Christmas in the (Brain) Fog

I am looking forward to the Christmas holidays and working out how to see through the fog

I can feel the pressure of making Christmas magic rising as I write. As a parent, I have a strong desire to make the young ones’ Christmas a special, sparkly time but what do you do when your brain is not at it’s shiniest best. Last year we couldn’t even see our families, so now we hopefully can socialise there is an expectation that this will be the best year. But amongst all that pressure I am trying to manage the planning and preparation with brain fog and fatigue. Here is what I have worked out may work for us this year.

A foggy winter ahead, photo in the public domain

Reduce your workload: We have planned to go to my mother-in-law so I do know already that I don’t need to cook, a lot of labour is saved and I think that having the main work on the big day taken from me will be a massive help, as well as being extra delicious that we can actually be together this year. In addition the familiar surroundings help me and my son and for that part of Christmas we will stay at home though go over on several days. This is really helpful to keep parts of the routine which keeps my soon’s energy a bit more regulated which helps us all feel a bit calmer.

Pace yourself: I know now that I need to pace myself, leaving a few days between each social gathering and taking it much more slowly on those days. I am so thankful to be back together with people this year but that doesn’t mean I can throw my pacing plans out of the window. January is depressing enough without having a massive crash. When I do socialise, I know already I might need to leave earlier than I might like to or take a little break part way through so that I can join in. It’s tradition to fall asleep after the turkey anyway, so won’t be too much of a surprise if I insist on a rest this year. I may also have some tougher days afterwards but I know if I do things that lift me, like being around people that I love, this will be worth it for me if I don’t go too far.

Buy online: When it comes to planning presents, I am doing tiny chunks and using a lot of lists on my phone so hopefully I don’t forget things. I have to say that I have seen statistics like 42% of people will buy their presents off Amazon this year and though I don’t like it, that will most likely be me. I know already that going to shops involves so many elements that are tiring, this time I need those items to come on delivery. I have been also trying to support a few friends with their Etsy crafts that I love but when it come to the plastic tat my son demands, it’s back to the five minutes ordering on my phone and along comes my friendly delivery lady the next day (who I am quite chummy with now.) Let’s hope that by next Christmas, I can be well enough to face the shops (and they are still there) but for now I have to be realistic about what I can do for us all.

Photo by Marta Dzedyshko on Pexels.com – probably less baking this year

Ask for help: Learning to ask for help has been a massive learning curve with managing fatigue. I have worked out what is more tiring now by listening to my body carefully and I have tried to ask for help in these areas. A friend came over this week to get the decorations out of our loft for us, she was lovely about it and though it seems a bit silly with my breathing issues and fatigue it is a massive load off me and I will be very slowly starting to decorate. In addition to asking for physical help, I have set my Mum the mission to find the impossible toy that my son has asked for. I was going round in circles online to try and find this “must have” and in the end I realised the brain strain is too much.

Keep it simple: The final thing is to avoid too much online content that drives me to want to make the magic so much. It is possible that I did “do a Pinterest” in previous year and make cards, bake mince pines with my son and make a Nutella Christmas tree for breakfast on Christmas morning. But it might be that this year is not that year. The Christmas tree may end up less trimmed – though it is one of my favourite things so I may choose to spend my energy on it – But really, what my fatigue is telling me right now, is that these things that seem so important are an image we get sold about what a perfect life can look like.

But if a chronic condition can teach us anything, there is no need for perfect, in fact pushing yourself is the worst thing you could do. After the year we have had personally and the pandemic era we have all gone through, I can only say that what is most important is to savour the time to rest and have fun together.  

Weird Wellness Trends That Might Work

In the pursuit of increased energy I have tried out a few trends and I think they actually work

In addition to being a regular but fidgety meditator, I have been trying out anything that might help my fatigue. Whether they claim to help with energy production or stress relief, I have given a number of weird wellness treatments a go. Although I must stress I have no medical qualification, I have a list now of great things that seem to do some good. Or make me feel better anyway. Here’s the things I recommend trying:

GREEN JUICE: I have been drinking spinach and other veggies blitzed together for a while. By upping vitamins, particularly eating raw with all the fibre included it feels like having juice several times a week has got to help with your health.

Does anyone else’s green juice look a bit brown?!

Unsubstantiated claim: drinking juice is easier to digest so takes less energy. I am not sure whether this is true but sometimes had juice midday when I am drooping. It takes less energy to make than a meal and I will have it before a rest.

VERDICT: As I see it a veggie rich juice is ultimately just like having soup cold so it does give you something healthy to have quickly. I also drink loads of water with the juice so the fibre doesn’t (um) overload the system. I can’t confirm that this actually provides more energy but I can at least say it suits my lifestyle at the moment and more vitamins is never a bad thing.

COLD SHOWERS: I now blast cold water at the end of every shower or will go to the gym to use the steam room and choose to blast the cold shower.

Unsubstantiated claims: Along with the Wim Hof breathing system, immersing yourself in cold water helps your cells repair and gives you more energy.

