rest yet, how it was only for a little bit longer, and that all my self-care made me strong enough to override my system just this once – all stories, all invention.
As I lay in bed, swallowing endless paracetamol to chase the ever-present fever away, my perfectionism confronted me. I saw how it didn’t help, it didn’t bring anyone closer to me, and it didn’t even improve the work I was doing in the long run. That one was hard to sit with, to see my story of perfectionism so at odds with its result.
It has taken weeks of wrestling with the compulsion to over-do, over-give, over-deliver to get the perfectionism piece out into the open so that I can see it clearly. At its root there is a story of self and of the world that says that the urgency outside is more important than the urgency within, that I am allowed or even expected to sacrifice myself for the good of others, never mind the cost.
I didn’t realize I was carrying a story about martyrdom, but it’s easy to do in the aid world. The first western development workers were missionaries, bringing so-called “civilization” through their education system and health care. They were ready to give their lives for the work, but I’m not. I don’t want to be a missionary, or a martyr.
And now that I see how easy it is to override the sensitive barometer of my boundaries, I have to say that I’m shocked how it happened so fast, how it was so easy to ignore. With that, here are my “5 Ways to Deal with Your Tropical Fever.”
5 Ways to Deal with Your Tropical Fever
- Rest. And then rest some more. Take double the time off that you feel you have to. No one will question you and you’ve almost definitely underestimated the time it will take your body to properly heal.
- Ask people for what you need. Allowing your friends, housemates and colleagues to help you creates community and feels really good for all involved. Don’t be shy. Vulnerability during tropical illness is not weakness, and one day they might also need you.
- Have a conservation with yourself about rest. How did you get here? What is your illness inviting you to see about where you might be overdoing it? I don’t mean to imply, for one second, that you “manifested” your illness or that it’s trying to teach you a deep cosmic truth about yourself. But I am saying that your immune system is having a hard time, and I’m encouraging you to listen to what you need to support your recovery and your body’s long-term well-being.
- Hydrate creatively. Water gets boring after a while, so add herbal teas, especially if there are plants available locally that are known to help with tropical fevers. I’ve been drinking the lemongrass cut from my garden, boiled up in a big pot and left to cool, and my body loves it.
- Practice mindfulness. Listen to the 3-Minute Breathing Space Meditation from our 8-Week Mindfulness journey while you’re lying in bed and see how awareness changes your experience of discomfort. Play with your breath and allow yourself to relax, even during the hard parts.
It’s not always pretty to be on the path of an aid worker determined to create a life of health and happiness while of service in the world’s most challenging places. But I’m willing to be vulnerable here and share the pieces of me that aren’t so comfortable in the knowledge that if you’re reading this, something I face might also be something you face.
If that’s the case, and you resonated with what I’ve shared, I’m grateful. And if you’re feeling brave and want to reach out, I’d love to hear from you (email@example.com).
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