Hitting the Reset Button in my Brain

I feel like the last flare kind of put me in a less-than-positive state of mind. Too many of my posts are talking about hardships of living with a chronic condition. While I don’t mean to shy away from being honest, and I don’t believe in deluding myself with positivity when things could obviously be better, I do believe that our state of mind can affect the state of our bodies. Letting out the frustration of a prolonged flare is helpful, but remaining in that angry, frustrated mode does no one any good.

So I have been on a journey to try and reset my mind to be a in a quieter, more peaceful place. I have had varying levels of success with the strategies I used, and I am sharing my thoughts on them here in case it can help someone else in a similar boat.

1. Take time by the moments instead of days.

The idea here is to just get through this moment in time and on to the next, and not think any further forward or backward. I try to keep busy at work, and ignore my body as much as I can. I have also taken to spending my evenings resting completely (unless I go for my pool exercise class). Sometimes I may play a crossword with my husband. We have fun, we goof off, we laugh when we make up silly words; I seem to relax. Throughout the day, I try to keep my focus mainly on the task at hand.

For the most part, this strategy works. When taking time moment to moment, I seem to be alright.

. . . But then a thought will pop up in my head about the next day that’s about to come, and I feel this dread. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I mind my job, I really like it in fact. What I dread is the struggle that going to sleep might prove to be, or the exhaustion when I wake again the next day, or the achiness, the tiredness, the tightness in my muscles that will aggravate me throughout the day. I dread that I will come back home, and rest, and feel better, and then my body will hit its reset button the next morning, and the whole thing will start all over again. Like an endless cycle of rest, pain and exhaustion.

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Emptiness

Taking time in moments stops me from thinking in the fashion above, but it also makes time feel disconnected. I feel like, as people, we thrive on some sort of continuity. That’s why we created the construct of “time” in the first place. When you take life one piece at a time, it is an effective coping mechanism because it gets you through the day. But for me, at some point, every moment seems to run into another, and it becomes hard to see where I have been and where I am going.

So even though this method works, I realized that is like putting a band-aid on wound that needs stitches. It might make you feel better and hide it from sight, but it probably won’t solve the problem. But for problems that can’t be solved, like the one I currently have I guess, this is still a useful strategy.

2. Reframe your mind to think of what you can do.

This one is hard for me because I associate fibromyalgia with so much loss. But I think it is important to note that there is still a lot that I can do that I don’t always think about. I don’t think about it because I expect to be able to do more, so I care less about what I still can. But perhaps I should not take all that for granted.

Perhaps it worth noting that regardless of how bad I felt, I could still take care of my husband after his surgery. I could take care of our home while working at the same time. I can still work! As a scientist, no less! I can still plan for a future, perhaps a house, or a vacation. I am still able to spend some time with friends when I like. None of it is easy, but I am still doing it. Regardless of how much patience I lose with myself, I am still coping with whatever life throws at me.

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I am not just a a face in the crowd – I am still capable of hopes and dreams and accomplishments!

In a weird way, this makes me feel both proud and more confident, and also more humbled. Proud and confident that I am capable on taking on the current challenge. But also more humbled: just because you could do something, doesn’t mean that you should. I feel grateful that I didn’t collapse, only flared, when the workload soared. But at the first chance, I am also cutting back so as to not provoke providence by taking it for granted.

Altogether, I have found this to be a good exercise. When I feel poorly, my list is fairly short. But I try to add every mundane thing I could and try to convince myself to feel accomplished for being able to do it. It helps me feel like I have been somewhere, and can do some things, and can still plan for some kind of future.

3. Accept that it sucks.

Sometimes that’s all you can do. Just accept that this is a bad patch, and ride it out. No point in being angry about it or punishing yourself for what you cannot do. Do what you can to mitigate the flare, but recognize that sometimes it’s like the flu — you just have to wait it out. Admit the feelings and thoughts that invade the mind, find an acceptable outlet for them, and try to redirect them in more positive directions (see #1 and #2 for instance). Show yourself some compassion.

This one, for me, is by far the hardest, though I have been actively coaching myself for a while. I feel like I need to have the answers to all my problems. If I don’t have ready answers, I feel like I need to find them. But sometimes there is no answer. All you can do is accept this is how it is. Funny thing is, when I am able to do it, it brings me so much peace of mind! And yet I struggle with the idea that I am “giving in” to the flare. But it is not: I am still looking for ways to help myself feel better; I am just done fighting the the problem itself. The focus is now on me. Not the flare or the illness itself.

