Tag Archives: illness

Magic, illness and discipline

Most forms of magical and spiritual practice depend to some degree on concentration. It is feasible to do contemplative meditation when you can’t concentrate – by having an object that you return your thoughts to, for example. It is feasible to undertake prayer or ritual with an unfocused mind, but it is probably less effective.

Spell based magic is all about your will. There’s nothing like pain or illness to reduce the power of your will, and to make that kind of focused intensity difficult to maintain. All of us will go through times when we don’t have what it takes to act magically. Some of us will be like that most of the time. So, what do you do if you want magic in your life, but can’t rely on having the attention span, the concentration, the focus or the willpower to work it?

Aim small. Ignore the useless advice that if you can’t meditate for half an hour you should meditate for an hour. Better to have five minutes of quality engagement than a longer stretch full of frustration and misery. Look for acts of magic and spirituality that operate on a scale you can handle. Look for ways of working that allow you to come back regularly and do a small thing. Don’t tie yourself to fixed times because you might not have the clarity at those times. Work when you can.

People who are hale and hearty can be very comfortable telling people who aren’t to try harder. If you are ill, the limits of what you can do are often a simple fact. Trying to push for more can often result in a backlash that lets you do even less. Only you can judge this. Experiment on your own terms and don’t feel pressured into doing things the way other people think you should.

Look for opportunities for magical experience and transformation rather than acts of deliberate change. Being in a ritual can be transformative. So can sitting out with access to trees and birds or water or sky. Having an altar and spending some time with it can make room for things to come in. So can creativity.

Pain and illness can make it hard to think that good things of any shape can happen. The longer it goes on, the more it can lock you down and make you feel limited. Looking for small moments of beauty and wonder can be a way to offset this a little. Sometimes there are blessing amongst the miseries. There don’t have to be, and it isn’t your job to be relentlessly cheerful or to find shiny blessings in a shit storm. But at the same time, there’s much to be said for making the best of what you’ve got in whatever way you can.

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Illness, ambition and thwarting

I had a lot of plans for 2018. Some of them were bold and ambitious in their own right. More were about the trajectory I want to take. The things I want to lead on. The stuff I want to be more involved with. Mostly it’s not gone to plan.

Back in November 2017 we did a week in a gallery and a night at Stroud book festival and I had what was probably bronchitis. It took me weeks to recover, and we didn’t go to Steampunks in Space because I wasn’t equal to it. And I’ve never really got back on top of things since then. Nasty colds, the flu, beaten up by the menopause, leading to bouts of insomnia, gut fails and now some kind of virus that really has it in for my glands. It’s been relentless. Also a lot of low level depression and anxiety.

So as the months have progressed, I’ve had to put aside all kinds of plots and schemes. I’ve not enjoyed letting them go, it’s been frustrating. Many of them can be revisited, or I can try for them next year, instead, but even so. There are things I wanted to be doing now, and I’m not. I feel that if I’d been able to get on with things, other unforeseen possibilities would have resulted.

This of course is the thing about unforeseen consequences. There is no way of knowing how this would have played out if I’d been able to go for it on all fronts. I have no reason to think it would have all gone my way. I could be looking at burnout now instead of feeling thwarted. There is no knowing. I’ve done the best I could with the resources I’ve had, and that’s all there ever is.

One of the things this time spent being relentlessly ill has given me, is serious space for reflection. I’ve taken long, hard looks at what I want and why. Things have emerged from this that maybe wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise. Whether they turn out to be better things, I will never know.

I could choose to give up in face of this – on some or all of the ideas I had. I could choose to ignore the setbacks and push ahead with everything, regardless. I could make it a life lesson about ego and ambition and nature teaching me a stern lesson. I could make it a story about heroically overcoming setbacks. The story we choose to tell will shape our actions and results – sometimes more than any other aspect of a situation.

On the whole I don’t have the energy or inclination for making big stories out of being thwarted, not at the moment. This is also a choice with implications of its own.


