Chronic Illness and the Writer: A Series (Part 2)

Last week I posted the first post in this series on chronic illness and the writer. Today I want to share with you some tips I’ve found to be helpful. I’m not qualified to say these will work for everyone. I just know they have, on occasion, worked for me. You know your body better than anyone and your illness as well. Let no one tell you what will work best for you. Decide for yourself. 

Tips for the not so good days.

Before I get started with the tips, I want you to know I am the worst at following my own advice. However, I am still learning at 72 what I need in my life to function and be happy. Yes, I have my low moments, maybe even days, but you have to pick up and keep on moving, so to speak.

Today I’m sharing the first five of ten tips for those not so great days. Next week we’ll look at the remaining five.

1. Establish a routine.

A routine for your days gives you something solid to return to after one or more not so good days. I once had a rheumatologist give me the following instructions to cope with fibromyalgia:

You need to establish a set time to wake up each morning, same time every day. The same should be done in the evening, a set time to go to sleep. The bedroom needs to be dark, no light at all. Also no TV or music in the background. Clear your mind. If you can visualize, think of a way to clear the things from your to do list that perhaps didn’t get finished today. Eat a healthy diet, get exercise no matter how bad you hurt, drink lots of water, and get plenty of rest.

I worked hard at his instructions after several days of pure anger at his thinking he could tell me what to do. At the end of several weeks, I began to feel better. And thanks to him, fibromyalgia isn’t a part of my chronic issues today. The only element in this advice I’m unable to commit to currently is getting the exercise.

If need be, write little and often. Don’t set yourself up for writing five or six hours straight and ending up fatigued. Because there are other tasks throughout the day which call us at the ready, we need able to withstand the energy they require too. Our illnesses and pain drain our energy level and we need to protect ourselves from draining our energy source.

Spoon theory for chronic illnesses

One method of protecting against excessive loss of energy and the end result of fatigue is The Spoon Theory. The brainchild of Christine Miserandino, The Spoon Theory exists to provide a simple method of gauging your energy usage task by task. Read Christine’s post here and her explanation will be much better than any I could write for you. I understand and appreciate this theory but have not personally tried it.

2. Be flexible with your goals.

It’s easy to get caught up in the list mode when looking at your goals for the year, a month, a day, a week. It’s also easy to beat yourself up if you miss a goal. That only adds to your discomfort.

Sometimes it’s what we read or hear that pushes to meet our goals on a regular basis. As a writer, I’m sure you’ve heard that “to be a writer, you must write every day.” My thinking here is the author of those words never suffered from a chronic illness and/or pain. Trust me–if he/she had, they wouldn’t have written those words. So, what are you to do?

Let’s say you set a goal to write 1,000 words each day. Some days you may meet that goal. But others you may only write 500. Then on a really good day you write 3,000 words. And on your worst days you write nothing. Do you see how this all may balance out in the end? This is where my next tip comes into play.

3. Be honest with those who need to know.

When I was still a working girl in the private sector of the Portland legal community, I pushed every day to get to work no matter how bad I felt or hurt. I continued to work long, overtime hours in spite of my physical condition. Honesty with others about my chronic conditions left me vulnerable and fearful they might judge me as lazy or goofing off. An incident a few weeks later taught me differently.

The memory of this particular day is still fresh in my mind. It was during my years of coping with fibromyalgia. I knew I really wasn’t able to cope with a full much less an overtime day and three attorneys. Each one of the attorneys expected me at his/her beck and call. The work was flowing across my counter in front of my desk like Niagara Falls.

One of my three attorneys had left me gifts of several tapes to transcribe and I had done a couple of them. I picked up another just as I was interrupted by a ringing phone. I put the tape in my transcription machine and voila, I hit the ERASE button. Didn’t even phase me. It hit the end and I rewound it and didn’t think about it at all until he asked about the finished product. That’s when I realized I had been walking a tightrope with no security net that day. I burst into tears and explained to my senior attorney what was going on. He called my husband to meet us at our home, and he drove me there and told me to take off the rest of the week. Understanding? Oh, yes. Fears warranted? Never. It was all in my head and my upbringing.

Be honest and upfront with those who need to know.

4. Find ways to adapt your workspace to your needs.

Most importantly, make certain your desk, computer, and chair are ergonomic to fit your physical needs. Search online for charts showing the distances necessary to make these three things just right. During the last two-plus years, I’ve spent many hours using my laptop while sitting in my recliner because it was the most comfortable place for my back and other injured areas.

I keep a pain-killing cream nearby (Aspercreme with lidocaine 4%). It really works quickly to erase the low-grade pain. Also, the freezer is stocked with ice packs for deeper and more intense pain. On the days, the pain is at its worst, I simply call it a day and do other things, like pick up a good book and read it all the way through. I listen to music and knit, or I succumb to adult coloring books. With my mother-in-law’s kitchen stool from the farm where my husband grew up, I can pretty well prep and cook meals. Little things are all it takes to make it easy to do what I need to do, or not.