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Peace

I have written extensively about acceptance before, and I will put the links below. It is probably the best way I have found of dealing with the emotional aspects of my condition. As you can see, however, it is not a goal you achieve and stay at. It’s a a never-ending journey on the road to peace.

Gentle hugs,

Fibronacci

 

READ MORE ON ACCEPTANCE:
Part I: A Lesson in Perspective and Acceptance
Part II: What is “Acceptance”?
Part III: How Acceptance can lead to Happiness
Part IV (A): Seeking a State of Acceptance 
Part IV (B): Fighting the Denial of a Chronic Illness

13 Tips to Simplify Daily Living with a Chronic Illness

Every day can be a struggle with a chronic illness. Even when my husband helped me with just about everything around the house, there were very few days when I didn’t feel the brunt of fibromyalgia in one way or another. Now, with him out of commission, I am feeling it even more.

I have previously written about how I managed grad school with fibromyalgia. And I am using many of the same strategies at my current job. But I have had to “rediscover” some tips to manage the daily chores in a way that eases my growing pain and fatigue now that I have to hold up the fort at home as well.

I have shared them here, hoping they may reach someone who might benefit from them.


In general:

1. Don’t be proud. (If living like a college student is a complete deal breaker for you, you might as well stop reading now!) Seriously though, many a time, it is our pride and expectations of how we should appear, how our house should look, how holidays should be conducted, that make life more difficult for us than they need to be. Try to let go of the allure of appearances, and worrying about how it looks to the neighbors. Focus only on what you need to do to get some semblance of your life back.

2. Prioritize. Start with doing the things that absolutely need doing that day (if that garbage is starting to stink, taking it out needs to be near the top of the list!). Jokes apart, with this general strategy, if you run out of energy before you finish your list, you can stop without too much concern. Let those less important things wait. Trust me, they’ll be waiting for you tomorrow. Unless your fairy godmother steps in and turns some mice into fairy-housekeepers who magically take care of the remaining chores for you! (If that happens, please give them my number!)

3. It’s OK to put off the optional activities if there’s only room for the mandatory. Sometimes the optional activities are the fun “me-time” things, like our hobbies. If so, consider replacing them with equally fun “non-activities” (binge watching Netflix, for example) that help you relax and find peace in a chaotic day. However, if you can move around some less important tasks to make room for that “me-time” activity, don’t pass up the chance!


Groceries and Meals

4. Frozen meat and vegetables. If you enjoy cooking, doing large batches once a week and freezing meals is a great idea. But, that does add to other “intensive” weekend chores, and may not be the right fit for everyone (certainly isn’t for a non-cook like me). So, I turn to frozen chicken, sausage, fish and vegetables. Many of them can be prepared within minutes in the oven, microwave or on stove-top, and they are really hard to mess up! With some careful label reading, portion control and balancing with other food groups, this is not a terribly unhealthy option either.

5. Snack healthy with fruits and nuts. This is easy for me because I love both, but they really are an excellent source of nutrients and perfect for between-meal snacking!

6. Meal delivery services (e.g. Uber Eats). When all else fails, and you simply haven’t the energy to do one more thing, meal delivery services can prevent you from starving. If available where you live, Uber Eats (or other delivery options) can be a life saver!

7. Online groceries. Several places like WalMart and Amazon (Amazon Fresh & Prime Pantry) are now allowing you to buy groceries online, and either picking them up at the store or delivering to your home. It cuts out much of the walking, reaching, bending, standing, etc. that can make grocery shopping hard on spoonies. I think Amazon is kind of expensive for this service, but I feel I am actually saving money buying a list of things I need online at WalMart and having them load the bags into my car at the store. It reduces impulsive buying because I just saw something cool at the store. Rather a neat “plus” for an already useful service!

8. Use wheels to transport groceries. A folding bag or basket on wheels (something like this, for example) can be very helpful so you don’t have to carry a heavy load of bags from your car to the home. It’s a bit more awkward to use if you have stairs to climb, but there are some “stair climbing” options too, like this one.


Hosting & Housekeeping

9. If hosting is too much trouble, take your friends out to eat. Don’t feel obligated to deal with the cleaning, decorations, table and meal preparations, and the subsequent clean-up, if that is not your thing and you know it will wipe you out. This also goes for the holidays; find creative alternative solutions so you can still spend quality time with friends and family, without tiring yourself out.