Low energy, decent output

Recently, Jen over at Liminal Luminous blogged about the problem with the perceived need to work long hours in order to be successful. As a person with limited energy, Jen obviously struggles with this and it struck me that I might be able to speak to this in a useful way. So, here is what I know.

Firstly, take the time to define success. Is it just about money? Success can mean best outcomes, quality of life, friendship, doing inherently rewarding work. Once your physical needs are met, more money doesn’t confer significantly more happiness anyway.

Secondly, most of us – even the entirely healthy people – are only really good for about four hours a day. You may not be able to manage four. Work out how many hours you are likely to have of high quality output. Once you get beyond those hours, the quality and speed of what you can do, will diminish. People tell themselves that they’re working hard when they’re working long hours. The odds are for much of that time, they are working tired, inefficient and not capable of their best thinking. Long wasted hours are of no use. Be clever. Make the most of your best time and then rest.

None of us can work flat out all the time. Whatever you do, you need time to re-charge, and to let your mind chew on things in an unstructured way. I don’t have good ideas while I’m busy working. I have good ideas when I’m walking, crafting, and cleaning. I work more effectively when I have a coherent plan, considered goals, a sense of direction and new ideas. I don’t get those by trying to work all the time, I have to make quiet space for them. If I’m not well rested, I’m not able to work.

Being uber-busy is not sustainable. Sooner or later, you burn out, or crack up, or get sick. Again, this is as much an issue for people who started out well as it is for the rest of us. Burning out, cracking up, getting sick, succumbing to anxiety and depression… these are not things that improve your productivity or bring success. Being ill is not a winning outcome. Being too ill to keep going is not a winning move either. Plan for the long term, and remember that your health – mental and physical – is also a measure of success. For some of us, simply staying viable is an epic win. If you trash your health for the sake of money, you are not going to be successful in the medium to long term.

The trick is pacing. Know your limits and you can make the best use of what you’ve got without pushing yourself into dysfunction. If you’re going to be self employed as a person with chronic illness or energy problems, then there are ways to make it more viable. It might sound blindingly obvious, but you have to focus on what you can do rather than what exhausts you. There’s no point aspiring to be a paid youtuber if sitting in front of a camera wipes you out. Look at what your body and mind can sustain. Ask what you can do most effectively in the time available to you. Look for the resources, platforms and opportunities that suit how you can actually work, not how you think you’re supposed to work.

Being an overnight success takes years. It takes most businesses three years to starting breaking even and moving towards profit. If your primary cost is your own time, you can do better than that. The temptation of course is to try and speed up your profit making by throwing more hours at it, but that isn’t a sure fire solution.

I reliably have four hours a day, often more but with that extra being less clever, plus uncertainty as to how much more from day to day. I do the most important bill paying work over four mornings a week. I do the more speculative stuff in the afternoons. I get far more done now than I used to when I was trying to work eight hour days and more. We get by financially, and I am far less ill than I was because I have more time for self care.


Working when ill

It’s something I’ve done a lot of over many years. One of the advantages of being self employed is that you have some flexibility when sick. You also have no scope whatsoever for sick pay, often there’s no one who can cover for you, and being ill can be expensive in that it can cost you future work. Increasingly, conventional workplaces seem to be pressuring people to work when ill as well.

I know from experience that I’m considerably less efficient when ill. It plays havoc with my concentration. I move slowly, making more mistakes, my judgements are never as good, I don’t have good ideas. There isn’t an ailment out there that won’t be easier and quicker to deal with if you’re able to rest, and won’t be exacerbated by additional stress. And some illnesses are contagious, and taking those to visit other people isn’t nice. The idea of keeping a human working when they’re sick clearly isn’t informed by anything real about the implications of illness.

