Reuniting is the best Self-Care

Real life is returning

I am a little late updating the blog this week because real life is on the return. For now, restrictions have lifted a second time and we have been allowed to travel to see family outside and go back to shops. I have been busier than I have been for a while and had to work hard to get the balance right as I am still managing fatigue.

I think it is interesting to reflect on the very first things I wanted to do now that life can return somewhat. As well as getting my hair cut for the first time for seven months, I did wander into town. It was so busy and I had little desire to shop (a cardigan may have slipped into my bag, I confess.) But I did feel the need to see people I know so I visited my old work place to catch up with friends who work there. Reconnecting, even if it is just the casual trips to cafes or seeing a familiar faces, felt like such a tonic.

I recently took a self -care assessment from Therapist Aids. I could identify a few areas where I had a deficit at the moment but by far my lowest score was in the socialising category. There’s a great explanation on the Get Self Help website about how many elements feed into self-care, and interacting with others is part of the picture. It’s surprising but studies show that social contact, even if it’s the everyday pleasantries with people in your community, can improve your life. An article in the Washington Post about the studies show it is “psychologically protective” to have casual daily interactions. And all of this we have been missing a lot of the last year.

Socialising can be simple interactions (but with masks of course) Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Missing people has become a difficult part of the year. And so the most important part of the week were the two separate trips we arranged to see family. On neither occasion could we manage long walks, what with my fatigue and my son struggling to be back in a busy environment, but to be together as soon as we could was so important. Even though with kids around you can barely finish a sentence together, there is a calmness that comes with being around people who “get you”. I have always enjoyed visiting with my closest family members, but there is an added layer of appreciation after we have been forced apart for so long.

I think that given the busy week I would expect to be very tired this weekend but so far I have been alright. I think it reminds us that doing the things that nourishes us, boosts our happiness, really does have an impact even when there is an actual physical problem that causes our tiredness. In amongst I have managed two 45 minute sessions of writing. So not only does self-care allow me to manage my fatigue, it is helping with my creativity too. Despite it all, I really can see the glimmer of normal.

How to give your brain a break

Seeking soothing activities recently, I have found some things are much gentler on the brain than others

I was writing recently about how important audiobooks have been over the last year. It has been really important to give myself permission to ‘count’ these books as reading. It motivates me to have a reading goal but the realistic picture has been I can concentrate much less at the moment. Since getting ill in January, I have had post viral fatigue to manage. And this includes giving my brain a break.

In fact I haven’t had much choice about giving it a break as I often find apart from first thing in the morning, my brain is sluggish. Learning more about pacing to cope with fatigue, I am realising that this early morning burst of reading or writing is most likely impacting my ability to do more the rest of the day. Reading is an activity. Sounds such a simple thing to say but until you realise it has an impact on your cognitive functioning, you may not appreciate lying on your bed reading is doing something!

Another revelation that may be of no surprise to anyone else, you have to relearn how to rest. Again, at times, I have no choice but to rest. Lots of lying down at the moment! But we are so used to being busy, cramming in our friendships through social media, using any spare time to read or listen to podcasts to learn something. Stopping it all and prioritizing what you want to spend your energy on is a real skill.

Find What Soothes You

So, to give my brain a break, I am becoming very aware of what soothes me and also what takes too much brain power. Here are some ideas of my soothing swaps:

  1. Audiobooks: A lot of relistening. I have recently started the complete collection of Jeeves and Wooster read by Stephen Fry, not only do I know the stories, they are light fippery that I can enjoy without worrying too much about concentrating. Gentle humour keeps it light but means I am not bored.
  2. Classical music: there are a lot of soothing playlists readymade on Spotify and Classical Chillout has helped me relax. Sometimes even lyrics are too distracting. Short pieces of classical music often whisk you away somewhere.
  3. Short bursts of reading: where I can manage reading, I try to tead from my “comfort reading” list such as a Maisie Dobbs mystery which though often tender, have also a cosiness about them. It’s the perfect time to revisit old friends.
  4. Beautiful costume drama. I enjoyed the steamy romp of Bridgerton earlier this year, but honestly right now I am more in the mood for the gentler stuff. Rewatching, like relistening and rereading is very soothing because there are no suprises. You can’t beat the BBCs Pride and Prejudice or the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility.
  5. Doodling in a sketch book. I am even finding colouring in detailed patterns in a colouring book too much at times. I have been doing warm up drawing exercises in a sketch book, shading and drawing circles. Circles are actually a zen practice and I can see the appeal as you never truly know until you finish how well you have drawn it.

