I have just read the blog post, Seeing Yourself as Healthy, by Danea Horn of Chronic Resilience. In it, she talks about self-perception – about choosing to see herself as healthy and remembering all the things that bring us joy. And it got me thinking.
For years, I have waited for someone to truly understand what it is I deal with on a daily basis. I have also spent more years than not ignoring it and carrying on (because I had no label and no idea it was reasonable – or preferable – to go a little easier on myself).
For the last three years, I have acknowledged my illness and my limitations and worked to both learn about them and conquer them.
But there is a tricky balance here. You don’t want to dwell on your pain and fatigue (or whatever symptoms you deal with), you don’t want to stop doing things you want to do and you don’t want to be seen as the “sick” person. You do, however, want to know your boundaries.
I acknowledge and respect my boundaries as best as I can, because I have found that I can often overexert myself – and I then pay for it. As my only advocate, I have to do it. Because it can be hard for other people to grasp what it is to struggle through a day or, worse, to be stuck in bed in extreme pain, fatigue and panic.
Everything I do, I do to stay away from being unwell. I guess, because I look healthy and because I achieve so much, it is hard for someone (even someone who witnesses my everyday life) to grasp the fact that I could be one bad call from a flare up. So when I compromise and stay out late, I am compromising my energy and my experience of wellness. Even if I am not in bed the next day, my pain could be worse, my fatigue will probably be exponentially increased – that day becomes a day that I am not living but merely coping.
On the flip side of that however, I do tend to protect myself a little too much. I appreciate it when my husband can remind me to do something I think may be a little too out on the cost/benefit scale – because, I can get it wrong. I can overestimate the cost and underestimate the benefit. But there needs to be recognition that I can’t stockpile energy and it takes more than one night to make up depleted energy levels.
So it comes back to a tricky balance. You need to acknowledge your illness/boundaries but you also need to try to learn where you can push back. This can be difficult with an unpredictable illness like Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue, but when your pushing back includes achieving something you’re passionate about, it is so worth it. Then, maybe you’re not the “sick” person, but the “wise” person.
We all know the recommended steps for being well- eat healthily, exercise moderately and get plenty of sleep. But what happens if no matter what you do, you are exhausted and sore? There’s no escaping it, you have to do the work. Here’s the five ways I use to cope with my Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue:
1. Healthy eating
Food is fuel, right? Everyone should eat healthily with a diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables and rich in whole grains and protein. If you’re looking for more pointers try thisHealth Eating Plan for the Rest of your Life. When you are battling extreme fatigue and travelling muscle aches, what you eat can be of great help.
In my worst flair up last year, my food diary became a love song to carbohydrates. I subconsciously craved fuel that my body could turn into energy; unfortunately, all those carbohydrates created the opposite effect. My already exhausted system was battling its way through the simple and complex carbohydrates I was throwing at it every few hours – it had no time to create energy. It took a few days of concentrated effort, but once I replaced a few of these servings with other foods, I began to feel the effects.
Unless your doctor forbids it due to a medical condition, you should be exercising. A person with Fibromyalgia will work at a lower intensity and for a shorter period, but they should still exercise.
The amount of energy I have fluctuates, depending on many things, but I always go for my walk with my dog. Sometimes it is only around a 15-minute block, other times I will go for a course with a decent hill or will walk for a little longer. I have found 25-30 minutes to be ideal for me. I am always treading the fine line between proper muscle exhaustion and pain. This can be hard to monitor with constantly changing goalposts like fatigue and pain levels, but after two years, I have worked up to my current level.
Pilates is my favourite form of resistance exercise. I have done it faithfully for about ten years. Sometimes I operate at a beginner level and other times I can advance the exercises. When I was starting again after a bout of extreme pain, my physiotherapist created a 20-minute programme for me to follow. With my experience, I was able to advance the exercises as my energy levels allowed.
As my pregnancy has advanced, I have had to drop most of my Pilates routine and have begun to favour yoga. I have found it more important than ever to keep the strength in my muscles with gentle activation. There is a strong correlation between less exercise and more pain.
3. A compassionate, knowledgeable physical practitioner
My physiotherapist is a valuable component of my healthy life. Someone you trust, who knows about Fibromyalgia and can bring about lasting changes with their treatments is vital to coping with long-term pain and fatigue. Someone who can come alongside you and take the burden of your body, even if only for half an hour is great for physical and emotional health.
My physiotherapist is the only person I can speak candidly to about what I have been coping with for the last 7-14 days (depending on how long I can stretch out the periods between treatment). After trying many of the different types of therapies, I have found acupuncture to be (one of) the least invasive and longest-lasting treatment.
4. Sleep and rest
Sleep is my hardest battle. A full night’s sleep is the best way to cope with life. I try to go to bed around the same time every night and have a set routine that involves getting ready and reading before I switch off the light. I also try to get up around the same time every day. This helps, but I will not always sleep through the night, I will not always fall asleep straight away and I will often wake up at 4am (or every hour or two) with an incredibly stiff and sore neck.
To counteract these things I adjust my daily schedule as necessary and, when I am being good, I will lie down at some stage during the day to read. Yoga stretches and meditation are things I do regularly and these help with sore muscles and fatigue.
5. Aplan for the “hard” days
These are inevitable. Everybody gets sick from time to time. A person with Fibromyalgia will have some harder days. I have found a written list with suggestions for what to do on one of these days to be useful for pulling me out of the downward spiral of panic that accompanies intense pain.
Specific stretches for my neck (tightness in my neck often causes headaches, nausea, dizziness and extreme fatigue)
Things I can do in descending order of ability (a gentle walk, gentle stretches, watch a DVD, read, lie down with an audio book on, lie down and do nothing else)
A reminder of the pain relief options I have at my disposal (wheat pack, icepack, heat cream, Ibuprofen, prescribed pain killers) – you would be surprised at how often I forget these things exist in the grips of serious pain.
All of these ways for coping should be underpinned by hope. Hope that your “hard” days will occur less often. And hope that you will be able to compile a life that is heading towards wellness, rather than just away from sickness.