Learning to bend but not break

It’s a Friday night, everyone else has gone to bed, and I need to reflect on this week. It’s been tough, very tough, but it’s over, and we survived…again. This is good.

The last six weeks have been interesting. In some ways, things got easier when the girls started back in school, and in some ways much harder. I was in the middle of a hypomanic episode at the end of August and it took a while for that to resolve, but even before it did I started to revise in a much more serious way, as my first exam for returning to nursing is booked for the 9th November. I also got back to working out properly at the gym, whereas in the summer holidays I did as much as I could, but wasn’t able to maintain a decent schedule with it. Ever since, the struggle for balance in every area of life has been fierce. I’m grateful that the temporary medication increase resolved the peak in mental health symptoms, but I was way too enthusiastic in my return to the gym. I managed to hurt myself badly the first time I exercised, and then make myself quite ill  by overexercising for the next couple of weeks. It felt so good to be able to get back to it, that it was hard not to push my body further than it can cope with. I lived with limitations so much more severe than I do now for so many years, that the novelty of being able to exercise has not yet worn off, and maybe it never will. It generally feels ok when I am exercising, but I still find it can sometimes have pretty severe consequences the next day, or a few days after. After a couple of weeks of the overwork-crash cycle I realised that I needed to slow things down. I also had a million things to do that I’d put off over the summer holidays, and still the novelty of not being depressed is so exciting that I want to sort out every area of my house ready to move next summer. After so long of being so depressed and so unwell, now I’m finally feeling like a real human being the battle to not get overexcited and burn myself out is so so so so tough.

Over the last month I’ve had a bit of a tougher time physically, not just due to the exercise. I wrote in a previous post about the enormous improvements I’ve had in my physical health (https://differentblogdotme.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/physical-health-a-strange-miracle/). For a month or so, I’d had higher levels of pain and worse fatigue, yet compared to how things used to be, it was really not too bad. I have so many coping techniques for pain, that it takes a lot to slow me down nowadays. I can’t express how much easier it is to mentally manage pain when you’re not depressed. It doesn’t reduce the amount of pain you’re in, but the emotional reaction is possible to control, if not avoid. I can keep positive for a long time even with some significant discomfort, which is wonderful. However I’ve been having multiple migraines, up to three times a week, and it was starting to take its toll. Then last week happened. Joseph & Maya got Coxsackie virus (hand, foot and mouth disease). They were a bit miserable, Maya couldn’t eat much for days, but they weren’t super sick. I got it too and felt rough, and a bit sore. I felt muscularly weak for about a week, but was very functional, and still managed to keep revising. It’s harder to keep perspective though when you’re sick, or when your children are sick. I know it’s difficult for any mother, but with having been stuck inside for so many years it’s pretty triggering for me, and I get scared easily during illness. Luckily by the weekend we were all doing well, and while Peter was working we had a good and busy time. By the end of the weekend I was exhausted and sore but didn’t think much of it. On Monday, I felt rough, on Tuesday I was very sore but decided I’d still go and exercise (but just swam instead of gym & swim), and by the evening was in agony. By Wednesday, I was in uncontrollable severe pain. This was really complicated by the fact that I had no decent painkillers as I’ve been doing so well for so long that I’d made one prescription from England last the entire time that I’ve been in this country and had taken the last tablet the week before. Chronic pain relief differs from managing acute pain in that you manage it by keeping on top of it taking regular pain relief, and try to avoid the very severe peaks which are difficult to come down from even with strong painkillers. As I use so many different practical and CBT measures to manage pain it took until the pain was pretty ridiculous for me to realise there was a problem. At that point the earliest I could bring my doctors appointment forwards was three days away, and I was desperate. I was also very scared to tell my husband how bad things were as although he is a very good very supportive man, in the past he’s struggled not to react badly when my physical health takes a turn for the worse, unsurprising after so many years of suffering for the whole family. In the end I texted him at work and he was very supportive and said helpful things like “we’ve been through worse, we can manage this”, and encouraging me to think about going to an out of hours doctor. I was far too scared to do that though, seeking pain relief at an out of hours service generally gets you labeled as job seeking, and I’m still really scared of doctors, so wanted to see one with whom I had built at least a little bit of trust.

The most interesting thing about the whole situation was my emotional reaction. It’s understandable that I would be scared, but I was absolutely terrified. And so so so angry. And so disappointed. I haven’t had severe pain in over a year, which is one of the reasons that I’ve been able to take significant steps towards going back to work. And I’ve so enjoyed being able to work hard – physically and mentally, I’ve LOVED it. And this week it felt like all of that was slipping out of my hands. The unpredictability of chronic health problems, both physical and mental is to me the hardest aspect. When you have both going on, it’s ridiculous, and it’s tough not to avoid dreaming and planning, because of the disappointment when things aren’t able to be followed through on. I also hate letting people down, and that’s happened quite a bit over the last few weeks as I’ve had to go back to listening very carefully to my body and taking a lot more down time than I would have liked to. Tuesday afternoon and evening were horrendous. But amongst the terror and the anger, there was some progress. I did spend time thinking about what I could learn from the situation. I did realise that I had the capability to adjust my expectations a lot more quickly than I used to. I was able to talk myself back from the brink relatively effectively with Peter’s support. I decided early on even before there was any resolution of the pain not to completely give up on my efforts to get back to work, but to work around these issues and deal somehow with whatever my new normal is going to be. I could only do this because I’m not depressed, which meant that the spiral of despair was not instant. I spent a lot of time observing my feelings about the pain and my/our situation without judging them, which is overall a really helpful way of dealing with negative emotion. I’ve learnt so many methods of managing these things, and I’m so grateful for them.