What I discover as I write a list of what helps me is that I am looking for comfort in familiarity. But also, that my brain is one that still has to be entertained. As I find this balance of what does and doesn’t work for me, I wonder if I will ever find I can just do nothing?

It may be time to revisit the Bored and Brilliant project again and consider Manoush Zomorodi advice that “Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Do you ever just do nothing?

Pacing

My body can’t keep pace with life at the moment

I thought I knew tired because of sleep disturbance and anxiety brain etc. But I didn’t know fatigue. It makes me achy, it has me forgetting words and it’s got me lying down every afternoon. I am sharing this because I think life is also what happens to you.

I have tried to explain this before, to friends who were finishing their degrees and worried about what next. That question doesn’t get easier, nor does it always go to plan. I don’t mean we have to be passive, just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round; it means to expect life to throw you curveballs more often than not. My metaphors are so mixed there but I am going to put it down to brain fog and move on. Change is the only constant. And however ambitious you may be, you may have to change your plans.

So weeks on now since my initial infection of covid19 and I am still struggling to manage the fatigue. I had a giddy few days where I felt stronger and I gaily went a-walking across Richmond Park. A gentle walk with lots of stopping to read, meditate and chat on the phone. But still, a long, luxurious walk. And then a meeting. By the end of the same week I was done-in. Come Monday after, I was sleeping most the day. I full-on crashed.

So my body is demanding that I slow down. That I pace myself. This includes how I spend my time. Less writing, only short walks, maybe even fewer hours at work.

I have been listening to podcasts about slow living and gathering ideas here on Pinterest. Because of course I can’t just slow down, I have to do research too. So, I have started to gather all the advice to me. I have to focus on one activity at once. And prioritise where I spend my energy. I also have to be realistic that I won’t get the pace right straight away.

Fatigue is a metaphor for my writing life in some ways; sometimes you do go slower than others but because you have no choice. What is most important is to go at your own pace.

What it’s like to be different

So, right now we have it easier than a lot of parents. But we also have it different.

Watching my friends struggle through the rigours of home learning these last few months, often holding down full time work, I have been in awe. It is an unfathomable situation for many and I have written before about how much I admire my friends going through this pandemic. The education expectations have been heightened this time so there has been even less chance than last year to take time for yourself. And so in many ways we have been lucky, our son has gone to school so that he can have his routine and a differentiated curriculum. He also needs extra support like OT and Speech and Language which school have to make best efforts to fulfil under the terms of the EHCP.

We had our own mini-experience of the challenges of home learning in lockdown three. We had to coax our son through remote school during our ten days isolation. This included me sitting on the end of the sofa in a mask or shouting from my isolation bedroom to get him to engage. Obviously my husband did the lion’s share (I was ill with covid).I was amazed that we actually managed any of the tasks set. Like lots of children, he has zero motivation and two baffled parents trying to explain a curriculum that looks nothing like anything we ever learnt. So we did what we could and rewarded any effort with the iPad. He wasn’t too fussed about staying in all that time but I was very ready for the routine (and sleep that come with it) to return.

We are really privileged to get the help we need. Amongst all those people struggling to educate their children at home are many children with disabilities and special needs who don’t meet the criteria of going into school or cannot because of health risks. Special Needs Jungle reported recently on the number of children who have their “Provision Denied” in the current circumstances. Without specific actions to address this, their research suggests there may be even greater gaps in learning for these children. As such I feel a real marked difference from many of the parents I know, whether parents of children with special needs, or parents of neurotypical children.