10. Make as few dirty dishes as possible. Don’t be too proud to use paper plates or just eat out of take-out boxes! Soak “adult” dishes/utensils (or use a dishwasher) for easier clean-up that requires less wrist and elbow grease.

11. Reduce frequency of housekeeping tasks. House cleaning once a week, or alternating between rooms and taking it easy might reduce how much energy is spent on a ritual task that can often take more time and energy than we anticipate (and leave us drained and hurting).

12. Focus on functionality over perfection. Practice the science of “good-enough.” That means the house may not be perfectly clean, the corners may remain dusty, actually a lot of things are probably dusty, but at least I can walk across my floor without the dirt and grit sticking to my bare foot! That’s good enough for me! My clothes are not neatly folded (in fact, if they are not hanging, they are lying in a “dump” on a shelf in my closet), but as long as I can still find what I need, I don’t bother fixing up the closet just to make it look pretty. It’s in a state of “working disorder,” which is good enough for me.

13. Break up tasks. If cleaning takes a lot out of you (as it does for me), try breaking up the different tasks on different days. Dust the books and shelves one day, vacuum or mop the other, clean the bathroom on a third. If a particular cleaning job takes more arm-power (cleaning the toilet or bathtub for example), do that on its own day when you take on fewer other intensive chores.


To be completely honest, these tips have not been enough to keep me from sliding into a flare. I have felt my symptoms worsen despite using the strategies above. However, I do feel they have made a difference. When every little bit seems to take a gargantuan effort, any bit of reprieve is appreciated.

I certainly don’t think I could manage to keep on taking care of my home as well as work full time forever, even using all the strategies I write about. But these tips have allowed me to successfully fulfill the temporary needs of my household, without needing to take at least 1-2 days off from work (that I have not even collected yet!) over a complete crash that pins me to the bed. Essentially, they have slowed my decline, and that was about all I could ask for!

So, if you or someone you know is in a similar spot, and is struggling with daily life as a fibromyalgiac, I hope these tips help them too — at least a little anyway. And if you are a fellow chronic illness warrior with more daily living tips of your own, I invite you to share them in the comments below, so others can benefit from them too!

Gentle hugs,

Fibronacci

Working with a Chronic Illness: Flexibility vs. Structure and Routine

In my last post about how I did graduate school with fibromyalgia, I touched on a point about being careful with how flexible a “job” grad school can be, which has its plusses, but can also be a double-edged sword.

This was not the first time that I thought long and hard about what kind of a job would be better when leading a life with a chronic illness: one that is very flexible, or one that has a more structured routine.

There are lots of “pros” to a flexible job, like that of an academic professor or a lab director. You don’t have to be up too early, can rest in the middle of the day, and take time off for flares as needed. But there are “cons” too: you end up working odd hours, and the body often doesn’t know what to expect when. Not absolutely having to do something now, also means it is easier to put it off for later – and the ephemeral “later” may turn out to be a worse time than “now.” This has the potential to cause much stress, which can be a trigger for a fibro flare.

With a more structured job, days are better-planned, and there is a chance to settle into a reasonable routine, and perhaps reduce the frequency of flares with better pacing. But when flares do occur, it is harder to take time off. The other downside is that constant working during the day, and the pressure to stick to the routine, can get tough on the body, especially if you’re prone to fatigue.

On that note, I read two very poignant articles. The first is a great piece on the importance of routine, on a blog I always enjoy visiting, Invisibly Me. Our blogger is fairly convincing in how routines can be helpful when dealing with a chronic illness, and gives some great tips on how to boost your routine as well.

And the second is the story of a recent Ph.D. grad, on the blog ErrantScience: Clutter, who moved on to a “regular” (aka, normal 9-5) job and gave a deft comparison of the two. Her conclusion: the grass is always greener on the other side! Somehow, despite all arguments and my own better judgement, I think I will always agree with that!

As for me, during my Ph.D., I recognized that maintaining some amount of routine was critical for pacing. That routine involved allowing my body to “thaw” in the mornings (not rushing it before it was ready), working mainly during my best hours (10 AM to 7 PM), and using the evenings for rest (i.e., not bringing work home). I tried to keep a routine for painting and blogging as well, but that sort of fell by the wayside. Overall, I felt the routine helped me progress towards the Ph.D., while also not working myself too far beyond what my body could handle.