In the end, although Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were physically awful, this morning the pain was down from an 8/0 to more like a 4-5/10, and this afternoon all I had to take was an NSAID. I now have some slightly better painkillers, but also today I have hope, as I feel much more back to normal. I have no idea why I was in so much pain, apart from it possibly being a post-viral flare of joint problems. I think though that this episode has been a wakeup call that I need to consider my physical health as much as I do my mental health, and that I am not invincible. My physical health problems are complex, and in many ways incomprehensible to myself and the medical profession, but they are real, and I can’t ignore them. I am learning more and more (while trying to make sure I don’t get obsessed by reading about health, like I previously have when mentally ill) about the effects of trauma on the long term health of the body, because of changes in the brain affecting production of hormones in the body, and the resulting effect of inflammation and pain. When you have unexplained pain, and are diagnosed with fibromyalgia, there is so much implication from our culture that it’s therefore “all in your head”, and not in a helpful way, like an acknowledgement that your emotional trauma has affected your body including its ability to process pain, but that somehow you are to blame for your physical suffering. I have self-condemned so much that either the pain is psychological, that I have some kind of emotional connection to it and therefore feel like I need it. That I somehow am subconsciously needing attention and don’t want to work. But there is more and more research going in to these conditions which shows the neurochemical changes associated with them, and combined with observing how much I’m excited about the possibility of working and studying longer term is helping me to finally let go of those feelings. For the first time in ages I not only feel like I do have something to offer to society generally, but that it might actually be possible for that to happen as I’m not spending the vast majority of my effort trying to stay alive and use the tiny amounts of energy I have left trying to maintain my marriage and mother my children. We shall see.

The other thing that I took away from this is that in the time where things have been easier physically, it has made me appreciate the simple things in life so much more than I ever would have had I not had so many years of extreme pain. Not one day have I taken for granted being able to stand and walk without much pain, being able to lift my kids, push them on the swings, run with them. Being able to hold Joseph’s hands and jump him in puddles. Things that I missed with the girls, and have loved getting a chance to do with Joe. Even if this week’s pain had been the signs of a return to the living hell of severe chronic pain, at least I have had those chances. Also, even if I returned to severe chronic pain, I will never again have multiple small children to deal with in the middle of it. I will never again be trying to deal with breastfeeding a small child through it, I don’t have children who regularly wake in the night, my children mostly walk with me rather than need to be carried. The extremely physically demanding era of motherhood is ending anyway. Even if severe pain returns permanently, my body is stronger through working out, and even in the pain, I still have better range of motion, better joint stability, am more functional, and could continue to exercise even if it is just swimming.

Overall it’s been a tough week, a tough month, a tough year, in fact a tough everything, but when the shit-storms happen, I’m recovering quicker, which is exciting. I’m becoming more able to be flexible and roll with whatever happens in every area of my life, which is making motherhood much easier and the rest of life much more manageable. I’m planning to be much much more careful with how much rest I do and how hard I push myself, within the confines of the fact that I’d still like to try to pass this exam. We shall see. For now I’m grateful that this has been a pause in our story, a semicolon, not a full stop (period to you Yanks). I am slowly learning that the awful times in life are usually temporary, even if they are utterly utterly dreadful. Hopefully. Here’s to a better week next week, goodnight!

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~ by jennkeast on October 10, 2015.

3 Responses to “Learning to bend but not break”

  1. Jen, I like the idea of a ‘new kind of normal’ having had to get to that thought sometimes myself. I am also learning that normal is such a fluctuating condition that occasionally just accepting without placing conditions on ourselves or being judgemental about how we are responding and reacting is enough to give us a more flexible approach and at the same time be kinder to ourselves. I am still suffering from post operative pain from the fixing of my broken femur 2 years ago now. It is always there, easier in the morning but by bedtime sometimes it’s difficult to move easily. I did think it would get completely better but I think now I have to accept that this is as good as it maybe for me. Like you I exercise walking the dog, and riding my bike, I so hate gyms, and I keep doing the stuff I did before but I am also realising that I injure myself so much more easily and the impact of the injury takes months to recover from. I am learning to pace myself more and although I feel limited in many ways I am more than ok. That’s also what you are saying I think. It’s great that you are excited about the future and possibly work. You are right that the most physically demanding and challenging part of parenting is nearly over for you, you have managed really well to bring up three small children and face your own physical and mental conditions. It’s good you are feeling stronger but I think the thing that really emerged from the blog for me is that you are feeling more relaxed and resilient. You seem to be arriving at a place that is more positive despite the challenges you face and maybe your expectations of what you demand of yourself are gentler as a result. Being gentle and kind to yourself are I think real strengths if we can achieve them, and resilience never breaks us, but allows us to live in much more harmony. Good luck in your exams, hope you are ok. I am glad that you feel excited about what is coming for you all. Life is indeed remarkable. Alison.

    • Relaxed and resilient, yes I think that sums it up pretty well…. most of the time! Sorry that you’re struggling with post operative pain. Pain really does suck, but it can teach us a lot also, xx

  2. Yes your right Jen, pain does really suck and sometimes I am very pissed off that it won’t go away, but it has taught me to listen to my body and be more accepting and understand my new limitations and basically just get on with it. It has taught me a lot. Xx

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