I’m having one of those weeks, y’all. One of those years, really, but who’s counting?
A sudden and extremely painful flare of my spondyloarthritis landed me in the ER just days before I was set to leave on a solo self care retreat. It started in my hip and spread across my back and down my leg. I couldn’t walk without intense pain, and even sitting or laying down my muscles spasmed jarringly at regular intervals.
The Medic was on a 24-hour shift at the time. Luckily, my parents were able to rearrange their schedules to help me out. The next day, my chiropractor gave me very clear instructions: Do absolutely nothing that involves bending over for at least a week.
But I have a 17 month old
tyrant kid wanting me to do nothing but bend over.
Wanting Mommy to sit on the floor to play. Requiring clean dishes, and food, and baths. Running away naked so Mommy will chase her. Demanding to be picked up constantly. Wanting to flip the light switches, and pull all the condiments out of the refrigerator door, and feed Bear ranch dressing for lunch.
It’s exhausting on the best of days, and that doesn’t even cover my housework, blogging, teaching, and eking out some quality self care on a regular basis. Add a chronic pain flare and some drowsy-making muscle relaxers, and I would have been happiest just sleeping through the next few days. But of course life doesn’t usually allow for vacations from reality.
So how do you get anything done?!
1) Give yourself permission to get (next to) nothing done.
I’m serious. Sometimes what you really need to focus on is getting better, and trying to be productive is going to be, well, counterproductive.
Don’t worry, this won’t last forever.
Prioritize your most important obligations, and let the rest go.
Yes, your kids and guinea pig need fed. But the dishes and vacuuming can wait. In my case, I was told I shouldn’t do dishes or vacuum (darn) because it might make everything worse.
Call in sick, if you can. I know chronic illness tends to drain those sick banks (if you even have them), but work with what you’ve got. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be able to work from home, or you can arrange shorter work hours for a few days with your boss. During college I asked for so many extensions during especially bad bouts of depression and anxiety.
If you really do need to go to work, offload some of your other responsibilities. Enlist someone to feed the creatures of the house (we’ll cover that in just a minute). Whatever you need to do to give yourself the breathing room to recover.
But first and foremost, release yourself from the expectation that you will DO ALL THE THINGS.
2) Ask for help.
Now is not the time to be proud. You’re in pain, or your brain has fogged over, or you’re so fatigued you can barely move, or a combination of those and more. Whatever it is, you’re probably not going to be able to, and you don’t have to do this by yourself.
So who can you call?
It’s super important for everyone to have a support team, no matter what their health status or lifestyle. Sometimes life sucks, even when you’re perfectly healthy. Despite our cultural aversion to asking for help, everyone needs someone they know they can lean on.
My support team consists of:
My partner, the Medic, who has been absolutely central to my survival as a (somewhat) sane parent. There have been times when he had to take over almost all parenting responsibilities, and he has been highly supportive of me and my needs.
My parents and mother-in-law, who I’m lucky enough to live just blocks away from, and my sister, who visits pretty frequently. They have all been amazing at helping care for Little Bit and me from the beginning. They’ve cooked meals, done housework, picked up groceries, watched Little Bit while I slept, and even stayed overnight with us. Sometimes they just come over to distract the kiddo for a while so that I’m freed to do nothing.
A babysitter we hired just a few months ago. I cringed at adding this expense to our already-stretched-tight budget. But having an extra person I can call for help during the day has made a big difference in my ability to function like a normal human being on a day-to-day basis. We usually only have her come once a week for a few hours, but with that time I’m able to work on blog stuff, relax with a fun book, or even just get some much-needed extra sleep.
Your support team might not look anything like mine. And that’s okay! What’s important is that you have a list (even a short one!) of people that you can call on when you need help.
3) Prioritize self care.
You know that list of important obligations we were just talking about? I’ll bet you $5 you didn’t include yourself on that list. And right now you should be at the very top of it.
While you might not be able to check out of life completely, the idea here is to narrow down your to-do list to only the most important things. And getting better is absolutely, 100% important. How else are you going to get back to everything else?!
So what do you need right now?
95% of the time, all I need is a ton of sleep. When my brain starts to fog over and I can’t think of a response to simple questions, like “Who are you and what are you doing here?”, the most likely solution is sleep. That pretty much sums up the situation this time around.
Sometimes I don’t need to sleep, but I still need quiet time alone. Or I need to shower and change out of my week-old pajamas. Or I need to feed myself. Really. When things get bad, I have a pretty hard time feeding myself. I bet I’m not the only one.
Sometimes my self-care basics are actually covered (woo hoo!), and I can move onto something more indulgent. Everyone always suggests taking a bath, but I get bored after about ten seconds. I do, however, enjoy getting a pedicure or a massage (when I have the money for it). Or I’ll just grab a book and go to my local coffee shop and just read for fun.
