Not Exactly Taking it Easy
Updated: Aug 13, 2018
“I’m supposed to be taking it easy!” I exclaim to my dad, completely winded yet smiling uncontrollably. He is videotaping me run around the living room in circles, and I am clearly having the time of my life- like any normal three-year-old girl. Yet I can feel myself beginning to wheeze and know, even at this young age, that I need to follow my doctors’ orders. That I must always be hyper-vigilant. That carefree is not an option. But I don’t want to take it easy, so I just keep running around.
Twenty years later and not much has changed.
Or maybe it has.
At the time, I “only” had asthma and severe food allergies. Life was good! Throughout adolescence, however, I welcomed one medical morbidity after another-- type 1 diabetes, hypothyroidism, undifferentiated connective tissue disease with musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal complications, suspected mast cell activation syndrome-- and so forth. As a high-achieving student and varsity athlete, taking it easy was about the last thing my high-school self had in mind. But it was just one hit after another. Renown physicians told me I should become a doctor so that I could figure out what was wrong with me. In the fundamental years of identity formation, I began to feel that my body and aspirations were incompatible. It was as if I had two central executives who had failed to connect my ambitions and physiology.
For so long, I exerted all of my efforts to not let myself be defined by my medical conditions. I went to my dream college --700 miles away from home-- much against my doctor’s advice. I ran half marathons, until my chronic pain became unbearable. I graduated with highest honors and was admitted to the nation’s top child psychology PhD program. While this makes for a glorious CV, all these years were complemented-- perhaps overwhelmed- -by physical pain and emotional turmoil. I felt that my life was unfair and that no one could understand the impact of my invisible illnesses.
Somewhere along the way, yoga entered my life. This language is intentional, as I did not actively seek out yoga. It found me. I had tried yoga here and there over the years, but I had simply seen it as way to build strength and flexibility. It was not until one spring break, while lying--and crying--in child’s pose that I truly felt the value of yoga well beyond the postures. Compelled to dive deeper, I began practicing yoga daily, enrolled in a cognitively-based compassion course, and spent my post-graduation summer completing a 200-hour yoga teacher training.
Yoga is the union of mind, body, and spirit. At the heart of yoga is alignment; balance is achieved when physical and mental energies align. Thus, if mind and body are not in sync, action must be taken to achieve inner harmony. Modern medicine does not have optimal antidotes for what my doctors affectionately call “Melissa Engel Syndrome.” Physical was out…so I decided I better change my mind. My pain became my purpose.
Rather than focusing on all the things I cannot do, I have turned towards what I can only do because of my experiences. My graduate research concerns the psychobiological mechanisms underlying childhood stress and resilience. My future plans involve a career in an academic medical center developing yoga-based interventions for adolescents with chronic illnesses. My “free time” consists of writing my first book, Breathe & Believe. Through this all, I aim to transform frustration and fear into healing knowledge.
Every day of feeling bad is still a day of feeling bad. But every day of feeling bad is also another surge of motivation. There is little distinction between my lived experiences, personal interests, and professional aspirations. I am never working or playing, as I am always doing both. And I don’t plan to take it easy anytime soon.
Melissa Engel is native of the Chicago suburbs and received her BA from Emory University in 2017. She currently resides in Minneapolis, where she is pursuing a PhD in clinical child psychology at the University of Minnesota. Academics aside, Melissa is an avid yogi, writer, and lover of burpees, avocados, and curiosity. Check out Melissa’s writing at www.mileswithme.wordpress.com and follow her on Instagram @missmeliss1895 for exciting updates on her first book.