This is a post about me, but I hope it touches someone else as well.
I realized today that for the last three years I haven’t had a day off, because although I’m not able to work, I also am not able to relax. This upset me. I haven’t had fun in so long I don’t know what it is anymore.
I used to be a fun person, didn’t I?
It wasn’t even that long ago.
Why can’t I relax? I do all these relaxation rituals every day like they’re going to save me, and I even get some benefit out of them. How come I can’t get where I need to be? I’m usually good at doing anything I really set my mind to, even with all the glitches my mind has nowadays. I have dedicated the last three years to healing myself, so why is relaxing so unbelievably hard? I’m sure most of the people around me think that’s all I do in a day; relax. It must look like it from the outside in, when I’m mostly in one place all day long, and I don’t work, and I don’t contribute to our bottom line. I’m sure there are a couple people out there who think I’m doing it for attention or for some other sneaky reason. Let me assure everyone, the only reason it looks like I’m okay is because I worked really hard to not spend the entire day crying, freaking out, and catastrophizing my painful and scary symptoms. Believe me, faking chronic pain isn’t easy or common, in fact, only about 1% of chronic pain patients have been found to be malingering or milking the system. That’s a stereotype for a differing blog post, though!
Then it hit me: I’ve been a patient for the last three years, but that’s not the only role I have been filling by any means. I have also had to be my own researcher and doctor for most of that time. When I stopped working a little over a year ago, I filled those hours immediately with my other duties (which were being completely neglected at that time because I was too sick to do both). I never really slowed down, because I felt so much guilt over not continuing the agony of trying to work a few hours here and there, when I could even get out of bed / stop vomiting / not have fiery and ugly hotflashes all day long. My first unemployed days overflowed with housekeeping, baking, doctor appointments, tests and imaging, canning produce, tending the garden that we depend on for subsistence each season, helping my boyfriend with his massive amounts of homework, keeping my houseplants alive, writing budgets and grocery lists, self-care routines, research my illnesses and symptoms, teaching myself ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), keeping track of my friends who are struggling with life-altering or life-ending illnesses while trying to help them emotionally whenever the opportunity arises, and acting as a caretaker for my boyfriend after his three hip surgeries.
None of these things are things I dislike or don’t want to do. In fact, I can’t imagine giving up any of these things any more than I imagined I would ever be forced to give up my job and driving. Giving tasks up means that someone else has to do them or they will go undone (like my make up and hair, for instance!). All the responsibilities that I am no longer administering to, such as driving, they mostly fall on my poor boyfriend, who is himself a chronic pain warrior.
I’m not happy with this situation. But I am learning to accept that I am not a burden simply because I can’t do all of the things I used to be able to do. The next step, the step I haven’t quite been able to take yet, but my toes are over the edge at least! I’m getting closer to being able to make this leap: at some point in the future I have to start doing the things I want in spite of not having enough energy to do the things I need to do afterwards, I have to start wearing less hats. It will mean downsizing my life again, which is yes, totally terrifying.
Most importantly, I am in control of what goes and what stays, this time. I know that getting any of my conditions into remission will be a process that requires me to reclaim my emotional well-being as much as my physical, if not more.
I have been afraid to step into the roles I really want to take on because I’m not doing a great job right now, trying to wear all these different hats for different people.
From now on, I’m making a pledge to myself, but also for all the other over-worked & underpaid spoonies out there, that I will not beat myself up for what I cannot do. I will be more gentle with myself when deciding whether to push through a painful task or take a short break. I promise to feel less like a burden and more like myself. No more guilt for trying to be a happier person, whatever it takes!
It’s a whole shift of mind, but I’m finally getting there. Closer, but the damn guilt still won’t let me paint like I used to, even on a better day.
I will get there soon, though. I can feel it.
If anyone has any advice on how to accomplish this new quest for self-love and self-worth, I would love to hear your input!
To all spoonies: You are good enough. You are not a burden. Be gentle with yourself when things are too overwhelming or too difficult to accomplish alone. You are worth loving and lending a hand to, no matter what. ❤
Today I listened to music. My music. In my house.
That sounds like not much to most everyone, but it is huge to me. I haven’t put my studio music on for ages. It’s all the stuff I listen to when I’m deep in an art trance for hours at a time. I haven’t painted like I used to since I was diagnosed, and a part of me has felt like it is wilting as a result. Having five or six creative outlets at one time has always been a part of my madness!
