Though I like having nice things as much as the next person, I have to admit that I am more of a sucker for experiences.
While material objects you acquire may be permanent (in the practical sense of the word), it is human nature to slowly just get used to its presence and take it for granted. And then that grand old antique grandfather clock you coveted forever until you found it on a killer deal loses its appeal, and its ability to make you happy. Even worse, acquired things may only be temporary (like money), in which case the happiness they bring is doubly short-lived and may even be followed by some misery!
Experiences, however, are usually by nature temporary — and yet, they are timeless! Think back to a wonderful family vacation, or a funny incident that happened to you, or even a particularly interesting class you took or a memorable event you participated in. Think back to a time when you learned something new, or saw something in new light, gained a different perspective, or found a new way of looking at things which you had never considered before. Chances are, simply thinking back to the family vacation brought an image to your mind, or remembering that funny incident made you chuckle. All of these experiences were in the past, their time come and gone, activities done and over with. And yet, you carry some essence of them with you forever!
Experiences, unlike physical objects, also have the potential to teach you things and promote self-growth. This is perhaps almost more true of unpleasant experiences than pleasant ones, a chronic illness for example. I remember in Michael J. Fox’s autobiography, Lucky Man, he said getting Parkinson’s disease was one of the best things that happened to him. Until I gained some acceptance of fibromyalgia, I could never have understood what he meant. But even in dealing with what has been a far less debilitating experience than Parkinson’s, I have learned and grown so much that I am kind of glad it happened to me. Sounds strange, doesn’t it, given how much I gripe about it? But I feel like the griping and then getting over it is all a part of the experience too!
Particularly, the experience of going through a competitive grad program with FM has taught me an important lesson in life. That regardless of what others say, think or do, you’ve got to be true to yourself! Your self-worth cannot hinge on others’ (negative) evaluation of you. You cannot educate everybody, not even when you talk the science behind your condition to scientists. When you feel alone, instead of feeling dejected and lonely, use that space to spread your wings and find your own flight. Do not feel guilty if you choose to use a particularly good day to turn your back on the world and enjoy it simply for yourself! There are too few of those in our lives to waste them on others’ expectations of how you should be spending them, rather than how you want to be spending them.
Perhaps all these thoughts combined made me particularly fond of the featured image, which I clicked on a recent trip to the local zoo. Here’s a pelican who doesn’t give a hoot about the world, he’s without a care except to just make the most of a beautiful day! The photo, a bit overexposed, is perhaps technically flawed, but you can really feel the sun on his back, the splash of the cool water, and his ecstasy of motion.
It is a reminder to live life unabashed and cherish small moments of pleasure.
A reminder to not let imperfections tarnish the timeless beauty of the experiences.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
After a recent particularly bad flare, I had to make a difficult decision to walk away from a field in which I realized I was not welcome at anymore. If I stayed, I would constantly be forced to push myself beyond what I was physically capable of, and would still not be able to meet expectations. So you would think the separation would be mutual and amicable; yet it is not.
In many ways, I feel like I am still very tied to my work identity (although it’s been a work in progress detangling myself from it). Being a “scientist” is one of the major ways I identify myself. Every other descriptor I could think of – artist, woman, chronic illness fighter, etc. – are all farther down the list. When I think of descriptors of myself, “relationship phrases” don’t show up very high either. Many people identify themselves strongly as a parent (father/mother) or child (son/daughter) or spouse (husband/wife), or in other such relationship terms. I have trouble with that. I have always been a painfully independent person, almost to the point of being a loner. And I suspect it is the associated loss of both personal and financial independence, that comes with being ill and out of work, that is at the core of why it has been so hard for me to face the fact that I just need to take a break to focus on my health for a while.
The loss of personal freedom has been something I have been constantly struggling with since developing fibromyalgia. While I can be great at offering and providing help, I absolutely suck at seeking and accepting it! It took me a while to even recognize that I had my partner in my court, and that its OK to lean on him and allow him to help me. It made a world of difference once I let myself be helped with my day to day tasks! And for once, I felt comfortable enough being helped that I never realized how hard it would be physically to live without that help!
