Tag Archives: health

Work does not save us

Today is not going to plan. Pain and other issues in the night kept me from sleeping, and it’s not the first time in recent days this has happened. Normally I’m working by about 7 in the morning. Today I took the decision to start later in the hopes my body would cope better. It’s not a choice everyone has the luxury of being able to make.

This leaves me wondering what life would look like if health and wellbeing were social priorities rather than work and profit. Wealth without the health to enjoy it isn’t a great deal of joy. But then, the people with the wealth tend to be healthier, the people without as much money tend to have poorer physical health. The stress of poverty causes mental illness.

Working when ill isn’t very efficient. I’ve noticed that in the last year, where I’ve been taking more time off and resting more. I work faster. I get far more done in far less time. The idea of work as an inherent good is not upheld by exploring what happens when I work less. If we’re measuring quality or quantity of output, less time working equates to more and better work done.

Yet we treat more work as the answer to all social problems. We treat it as the answer to poverty, even though the single biggest issue is rent costs and unaffordable mortgages. In the States, the crippling cost is health care, often. Most of us can’t hope to earn our way out of those traps no matter how long or how hard we work. Here in the UK our government seems to have decided that work is also the answer to disability and chronic ill health. Make people work and they will magically get over it. I’m not sure which planet they come from, but I do wish they’d go back there.

We all need the space, time and resources to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to each other. Relentless work doing nothing of much use, just burning up finite resources, is something we need to get rid of. Making things that benefit no one, half of which go rapidly towards landfill, is not an answer. A marketing culture of disposable everything where you throw it away to get the newest one is eco-suicide, and it’s also make-work. There have to be better ways.


Everyone I know is tired

Everyone I know has too much work to do, but not enough time to do it in and not enough energy to do it with.

Everyone I know could do with a decent holiday right now, but having the time to organise it, and the resources to pay for it – that’s a whole other question.

My facebook feed is full of exhausted people struggling on as best they can.

I took a day off yesterday. A whole one. I’ve been doing weekends for about nine months now, but it is hard getting more than 2 days back to back. Today I have to run to catch up on everything i didn’t do because I took a day off.

If you’re working multiple jobs, or your contract doesn’t have proper hours, getting and affording breaks is hard. If you’re self employed, how do you say no to paying work, even when you really, desperately need to rest? Because there’s no knowing when that paying work will dry up. Trying to get ahead so that if things go terribly wrong, you don’t fall into debt.

All that stands between most households and total financial disaster is the next paycheck, assuming it lands.

Being tired does not improve your judgement, or your efficiency. It makes everything harder. Being tired is a stress on the body, and body stresses increase risks of illness, exacerbate conditions and cause mental health problems.

Everyone I know is tired.

This really, really needs to change.

Security has to be more important than job flexibility. There have to be safety nets that people can count on. The role of rest in health – mental and physical –needs taking seriously. Illness is expensive, it isn’t efficient either.


How to heal

Over the last few years I’ve noticed that there are a lot of underlying factors when it comes to healing. These apply to both mental and bodily health – which henceforth I shall just describe as ‘health’.

Most importantly, if you are going to heal, you have to not be living with the thing(s) making you ill in the first place. Otherwise all you can do is tackle symptoms. This is often really hard to achieve, because work life balance, family responsibility and where you live are most likely implicated if your health issues aren’t caused by accident, cancer, virus or bacteria.

Healing requires a good diet. Illness may be caused or exacerbated by poor nutrition. It is important to note that for people in significant poverty, this is often hard to fix because protein is expensive. You need it to heal brain chemistry as much as you do to heal skin or muscle.

Healing requires rest. Rest requires time, peaceful spaces to be in, and being free from the demands of others.

Healing has to be a priority. You need to be able to put it ahead of most if not all other considerations in order to achieve the points I’ve raised above. If you can put your healing first, it is much easier to heal. If you have to prioritise other things – work, family, someone else’s needs… your own healing may take longer, or may be set back.

