Many people have told me that having chronic fatigue really teaches you a lot about yourself and how you view the world. For me, I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is stopping the glorification of busy in my life; getting off the treadmill and taking time to notice how I’m feeling.
Before I got sick I was working full time and doing postgrad uni one night a week and playing and training for lacrosse, doing boot camp, socialising a lot, squeezing in yoga and driving down to the farm every second weekend. And I thought it was great! People would ask me, “How are you going?”; “I’m good, I’m busy,” was my standard answer. I’m busy was a stamp of approval, look at me multitasking my way through life, keeping all these balls in the air, aren’t I impressive, oh you want me to fill in for your netball team tonight? No problems, because I’m good at being busy, I’ll be there at 8, after I’ve had to stay late at work to get all my work done of course, ugh work is so busy.
Now I’m not so busy; my life is the antithesis of busy actually. When someone asks me how I’m going I say, “I’m good thanks, enjoying being out of Melbourne for a bit” or some such line, knowing that they’re only being polite. But sometimes people press me to hear all about what I’ve been up to and when I tell the truth they have to rearrange their features very quickly to stop looking so appalled. You really aren’t busy when you alternate between watching TV, doing your strengthening exercises, eating healthy snacks, meditating, doing some sun salutations and squeezing in two naps for the day… Of course on other days I do venture out of the house and drive places and socialise and read books and write and go shopping and to the beach (and to too many health appointments) but a general I-don’t-have-much-energy day isn’t very exciting, and it certainly isn’t busy.
Pre-CFS I was busy glorifying how busy I was without even noticing what an enormous toll it was taking on my health. I was at the point where I was consistently so anxious that it had begun to feel normal – certainly not pleasant but somehow normal. You mean others don’t feel sick about going in to work each day? Others don’t have panic attacks over organising a birthday party? Others don’t weep while staring at supermarket shelves completely floored by the options available to buy because they’re feeling so damn anxious their brain has stopped working? Not always. Wow. And with all that anxiety all I wanted to do was exercise to get rid of the excess cortisol slewing around my system and to get high on endorphins; so I ran, I walked, I lacrossed, I yogaed and I talked about how busy I was busily doing all this exercise. And you know what excessively exercising does? It makes you damn tired when you’re not getting enough rest to balance it out. The right amount is great, but I was certainly overdoing it, and that wasn’t great. But boy was I busy. Then I did boot camp, that was serious busy bragging material wasn’t it?
Being busy I didn’t notice my quality of sleep was terrible and that I’d wake up just as tired as I’d been when I went to bed. I didn’t notice that I no longer cared about what I ate because I was so busy I didn’t have time to cook properly so I’d just have stir-through pasta again, and eating chocolate bars and downing three coffees in the afternoon to get you through work was fine, wasn’t it? I didn’t notice that I’d become incredibly sensitive to the world and not only were people’s words like barbs but I was getting skin rashes and food intolerances and constantly getting sick; I was sniffling my way through almost every week. I was once so busy working over the weekend then flying up to Brisbane to see a friend that I ended up in the Mater Hospital with cellulitis, brought on by – you guessed it – being run down.
It’s obvious now when I write it all down, but believe you me it wasn’t at the time! I wasn’t the only one going on about how busy I was, I wasn’t the only one packing my weeks full so I didn’t have time to notice that I was rather unhappy. I wasn’t the only one who literally couldn’t sit still to watch a movie as I felt like I should be doing something else, I should have at least been concurrently on social media and texting someone while watching the film. And the thing was, I got shit done! At work I multitasked like a pro, getting everything done and more, hiding my anxiety with even more skill so that my boss nicknamed me Serenity, so serene was my response to all the multi-skilling requests he made upon me. And that felt good, being counted on, being efficient, being successful. It just didn’t feel so good when I couldn’t sleep properly, and had constant stomach upsets and felt like bursting in to tears when I missed my tram… Not so normal.
Now though, I am very aware of when my sleep is disturbed and will stop to think why and plan to go to bed at a better hour after turning off the tv, listening to some relaxing music and doing some gentle stretches.
I also take note of what I am putting in my body, because, as Toby and Raeya say at the CFS Health Centre, “food is fuel”, and if your fuel is crap you’re going to run like crap (that was a car metaphor, I don’t run anywhere at the moment!). I don’t cut out entire food groups like the latest fad diets but just try to eat “colourful meals” in that there has to be at least three colours on my plate – think about it, fish and chips = all yellow, steak and salad and roasted potato is practically a rainbow.
I am now very aware of when my anxiety is heightened – it feels horrendous, how the hell did I go around like that all day and night – and when I feel anxious I meditate, listen to relaxing music or an audio book, make a nice cup of tea, have a quick nap or just sit outside for five minutes breathing deeply. It doesn’t cure me, but it stops me from spiralling out of control. I found this yoga pose on Pinterest and it is a great way to make me rest for 10-15 mins, improves your circulation and most importantly gets me away from electronic devices; you can’t be playing on your phone while on the ground with your legs in the air, it’s too hard. Well, you can, but you end up dropping your phone on your face and that hurts.
And because I get tired oh so easily I really look at what I will do in a day. As much as I’d love to say yes to every social opportunity that comes my way I do have to say no or cancel on the day because it’s not worth making me feel worse… Going to a friend’s wedding? Well, ok, I’ll do that, but I’ll have rest days scheduled before and after and a plan of attack to get through it, which includes napping in my car between entrée and the main meal. Going to your friend’s house for a casual dinner on a Wednesday night when you feel like crap, er no, just call her and have a chat instead.
So when I am recovered and back in the real world I am certainly going to be busier, but what I’ve learnt from CFS will help me cope. How so? Well, here are three things off the top of my head:
- I won’t consistently run late in the morning and have to sprint for the tram in non-sprinting shoes; nothing like starting the day with a cortisol-infused panic and almost-twisted ankle
- I won’t pack my weeks full to the brim because I will know how important it is to have relaxation time and rest time and on-my-own time
- I most likely won’t be able to have my morning and afternoon naps (unless I’m at a very progressive workplace, or a day-care centre and nap with the kiddies) but I’ll be sure to get up from my desk and walk outside with a cup of tea for five or ten minutes; judgement be damned, I’m looking after myself.
And I most certainly won’t be busy glorifying how busy my life is! I’ll be talking about all the other things in my life that aren’t work, because I’ve realised something over the past 18 months: I am not working and I am not busy, but magically I still have things to talk about. Busy be damned.
Photos by Jean Baulch and Suze Mackenzie