Over time, there’s a bigger and more insidious impact to working when ill. It dehumanises you. It takes away the sense of being a proper person with the same rights as other people. You’re just a thing to keep slogging along to get the work done. This is one of the ways in which a physical health problem can easily develop into mental health problems as well. Exhausted, demoralised people who are obliged to keep suffering are likely to end up with low self esteem, anxiety and depression at the very least.

I will do the things I absolutely have to do, and then I’m heading back to bed with a book – because I can, and it’s a far better idea. There will be many other people obliged to work a full day today, despite being sick. Some of those people will be doing unpaid domestic work, but that doesn’t guarantee you respite, either. Given that the amount of work available is decreasing as people are replaced by machines, we could collectively square up to this and bring in a citizen’s income, so that no one has to work full time, and no one has to work when they’re ill. Failing that, better worker’s rights and a better social safety net would be a great help.


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.


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 Sick

One of the good things about being self employed is that you do get some say (usually) over how and when you work. There are no paid sick days though, and while you can get insured against the impact of long term illness, a dose of the flu is something you just have to deal with. So, sleep deprived because I was ill in the night, and washed out for all the same reasons, and with something a long way short of perfect concentration, I rock up late to the computer.

It’s not too bad because my co-worker (husband) lives with me and is exposed to my germs anyway. If I had a ‘normal’ job, I might be hauling my sick, exhausted self into a car (I would not be a safe driver) and going to share my germs with my colleges, and possibly the public.

I know from friends who are employed, that many workplaces are intolerant of sick days. You are expected to go in, which of course means you get a culture of germ sharing where more people are working sick than could have happened. It invariably takes longer to recover from anything if you have to put extra stresses on your body. A day in the duvet can massively increase productivity for the rest of the week.

But no, what we have is a culture of macho toughing it out, drugging away the symptoms (let’s pause and ask why we may have the shits and wonder what the consequence is of not letting our bodies flush the bugs out…).

Pushing when sick or exhausted increases the risk of mental health issues. Depression is likely, so is panic, because when you push a body too far, that’s how it reacts. There is a rise in mental health difficulties that a Chief Medical Officer’s report of some years ago explicitly linked to work place stress. Everyone seems to have ignored this.

So, I managed the commute to the table, I won’t be doing much, I will likely spend a lot of the day curled up, recovering. I’m going to do the essential stuff, so that it doesn’t all build up and get more stressful. This is a luxury many people don’t have. It’s a funny thing, because work, workplaces, and working cultures are all human constructs, but they’re pretty inhuman in practice.


Diseased Druid

Yesterday I was too ill to make it to the desktop computer, so there was no blog. One of the plusses of being self-employed is that this very seldom happens. When I’m merely a bit ill, I can keep working. That I need to is part of the downside of being self employed – if I don’t work, there is no sick cover. I’m paid for what I do, more often than not, but if I get ill and can’t work for a long period, this is unnerving. Usually I’m not so ill that I can’t push through it.

‘Can’t’ is an interesting word though, and one we all bring into play at different times. I tend to be fairly literal about it – ‘can’t work’ tends to mean fever, inability to actually sit in an upright position, so sleep deprived that I can’t concentrate and the like. I also know from experience that if I have to, even that level of  ‘can’t’ can be pushed. I’ve done school runs on foot, feverish with tonsillitis because there wasn’t any other option that day.

‘Can’t’ is more of an option when you have a safety net. If someone else can catch the critical things that are challenging, it is easier to lie down and quit for a bit. The winter before last, when I had pneumonia, Tom did all the shopping. Long cycle rides in the rain to fetch groceries. A task that normally required us both, he took the extra load, quite literally. But then, there are some illnesses (and pneumonia is one of them) where stoically battling on can kill you.

I marvel at the array of different human responses to discomfort and disease. The people for whom a bruise or a cut is worthy of comment, through to the other extremes of people who push through chronic and even terminal illness because there are things they want to achieve. The worst thing we’ve endured is the measure of what we know we can take, so those who are relatively pain free and healthy tend, in my experience, to make a lot more fuss about minor setbacks than people for whom those small things might be less of an issue than what constitutes business as usual.