Living in a small town, my chances of getting a job here were pretty minuscule, especially in science. For many years, I kind of saw this as a boon because I hated being trapped in one place for too long, and this place seemed to come with its own time limit. But now that it was time for me to move on and take a job in a different part of the country, I had to seriously consider how I would manage a demanding full-time job with other issues like uncertain transportation (potentially a lot of walking), cleaning, cooking, laundry, bathing/hair washing, and a myriad other day to day things that I often need help with. All of the little things that didn’t even merit a thought in my brain at one time are now all serious issues that have the potential to wipe me out and flatten me on my back for days.
I realized that for the first time, I actually need my husband to be with me, physically, and help me out! Not to mention, I would also need him financially, if I were jobless, and not just to provide general subsistence (a shared need), but also for my healthcare needs (a very personal one). And I have never needed anyone in that way before. As a person who prizes her independence, that realization – that I might really need someone now – was one of the toughest I have ever had to come face to face with.
My husband knows how hard that is for me. In fact, he has always known it. That is why he has never made big deal of helping me – he just did it quietly and unassumingly – and made a point of doing so without treating me like an invalid. I feel like very few people are lucky to have that kind of love in their lives. And that is why – perhaps what has been even tougher for me to face – is that even that kind of selfless love does not make up for the sense of loss that I feel due to my illness.
This realization has been really hard for me because it is almost like admitting his love is not enough, despite everything he does for me all the time. And it makes me feel guilty, because he has been the only constant force through many of the things that I have been battling for many years. Yet it is not as if I am not grateful to him and for him. But it is the gratitude that one might feel for nurses when interned at a hospital. It’s great to have that tender loving care, but they would much rather never be in the hospital in the first place!
Though, in some ways I wish I never had to face these harsh realizations, in other ways I am grateful for them. It has given me a chance to really think about why my work identity matters so much to me. Why am I so loathed to accept help? Why do I feel this insane need for independence? It has given me an opportunity to delve deeper into myself and work on long-standing issues that I may never have otherwise. So as a person who craves new and varied experiences, as unpleasant as this one is, I still see it as an adventure! I am still expecting good things to come out of this time of uncertain and difficult realizations. I may be a ship in a bottle for now, but that doesn’t stop me from still looking out towards the sea.
What felt like a whirlpool inside a sinkhole around this time last week, is finally looking like just a simple crater (minus the suction) now. For the past month or so, I have not been able to fully shake off a flare. With fewer hours spent at work or recreation, and more resting on my heating blanket in bed, I feel like I am starting to get this down to somewhat manageable levels. My doctor and I are also working on new medication to see if that can help with the daily pain and fatigue management. The upshot of all of this has been a lot of soul-searching, a healthy helping of frustration and some unavoidable, tough realizations about the way forward.
Until last year, I had some hopes of being able to graduate and move on to an academic postdoctoral training job. I had the condition enough under control to be a reasonable (though less-than-ideal) postdoc for few years to gain the training I would need to eventually move on to a more cushy, permanent job. But I rapidly realized that those dreams were castles built in air, for two reasons:
(2) “Reasonable” postdoc jobs are practically impossible to find. The boss wants a publication-machine, not a person with a life. Add a chronic illness to that? Unthinkable!
Which brings me to the tough realization – that unless a fairy-godmother steps out of a pumpkin for me, I am probably going to have to take a real break after graduating and be out of “real” work; or (what feels like a complete non-option), take on a postdoc job that might be the (figurative) death of me.
In case you were wondering what I mean by “real” work, you are in good company. I have been giving that a lot of thought lately too, and may be topic for a future post in itself.
I feel like some part of me knew all along that it would come to this, but I needed the latest flare to remind me to quit kidding around. I spent the entire last year coming up with every reason for why I cannot be out of a job – everything ranging from financial, to emotional, to career potential and innate ambition. But all of that has come to nothing. I realized that the time is here and now for my husband and I to start revising our budget to account for the absence of my paycheck. And I am not looking forward to the pain that changing health insurance plans will inevitably be!