VERDICT: While I am not sure if the practice helps at a cellular level, I know that I do feel very energised by the experience. Particularly that contrast from hot to cold. Because I use the breathing techniques to I think this is helping me recover as I do have to work on breathing exercises anyway to help my lung health. This is one that is simple to do but feels like it pays me off, even if it just givea me a little jolt.

FACE ROLLING: This is another case of the internet made me do it. I have been using a face roller for a few months. My under-eye bags seem even darker than usual so using the jade roller on my face along with the various serums, oils and eye cream seems like a good act of self-care if nothing else

Unsubstantiated claim: The roller is supposed to reduce puffiness and improve skin tone. A lot of people find it very relaxing

VERDICT: While I remain dubious that my eye bags have improved, this is one certainly find relaxing. Hitting my later thirties, my skincare routine has developed into a multi-step act of desperation against ageing and I have doubts if any of it does work. However spending time and effort on my skin each day has become an important act of self-care which is why I recommend the roller despite my scepticism.

MAGNESIUM SALTS: A bath can be great for body aches. Relaxing back, particularly if you are finally getting time alone has often been my cure-all but magnesium salts have been an essential addition this year.

Unsubstantiated claims: A short bath in Magnesium Salts (about 20 minutes) allows the magnesium to enter your body and increased magnesium can really help your energy levels. A hair test showed my magnesium levels were low and I already add in foods to help with this.

VERDICT: One reason that the magnesium baths have been so important for me this year is that the suggested benefits come from having quite short baths. As a lot of people with fatigue know, bathing or showering is suprisingly tiring. By keeping a time limit to taking bath it is relaxing but not over-taxing most of the time. In addition to all the usual benefits of relaxing by having a bath, sometimes it will be a way of taking a break without actually napping in the day and seems to help in that way with my sleep.

It is possible I am just buying into wellness trends. However of all the things I have tried, these ideas are relatively inexpensive and achieveable. Often the boost comes from feeling like I am doing something to help myself. Which I think probably is the most important point of all. When our bodies go into fatigue or burnout, it does feel we are out of control. Using these props, whether they are proven to help or not, has given me practical steps to take care of myself more.

What wellness practices have helped you feel better? Anything I should try?

How to Change Your Life

The plan changed so I had to change the plan

If you have read my blog this year, you will know I have had fatigue since January and it has taken a while for me to establish a reasonable baseline of energy management so that I can do a bit more each week and gradually get back to my creative practices. But what I am really having to do is change my life and not necessarily by choice.

Listen to Your Body

The first way I have had to change is by listening to my body more. This used to mean realising I am stressed out because the world irritates me, getting angry, getting a migraine or both were a sign to do less. These things might hold me back but I would try and use this stress. And adrenaline would keep me going.

I know now I have been living on the edge of burnout . Before this year though, my body never fully told me to stop.Now, when my body tells me it’s too much I really have no choice but to listen. It aches like I have been in a car crash and leaves me so tired I can do very little. Without a choice, it has made me reflect on just how often I pushed through on little sleep and frazzled nerves.

Put systems in place

I have always tried routines and to do lists to keep on track of my life. It’s not something that comes easily to me. But this year my mind, like my body, has insisted I pay more attention. It is essential for me to work to systems to get anything done now. With brain fog I have to use the systems and more importantly I have no choice but to write it down.

Keep your Boundaries

This one I am only managing to change with the help of a therapist. Sometimes it is the boundary that my body or mind insists on. But sometimes it’s the really difficult one for many of us, saying no to people. It might also include the no to something you want to do. I am learning to sometimes say the hard no but also say I may not have that energy, explain the boundaries relate to the condition.

Quit Your Day Job

I suppose all artists, writers and creatives have toyed with the idea of quitting their job to follow their passion, pursue their bliss and other dream-life rhetoric. Sadly, the reasons I have for quitting are little more prosaic. In addition to work, I have caring responsibilities and my fatigue condition has become more difficult to manage. I have been trying to decide whether I can continue working but my temporary reduction of hours hasn’t quite been enough to get me back on my feet. I didn’t quite mean to join the great resignation but I know also that I am making the biggest step now.

This year has taught me a lot, not least that a lot has to change.

Feel Hopeful for the Future

Although managing fatigue is a tough task for me, it’s made easier by having the right mindset. Whilst that might sound like I could think my way out of fatigue, that isn’t really what I mean. What you can do is pay attention. By listening to my body I know even on a tough day or week, that I have had better days and they will come another day.

Have you had to change your life before? Have you realised you should have done it a long time ago?

Watch this space for more updates about all the changes I am making in the next months!

Life Post Covid

Six months on from getting infected, I pause to reflect on what life looks like now

As I wrote back in January, I was lucky to contract a mild case of covid. I still consider that I was lucky to have had a relatively easy time. I was at home and managed my symptoms with help of tablets and extra asthma inhalers. I even managed to work at first though I was mildly weary. It lasted about ten days and, for a few days after, I thought that was that.