Our baseline for compassion also has a lot to do with experience. It’s easier to empathise with someone if you have some faint clue as to what their experiences may feel like. Those who have lived well and pain free, for whom a scrape and a bump is the worst of it, sometimes find it very hard to make sense of the people for whom pain is a constant. And so you can get into situations where the relatively unscathed demand a lot of attention for minor ills but do not take seriously the ongoing suffering of others.

One of the things I notice about people I know who live with pain, restricted mobility and serious ongoing health challenges, is they often learn not to make much fuss. Partly, I suspect, because the baseline for normal shifts over time and with it shifts the point at which it feels worth saying something. There is the fear of being seen as a nuisance, by those who are not suffering and who will be bored or offended by the details. There is pride, and the determination to be independent, as far as possible.

What a person says about their struggles, illness and difficulty, of any variety, is not any kind of absolute measure of what they are up against. We’re very quick to judge each other, especially if there are questions of our time and energy being required to cover for someone else’s illness. It is inconvenient. They may be making a fuss about nothing. They may also be making far too little fuss about a great deal and it’s worth remembering (having seen a few very close calls with other people) that this degree of stoicism can prove fatal.


Fear and faking

When is it ok to stop? When can you say that no, that’s the limit, and be confident that you aren’t just being lazy or making a fuss? How do you tell if you’re being a hypochondriac, a drama queen, attention seeking with a low pain threshold and no ability to endure?

I have found that mostly I can push through pain, exhaustion and illness alike. It comes at a cost, as I get ever more tired and eventually mired in depression, but it can be done. Today, it took me an hour to work up the will to haul my tired and hurting body out of the duvet, but here I am. With the mantra ‘it’s just pain, it doesn’t matter’ I have pushed through all kinds of things. Memorably, I went to seven (out of the necessary ten) centimetres dilated pre-birth with no pain relief, and the people around me treating me like I was making a fuss, and probably over reacting about saying it hurt. In hindsight I think if I’d been screaming they might have taken me more seriously.

Through much of my life, the message has been simply that I’m a lazy hypochondriac and all that other stuff, and if I’d just pull myself together and make an effort I’d be fine. There is nothing wrong with me, apart from my attitude problem. The one time I tried to talk to a doctor about the exhaustion and the things I struggle with, I got it from him, too, and have not been able to face going back for another round of humiliation and blame. I’ve been told (not by professionals) the muscle pain is because I am too tense, and if I made the effort to relax, I would not have a problem. And yet I watch people make, what seems to me to be epic amounts of fuss over injuries so minor I wouldn’t even mention them.

I do not know how you tell when it’s ok to say ‘I can’t’ because when it comes down to it, mostly I can. Sure, my hands are hurting today, and I’m thinking slowly, but I can write a bog post. I can sort my email and do a few jobs. If there was something more important to do, I could push and get it done. As a consequence of that, and because I’m used to being told I’m not trying hard enough, I find it hard to stop. The last few years have brought me, for the first time in my life, people who suggest I should be gentler with myself. People who tell me that it is ok to rest, and that I am not lazy. I have trouble reconciling these perceptions, and I feel like a fake. I fear that the people who are being nice to me will eventually realise that I am a lazy hypochondriac, and the warmth will go away.

Some of this is about the balance between comfort and utility. For most of my life, the only thing that has seemed to matter is how much use I could be. I am surprised when that’s not the size of things. I do not know how to handle it. I hear the people who encourage me to think that my own comfort and feeling of wellbeing has an innate value, and I struggle to know what to do with it. It is the difference between being a useless thing, and being a valued person.

Machines are not supposed to stop, and if they do, you apply the appropriate duct tape equivalent and keep going. People are not machines, but if the people in your life do not allow you to be a person, it can be hard hanging on to that. Permission to be a bit inconvenient now and then, is a powerful thing.