And now that I am done with graduate school, and have no set responsibilities, I feel like I am getting a whole lot of nothing done! I was planning on keeping up with my blog and painting better, studying for some technical licenses, finishing up my leftover papers from grad school – and of all that, I am only making very slow progress on that last one (and probably only because there’s a deadline looming for it). I suppose after working long and hard for so many years, I shouldn’t begrudge myself the rest and relaxation. It truly has been lovely to lay down in the afternoon (a time when I often experience an energy slump) and just read for pleasure! But I dislike the way I am being unproductive in all other ways. So clearly, some level of “work structure” is important so I don’t rest away the entire day.

However, I am also the kind of person who feels stifled by too much routine. I feel a bit like the fish in a bowl, bound by structure, doomed to swim round and round. I like a bit of spontaneity, freshness, and interest in my days – and too much routine is just not interesting to me. Not to mention, if I wake up feeling particularly crummy, I like to be able to go in to work late or take the day off, and have the freedom to make up that time in other ways. Losing that kind of autonomy might push me to work through escalating pain, instead of “calling in” and admitting I am sick (I could hear the voice at the other end goingAGAIN?!?!?!“). All in all, I just don’t see pattern working out so well.

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Going Round and Round
(11X14, oil on canvas)

And yet, I do like the feeling of getting work done in a timely manner (which requires some level of structure). Also, my body does usually fare better when it knows what to expect, rather than when it gets pushed in every which direction. Pacing, by its nature, requires a routine, and it has been proven to make life productive and less painful for many a chronic illness warrior.

I guess the bottom-line is that both flexibility and routine are important when dealing with a chronic, unpredictable condition like fibromyalgia. Ideally, I envision a job with a reasonable amount of autonomy, so there is the flexibility to call my hours. But with a job like that, there needs to be sufficient self-discipline to be able to set a routine for myself, so I can get all the work done, but on a pace I can handle and with allocated rest times that I don’t ignore.

I realize that it may be a tall order to find a job like that, where there is a mix of the best of both worlds. Until I get there though, that grass will always be greener on the other side!

Love,

Fibronacci

How I did Graduate School with Fibromyalgia

Earlier this month, I officially graduated with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics.

It is both relieving and terrifying to have graduated, finally having no set obligations. After the months of intense flares that I was able to tame not all that long ago, I have decided to take a break before moving on to another job. Alas, I still have papers to finish in the meantime, and my future to contemplate, so it will be interesting to see how this break turns out!

But now that I have finally graduated, I feel a bit more confident writing this piece, a list of 10 things that helped me do graduate school with fibromyalgia.

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When you feel trapped . . . but know you’re capable of flight

It is sort of a “Part II” of my Reflections on Graduate School, but with more practical information regarding the management of fibromyalgia, so I hope that it helps a few more of us chronic illness fighters navigate through the quagmire of graduate school. And because many of these suggestions apply in general as well, they may as well be my 10 tips for managing fibromyalgia!


1. Prioritize –  With a chronic illness, you may not be able to do everything you would like. So prioritize what needs to be done first, what is most urgent, and do that first. Work your way down the list of less important things (aka, things that can wait till tomorrow). That way, if you run out of your energy aliquot before getting them done, you do not have to push yourself to do it anyway.

2. Get help when needed (undergrads/assistants) – It can often be difficult to admit you need help, and then put forth the effort to train people under you, and supervise their work. But with the right, reliable person, this can be a lifesaver! It takes some work to switch from the “doing”  mode to the “managing/supervising/mentoring” mode, but those are extra skills you have the opportunity to learn! And it is win-win on both sides: your student learns some new stuff, maybe even feels a taste of independent science (depending on their level of experience), and you get to rest your body a bit, while still working your brain!

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How fibromyalgia helped me be a better mentor

3. Make your work area as comfortable as possible – If you spend a lot of time at your desk, it helps to create an ergonomic workstation – which, of course, is a dream on a grad student salary!  So I have a pillow on my high-back office chair (both hand-me-downs), and a heating pad against my back, to help me sit “without” pain. I also have a small box under my desk, and a blanket. The blanket is for the extra chilly-feet days. As for the box, I often put my feet up on it so I can recline, and be comfortable at my desk. I realize it is not necessarily the best posture at all times, but (perhaps unfortunately) in my mind, pain relief trumps all else – and it really feels so good to stretch my legs out comfortably on the box! I also have a TENS therapy unit at work. I am not 100% sold on TENS therapy, and it looks ridiculous to be twitching or jerking if someone walks in, but I’ll try anything when I’m desperate! A friend also let me have an ergoBeads cushion to rest my wrists while typing. I am not frequently wracked with wrist pain, but I am grateful for anything that may prevent it!