If these kinds of resources are available to you, then it is easy to get on with the work of making yourself well again – or as well as you can be in the context of what’s made you unwell. At this point, deploy your positive thinking and do what needs doing, and you can get results. However, if your life does not allow you to prioritise healing, if you can’t afford to eat well enough, if you have no way of getting out of the toxic workplace or the mould-filled flat, or the demands on you won’t ease off… healing is difficult and slow if it’s possible at all. All the positive thinking in the world cannot replace what rest, space, good food and the such will achieve.

On the alternative side, we’re too quick to look at the power of positive thinking and we aren’t talking enough about the privileges involved in being able to stop and sort things out. Given the way in which disability increases a person’s risk of financial poverty, there is potential for some truly vicious circles here. Poverty makes you more vulnerable, which increases the odds of not getting over a health setback, which will make you poorer, and more vulnerable to poor health. Illness, accident and health-destroying experiences will, if you don’t have a safety net of some sort, throw you into poverty which reduces your chance of being able to recover. There’s no reason it has to be like this, the choice is purely a consequence of political decisions and priorities.


Uncompetitive physical culture

At school, sports tend to mean competition. There’s no accident in this. A fair few activities have their roots in warrior skills – javelin is the most obvious, but all those combinations of running, riding and shooting are pretty suspicious too. Not that we did that at school! Games and tournaments are the traditional solution for keeping your army fit and keen when you haven’t got anyone to fight. Some sports – football being the most obvious here – come out of ritualised contests between villages. The strength, stamina, co-ordination and sometimes teamwork of sport all has military applications

Like many young people, I never got on with sport at school. The focus on competition was a big part of it. There have to be winners and losers, and when you are always, invariably the loser, there’s not a lot of incentive to keep investing effort. Only when out of school PE and able to explore swimming, walking and dancing on my own terms did I become interested in sweaty things I could do with my body.

I have no problem with the competitive stuff being there for people who want it. That’s no different from battles of the bands sessions, short story competitions, produce shows or bardic chairs… sometimes the people who are really good need the chance to test themselves against each other. But only in sport do young people find themselves obliged to do that testing week after week as they grow up. No one would give an English lesson a week over to slam poetry and rap battles.

Physical intelligence has far more going on in it that competition. There is more to building strength, stamina, fitness and skill than being better than someone else. What would happen to physical culture if we approached activity from the angle of health and capability rather than competition? How many young people would be spared from regular and pointless humiliation? How many would become interested in being fit and healthy rather than feeling alienated from physical culture?

But of course governments like team sports, because of the military applications. There’s a popular quote (of dubious origins) that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. It’s that kind of thinking that puts competition ahead of health and embodiment.


The Bouncy Druid

I have a silly body. My circulation is poor, which makes chilblains a risk in winter, but this winter it ratcheted up a notch, and made sitting for long periods unbearable. I had a major editing project on and I needed to sit for long periods. I invested in a haemorrhoids cushion – these are great by the way, and make sitting less painful and as an unexpected side effect, solved lower back pain that has dogged me for more than a decade.

Eventually, I discovered that trampolines are good for circulation issues and for problems with lymph glands swelling up – an issue I’ve had my whole life. Exercise is tricky for me – aside from poor energy (no doubt in part due to the problems I have with exercise) most of my limbs bend the wrong way when under pressure, which hurts. This rules out a lot of things. Anything that jolts, hurts. Running hurts. I only recently figured out that this probably isn’t normal and that most people who run don’t experience pain as I do. My body doesn’t handle lactic acid well, so I get panic attack responses if there’s too much of it in the bloodstream.

I don’t believe in magic bullets, but in the trampoline, I have found something I can do to be active and increase my heart rate without causing me a lot of pain. Swimming worked before I buggered my shoulder, but walking to and from the pool can make it too tiring. Exercise is much easier for people who can drive to places to do things that suit them!