5. Don’t compare yourself to healthy folks.

This is an area where I lose ground easily. Especially during the seasons I love, spring and summer. Right now, I’m envious of those out planting gardens and having the ability to be outside actively working in their yards. What I should be doing is thinking about all the things I can do that they can’t. Comparisons never work in your favor in the instance of healthy vs. unhealthy.

When you’re a writer, it’s doubly easy to succumb to the successes of your fellow authors. For example, when you’re on Twitter or Facebook, someone always has a cover reveal to share, or announces they’re signing with a new agent, or sharing they got a gargantuan publishing deal from one of the big houses! And you’re sitting there wishing you could just write 1,000 words a day. Remember this, if nothing else, we can’t all be Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or Alice Hoffman. So just be the best you can be.

≈ ≈ ≈

Until next time and Part 3,

 

 

 

 

Chronic Illness and the Writer | A Series (Part 1)

What defines a chronic illness?

Depending on what resource you use, you may find a variety of answers to this question. However, in my research as a writer and a patient, it appears the duration of an illness usually labels it as “chronic.” The length required in the health insurance industry is a duration of at least three months or longer. Overall, the medical profession usually considers one year as defining chronic illness.

An article authored by Wullianallur Raghupathi and Viju Raghupathi and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Health (the “Raghupathi findings”) shares the following definition of chronic illness:

‘a physical or mental health condition that lasts more than one year and
causes functional restrictions or requires ongoing monitoring or treatment’

Three months doesn’t seem all that long, and yet a year seems like a long time to be under the veil of illness. But suppose the illness or condition lasts longer. Let’s say the rest of your life. Based on your age, that could be several decades or a few years. Take into account the illness or condition and it could be a stressful situation for you and perhaps those you love.

How many people suffer from chronic illnesses?

The Raghupathi findings state that almost half of all Americans (45% or 133 million) suffer from one or more chronic conditions or illnesses. The persistence of such illnesses drive up hospitalizations, insurance costs, long-term disability payments, and death. The only factor showing a downward movement is the quality of life.

A quick look at some common chronic illnesses.

The following listing was compiled with the assistance of the Internet and should not be considered all-inclusive:

As noted, this is not a complete listing of chronic illnesses or conditions that fall under the description used by insurance companies or healthcare facilities as “chronic.” For example, there are numerous conditions which create chronic pain in some individuals. Likewise, respiratory conditions are diagnosed which over the long-term will cause a patient to struggle with chronic breathing issues.

Before moving on, I want to clarify that this post is written with writers in mind. However, it is not intended to imply that other individuals, no matter their profession or career, don’t fall victim to chronic illnesses and the struggles mentioned here. My personal experience is my lens into the subject matter and, therefore, writers and writing are my focus here.

Also, I am not a medical professional. Any tips and/or advice shared are my personal tools for coping. Before using them, you should consult your personal physician.

Coping with a chronic illness.

Coping with chronic illness is not easy for anyone. Chronic illness disrupts not only the victim’s life but also the lives of family, friends, co-workers, and on and on. A chronic illness often begins a cycle of many other changes in the victim’s life, including the onset of depression, lack of society, changing eating habits, level of physical activity, often outward appearance, and more.

The side effects of the chronic illness or pain are sometimes more destructive than the primary illness itself. For example, depression is a component of my chronic pain. Days become long and sad when all your energy is focused on controlling the pain. Certain prescription medications, such as opioids, make bad matters worse in some instances.

Depression can lead to anger and frustration with never-ending illness or pain. When there are no new answers or treatments, it is easy to fall into a pattern of anger and often your anger is taken out on someone rather than the thing creating your emotional upset.

Sometimes you feel like burying your head under the covers and hibernating as a bear does in winter. But this isn’t a solution either. Withdrawing from the society of family and community leaves you feeling lonely, adding to the cycle of depression and anger.

Needless to say, none of these cyclical add-on symptoms help the main cause of the chronic illness knocking on the door of your life.

How does a writer function under these circumstances?

As writers, we’re encouraged to write every day. What do you do when every day isn’t always a good day? How do you move on with your writing when medications leave you in a mental fog? If your pain level is so intense nothing brings relief, how do you manage to put words on the page?

I can tell you firsthand it isn’t easy. You want to write, but somehow you can’t. You search for something that will trigger the flow of words, but nothing happens. Your head seems to be swirling out of control, and then…

Your mind becomes filled with a massive list of questions:

  • How will I meet my deadline?
  • How will I ever get through the edits on my manuscript?
  • I need to get out and get some research done. How can I manage that?
  • Getting out of bed to get my family out the door in the mornings is a challenge. What can I do to make it any easier for me, them?
  • Some days the depression envelops me. How can I break that cycle?
  • I’m angry and frustrated that my life is controlled by a chronic illness/pain. Is there some way to resolve this emotional state I’m in?
  • And likely this list could grow ad infinitum.

Conclusion.

Here is a good place to end Part 1. In Part 2, I share answers to some of the above questions and tips for coping with the chronic nature of some illnesses and pain.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and/or stories about someone you know who has a chronic illness or your own story if you’re comfortable doing so.