What I do know for sure is that it would be utter stupidity now to ignore the gut-punch that my body has just dealt me. (Talk about tough love!) And that I need to prioritize my health in a very real way – not in the kind of tangential way I had been doing before. I know things are going to be financially tight for a while, but I am hoping that taking a temporary break will help me get back to a different kind of work later on. Otherwise, I am afraid I might crash for good at some point in the (probably not-too-distant) future and never be able to work at all, and then finances will be tight forever!
For now, I am trying to focus on pushing through one day at a time. I try to keep my chin up that this might be the beginning of a new trajectory that might lead on to a fruitful new journey. I am not one who believes in regrets. I believe that every path we choose at a fork leads us down a different probability. And each of those probabilities will have its own ups and downs, and none will be perfect. So take your pick and let life lead you on!
. . . I would wish for perspective. It is so hard to gain and so easy to lose, especially in difficult times.
Over the course of the past year, I had been able to slowly piece back together some of the shreds of my old hopes and dreams – only to feel like they are now being shattered all over again. And the only thing that feels worse than losing your life, is thinking you have it back and then losing it again.
Featured image: Contemplating the Darkness (12X16, oil on canvas)
I don’t think I had ever quite fully appreciated how much my FM symptoms had improved over the last year or so. With medication, reduced work load, regular exercises and prioritizing rest, I was able to attain some level of normalcy. It was a new normal, but it was a normal. And for the most part, I was feeling better.
In some ways, I was really thinking that I had this thing under control . . . that I was ready to move on to a full-time research intensive job – something that had seemed unthinkable to me just a couple of years back. I knew I could not stay in that high-stress environment forever, but thought I could manage the less-than-ideal position as a temporary stepping stone to something better. I was finally starting to plan for my future again.
But as the work load quickly ramped up this semester, in preparation for graduation, all hell quickly broke loose. What started as a mild flare is now feeling like a full-blown relapse. The bad weather spell we seem to be in is not helping either. And yes it has been stressful. But if it is just the weather or the stress, I am reacting to them far worse than I have in a while.
The pain levels have risen sharply, becoming more widespread, and staying that way most days even with pain medication. The stabbing pains in my chest, diaphragm and back have made breathing a laborious affair. Talking can take much effort, and sneezing, hiccuping or coughing is making me cry out in pain. The fatigue can feel bone-crushing in itself at times. But sleep is a precious commodity that is not easy to come by under severe discomfort (especially when you’re a side-sleeper and the nerve pain is raging on that side!) – thus perpetuating a vicious cycle.
I can already feel my mental state suffer, despite my efforts to stay calm and carry on. Despite a conscious effort to be friendly and social, I am feeling more moody, less patient, and snapping more easily than I would like. I am genuinely afraid that I am more or less back to square one in my fibro journey. And that it is all my fault for pushing my body too far, as soon as I started feeling a little better.
I feel like I had lulled myself into a false sense of security when I was beginning to hope again. But I am realizing quite acutely that the lifestyle I would need to maintain to continue feeling better is not one conducive to the life of a scientist! Very few grad students, and barely any postdocs, can get away with coming to work around 10-11 AM, working barely 6-8 hours a day, and taking large chunks of time off in the middle of the day for PT/rest. Most work 60-80 hours a week. I am entering a relapse after a couple of months of not even 50!
This was an important lesson for me. I learned that I cannot slow down, feel better, and decide now I can pick up the pace again and all will be well. Fibromyalgia requires a lifelong management scheme. And while I had made some level of peace with that, I was just not prepared for the violence with which my body would react to the idea of temporarily deviating from that plan.
In a weird way, when I was working those ~50h/wk for the month or two, I felt a vague sense of accomplishment. I was trying my best to still squeeze in some rest, and trying to only start work during my “best hours.” So I felt a renewed power, a sense of vigor, from feeling like I may have beat my condition and risen on top of it. I was able to snatch back from it some fragments of my go-getter self that I hated losing the most. But alas, that was not to be. And that feeling of loss for a second time feels like a slap in the face.Like I have been put back in my place.