I bounce every hour. I play music to give me a rhythm and a timeframe. It reduces the pain that comes from sitting, and improves my concentration. On the days when I have little energy, it’s really, really hard getting started. However, I learned the hard way that not bouncing hurts far more overall than forcing myself to bounce. On the good days, it’s fun, and there were more good days when I started. The last week or so has been tough. I’ve had to change what I eat because I’m building muscle, and not eating enough protein when your body is trying to build muscle, hurts. On the whole it’s been a really good thing. I’ve used it on the hour every working day, and sometimes when suffering from poor circulation at the weekend, too, for a month now. It helps.

Why the Bouncing Druid? This. You’re welcome.


Thinking about mental illness

How we think about mental illness, collectively, informs how a person who is suffering is able to behave. If we treat mental distress as something to be got over by ‘pulling yourself together’ or as not a real illness, then people suffering have little choice but to slog on, right up until they can’t.

I’ve found from personal experience over the last year, that if I draw direct lines between what I’m experiencing and some kind of bodily ailment, that I can make better choices about how to deal with it. What I’m going to offer here is crude and limited, but I hope it will work as a place to start.

A mild dose is like having a cold. It will probably clear up on its own in a fairly short time frame and it is possible to keep going and do all the things, although I’ll feel shitty and demoralised. Some time off would speed recovery.

A more serious bout is like having the flu – I really am going to need some time off to recover, I won’t be able to keep going as usual. It could knock me about for a few weeks and I’ll need to take things gently.

At its most serious, it’s like having pneumonia. There’s no way to keep going as usual, serious interventions, including medication and hospitalisation can be a consideration. Like pneumonia, serious depression can and does kill people and needs treating with just as much caution.

One of the important things about relating depression and anxiety to physical ailments is that it moves us towards treating the whole process as a bodily condition. I find this incredibly helpful. It’s not a failing, or a lack of will, or insufficient effort, any more than getting the flu is those things. Care and attention are required for recovery, but recovery is possible. For those who are afflicted in the longer term, other bodily analogies may prove more helpful.

Fevers are a useful analogy because when feverish, we can think all kinds of odd things that we wouldn’t believe for a moment when well. We can see and hear things that are illusionary. A breakdown in mental health can have a person thinking and believing all kinds of unhelpful things. If you can hold onto the notion that what’s happening may be a lot like the flu, it’s possible to avoid believing that the fever dreams of anxiety are based in reality. If depression and anxiety are things that are happening to you, not things you are, then it’s a good deal easier to resist them.


Stories about fat

Trigger warnings: weight, diet, body shape. And I’m starting with a trigger warning because this is a subject that puts some people in a very bad place indeed. Like most people my age, I grew up ‘understanding’ that being fat was the simple consequence of eating too much fat. That’s not how it works, and while more information is out there all the time, it doesn’t always filter through. The default is to blame and shame fat, still, which is bloody unhelpful.

It looks increasingly like sugar and refined carbohydrate are a far bigger issue than fat in the diet, and that the sugar industry has led the demonising of fat.

Sleep deprivation encourages us to retain fat. We live in a sleep deprived culture. I don’t know whether it’s because lack of sleep denies us processes that would have helped, or because lack of sleep is a crisis, and in a crisis, some of us store fat. Which leads me to stress – which tells our bodies there’s an emergency going on. For some of us, routinely trying to starve yourself thin can create and emergency that the body responds to by frantically storing everything it can. This was me in my teens, often only eating one meal a day, retaining weight, malnourished and miserable. Stress, and most especially work induced stress, and poverty induced stress are recognised things, but under-explored. There is also a known correlation between poverty and obesity, but no public debate about whether the stress of poverty, contributes alongside poor nutrition, to weight gain. If there were, we’d have to look differently at workplace responsibilities and government policies.

Thyroid function, and water retention and probably a whole heap of other medical conditions I’m not up to speed on can go unnoticed if we obsess over fat in relation to diet. If ‘get more exercise and lose weight’ is the only diagnosis available for the more padded person, other medical conditions – conditions that might well be causing or adding to weight gain – go unnoticed and unchecked. It happens.

