It’s a late spring morning and glinting shards of broken light seep through the gap in the curtains scattering a kaleidoscope of broken light across the bedroom floor. I stir and although my mind is conscious of the new day my body refuses to react. Outside the bedroom window, the resident woodpigeons call to one another telling me it’s time to get up. I try to open my eyes but this morning my eyelids are weighted so heavy onto my eyes, my head is fuzzy and my limbs feel like lead.

Usually, on such a day I’d wake quickly with the usual wriggle and stretch before jumping out of bed and heading downstairs but this morning something is different, I’m so very tired. The woodpigeons call again, reminding me that by now I should be up and attending to the menagerie. There are floors to clean, mouths to feed, and all before my weekly yoga class.

I yawn and stretch, forcing my arms and legs into the movement but as I roll over there it is, that familiar gripping feeling just below my right ribs followed by the dull ache in the pit of my stomach. Dragging myself out of bed, the bathroom mirror confirms what I already suspect, my eyes are yellow, the bilirubin level in my blood must be high, my old friend Gilbert is visiting again.

I refer to Gilbert as an old friend, but actually, he is more of an acquaintance, an acquaintance for whom I don’t really care but with whom I am forced to associate due to the unfortunate fact that he is conducting an intimate, albeit flawed relationship with my liver. Gilbert syndrome or just Gilbert as he is affectionately known is actually a benign liver condition, caused by my body’s inability to quickly and efficiently break down old red blood cells as my body replaces them with new ones, leading to a build-up in my blood which in turn brings on bouts of jaundice. Without delving too deeply into the ‘sciency’ part, he, Gilbert doesn’t pose me any great threat but he is a damn nuisance.

Gilbert you see is a real party pooper, a control freak who has to have things his way. Not content with just messing with my blood he tries to dictate what I should do and shouldn’t do and in particular what I should eat and when I should sleep. Too many sugary, processed or fatty foods or heaven forbid alcohol! and he’s prone to having a hissy fit and with it sending my blood levels soaring and tinging my skin yellow with jaundice in the process.

Not only is he controlling and manipulative, but Gilbert is also crafty and unpredictable he loves to play tricks on my body by paying surprise visits, usually unexpected and always uninvited. Today is one of those unwelcome, surprise visits where I didn’t see him creeping up on me. As I collapse back on to the bed I reflect on the past week, I really should not be surprised by his presence, I recall all those evenings out with friends, too many late nights when I know I didn’t get enough sleep, those days spent rushing from pillar to post because I wanted to fit more into the day than time allowed. Yes, I should have seen him creeping in but he’s cunning and sneaks up on me time after time.

This morning Gilbert is particularly unwelcome and needs to make himself scarce. I have a busy day planned, full of things I need to do and a yoga class which I really don’t want to miss, so dragging myself downstairs to the kitchen I set about sending him on his way. I know the very first thing I must do is drink, hot water and lemon are my usual start to the day but this morning they do not affect Gilbert as he sends another wave of fatigue washing over me and that aching feeling stabs me in my side again. Next, although it is the very last thing I feel like doing, I must eat. Gilbert likes to play games with my appetite and at the remotest sniff of food he sends waves of nausea rippling through my stomach and up into my throat; this morning is no different but experience reminds me that the longer I leave it the harder the task of eating will become and I gingerly put a few tiny spoonful’s of yogurt into my mouth. Trying not to gag I force down a few more spoonfuls in the hope that he will release his vice-like grip on my stomach. 15 minutes later, there is still no change & I stagger slowly outside to give the animals their breakfasts. Time is ticking away quickly, at this rate I’m not sure will I make that yoga class but my intuition tells me I need to.

Next, I phone my yoga buddy Sue, letting her know that I’m not sure I will make today’s class and if I do make it I might not stay for the whole class but I definitely want to stay for the whole class but maybe I just need to go back to bed.  As I hang up poor Sue is none the wiser as to whether I’m actually going to turn up or not. Taking things slowly I shower and dress, another glance in the mirror, yes I definitely have that telltale yellow tinge. Back downstairs and I grab the most important thing I need other than the yoga itself …  my water bottle. I stumble outside just as Sue pulls up and she confirms that I look dreadful. She asks have I taken anything for it … not yet, but I’m about to!

We make it to the class on time and begin as usual tuning into our breath, Gilbert is not a fan and gives me a little squeeze just to remind me he’s still there. Thankfully next come forward folds, I flop forward and closing my eyes I sink to the floor, I really could fall asleep right here. Fighting the tiredness I try to pull my body upright into dandasana, a position which is hard enough for me on a regular day but today the effort of holding my spine straight is exhausting. I fight to keep the energy to hold the pose whilst all the while Gilbert pokes his bony fingers into my side, indignant that I haven’t succumbed to his manipulation.

The class continues and slowly I begin to feel more awake, Gilbert continues to protest but gradually his demands fade to a whisper. Fast forward another 20 minutes and we’re halfway through the class when I realise that last downward dog had not left me feeling dizzy like the ones before. Checking in with how my body feels I’m aware the gripping pain has eased to a gentler squeezing and releasing, I’m cautiously hopeful that Gilbert has skulked off into the background in a sulk. I persevere until the end of the class without falling over or bailing out and as we leave Sue is amazed. She tells me I look completely different; I hope that is true because I certainly feel different. The gripping pains and nausea have gone and I feel properly awake. I’m still a little tired but my energy levels have lifted.

I know that Gilbert is persistent and will not be happy at having lost at his own game, so I’m aware that I need to be careful, the day ahead will be followed at a slower pace than usual, some of those things on my to-do list will have to wait otherwise Gilbert is likely to return but for now, he is quiet & subdued realising he can’t compete with the power of spinal twists. Knowing the control freak he is, he will be a sore loser and will take the first chance he can to challenge me to a rematch, but I smile to myself… for now, the score is Yoga 1 – Gilbert 0

Two years have passed since that day. Gilbert still likes to drop by unannounced from time to time, he always will, and although every once in a while, he still arrives with suitcases for the longer haul mostly he is quickly shown to the door once on my yoga mat. Gilbert’s dislike of physical movement is not of course confined to yoga, any exercise helps keep him at bay but it’s on those days when he’s on top form and pulling me down that I’m least likely to go for a run or play squash, etc, not that I could coordinate my body to do either of those things anyway, but that’s another story. On those days when getting myself to the class is the hardest part, I can at least be confident that by the end I will be feeling better.

So if like me you have an irritating little friend that likes to drop by from time to time or maybe a constant nagging companion, don’t put up with them disrupting your day and spoiling your plans, try taking them along to a yoga class, you might find that they dislike it as much as Gilbert did and disappear. For me yoga is a new wonder drug, that’s actually not so new. It allows me to self-medicate without the need for putting prescription drugs or medicines into my body, but as with all drugs it comes with a warning … this drug is highly addictive.

Gratitude to a  yogi student for sharing their story