Survival tactics

I’ve been through some rough times, dealing with depression, anxiety, stress and bodily unwellness. It would be fair to say that in terms of managing all of these, I have been a slow learner, not least because I’ve been resistant. Working out how to manage a thing depends on admitting there’s a problem, and that took me a long time. Dealing with a problem depends on treating it as worth bothering with. For reasons I continue to grapple with, treating my own difficulties as something that matter does not come easily to me.

However, I’m aware of friends who are walking the dark places at the moment and suspect there are others, so survival strategies might be useful just now. Those first steps of noticing and bothering are vital. If you are depressed, crippled by anxiety or in pain it can be surprisingly hard to notice that there is something wrong with this, and all too easy to feel like you’re a failure when you need to be recognising that you are a person in trouble. Self-blame is a natural default, almost a symptom of the problem, for some of us.

Trick one is to keep moving. This kind of illness will tell you that all is hopeless and that no matter what you do, you will be ground into the dirt. If you quit and go to bed, it’s very easy to stay there, giving up and spiralling ever lower. Keeping moving allows you to resist the feeling of doom. Getting something – anything – done, gives you something you can but between you and the feelings of helpless worthlessness. How to do this, follows.

Trick two is to get the basics straight. These give you a sturdy platform from which to tackle the rest. Keeping yourself clean, fed and comfortable can seem both monumental and pointless when you’re ill. However, having those things sorted will improve your morale and self-esteem. Not eating only adds to feelings of depletion and misery. Move slowly, but take some time over your appearance. Do something nice. Eat well.  Take care of your space. Get the people around you to encourage and help you in this. If the people around you will not encourage and help you, then you’ve just identified a big part of your problem. Sometimes it turns out not to be depression, but that we are surrounded by arseholes. Prioritise doing the things that make you feel better.

Trick three is dealing with the big stuff. Often depression, anxiety and bodily illness are triggered because some vital thing has gone horribly wrong, and crushed us. Again the feelings of futility will make it hard to get things moving. Not tackling the sources of fear actually feeds the fear. So, draw breath, and then start fixing. Make a list of what needs doing. Break each item down into its smallest component parts, and get the running order right. Take your time, because this is your battle plan and you need it straight. If there is no required running order for it, start with the easiest stuff. Get some wins under your belt. Tick things off as you do them and remind yourself of the progress made.

Pretty much anything, no matter how daunting, can be taken on in this way, and worked through. Speaking as someone who has taken on battles I was told could not be won… and won, I say it can be done. So long as you keep moving, it can be done. There will be some kind of answer, some way of managing it, or making it better, or getting through and if you are moving, you can get to those answers.

Trick four, rest. Give yourself as much time as you can between the big pushes. Read. Walk. Watch a film. Go to bed. Be as possessive of your energy as you can be, and demand the time to do the things you need in order to keep going. Half of what gets people in trouble is not guarding personal resources, often. To get through, you are going to need to protect yourself. “I can’t, I’m ill,” can be a very hard thing to say, but also wholly necessary if you are to avoid being entirely broken. If there are people or situations making you more ill, acknowledge it and get out, even if it hurts. No one should spend more time than they have to places that make them sick. If you can’t get out, mitigate, give yourself more time off, find offsets, seek bargains. Do what you can to make it bearable.

Take yourself seriously and treat yourself like you matter. Take your problems seriously and treat them like they matter, too. You are not making a fuss, and you have the right to an ok life, and no one has the right to work you to death, make you sick with stress, to abuse your body, torment your mind or make existing unbearable. If you need something that is not what you’ve got, seeking those changes can be doubly hard, when you’re also dealing with illness. Take that seriously, too. What keeps us ill is all too often unwillingness to own the illness, name it and tackle its root causes. Most sickness, bodily and of the mind can be alleviated to some degree, but only if we own it, name it, and make the changes it requires. It isn’t easy, but the less easy your circumstances make it, the more you need to acknowledge that your circumstances are a big part of the problem.

And good luck to you.