Yo-yo dieting is a thing, and a lot of people get trapped in it. Brief attempts at wonder diets that cause weight loss in the shorter term, and then don’t work. This is in part because diets don’t deal with lifestyle as a whole. Wonder diets are often faddy, under-researched and won’t work for everyone, our bodies are different. It’s not just about how we eat, but about what we do with our bodies, how much we move, sleep, rest, and stress is all part of the mix. A happier life may make weight loss very easy, dieting misery can move us towards weight gain. Unhappiness leads to comfort eating, it can make us less active, and adds stresses to life that can help convince our bodies there’s a crisis we need to stock up calories to get through.

I’ve spent much of my life hating and resenting my body shape. I’ve starved myself as a form of punishment for being so disgusting – this is how I’ve felt about myself. Followed by the inevitable binges and the self-loathing those create, leading to a cycle of misery and excess weight. It’s really tough to break out of that self-perpetuating loop. I’ve done so by keeping the focus on doing things that make me happy. I’ve paid attention to how my body responds to foods, and altered my eating to do what feels good. I eat with a view to powering my body for whatever activities I have in mind, not with reference to my stomach size. I feel better about myself. I’ve got out of the punishment cycles and into a process that is about wellbeing and feeling good, and that has made a lot of odds.

 


Life with a body

It’s only in the last year or so that I started questioning what my body is for. It’s taken me until now to realise that I was unconsciously holding a belief that the important things revolve being either use or ornament. I’ve spent my life to date treating my body as something that exists to please or appease other people, not as something that is mine.

There’s a lot of pressure on women to focus on looking the part. We’ve been taught that thin matters – not fit, not healthy, certainly not muscular because muscles are all too often deemed ugly on women. We should paint our faces, blocking our pores, we should wear shoes we can barely walk in that will ultimately deform our feet, we should alter ourselves with surgery, botox, pull out most of our hair and so on. None of this is about being well, feeling good or being happy, it’s about being held up to impossible and unnatural standards.

My body is here to serve – and that’s an idea that I’ve had to wrestle with considerably. Notions of wife and mother cast us as giving to the point of self sacrifice. Too many workplaces would use our bodies to the point of sickness and exhaustion. We’re poisoning ourselves with car fumes.

I can’t speak to the male experience, or any non-binary experiences. While I don’t emotionally identify with being female, I’ve realised that expectations around what happens with my apparently-female body have had a huge impact on me.

What if the point of a body isn’t to look good for other people? What if the point is to live, feel, do…? What if the person who should most benefit from my body is in fact me? What if I’m not here to be used, not obliged to give whenever asked? It opens up worlds of possibilities.

I spent a lot of years trying, and failing to be thin. I’ve always been odd looking, smearing makeup on this face doesn’t change me into something conventional. I’ve been used, and been complicit in being used because I never thought there was more than that. Years of living in a space where it’s not about use and ornament and I get to be a person, has really opened things up for me. I start to ask what this body needs, what would feel good, what I would enjoy… these are the keys to an as yet undiscovered country.


Illness and the magic thing

It’s important to talk about mental illness. Only by talking about it will we challenge the stigma, get rid of the inaccurate myths, challenge assumptions and improve things for everyone.

One of the big problems with mental health is that we treat it as an individual issue, with little or no reference to how context impacts on wellbeing. One very significant aspect of context is the way in which other people react. I’m conscious that many of the same things hold true for chronic illness. Certain kinds of responses silence people who are suffering, make it harder for us to ask for help, and can increase distress, anxiety and alienation. How people react to illness can make ill people more ill.

The big one (I think) is the idea that if we only tried harder and/or did ‘the magic thing’ we’d be fine. What ‘the magic thing’ is varies, but it will be something the person we’re dealing with is sure is a fabulous fix for everything. We’re told we should be on medication, or shouldn’t be on medication. We should make more effort, or get more rest. We should stop eating a thing, or start eating a thing, or do yoga, or practice mindfulness…

The person who says ‘I’m really struggling right now’ is not helped by being told they need the magic thing to fix them. Not least because we’ve all tried a whole array of alleged magic things already, and they mostly don’t save us. When you’re down, and beaten and exhausted and everything is hard about the least useful thing to hear is that you should be making more of an effort with something. Fear of dealing with this silences people, encountering it can kick those who are already down.