4. Seek working solutions for cognitive problems – I am perfectly aware how cognitive dysfunction can get in the way of the smartest of people. Unfortunately, brain fog has struck me at some of the most inopportune times as well. I do not have a solution for every time this happens, but I have written an article before on how to manage brain fog so you retain sufficient brain function on a day-to-day basis. I hope that provides some ideas on this point!

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As any self-respecting scientist will tell you, the solution to brain fog is of course COFFEE! (Do not believe them blindly)

5. Slow down – One way of minimizing brain fog is to slow down and take it at your own pace. I know that in graduate school we are conditioned to feel guilty for slowing down, and not all professors even tolerate it enough to let us continue. I was very lucky by that measure. I had a project that could sit in the freezer overnight (or even a few days) if needed, and a prof who did not kick me out for doing 10 AM to 6.00-7.00 PM days. I am ashamed to admit that for about a year, when I was on physical therapy, I worked part-time (<8 hours) two days a week, though I tried to make it up sometimes over the weekends whenever I could. I don’t think my boss has been too happy about it necessarily, but I have tried to be as efficient as possible during that time, and finished all my responsibilities on time. I feel like slowing down was my #1 key to even continuing in graduate school, though I frequently worried about coming off as “lazy” or “unmotivated.” But the truth is, my motivation to continue doing science is what convinced me to keep the reduced hours. The alternative was to not do it at all. I wrote more about this topic in a previous post whose title says it all I think: Slow and steady stay in the race.

title_ _Brain-body problem_ - originally published 10_1_2010 - Jorge ___
The sub-conscious can be a good motivator, but try not to let it bully you!

6. Use flexibility well – Flexibility is a double-edged sword. If you are working independently, and do not have an overbearing boss, academia offers more flexibility than any other situation I can imagine. This is great on those really bad days when you absolutely need to stay in bed. Assuming your work can wait (and I realize not all work can), the flexibility means that you can rest now, and just catch up over the weekend, if needed. However, flexibility can also lead one to keep odd hours, or no set schedule at all from one day to the next. This can be problematic as your body does not what to expect when. I feel like keeping a steady routine was really key to me getting a handle on my “new normal”, so use the flexibility graduate school affords with care.

7. Do not procrastinate – The other issue with flexibility is that it becomes really easy to procrastinate! This is usually a bad idea, in my opinion. Almost invariably, as the stress of an approaching deadline builds, I feel my FM symptoms worsen. If at that time, I also need to do a bulk of the work that I hadn’t done before, that robs me of the rest time that my body needs. Also, it is more stressful if you know you have a lot of work to finish in very little time. So if your symptoms react to stress, try not to procrastinate!

8. Sleep well before important days – Lack of sleep or poor sleep often makes everything worse for me! I hurt more, am tired more, and can think less. So if there is an important day – such an exam, meeting or interview – I try to get good sleep the night before! I have found zolpidem (Ambien) to be an excellent aid when all else (hot baths, herbal teas/supplements, etc.) fail.

Sleep
The secret to avoiding this vicious cycle is to use flexibility well and not procrastinate! And, of course, treat your body well!

9. Practice and prepare, but be OK with making mistakes – This is as true when you are teaching, as when you may be giving talks and presentations. Despite practicing a lot before my dissertation defense, I fumbled more times during my talk than I would have liked. Though in retrospect, and from the audience’s perspective, it was not such a big deal, it sort of wounded my perfectionist’s soul. And yet, each time, I picked up where I fell, shrugged off a little and moved on. When I have made mistakes while teaching classes, I have admitted it, and then turned it into a learning opportunity. I feel like fibromyalgia has taught me more about being OK with making mistakes than anything else ever – enough so I now call myself a “recovering perfectionist”!

10. Try not to schedule back-to-back classes – This one especially holds if teaching long classes, such as 3-hour-long laboratory courses, when you are on your feet and active the whole time. It is also one of those things where it just depends on the person! If it works better for you to schedule it all on the same day, and just have one miserable day a week, instead of two, then ignore this point. But if you are like me, and that one day casts a shadow over the entire week, then it may not be worth it. I have found it easier to split it up over multiple days, so I am not under too much strain on any one.


Graduate school (in an academic institution, at least) is interesting because you are part employee and part student. So I hope that my management tactics has some relevance not just in graduate school, but school in general as well as the workplace, and not just for fibromyalgia either, but other chronic illnesses as well.

Cheers to all my fellow-fighters!

Love,

Fibronacci