How to Maintain Balance in Your Life When Your Health Is Poor
Hi, my name is Theophanes, and I have been struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, undiagnosed abdominal pain, migraines, and a slew of other health problems for the past two decades. If you've read any of my other articles you probably had no idea. It's OK, I have been avoiding the topic like the plague for years. Even though it's slowed me down, and given me an enormous amount of obstacles to surpass, I have a tendency to sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn't exist. In this way I can often pass as normal, healthy, functional, and frequently that is all I ever want. But perhaps it's time to acknowledge such a huge part of my identity if it means helping others cope. Below are the things I have found help keep me keep an essential balance in my life so I can continue to be productive, happy, and fulfilled despite all this.
1) Get Good Sleep
I know, we live in a society that's always screaming that sleep is for the weak. It seems to be the one thing everyone can cut down on. I mean really, what is so great about sleep? It's not productive, you're not doing anything, or are you? Sleep is actually essential to maintaining adequate health or regaining better health. Without it we're pretty useless. Not getting enough sleep puts our immune systems in a precarious spot where it finds it more difficult to fight off illness so an ill slept person is also the first one to catch the flu every year. They're also the ones who stay down the longest trying to fight it off. But it's not just our immune system taking a heavy blow, it's also our minds. Everyone knows that when they don't get enough sleep their cognitive function slowly gets worse and worse but do we realize just how badly? Recent studies suggest being awake for 17-19 hours has the same effect on cognitive function as being legally intoxicated. And these people are driving, sober, but just as badly. This puts everyone in danger. And if that's not enough to make you want a few extra Z's, a lack of sleep can also wreak havoc on our digestive system, making it harder to absorb nutrients and more likely to sop up empty calories and pack on weight. To make matters worse cravings for junk food sky rocket when you're tired making this problem twofold. People with chronic health problems need even more sleep to recover both physically and mentally. Did I mention being overtired often causes alterations in mood? Depression becomes more of a problem, anxiety too.
I get it. Most of us are overworked in one way or another and we end up awake longer just because we're dealing with our every day realities. But still. You need to find the time for sleep and you need to be able to actually sleep. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, plotting out what to do tomorrow, is not sleeping. I know this because I am the worse insomniac on the planet. I also am a light sleeper so I know how important it is for everything to be dark and quiet. Sleep is one of our most basic needs so you'd think we'd all be really good at it but really it takes a lot of time and effort to make it work for us and not against us.Even those of us that do sleep well can sometimes feel guilty afterwards! I sure did, for years, considering my various health issues could have me sleeping more than twelve hours a day during bad stretches... but there was no way around it and no, I wasn't being lazy, or depressed, I was just trying to get back on my feet and there's no shame in that.
I know what you're muttering under your breath right now. "Duh, exercise is what everyone says I need." We get this message from our doctors, from society, from our loved ones.... which makes us hate it all the more, but even people with chronic fatigue, which studies suggest exercise makes worse, still need some. I think I understand why we all hate it so much, it's because whenever it comes up we're directed to the gym or a home exercise machine, and these things feel absolutely futile. There's no immediate benefit to be seen in them so it's hard to feel positive about it. There's also no real goal or other people to hang around like in sports which sucks the fun out of it. I'm not fond of this either.
For me I try to do something that's actually useful. I take a walk in the woods and regain peace and balance in my spirit. I garden, landscape, or build things. For me seeing that I have accomplished something makes it worth it and on days when I can't push myself I try to just gently pace a little, just to keep my strength up. After one particularly bad attack when I was sixteen I ended up hospitalized and when I came back home I found I couldn't walk to the end of my very short, very flat, street without getting winded because I had atrophied so bad. No sixteen year old should be in that position! From then on I tried to do better and I did.
For me I struggle not to overextend myself because that always ends in a health crash. Usually I am conscious enough of my own limits to make sure this doesn't happen but I have had a lot of practice and even now still occasionally do. However getting exercise helps me sleep at night, helps relax both my mind and body, and gives me a little boost of positive energy. All these things are great for maintaining a happy balance in your life.
