Recovering from CFS isn’t a matter of snapping your fingers and waking up all better; it’s a slow journey with many twists and turns. Given this, I need to cut myself some slack and realise that I’m looking after myself the best way I can. I almost need my own personal cheerleader telling me “awesome, right on, like totally freak me out!” So, this post is about being my own cheerleader, about looking at things differently and acknowledging that while progress may be slow, it’s still progress after all. The tortoise and the hare anyone?
Someone once told me you should treat yourself as you would treat a four-year-old version of yourself. It’s really quite effective. Imagine that 48-month-old form of you and picture the pigtails or the bowl cut, the wobbling bottom lip, the panicked eyes filling with tears because you’ve lost your mum in a department store – this always happened to me, sorry Mum – and think about how you would comfort mini-you.Would you yell at your small self for wandering off? Would you berate infantile you for losing track of your mum? Would you hit little self or shake little self? Nope, you’d squat down to their eye level, put your hands on their shoulders and say, “hey there kiddo, it’s ok”. You’d calm them down and escort them to the front of the store and announce to the kindly woman behind the counter that your miniature self was lost and needed help. Then you’d hold their hand until Mum came to find them.
In terms of chronic fatigue syndrome I think this approach really does help in cutting myself some slack. Since I’m already feeling emotionally fragile (having your planned existence ripped out from under you courtesy of chronic fatigue doesn’t make for the calmest path) I don’t need to add any drama to life and need to be as kind to myself as possible (i.e. quell my inner over-achiever). This approach works when, because of brain fog, I absolutely stuff up my go-to recipe for the birthday cake I’m making. I can crack the shits at myself and throw and tantrum and tell myself I’m useless… or, I can think of mini-me, apron on, chef hat askew, flour smudges on her face, looking distraught, and I can calm down.
I will give this baked monstrosity to the dogs (who thought it was delicious, thank you very much) and I can start again a few hours later after a rest and create this version of my birthday cake, “see little one, it’s all ok, that was just take one, you’re not useless.”
Many people don’t realise how affecting your self-talk is, and it’s only through my own dealings with depression and help from a psychologist that I’ve become very aware of my negative thoughts and the things I tell myself. This really should have been taught to us at school, it’s definitely more useful to me than memorising the first 20 elements of the periodic table… What seems more valuable: being able to treat myself kindly when I am in a crisis or being able to remember Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen etc…? It’s useful even when you’re in an imagined crisis, when you overreact to something small. So, when I leave my milk out on the bench and it’s sour by the time I get home I could tell myself off for wasting money and continue on to how stupid and useless I was and now what will I have for breakfast tomorrow? Or, summoning top-knotted me to mind, I can imagine my big eyes looking scared, thinking I’m in terrible trouble, and think with a shrug, oh well, milk only costs like $3, and you can have eggs for breakfast instead of muesli. It’s done and it’s over and no one is crying; if you constantly tell yourself you’re stupid and useless, after a while you’re going to believe it, and who could want mini-me to believe that?It sounds silly to talk to your little self, but the thing with CFS is that emotional stress is actually more taxing on your body than physical stress (probably for healthy people too, now that I think about it), so it’s pretty bloody important not to upset myself anymore than is possible.
When I don’t do my strengthening exercises because I’m exhausted and in pain I shouldn’t tell myself off, but cut little-self some slack, squat down to her eye level and say, “hey, no problem kiddo, at least you got out of bed and ate well today, exercise will happen tomorrow, you do have chronic fatigue after all”. When I can’t walk as far as I want to or remember facts like I used to it’s easy to be frustrated and go down in a depressive spiral, thinking I’ll never get better and this is all useless and I hate my life… This, however, is definitely not helpful, so, when I struggle to read a book without getting a headache (a big deal to someone who studied English Literature at university) I can crack the shits and think I’ll never get better, or, I can lightly pull the pigtails of my small self and say, “hey, that’s what audio books are for, come on, calm down kiddo, it’s all a process”.
It works even better for CFS when you focus on encouragement. It’s like having your own personal camp counsellor telling you what an awesome job you did that day. I actually spent 10 weeks at an American summer camp in 2009 and could not tell you how many times I said “good job” while offering up my hand for a high five. Good job you’re on the horse! Good job you made your bed! Good job you remembered your hat! Good job you ate your dinner! Good job you made it to the top of the climbing wall! Way to go, high five! I was a little over the hyper-encouragement by the end of my time at camp, but now back in Australia with chronic fatigue I remember it all, with a slightly sardonic smile. When I manage to get out of bed by 8am for the first time in a week I think back to camp and in a bad mid-west American accent I say out loud, “good job, high five” and reach around to pat myself on the back. For others, getting out of bed isn’t a big deal but when you’re beyond exhausted and in pain and dizzy and not wanting to move it’s a bloody hard thing to get up when your alarm goes off. And it’s not as if you’ve got a fun-filled day ahead of you to tempt you out from under the covers, but you know if you stay in bed all morning you won’t sleep properly that night and then you’ll feel worse tomorrow; I deserve a high five on those mornings.So, what else is my over-encouraging camp counsellor good at praising me for?
- Making the effort to eat well balanced healthy meals, especially when I’m feeling destroyed and vegemite toast three times a day would be such an easy option. “Awesome!”
- Making good choices about things such as socialising and leaving before I’m wrecked or disappearing from dinner for a power nap, or simply saying, no I’m not up for that today, “Good job, you’re making good choices!”
- I’ve been trying to do yoga every morning as part of my graded exercise regime (known to be key to recovering from CFS) and each time I haul my weak body in and out of downward dog I tell myself, “good job”. Each time my muscles complain at their use after such a prolonged off-season I give myself a mental high five – my tummy muscles are complaining, that’s a new one. Hey, I have tummy muscles again!
- Taking the time to stop and listen to a guided meditation gets a “way to go, I’m working on my mental and physical health, my body will thank me for that meditation later”.
- Simply acknowledging when I stop what I’m doing and have my morning and afternoon rests, regardless of how awake I’m feeling. It’s called preventative rest and I’m doing it so I don’t feel crappy later. “Awesome work kid!”
- It’s simple things like pacing myself that deserve a “good job”, packing my car in instalments during the morning so I can drive in the afternoon without feeling wrecked. It’s simple things like taking a break while writing this blog, even though I’m on a roll and my brain is buzzing. I’m stopping now, otherwise my brain will cease buzzing and just start hurting. “Great job!”
- When your legs go over your head and on to the mat in plough position in yoga you can share that to social media in your excitement because, “woo hoo you’re getting stronger and more flexible because you no longer spend all day and night in bed and are making your body move – progress! Good job!”
There’s also a smug satisfaction that you get when you know you’ve done well, you know you’ve earned that gold star, you know you’re kicking CFS’s butt by your determination and planning and acceptance and then you don’t even need a “good job” at all. I remember dragging myself to the kitchen after attending a wedding the night before and feeling terrible but hungry. I was in pain, fatigued, my brain was shrouded in fog and I was telling myself off for getting a bit carried away and having a boogie on the dance floor (it was Beyonce’s Single Ladies, I had to dance) so to see this healthy, filling and nutritious quinoa salad, lovingly prepared by me the previous day in anticipation of this crash, made me oh so happy. Food is fuel after all. I strutted back to the living room eating my salad like I’d just been made captain of my Summer Camp’s Olympic Day team (seriously a big deal people) and I knew I was awesome. I may have been feeling like utter shit, but hey, day-before me had prepared and planned for this, day-before me had killed it.
And when all else fails I can simply remind myself of this: