In my last post I mentioned that the short answer to recovery is taking care of myself. Now may I confess that I’m not very good at this. Yet. We are all subject to external pressures that prevent us from doing that which would serve our health best: we may have jobs, children, elderly parents, homes to run and so on which need to be factored in. I call these our external environment. I’ve found, however, that my internal environment has as much, if not more, bearing on my ability to look after myself. Allow me to explain this by reference to three examples:
Mental processes use a phenomenal amount of energy. I’m a solicitor. Until relatively recently I worked in a busy office. My job involved reading, writing, meetings, speaking, advising, meetings, analysing, planning, meetings, reporting, problem-solving, trouble-shooting, meetings, counselling, diplomacy and yes, meetings–lots of it and fast paced. Doing this over time has worn deep grooves in my brain. The need to use so much brainpower has disappeared but my brain craves stimulation and drives me to find it from other sources, the internet being the primary one.
No-one forces me to exhaust myself reading articles, blogs and tweets.
When I was in my first year at University I had a serious asthma attack, confining me to hospital for a week during which I was pumped full of intravenous steroids. When I got out I perceived myself as fat. Utterly horrified, I embarked on a restrictive diet, followed by a relieved binge. Thus started a lifetime of fasting and feasting, feeling great when I had my weight under control, a failure when I did not. I joined many slimming classes along the way, the ethos of these was to restrict fat intake. I equated eating solely with weight. I was addicted to diet coke. I’m ashamed to admit just how much of the stuff I drank. I’m still addicted to sugar. At no time did I consider food in terms of nourishing my body. Another groove worn into my brain.
No-one force feeds me unhealthy food.
I’ve been brought up to put the needs of others before those of mine. I’m very uncomfortable if people around me are unhappy and have the urge to fix situations. By doing so, I accept responsibility for what goes on in other people’s heads. Not only is this an energy-expensive process, it is ultimately doomed to failure. I find saying no to anyone an absolute anathema. If I do, I feel a pervasive sense of guilt. You’ve guessed it, another well-worn groove.
No-one forces me to please others.
Having acknowledged that I have ingrained patterns of thinking and behaviour that I recognise are barriers to my recovery, what can I do about it? After all, I’ve been 50 years in training to behave like this! The answer lies in the concept of neuroplasticity. I first read about this in Daniel Siegel’s book ‘Mindsight’ which I heartily recommend. Put simply, the brain is like a lump of plasticine. No matter how deep the grooves are worn, they can be smoothed away and replaced by healthier, more supportive paths.
This is not easy though. It is a process, not an event. It takes patience, dedication and effort. Most of all, it takes self-compassion. I cannot be harsh with myself if I find that I’m so engrossed in an article that I’ve exhausted myself, or eaten cake, or agreed to do something that I ought not to have done. I have read other peoples’ stories whereby they set rigid regimes for themselves with periods of activity and rest. I admire this approach greatly but I haven’t, as yet, managed to find a way in my life to make that work for me as I see it as setting myself up for failure.
Instead, I’m involved in a gradual process of deceleration where I am gentle and accepting, noticing any acts or patterns that don’t promote recovery and taking a break. I remind myself that I am ill, very ill, and must choose to take a different approach which, over time, will become ingrained.
By doing this, I bounce the boundaries of my glass case gently, easing my way back to health and vitality, largely by giving my sick body the rest it requires.
One final thought, the temptation to go wild on ‘good’ days needs to be resisted, gently and firmly. To paraphrase JFK, flood defences need to be built when the sun shines.
How good do you think I am at that?