At a time like this, I keep reminding myself that this current low is not going to be forever. I can still plan for other things in my life. I have changed plans before and I can change them again. There is a lot of things I can do, and this one setback is not the end of the world. This closed door may even open new windows. In other words, I am striving to remind myself to not lose perspective. Yet, that is the one thing that is gained with so much difficulty . . . and yet lost so easily!
I have always been attracted to Jung’s idea of “shadow” selves. They are pieces of you, your personality, which are hidden in your subconscious. Often explored only in dreams or meditative states, one of the primary goals in life (according to Jung) is to acknowledge and “merge” with your shadows to complete you.
Over the last several years, I have consciously been journeying towards better self-awareness. I have been able to bring to light many demons which previously only lurked in the shadows (though I am sure there continue to be more aspects of me which are hidden deep within somewhere). One obvious outcome of my journey so far is my conscious awareness of the many personalities that all spar amongst themselves to have primary control of my brain.
Since they’re not really in the “shadow” anymore, but not quite “merged” with what I call me either, I’ll call them alternate selves.
Right now, my two dominant alternate selves are (#1) the one who pushes me on to complete the last leg of my Ph.D. and find a job to move on to, and (#2) the one who implores me to slow down and just take a break.
I’d say #1 is usually more often in control than #2, because I identify with its viewpoint as the more rational one. The last semester is expected to be busy and a bit of a whirlwind. I’ve just gotta buckle up for the ride and stick it through, and deal with the consequences later. Self #2 kicks in on the not-so-good days and reminds me what those consequences feel like, why I need to slow down a bit, delay graduation if I need to. Self #1 tells me that is hardly an option now – the balls have already started to roll for an August graduation. Self #2 points out that yes, but it is not 100% official yet! Self #1 is driving me to find jobs, because I still want a career (though maybe not the one I had originally planned on). Self #2 is asking that I give myself a little rest break in between, it will do my body good. Self #1, however, retaliates with the knowledge that if I get too cozy feeling “good,” I will probably never want to go back for a postdoc training, and it will be that much the harder for me to go back to doing any kind of a (semi-)structured job. Of course, self #2 wonders what’s the point of doing anything at all if you’re going to be miserable while engaged in it!
My current compromise is to yield to self #1 in that yes, that graduation in August is probably happening. That means I will have to push through this semester to have the current project completed and submitted for publication within the next couple of months. But, I give in to self #2 in that I will cut myself some slack on how I handle the actual dissertation and not kill myself over it. I have to concur with self #1 that if I take a break now, I will probably never want to return to working the type of jobs I take pride in now. Any physical benefits I reap from the extra rest will probably be nullified by the mental strain I will most definitely be in as I lie around moping over wasting my life and intellect and education. Still, I made a pact with self #2 that if I do not get a job that I feel good about, I will take a break and start searching again next semester instead of just compromising for any ole thing that pays the bills. I am fortunate in that my husband can support me financially for a little while if it comes to that. So despite the financial strain that it will inevitably be, I will keep that as a viable fall-back option.
For now, my refereeing has silenced my two selves into some kind of truce. But I do not see this lasting long. As I take another turn on this roller-coaster ride, I know they will start to bicker again. And there is little I foresee in the immediate future that will contend them both. I guess I’ll just wait in the shadows until quieter times!
I felt that, finally, I was making some real progress. I was busy at the lab – hoping to graduate this summer! – but for the most part, I was handling that well enough. I felt there might be some real hope for me after all. Maybe I was really beginning to see an upswing in my fibro journey!?
But of course, that was not to be.
I was excited about some progress I had made towards taking my art in a more abstract/figurative direction – all in the “new year, new me” vein. But in retrospect, I see dark shadows in the face of my Anima and colors which speak of angst and struggle.
With a change in weather, mounting work pressure, lack of adequate rest time, and no physical therapy, I soon found myself in another fibro rut. Except this one is compounded by a resurgence of my depression.
Usually I can attribute my depression to a side-effect of a fibro flare. It is no fun to feel tired and achy all day long; like you’re pushing yourself through a busy work day when you have the flu. And after a few days . . . weeks . . . of it, it really starts to mess with your head. With little time for rest, the body takes a toll on the mind.