Maybe you need some time with your friends, or to go to a yoga class. You could go for a walk, eat ice cream without having to share, veg out with a movie or TV show.
Whatever is going to help you feel better right now, make it a priority!
4) Fall back on your systems.
I was a fan of systems even before I got sick, and they’ve become even more important now.
My financial system includes automatic payments for all regular bills. When I’m sick, I at least know the bills are paid.
I also have a specific day each week that I do certain chores. There’s a day for meal planning, a day for grocery shopping, and a day for laundry. When I inevitably get sick, I most likely have a few days before the underwear situation gets really desperate.
My point here is that there are certain things you should be able to fall back on. If you have helpful systems in place, you can let those things slide a little when you’re not well. This will help immensely with accomplishing #1.
5) Work where you’re at.
I haven’t sat down to work at my desk in months. I’ve never been a desk person in the first place, but I keep it around so I have a place to pile all my junk, I guess?!
My favorite working environment has long been this: curled up on the couch with my computer on my lap, in an empty house, with Buffy or Battlestar Galactica marathoning in the background. I get to sink into my work and my imaginary world and it is glorious.
The problem comes when you add in a spirited toddler. She can smell the opening of a laptop and will instantly materialize to go typie-typie-typie. (And yes, she does this whether I’m on the couch or at my desk – I’ve tried it.)
This pretty significantly limits the amount of time I have for blog- or professor-related work in the first place. It’s hard to stay on top of things, much less get ahead in case symptoms flare and I’m unable to think straight. So I’ve developed some creative alternate workspaces.
Sometimes she’ll let me work on my iPhone.
This is thanks in great part to the cheap-o tablet one of the Grandmas got for Little Bit’s first birthday. We loaded it up with games and Little Baby Bum, and she’s actually willing to leave my phone alone when she has it. Score!
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This lets me catch up on email, social media, research, planning… Sometimes I even write on my phone. I don’t like it very much – it’s way slower than typing on a full keyboard – but at least I’m accomplishing something.
When the Medic is home, I get out of dodge.
This is especially true if I’m starting to feel a little fuzzy in the head. It’s a sure sign I’m reaching an urgent social interaction threshold. I grab my laptop, head to one of the local coffee shops, and plug into some white noise or 90’s alt-grunge for a while.
If I’m not well enough to leave the house, I retreat to the big comfy chair in my room. This is almost as good as the coffee shop. Except it doesn’t result in a tasty latte, and every once in a while Little Bit comes and meows at the crack under my door.
And when I’m really not feeling well, but still need/want to get something done …
I stay in bed.
Everything I’ve ever read says to save your bed for sleep and sex. But I’m a contrary person by nature, so I ignore that advice.
If I can sit up, I plump up my pillows and work on my laptop. Otherwise, I curl up under the duvet and work on my phone. Until I fall asleep, anyway. Really, if I’m working from bed there’s probably more sleep happening than work. But if you refer back to #1 and #3, that’s probably for the best at this point anyway.
Moral of the story: stay flexible, and keep multiple workspaces in mind.
6) Forget perfection.
This is really more of a life lesson for me, and one I still struggle with in everything I do. It’s especially important when you’re living with chronic illness(es), though. You’ll never get anything done if everything has to be perfect.
Somewhere along the way we’ve developed this idea that average isn’t good enough. That you have to be exceptional at everything or at least something. I see this all the time with my students. If they don’t earn an A on something, it wasn’t good enough.
Here’s the thing: perfect is not the same as good enough. And sometimes good enough is – you guessed it – good enough. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, very few things in life need to be perfect. It’s super easy to get so wrapped up in the little things that we end up struggling to even complete the big things.
But what does this mean when you’re sick?
It means you should try to focus on the big payoff items on your to-do list. Focus on the things that really matter (#1!), and that means taking care of yourself first (#3!). If you half-ass your self care when you’re sick, it’s going to take you even longer to get back to whatever level of functioning you call normal.
It also means that sometimes you should focus on the little things. If that’s all you can do right now, have at it! Just remember it doesn’t have to be perfect.
7) Accept survival mode.
Everything else being said, sometimes circumstances demand half-assed self care. You’re so out of it, there literally aren’t enough hours in the day to cover even the bare minimum. You’re in survival mode, and that’s okay, too.
It’s okay to take a break from getting things done. It’s okay to say this is all too much right now. It’s okay to hang on with whitened knuckles and your eyes shut tight until the ride slows down enough that you can catch your breath.
When it comes to getting things done when you’re sick and overwhelmed, sometimes it’s okay to just NOT.