The motives for how we respond to illness in others stand questioning. If we make a suggestion to someone else, we may feel that’s us off the hook. We did our bit. We have no further responsibility. We may believe that because we are well, that something we are doing is the reason for this, and not that it might just be luck. Belief in ‘the magic thing’ protects us from having to be afraid that we could be unlucky and get sick. It may also allow us to feel superior, that our cleverly doing the right thing is keeping us well while others fall and suffer because they aren’t making as much effort as we are. Being blamed for illness adds to depression, despair, and a sense of alienation.

There is a balance to find here, because information sharing is a good and often helpful thing, but unsolicited medical advice from strangers is often demoralising. The thing to watch for is the tone. Sharing in solidarity – here’s the thing I tried, this is what happened – can be really helpful. ‘You should do this’ has a very different tone. There’s a power imbalance in it, a disrespect for the person on the receiving end. An implied superiority on the part of the person dishing out advice.

Another way of silencing, dismissing and injuring people who are ill is to tell them off for it. People who are told that expressions of distress are basically attention seeking and not ok learn not to mention it. You’re just making a fuss. You just want to be the centre of attention. You’re playing the victim again. You’re such a martyr… Which begs the question of why a person who is suffering should not be able to say so? The answer is all about the discomfort of the listener being more important than the distress of the person who is distressed. When you are deep in depression or other illness, and the distress caused by saying so is deemed more important than what you’re going through – that really doesn’t help. It’s a massive blow to self-esteem.

Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels right now. We won’t change that without changing the context in which people are experiencing things.


Working with an uncooperative body

I’ve been in pain for years, and had come to think of it as normal. I know that lack of sleep, insufficient  oil, stress, using regular air beds, and being cold all make it a lot worse, and I’ve managed it as best I can based on this. At the same time, I’ve had dire burnouts every six to eight weeks for something like a decade. Deep pits of depression, related to exhaustion. Every time I’ve dealt with it by getting back up and at it.

This July wasn’t especially dramatic as a crash – pain, emotional dysfunction, loss of energy and willpower, despair – all the usual. What changed was that I just couldn’t face the process of getting up and doing it all again and trying to hold out for as long as I could before the next crash. My best efforts of recent years have only widened the gap between crashes, not solved them.

I made a radical decision to start putting my body first. To start paying close attention to what hurts, and when I’m tired, and acting on that rather than pushing through it. This has meant things like going to bed when I’m tired, no matter what time it is, asking my family to cover for me, saying ‘no’ to things. I’ve put down some voluntary work that had become stressful. Alongside acting to reduce pain, I’m looking at ways to build strength, flexibility and resilience, ways to get more emotional outlets that help me stay resilient, and reducing stress. I need more things in my life that enable me to feel good, and fewer things that leave me feeling shitty and I’m reorganising accordingly.

I have no idea what the consequences of doing this will be. Fewer reasons for anxiety will certainly help, and more rest, reducing exhaustion should help counter the depression. At a deeper level, the decision to put care for my body much higher on my list is about changing my relationship with myself, and not practicing self-harm or self-hatred as part of normal life. There have been plenty of times when I’ve pushed my exhausted body to keep doing things by inwardly hurling abuse and criticism at myself. On the really bad days, it’s self hatred that has kept me moving, reminders of how useless and worthless I am and how I need to get my sorry arse in gear and justify my existence. This too, I am putting down.

The decision to be kinder to myself is a decision to treat myself as an acceptable human being with the same needs and rights as any other human being. I’m not expecting this to magically solve all my problems, but it might give me the means to better deal with the days when I really hurt, or really have no spoons, and I have come to the conclusion that I’d give anyone else the chance to heal if they can and manage things better, and I ought to extend that to me. This year I have started saying ‘I matter’ – which feels radical, and dangerous, but I’m saying it anyway. My body is something I’ve called uncooperative, but I think it is my mind that needs to change, accommodating my limitations and not adding to what’s already difficult.