A few weeks ago, a feeling of “meaninglessness” overwhelmed me. I just couldn’t see the point of doing the things I do. Like I am just going through the motions like a mindless robot. And I didn’t just feel that way about my research. It was my entire life. I guess I don’t see the point in my existence. What am I really here for? What have I really accomplished? Why do I do the things I do, feel the way I do, think the the thoughts I do?
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not suicidal. Not even close. In fact, if you saw me, you would probably not even know I was depressed.
In true scientist fashion, the problem-solver in me jumped up and tried to find solutions to my “meaninglessness.” The easiest thing to do was find a job I really cared about. I searched high and low for chronic pain researchers who might be able to use my existing training, but without much luck. Now I am just job-hunting everyday, trying my best to only stick with those types of science which really ignite a passion within me. But that kind of passion is hard to feel when I am low. I see problems in everything I find. I see every reason why I might not be a good fit. Though I know that I will have to put in some on-the-job training for certain techniques – and I know I can do it, I already have, and successfully, many times in the past – when I’m depressed, it is hard to feel the confidence to be able to do it in a new, unfamiliar environment. And that lack of confidence is hurting my self-image, and adding to the meaninglessness of my everyday “chores.”
It would help if I knew what would add meaning to my life. It would help to know what I really wanted to do. But I don’t. All I truly want is to feel better. To feel relaxed, carefree and pain-free, like I did on my vacation. I want to take off the heavy chains I feel I am carrying around constantly. I know that nothing I do differently would eradicate this feeling. The “meaninglessness” is a state of mind I am in, and that would pervade any physical or mental activity I engage in.
As a coping method, I have taught myself to suppress pieces of myself, as needed, so I can continue to function halfway normally in the world. The trick for me is to keep other parts of my brain constantly engaged. Try not to give air-time to the part that is depressed. A “try-not-to-think-about-it” attitude. It actually makes some sense, because this is one case where thinking does not resolve the issue anyway. There is only one caveat to this effort in suppressing the part of me that is depressed and wants nothing to do with the world, turn inward into the mind, and stay there. It requires constantly being on guard! And that is exhausting. But what other choice is there?
My previous experience suggests that “fake it till you make it – and believe in it!” is a reasonable strategy. It has worked in the past (sort of). So I am pushing myself to stay open to new possibilities, brush away any feelings of inadequacy or lack of confidence that crops up. I am trying to keep my job search to fields where I think I could find some satisfaction in, and could contribute without running myself ragged in the course of it. Most of this is running on auto-pilot. Like I am running an automatic algorithm inside my brain to do things for me, because the real system administrator is absent.
I know this phase is temporary. This too shall pass – as it has before. In the meantime, all I can hope is that I programmed my automatic algorithm well enough to keep me on the right track. It has not failed me before (within a reasonable margin of error, of course). And I hope that it will not now.
When several of my friends suggested that taking a break from work might do my fibromyalgia some good, I was never quite certain that would be the answer. After a recent vacation to my hometown in India, for the first time, I felt there might be some truth in that!
For the three weeks that I was visiting my parents, I noticed a sharp decrease in my chronic pain levels. And with some pacing, I was able to retain good energy levels as well, and pack quite a few (not terribly hectic) activities. I cannot stress enough the value of pacing during this trip, and how well it served me!
However, I think there were several other things at play there to promote my wellness. Perhaps the most important ones were:
(1) Stable weather – not too hot, not too cold, low humidity, and stayed that way! This was a dream-come-true after the kind of changes we go through constantly where I live now.
(2) Lack of the repetitive actions that I am constantly engaged in at work.
(3) Lack of stress and a general atmosphere of relaxation.
Until about last week, I would have probably swapped the last two on the #2 and #3 spots. But one week back at the work, with all the pipetting and computer work, and I realized just how much my right arm, and right upper back and shoulders are aggravated by the repetitive motions.