But like many people who have had covid-19, I have ended up with a much longer, more complicated picture and at six months I can’t help but consider how it has completely changed my life. I have what is colloquially called Long Covid or Post-Covid Viral Fatigue. It has meant learning and managing fatigue far beyond the tiredness I have been experiencing before now. It has stopped me and forced me to do things differently in a number of ways.

Not everyday, but on a bad day I block out the world. I have had to strip back what I do, prioritising my activities and often managing to work for a few hours or maybe play for short bursts with my son. If I socialise I can be thrown off for days because I am getting post exertional malaise that knocks me off my feet, leaves me achy and able to do little. Never has the feeling of being hit by a bus felt so accurate.

I often spend hours on my bed although I now try and meditate not just nap. I have had to reduce exercise to the point of tracking that I don’t do too many steps, rather than counting them up, on my Fitbit. All of these changes are hard-won lessons I am still learning. Trying to find what I can and cannot handle has become my preoccupation. I am reading and watching a lot about the condition (and related advice for people with chronic fatigue syndrome) trying to get the game of pacing right.

I have had to tune into my body much more. Listening to a podcast or watching the tennis I may discover suddenly it’s far too intense. My tolerance for stress, even the pleasurable kind of tension we choose to put ourselves through for entertainment like a thriller, overwhelms me. Instead I look for things that are light, funny or soothing. And use the meditation practices that help me listen to my body more clearly.

Really doing these things has been a lesson in what I wasn’t doing for myself before. Like a lot people, my stress increased in pandemic times. I became more anxious and felt some of the losses of not seeing family, feeling isolated, very keenly. Now I am seeking help both medically and for my mental health. Actually I don’t really have a choice.

The whole world stopped for a while in 2020 and that was a lesson about how we cope with modern life. Everything too fast, too consumerist, not to mention too close, stopped and stripped back to what was essential. Well, it seems I still have to learn this lesson. My body has chosen to stop me in my tracks. I can’t be grateful for every difficult moment in the last six months, nor for all the sadness and loss in this pandemic, but I am starting to get very grateful for the chance to assess what is really important to me. To spend my energy where I can, doing what I most value. To reassess and prioritise.

And top of my list, for the first time in a long time, I am having to look after me.

Ways to Work With Pain

What if, even at our most difficult times, we could still make time to create?

I have been preoccupied with the bone-tired fatigue and various symptoms for months now but even as these lift, I can’t help think of the many times I have created when I am in some sort of less than perfect state. Creative living is less finding the perfect moment and more about working with what you have got. So what can you do if you are experiencing pain, physical or emotional?

Firstly, the Morning Pages method that Julia Cameron teaches us in The Artist’s Way has worked for me. Most days I get all those grievances down on the pages, this has been a massive part of my practice over the last few years. I recently watched a great video on resetting your goals half way through the year and Strussed’s advice was to always brain dump before you start on exercises. Journalling as an artist and particularly a writer can be a powerful place for ideas to pop-up.

Often old memories do surface as they would in any therapeutic practice. In week nine of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron asks us to do some archeology to uncover old dreams and even old hurts. As an exercise, I would be cautious to follow this without a therapist if there are any childhood traumas that could resurface. But I do find these exercises and other journal prompts can spark ideas or surprise you with memories. I listed some of my favourite journalling ideas last week.

In my pages I was revisiting a memory just recently and realised how strong my emotions were still towards a more adventurous child. I watched as she fearlessly swung on a tyre off a rope swing. She may or may not have leapt over some water, the memory is fuzzy but my envy was clear. How odd to have held onto this after so many years. This innocuous tale had remained in my mind and wound itself in to my adventurous protagonist probably without me realising.

Childhood memories sometimes resurface in your writing

I found this quote from the French Artist Annette Messager who explains how we must uncover our emotions…

“Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them”            

Annette Messager

She has worked around greatly traumatic themes of assault and violence.  I hope it is clear from my example that I am sharing something lighter to illustrate the point but clearly all pains and emotional experiences can’t help but influence our work.

So what I would say in some ways we have no choice but to uncover some of our experiences in order to be creative. In fact, we may find they come out anyway. In order to express our true selves, maybe we also need to be mindful of doing so safely.

Even using journalling practices, which we might use as therapy, you may wish to seek help from a professional. Or if not, give ourselves space and time to recover. Build in whatever practices work for you so that you can be safe. I have shared how I have learned to meditate over the last decade. But I would also add that working through these emotions, if done safely, can help us heal. I am not trained in psychology and, please do seek support of a licensed professional if practicing exploration of pain causes you difficulties.

The final way I think I work through emotions that surface, perhaps despite of the pain, is to play games with any idea from different angles. If we have a memory that is feeding our work, how can we change perspective. How did that girl feel when I cautioned her from swinging out over the water? Her perspective may have to see me as annoying or she may well just have been living in the moment, oblivious to others. And this is the fun isn’t it of being creative? We can work through any image and explore it with fresh eyes.