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I have had a pretty good summer! As I said in my last post, I had a great visit from a friend. I then had another friend come for a week and although I felt quite awful at times and had lots of sensitivity to noise, light and sensory overload as well as other things, she is the kind of friend who made the experience more pleasant. She just kept me company and we still had fun. It is hard to be around people when symptoms are severe so I was so grateful to have someone so chilled out and who knows me so well to be here with me. After that I had a few days to gather my self, my strength and my essential belongings before heading up to Scotland for a week. I was really surprised that although the travel was hard (and I slept literally the whole day after we got there) I managed to go out briefly three times during our stay and really enjoyed the things we did and saw. After that we again had a few days break before my partner went away with work, and my mum came up to help me cope with my daily needs and keep me company. We had a good time, and it felt quite busy despite only going out to a doctor’s appointment one day and a quick trip to see the sea and sit in a cafe another day. That was last week and this week we have the builders in – they may still be here next week actually. So it has been really busy!
I was a bit daunted by this summer before it happened. I worried about how I would feel, whether I would be able to enjoy things or if I would feel too bad to make the most of things that were happening and feel I was missing out. I have been pleasantly surprised by what I have done and how I have recovered quite quickly from each thing. I have been very careful, of course, but think my post-exertional malaise is not as severe as it used to be, particularly looking back to last year. I do get a flare up of symptoms, more pain and neurological symptoms rather than fatigue, per se. The sleeping all day the day after travelling was really unusual for these days, though so was such a long journey. It took three hours.
So here I am back at home and contemplating what I want to focus on over the next few months. Some things have come out of the GP appointment which will take some time and focus. I will talk about them in another post. It has been interesting to be without a computer, or accessing it less over the last couple of months. I really want to keep my blog going and interact with my online friends, but I also want to be online less and do more creative things. I did not really miss the extra internet hours and think I need to set some boundaries for myself so that I am only online at certain times of day and for short periods. I doubt I will miss out on much and it will focus my attention to the important stuff.
I really want to actually DO more creative stuff rather than just think about it and I need to make some space. The health stuff is going to take some time each day, so I need to make a plan! I would love to go with the flow more, as I expect I have expressed in previous posts, but with such limited functional time each day it is really hard to do that. I also find it really hard to remember what I need to do, so unless I have a plan I use my energy on non-essentials and forget the important stuff. Not good and does not give any sense of achievement. I have a new creative project with a friend so I need to make time and space for that. I am quite excited about it!
I subscribe to Sustainably Creative, by Michael Nobbs who is an artist living with ME. He is trying to earn a living through creative means in a way that fits around his energy issues. He has helped me to think about how I can fit in more creativity and work out what is important for me to focus on. He sends out regular digital postcards, an illustrated newsletter and daily podcasts which I really enjoy. This month new members get a free copy of his latest book! (He has produced others too). Whilst I do very little and could not contemplate trying to earn money from creativity right now, it is really good for me to do little bits and bobs and feel some sense of identity as an artist, not just as an ill person. While the latter wins out most days, the creativity and ideas are always there bubbling beneath the surface, even if I am not doing anything about them. It is good to see how others are trying to navigate these issues.
So, while I am back to the old routines in many ways, I hope to shake up a few and make some small changes, hopefully for the better.
I was planning on writing a thorough review of the book How To Be Sick by Toni Bernhard, but I am taking advice and guidance from Michael Nobbs in his new ebook Sustainable Creativity and I am keeping my tasks simple and manageable. If I write a short review I can get it done today and have a sense of achievement, rather than not finding the energy for days/weeks and having the task hanging over me. He also encourages us to not care if something is not perfect, allowing us to get on with our day. This review will not be well honed but I hope it will be good enough. I am not even going upstairs to find the book to refresh my memory before I start!
In How To Be Sick, Toni combines the experiences and challenges that chronically ill people face day-to-day with Buddhist teachings in a very effective and seemingly effortless way. It does not feel like the chronic life is being forced to fit into a paradigm, it is as if these two things were meant to be thought about together.
I found that I did resist buying this book, despite the good reviews. As someone with very longstanding ME/CFS I have become wary of self-help advice. Often it is forced onto us, inappropriate, claiming to cure, patronising, making assumptions about us and so on. Or we seek it out ourselves and get “self-help fatigue” on top of the illness itself as we work so hard to challenge ourselves, examine ourselves and change ourselves and just end up twisted in knots feeling no better, calmer, stronger or healthier. We then feel a failure and I for one no longer take part in these activities. I suspect I am not alone. Who, when chronically ill, has the energy to keep constantly looking at themselves in such an intense manner?
So against this backdrop, Toni has bravely approached the problem in a new way. It really does feel so refreshing and when I actually picked up the book and started reading I felt no resistance. It is written in an easy to understand, absorbing, humourous way (I laughed out loud at a bit about Sarah Palin!). Most importantly she takes us on her personal journey and explains how difficult she still finds some of the practices, rather than saying she has reached some level of perfection (enlightenment!) and therefore effortlessly copes with all day-to-day stresses and restrictions on her freedom. Of course she doesn’t, she is only human, and that approach allows us all to have a go, Buddhist or not.