Realizing the effect of repetitive strain is also what made me give serious thought to taking some time off, especially after I noticed how much better I continued to feel even after the vacation was over. I am not sure if this break can ever be reality – especially given practical considerations such as the cost of my medication, and the huge financial burden it would be if my husband were to cover the cost of my health insurance as well. Not to mention, the clock starts ticking immediately after one receives their Ph.D. Most grants and many “entry-level” job positions are not available past a certain number of years post receipt of the doctorate degree. So without a productive next few years, I could be stuck between a rock and a hard place in the future, with very few avenues regarding my career. But though an extended break might be a bad professional decision right now, later on down the line, it might make for a great personal care decision, and I am certainly keeping it in mind!
As for the general atmosphere of relaxation, the beautiful home and garden decorations at my parents’ house played no small part in creating it. The designer, my mother, could probably rival any interior/exterior decorator with her ideas. She really made me feel like I was in a 5-star hotel while simultaneously feeling at home! So for this week’s photo challenge on ambience, I shared a few photos of her garden, throughout the post, which created a lovely “vacation ambience” that made me forget about work in ways I can never do at home. And that kind of lack of stress, I do believe, played a major role in managing my symptoms despite the packed two-and-half weeks I spent at that house. Relaxation truly goes a long way for pain relief!
Summer was officially at an end. I was consumed by a feeling of how little I had accomplished over the last 3-4 months.
I felt I was becoming lazy, and too used to being “comfortable.” Grad students aren’t meant to comfortable! So what if I felt tired? Graduate school is notorious for sleepless nights! Yes I was always achy, but my pain is not that bad! I should be able to push through the tiredness and the pain. Enough with “babying” myself. Mind over body, I told myself. I could do this if I really put my mind to it.
I know this kind of thinking is stupid! But at the time I wasn’t thinking straight:
I spent practically all summer in a never-ending flare, basically at a new sub-normal, and I was frustrated with it. I had just begun to figure out my new normal, but before I could even settle down, I was forced another level down. The pain has been so deep and constant that I often don’t even realize how much pain I have been battling until the shroud lifts for a moment.
My life felt out of balance and I was having to figure everything out anew, and I was tired of it. I was tired of being on the roller-coaster. And in my mental fatigue, I was beginning to doubt myself and my own feelings regarding my health. I was beginning to wonder if it was all in my head, if I was essentially making it up – and if so, maybe I’d be better off just ignoring the assertions my body was making, and eventually I might snap out of it!
I doubt I truly meant to be as cruel to myself as I was. It was a moment of weakness when I gave in to my own personal critic. Left alone, it would have been forgotten in a few weeks as I regained my mental balance. But spiteful words released into the ether rarely dissipate on their own. And this time, they were picked up by the wind and heard by the universe. Loud and clear.
I stuck to my vow to try to push myself just a bit more – I shortened my rest time after PT on Wednesday, and tried to go to work early. I drank more coffee to stave off the sleepiness that almost always engulfs me afterwards. It sort of worked. I was beginning to feel that I could do this!
I had noticed the traffic was unusually heavy that day. This remained the case the whole afternoon, even when I went to pick up my husband from work. And got even worse as I tried to make my way back to the lab. I was beginning to get seriously achy and tired by now.
This might not sound like much for a normal person, but sitting for long periods of time is extremely painful for me. And when I am driving, it takes up extra pieces of my energy pie in addition to just sitting. And now after exercising and spending several hours on the road, every minute that my foot pressed the brake, I could feel my back breaking. Not to mention, every thing took three times as long because we were moving at snail’s pace!
It was 10 PM when I finally got home. I was now out and about for over 12 hours. Needless to say, I was practically dead.
Despite the “resolution,” I decided to take it kindly on myself that morning. I limped into work by noon. My boss must have noticed my tardiness, because he made some snarky comment implying my ineptitude.
I did not feel too bad most of the day. I thought the extra rest the morning before had done the trick! I drank extra coffee again, and reduced the after-PT rest time so I could go back to work sooner. I thought this was working out pretty OK so far, and I wasn’t really even pushing that much! Essentially, I thought I had gotten away with it!
That night, my husband suggested going out to eat. I did not resist the suggestion at first, but felt very put off by the crowd at a couple of the places we drove past. We settled for Chinese take-out, and got our favorite. After a couple of bites of the “amazing chicken,” it hit me.