3) Examine Your Relationship with Food
Our relationship with food extends further than just knowing what we should and shouldn't eat. It's also about finding things that are nutritious, not over eating, and eating on a schedule that lets your body know that you're not going through a time of stress, like a drought, at which point you will pack on the pounds. For me eating is more of a struggle to remember to eat than anything. Since I had my gall bladder lobbed out I haven't had hunger pains so I can go all day without remembering to eat anything. And because of this I also don't have much of an incentive to eat when I could just be up doing something and not wasting my time cooking... but it's not a waste of time and it is really beneficial to eat regularly. When you skip meals your body starts to think it's because you don't have access to food so whatever you do eat at that point goes straight to fat storage, meaning the less you eat can actually make you gain weight! Of course so too can over eating. It's always a chore to be conscious of when we're actually hungry, when we need food, and what food that should be. On top of all this we need to not stress out about food too much because at the end of the day we should still be enjoying it!
For me I have a little garden where I plant a few veggies here and there. Most of them I actually can't eat in any real capacity. A slice of raw tomato is pretty much where my digestive capacity lies since having my gall bladder removed. I was told then I probably wouldn't be able to eat fried food but everything else should be fine. However I have learned my stomach does just fine with fried food - it's raw fruits and vegetables that piss it off now! Oh well, c'est la vie.
4) Learn to Keep a Balance with Your Work
In the United States the business world is cold, calculating, and heartless. It demands its workers to be on call all the time, during business hours or at home, or else suffer the consequences of being fired. For some reason we've allowed so many sociopaths into positions of power that it has become normal to look at workers and employees as completely expendable like cogs in a machine. If one breaks, get another! This has bred fear into the workforce because we all know we're replaceable at a moments notice and most of the people my age are working off student loans. I get it. It's almost impossible to turn it off but you have to. No job is worth sending you into poor mental and physical health.
There needs to be a time to be unreachable. This means not just your work but people as well. Take time off! EVERY DAY. Even if this time off is just an hour stroll through the woods where you turn off your ringer, do it. You will be so much better off! Other great ways to take mini vacations include taking a bath, playing a sport, indulging in a hobby, or just relaxing with a good book.
5) Avoid Toxic People
Most people with chronic illness will find that they only have a set amount of energy to spend on anything and frequently this energy can be drained very quickly by certain people. You may find as your life slows down you can't even be in the presence of someone who is dramatic or toxic, that even just listening to them talk sucks the life out of your marrow. They're energy vampires and they're feeding off what they get off you and everyone else. If you have one of these people in your vicinity please, for all that is good in the world, get rid of them, or at the very least greatly reduce your exposure to them. You are responsible only for taking care of yourself, and if you don't do this you'll never be able to take care of anyone else, so keep yourself the priority and get rid of toxic people! It might be lonely at first once they're gone but the people you'll eventually replace them with will be calm, supportive, and will actually give you energy, not take it.
6) Try to Maintain a Positive Attitude
This one is really difficult, I know. Actually to be honest I did a very poor job of this in the beginning. I got sick at twelve and by the time I was fourteen I was forced by my mounting pains to stop going to school. My lifelong dreams of being a paleontologist were dashed. I lost all my friends. I became isolated and withdrawn. I felt like I was being punished for something. But that was the wrong way to look at it.
Life didn't go as I anticipated but I actually do not see getting sick as being a completely bad thing in my life. It forced me to slow down, to take my Type A personality and focus it to a fine point. I no longer had time for people who were not worth having in my life, but I did have time for the ones who meant the world to me. I no longer had the energy to do a normal job, but instead I found myself giving back to the community, and living a far more fulfilling life. Since those lonely teenage years I have been faced with some momentous ups and downs, gains and losses, and each time a tsunami hits me I feel like this may be the last time, but it never is. I pick myself up, I find some tiny piece of beauty in the world, and focus on these fleeting happy moments to get me through the day, until the storm passes. This takes time to retrain your brain from beating yourself up to saying, "This is just another challenge I've been given for a reason, a positive reason even though I can't see what it is right now." And believe it or not it's true. Everything makes sense in the end, because everything is connected, but it may take you a long time to see the big picture. In the meantime keep the faith that you will be in on the secret someday. When you put positive vibes out there that's what you'll eventually get back. It's a lot better than sulking and commiserating which attracts other sulkers and commiseraters.