It is really refreshing to read the examples she gives as I had also found myself in these exact same situations. Perhaps it is because Toni has ME/CFS and POTS as I do, that our experiences are so similar, but I expect that actually the experiences of chronically ill people are more universal, regardless of our specific conditions, than we realise. Which begs the question: Why is our experience so marginalised and misunderstood, even by people whose job it is so see us regularly, ie medical professionals? (See previous posts for where this issue is coming from for me!)
I have occasionally done Mindfulness of Breathing meditations over the years, in phases. I first started before I became ill when a monk came onto campus once a week when I was at university to do a guided meditation. I found very powerful and energising at the time. While it is harder to do in a body which is constantly uncomfortable and without your own monk to guide you (!), I have found that being guided by a recording is also good. The book made me see this practice in a new way and I feel encouraged to keep doing it and getting more and more from it.
Lastly I would like to say that even if you know nothing about Buddhism, this book is very accessible. It has sparked an interest in me to look at it further, especially the specific concepts that Toni works with in the book. (Michael Nobbs actually posted a link on his website to Audio Dharma and a talk about Embracing Imperfection, which echoed some ideas from Toni’s book. I just went to find the link to post here and see that Toni has done her own recording on the site! Small world.)
What really felt encouraging for me was that although I had not heard of many of the Buddhist ideas in the book, I found that I could relate to the practices. I realised I have been doing some of them by myself. For example, I do enjoy the joy of others more than I perhaps did at the start of my illness, even when I cannot participate in the source of that joy (although there are some people with which this is easier to do, than with others who make no acknowledgement of your own situation! I still have work to be done.). It is nice to feel that you have made some progress yourself inadvertently just by living with illness so long.
Some good news!
1. I am getting a wheelchair in two or three weeks after being assessed (it was not a gruelling assessment – just a nice woman who had a quick chat and then measured me up!). It is an NHS wheelchair, so it will be on long-term loan to me and they will pay for upkeep/repairs. It will be lightweight and have a headrest and a cushion! I am hoping it will be comfortable.
2. My application for a Blue Badge (disabled parking permit) has also been successful! I think this will be really useful and take the stress out of parking in many situations. It may open up some new options for places to go.
3. The itching has improved. It is still coming and going but is much better and almost as significant is that the night-time (drowsy) anti-histamines i am on seem to be really helping my sleep. The combined effect is that i seem to be sleeping better and my baseline for activity has been raised a little and i feel less manky in general. I have had some really bad days, but in each case it has been one day of payback which i can directly attribute to having done something; rather than just a bad day for no apparent reason. I am liking this new phase very much!
I have left the house a bit more than usual (at least once per week if only for a gentle/brief thing) whereas before i was not going out other than for essential appointments for weeks on end. A big change for me. Things seem a bit more possible and i feel i am recovering faster from doing things. I am still needing to have a sleep in the day, but i am finding it harder to get to sleep until a bit later in the day and am sleeping a little less. Before, I would often get up, have breakfast and check my emails etc. then have no choice but to just crawl back to bed. I feel more alive now. It is not a giant leap, but it is such a welcome break from the drudge of the past year really, which has seemed so retrograde overall, maybe this is the start of a better phase… Early days, it has only been two or three weeks! I know i am getting ahead of myself and am probably overstating the change, but it feels dramatic to me. Fingers crossed this “side effect” of the anti-histamines does not wear off… my mood was really struggling before – the itch was really driving me into depression as it was hard to cope with. I am feeling so relaxed now in comparison and my other pains are better too!
The best things have been going to a local art gallery and seeing the Hokusai print “Wave off Kanagawa” with a friend, and then, a week later, going to Cherryburn with my partner, where Thomas Bewick the local woodcut print-making legend was born. The afternoon at Cherryburn in particular I felt really good and my stamina was good. It was the best I have felt for many, many months. The sun was shining down on us and I felt so lucky to have made it out and to be enjoying a day trip with my partner. It was fun. We even stopped off in a pub for a cuppa on the way home (yes, that is two separate locations in one trip out!).
3. I have some lovely visitors coming to see me over the next few months, some end of May, some Mid-June and then another in August and we are going on holiday with her to a cottage up the coast from here – I am counting the days til my summer holiday! I did not think I would be able to go anywhere this year as I have been finding travel impossible, and also the itching has really limited my ability to sleep anywhere but my own bed (if i am lucky) and i cannot go anywhere without a bath, as showers are also a big no-no. I am still a little concerned about it as my skin is so sensitive to “lumpy” mattresses (and a million other things), and painful even if not always so itchy, but things are much better than they have been and now i think i will survive. We will be close to home anyway if things go wrong, but far away enough to feel like it’s a holiday!
4. I continue to be able to read and have just read The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker. It has sat on my shelves for over a decade and i am so glad i decided to read it at last! So well written, interesting, moving and grounding. I loved it. I have also bought two books in a second-hand shop (it was so great to be able to go in and browse them last week on a quick trip out!). Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov who several people tell me is worth reading but i have not read anything by him before, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I don’t know which to start with!
5. Just remembered another good thing! I am doing more drawing. I have been inspired by Michael Nobbs and his “75 ways to draw more”. The results are a bit mixed but at least i am doing something rather than waiting til i feel good enough to do something i think i actually “good”. A few minutes here of there can produce something, and something is better than nothing! I am being brave and posting them onto Flickr, as there is a “75 ways…” group there. I have had some nice comments from people who are evidently much better at drawing than me, which is generous of them!
So in summary, life doesn’t feel so bad at the moment, long may it last.