Because he needs something different, we also happen to experience the world a little differently. There are sometimes little shocks like when I hear babies babbling. I didn’t know until much later that my son didn’t babble. He is a talkative fellow now, he just needed some extra support to chatter away to us. At times there are slights which sting, friends will listen to me talk about challenging behaviour and compare my son to their much younger child. Although I too will find it helpful to see a rough picture of child development and (ignoring the age categories), celebrate that he has reached a milestone of new behaviour. He became an appallingly bad liar recently which I am secretly celebrating as a major stage of social understanding that is completely new for us!

Photo by Quintin Gellar on Pexels.com

I don’t mean to compare my life to others, and especially not to people’s highlight reel on social media. But I share these experiences to explain that we are on a different path. It is a country road we are taking. Not even necessarily slower to get to the same spot. If you happen to be stuck in traffic on the motorway, (for example when you are unwillingly home-schooling your child and I am not,) our car may get somewhere quicker. We may even end up in the same places sometimes (for example our son may end up in a job or at university the same as any other children I know). But we are not travelling there the same way. and the picnic I packed is a little different.

This experience of feeling a little different, reminds me of what my son might feel at times. He is not really sure why he goes to school at the moment, for example. Difference can feel isolating at times. But part of my lesson about acceptance is what I see in children in his class all the time. True inclusion in society is not ignoring that there is diversity in experience, but acceptance that not everyone goes about things the same way and just getting on with the journey that you have to take.

Are you counting down until your children go back to school or will you really miss the fun you’ve been having?

Never a good time

What has 2020 taught you about planning life?

Like a lot of fans of Gretchen Rubin’s, I made a list of 20 for 2020 last December. It had already been a challenging time but during my Happiness Project I identified areas that I could spend more time on: friendship, writing, wellness. So in 2019 I made a list of things to do, things to achieve.

I had already identified that it was a challenge for me to keep on track with goals my post in 2019 I had goals so I don’t know if I was setting myself up to fail with the new list for 2020. I know that I had tried to be more specific ie. write first three chapters of my new project, rather than arbitary time goals. I didn’t know of course what challenges 2020 were about to throw me.

Like many making resolutions, I started quite well. Reconnecting with a friend in London, blogging more and having specific targets for my writing. And then, out of the blue, I became my son’s teacher as well as working from home. I got the worst bout of anxiety I have probably ever experienced (I mean who didn’t) and then a snowball of personal circumstances changed. Out of control and uncertainty being the main themes of the year.

Slowly, writing targets went way down the list. So did healthy habits like swimming and actually using gym – hello lockdown. Now I could have reviewed those goals when we first went into lockdown. Adjusted the schedule, used the million online workouts or free classes. I could have done a lot of things. But I didn’t.

I certainly have friends who were able to achieve a lot. In fact I have friends in many different boats, as I wrote about last year. For some their lockdown life seemed to bring out their drive to embrace life: friends who learnt languages, rededicated themselves to keyboard playing, made renovations or wrote books (hmm). It is hard not to judge myself harshly that I didn’t complete my list when there are these examples of productivity around me.

I learnt in a wellness seminar this year that in times of stress we all have a window of tolerance. Dan Siegel‘s term means that we have a zone that we are most effective but in difficult times some people will go more towards over-action or hyper-arousal, others will gravitate towards inaction or hypo-arousal. So in some ways this may explain how I could lack motivation when others seemed to be doing so much. We all cope in different ways. While setting goals may give some people a sense of control over their lives, for me it has often served to mark how little I have achieved and in 2020 that feeling was very apparent.

So, it may come as a surprise that I have once again set about to make a list 21 for 2021. The categories were very similar to last year and it was easy to see what would be important this year. Reconnection after months apart from love ones was a big theme. As was health after my recent brush with mild covid. But what I have also done is divide these goals into subsections under each theme, and started a bullet journal to track certain habits like reading and yoga. I have tried to break down the goals in specific and I am going to focus on each by what I can achieve month by month.

This first month is all about trying to feel well again. It is about not pushing myself too hard as I am dealing with post-viral fatigue (a few weeks in and my body is demanding I go slow.) I will try and report back on each month’s achievements here. I will also try and not beat myself up. Goals shouldn’t be punishments but a way of making our lives, as Rubin would say, “a little happier.”