7) Never Stop Laughing
I always said the day I stop laughing will be the end of me. Through the darkest of times, no matter how depressed or defeated I have felt, I always maintained a sharp sense of humor. Granted it's frequently dark and offends a great deal of people but I'm OK with that. I realize people who are offended by dark humor are people who live in a bubble and have not had to face the things I've had to face. They believe you can just ignore uncomfortable topics and they'll go away, but warriors like myself like to stare death in the eye and say, "Hey there! Have you come to take me or is this just a tea break? I got cookies if that helps..."
8) Enjoy Silence, Music, and Laughter
Sometimes when you're down your brain can't process much of anything and all you want it silence to restore the balance. It's OK to need that and you should take it when you do, but when you don't make sure to listen to music from time to time. It heals the soul, it makes up happy, and it helps us deal with our emotions. Scientific studies have actually shown men who listen to aggressive music are actually less likely to be aggressive themselves. Why? Probably because it's a lot more therapeutic to scream along to Death Metal than it is to bludgeon the neighbor. I'm not saying you should listen to Death Metal, unless you want to, but I am saying music is an effective mood stabilizer and should be used as such. Laughter on the other hand is great for all sorts of reasons. It bonds us with other people, it gives us a great core muscle work-out, it can clean out or tear ducts and occasionally our bladders (shout-out to all the women out there!) I have never seen laughter cause harm. It's an awesome thing to keep in your life.
9) Always Take a Moment to Observe the Tiny Things in Life
It's really easy to be overwhelmed by the big picture and everything that's going on, to be completely washed away in the current of your life, but this will always bring misery. People get disconnected and isolated when this happens and that breaks us down spiritually and emotionally. A great way to combat this is to just breathe, take a moment to do nothing but find some tiny thing and really look at it. Maybe it's a butterfly, a bug, or a mushroom, maybe it's a flower on your windowsill, a soft fluffy pillow you like the texture of, or the taste of your favorite dessert. If you force yourself to be conscious of these small things you'll find great happiness in them. More so you'll find other little points of wonder all around you. Life suddenly doesn't seem so hard when you can turn it off, even if it is just for a moment.
10) Pursue Hobbies and Art
I'm really quite annoyed living in a society that thinks so poorly or art and expression that it cuts art classes from every public school's curriculum, actively discourages young people from taking up jobs in creative fields, and brow beats the rest of us to do something "more productive" with our time than read, write, knit, sew, sing, or create! It's stifling to live in a world where everyone is expected to more or less be the same and we can express our own beautiful uniqueness through our art and hobbies. Be proud of who you are and what you can accomplish, no matter how frivolous it may seem! Art feeds the soul,expands the mind, calms the senses. One day I found myself sitting in a waiting room knitting some little thing when an old man kvetched to his wife, "I don't know what the point of that is. It takes so long, might as well just buy one and be over with it." The point is it's better than doing nothing, staring at the walls for half an hour, and on top of that I am enjoying creating something!
All these baby steps help go in the right direction. If we keep our minds open we will continue to learn, to meet the right people, to evolve as individuals, and to be connected to the community. This is how we live the most meaningful and robust life despite any other challenges we may have. For those of us taking the slow path we may find this journey spiritual in nature as we come to know the deeper truths in life. It's like taking a step back in order to take a much bigger step forward. Everyone's journey is different, everyone's challenges are unique, and no one will ever be able to compare their own struggles to those around them but we can learn to be more empathetic and understanding. We can strive to better ourselves as human beings and be there for others when they fall. In the end isn't that what life is really about?
**All photos in this article were taken by myself in my various journeys. Photography was another wonderful way to slow down and see the beauty surrounding me. I hope you enjoyed them.**