Lately it’s a daily struggle not to wear my chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, potential MS, and that pesky anxiety, and wrap myself up in them like a big ugly blanket. Some days are definitely better than others, but as anyone with a chronic illness understands, “better” does not mean that my pain is actually gone or that I should push myself to my limits and beyond just because my body will allow it temporarily.
So there’s obviously a balance to be struck here, and I have to confess that I haven’t completely found it yet.
I have a feeling I will always be looking for balance in my post-chronic-illness-life. That’s okay, because so is anyone out there who is paying attention! That’s what chronic pain does, it’s like an alarm system where the sensitivity is set way, way too high inside your body, but it makes you notice things other people forget to take into account.
This morning a nurse compared my chronic pain to high blood pressure. I was annoyed at first, but then I heard her reasoning and I melted. She said that just like in high blood pressure, where one system in the body is set on high alert, so too is chronic pain a system that is over-active inside our bodies. Suddenly it felt like all the weight lifted off of my shoulders: all the stigma I had directed at myself for not being able to beat chronic pain with willpower alone was gone. It takes years and years of effort to completely cure oneself of high blood pressure. I know because I have spent the last ten years doing just that, and succeeded, in the midst of chronic illness, even. I had a bad reaction to taking birth control, and seemingly permanent hypertension was the repercussion. It is not a clean & clear cut path to beating hypertension, it takes a multi-disciplinary approach to actually get rid of it, and then it takes maintenance to keep everything running smoothly even after managing to get it into remission. I still have to take it into account all the time. Comparing the two actually made so much sense to me that I was in tears, thanking the nurse for her perspective and the weight that had lifted off of me after years.
In celebration I am listening to music I haven’t listened to in almost as long, music that has always gotten my creative side to come out and play. I am hoping that at some point tonight I will finish my boyfriend’s homework (busywork about grammar, which I asked to be able to do so I could re-learn all the rules I have forgotten) and then I can pick up a paintbrush or a sponge and get myself covered in paint, gesso, and paper scraps. Here’s hoping! 🙂
It’s pretty wonderful to make it through an episode you previously didn’t know you could make it through without help. Although the crippling level of pain I have endured the past two days has been completely unbearable by my standards, I did bear it. I don’t know how, I don’t know if my grandma was watching over me, but it felt that way.
This was my gift yesterday from my garden. I’m not religious, but things like this used to happen to my grandma all the time, so if she is by my side, this is definitely her way of saying I did a good job. Thank you, Grandma B. It’s difficult to grow melons in Oregon, even with a good season like we had this year. It’s difficult for me to have a garden at all with how ill I have been, but it would be harder still to not having one, to not see the growth and surprising tenacity of my plants as they make it through another summer of spotty watering and weird Oregon weather.
This beautiful melon managed to make my day yesterday. I cut it up and saved the seeds that had not already germinated. Delicious, sweet & flavorful liquor ran all over the cutting board as soon as I opened it. It may not have reached it’s full yellow potential, but it was definitely ripe!
Little big moments, like finding a perfectly ripe melon in the middle of a rain burst, are the things that keep us going when we are in pain all the time, when we are scared, when we are uncertain about the future or about the people around us. They are the things I hope to remember about each day, instead of the searing hot pokers in my legs and low back, or the steady drilling sensation in the back of my skull. Rather than focus on today being the day I got my brain scans back, I would rather remember that my garden did well this year even though I could not tend it like I usually do. Rather than focus on my lack of ability to clean the house, I would rather remember that I did somehow manage to get the dishes done and make something approximating a homemade dinner yesterday.
There are big victories to be found while living with a chronic illness, certainly, but they do not happen every single day. These little moments of strength, however, they actually do happen daily. The catch is that they only exist in reality if we know how to see them clearly through the emotional and physical chaos of chronic conditions, and that is a journey that doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t have to notice them every day for them to strengthen your soul, even once a week saying to yourself, “I did that, and I am proud of myself,” can make a huge difference over time. Sometimes you need help, and sometimes you need to do something difficult on your own.
I am proud of myself for getting through a serious attack without the panic and the momentary loss of self that sometimes accompanies a flare up. I am proud of my boyfriend for letting me wail and cry and scream my way through the episode without getting frustrated at me. And I am proud of my garden for producing such a beautiful melon even though it has been raining all week.