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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
In our house we are always aware and try to stay positive
In this week alone I have attended appointments, analysed behaviour, dealt with anger and anxiety by lying down on the floor. And when not talking a lot about buses, I have volunteered with a charity supporting parents and attended online seminars to help us. Because everyday in our house is an Autism day. So as I celebrate World Autism Awareness day, I think that about how it makes our lives in some ways a little different. It also keeps us busy and on our toes.
Even in the busiest weeks like this, I think about the other elements that are just joyful. We love stimming in our house, self-stimulatory behaviours like bouncing, flapping hands, humming that gives lots of feedback to his sensory system. It can soothe, help processing and just be for fun.
He loves to bounce on an OT ball because it feels good. He asked me to video how high he was going on the ball now because he thinks he almost touches the ceiling. It is alarmingly high now and the images are a blur of excited body bouncing. There was so much to celebrate with school term finished and a new update for a game he likes. And I love to see him happy like this.
We also like to celebrate neurodiversity in our house. He has such indepth knowledge around his special subjects. The great long lists of motorways or bus types or bus routes that litter our house capture him with an admirable passion. I love how his type of brain can focus on its interest and learn so much. Steve Silberman talks about in his book Neurotribes. I don’t of course prescribe to the Rainman stereotype of autistic intelligence, but where brains do work differently, surely we can value that. When I think of what he is able to remember, because his visual skills are stronger than mine, and how despite his attention impairment, he can sit at something he likes for hours, I can’t help admire this trait.
Finally, we are a house that tries to stay positive but I hope also honest. I have written before about sleep disturbances and anxiety issues that do impact our life. World Autism Awareness Day is not a day to complain that it is hard. More to say I wish some elements of his condition didn’t make his life hard. I am reminded of a meme that says “He’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time.” Some of the challenges can be very wearing and I don’t always handle them well. But there is one thing I am certain of, our lives are so much better for our excited, bouncy, joyful bus-lover. And the World is much better for him too.
Happy World Autism Day! Let’s today and all days celebrate!
Sometimes I find it easier to listen than read but it still feels like cheating
I love a challenge to motivate me and so for the last few years I have had a Goodreads account annual challenge. In 2020 over half the books I read on there were manually added as they were audiobooks that I finished and don’t register automatically. It’s pretty obvious I have wanted to escape. And frankly be soothed by wonderful narrators like Stephen Fry.
In fact the audiobooks have had a unique place in my life during the pandemic. Spending so much time either inside (and trying not to hear youtube all the time – my son is obsessed) or walking around my neighbourhood, I have wanted things that are easy for me to do. And often I could not concentrate long enough to read, either because my anxious brain has been on overdrive or my fatigue has made concentration harder. Remember when I used to complain about not having a room of one’s own. The irony has deepened in the last year. The age of the headphones in our house.
I have read some amazing books in 2020. But I have also needed to forget myself in a book. Recently I listened again to The Discovery of Witches, having just watched the Sky series and being sure they missed important parts! It may be the familiarity of these books that helps bring some small measure of certainty. Phoebe Reads a Mystery was another favourite. Often mysteries in particular follow a formula to some extent, driving towards a usually satisfying conclusion. Offering an odd sort of stability to these odd times.
Part of me (probably the part that studied English,) thinks I am cheating on “real” books. But I find that I remember in much more depth what has happened in a book when I listen to it. Most of these books I had read the book first. I have a terrible habit of skipping over names when I read. And speed reading means I may miss the finer points. I probably am more of an aural learner, always finding lectures a good place to learn at University. I just wished it had occurred to me all that time ago that I could listen to books. Particularly those texts I found so arduous such as Paradise Lost (still haven’t finished it) and Shakespeare. For some reason though there is still this snobbery that reading a book is superior to listening to it. Odd when both these were written to read aloud.
In the Bored and Brilliant project which I tried earlier this year, Manoush Zomorodi explains how reading online all the time has changed our ability to concentrate and take in information. It may be that our brain takes in information differently from physical texts than scrolling. One reason is that you are even more likely to skim read online, apparently. So in comparison, it may be that I take much more in when I am listening to audiobooks.
There is something to be said that there was clearly at time in relative recent history where storytellers would learn swathes of texts or poems and recite them. In China, there would be a tradition of relaying a story and a complex commentary. Feats of memory we cannot imagine now. This though does suggest that there is something about how our memory is fired up when listening to a story.
I have set a challenge again for 2021 but I think it’s time I cut myself some slack and count listening as reading.
Do you prefer audiobooks, ebooks or the real thing?
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.