I felt a swoon come over me, followed by rush of nausea. I suddenly felt I had sprinted a marathon, and needed to throw up – out of exhaustion – at the finish line. I couldn’t finish eating and needed to lie down immediately.
Yes, I had crashed. I should have known it was coming, but I had thought (hoped!) that I had gotten away with it.
All throughout the weekend, I continued to feel like a train had run over me; and then once the gates lifted, every car that was stopped behind the tracks for a mile, also ran over me one after the other.
For large parts of it, I could barely get up from bed to even use the bathroom. I have no appetite. The fatigue still has me by the throat. I have never had chemotherapy, so I cannot be sure – but I think this must be what chemo-exhaustion feels like.
Divine retribution for my stupid, stupid thinking!
Fibromyalgia is like being in an abusive relationship. You are forced to share your life with a beast that throws all kinds of punches at you until you are battered and bruised. You feel isolated, and like you cannot get out – trapped and doomed. Every now and then, it lets up a little, and you think you can have a stable relationship that is perhaps not ideal, but tolerable. But then it comes back with double the force and knocks you back down again. Eventually you realize that you will never be able to have a fully stable relationship, and you live under the fear of the next pain storm. Slowly, the fear creeps into your very being, and kills you from the inside – while this whole time, outwardly, you look perfectly fine.
Chronic pain doesn’t just screw your body up, it also messes with the mind. Regardless of how much I believe in positive thinking, it is hard for me to keep a cheery face and be positive all the time. It’s hard to keep that chin up always when you are at the mercy of something as unpredictable and changeable as the weather. I am afraid to hope for anything now, especially the future. And it doesn’t help that I feel disconnected from my past.
I believe that everybody has their place in the world, in terms of what contribution they could make to it. For me, that was science. It was a job I loved, and I put my heart and soul into it. But now, becoming a “respectable” scientist feels like a distant hope to me.
If fibromyalgia had struck me twenty years from now, when I was an established professor, I may not have been so frustrated regarding my career, because I would have had others to do the hard labor for me. But it struck me at a time when I am expected to put in long hours and work hard and work fast. So now that I cannot perform at the level that I am expected to, I have been practically disowned. Even my boss of five years – who once praised my enthusiasm for science, saw how hard I worked for little to no pay, and admired my work ethic – told me he wouldn’t hire me in my current position. This is despite the fact that I am trying to make up for less work time with better efficiency and task delegation. (I guess I can kiss any hopes of a good recommendation letter goodbye!) It is clear that science (at least, academia as I know it) has no place for slowed-down cripples like me.
I know I can find other ways to contribute with my science training, but my self-confidence has taken a serious beating since I haven’t been able to stay out of bed longer than few hours each day. At one time, I felt I could touch the stars if I wanted to and worked hard enough to get there. Now I feel like I’d just burn my hands if I tried. I don’t know what I am even capable of anymore. In many ways, I feel like I am losing my mind and important pieces of my identity.
Most days I am able to pick up the pieces and move on to forge new paths for myself. But on days when I am both physically and mentally exhausted, I feel like I do not have it in me to carry the burden and just keep trudging. Sometimes I just feel like stopping in my tracks and weeping – allowing myself to feel the loss of a life that could have been. And other times, I simply struggle to stay afloat when I feel everything around me is sinking.
On that note, I am desperately grateful to have a real person to share my life with who can be the sole reason that I fight through the storm to stay afloat. When I am getting beat up by fibromyalgia, the invisible brute in our lives, my husband is always there to tend to the wounds. Some days I feel guilty for perhaps not being a good enough wife to him (though he always insists that I am more than he could ever have asked for). And that guilt, which is nothing but a sullying mark on a beautiful thing, is also a reality of living with chronic pain. As is his feeling of helplessness at not being able to do enough to help me in practical ways.
Yet, chronic pain is also what brought us closer together in a very special way. So in many ways, I am thankful to fibromyalgia for that. And that – finding reasons to be thankfulfor the thing that ruined the life you dreamed of – that too, is a reality of keeping afloat with chronic pain.