This week, I want to talk about chronic fatigue.
If you don’t struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or chronic illness, you probably don’t give a second thought to the quality of your sleep, the amounts, and types of nutrients you’ve just put in your body, or if you’ll realistically be able to fulfill your social, home, and work obligations.
When illness hits, so much is affected by it.
Chronic fatigue can take your hopes and dreams and tenderness and grind them into dust beneath its heel.
Suddenly, you don’t have enough energy to complete daily tasks like washing the dishes, cooking for yourself, or keeping up with laundry. Even showering can drain you and leave you needing to rest afterward. Brushing your teeth twice a day is something that is no longer mandatory, but a luxury*. Everything is done at a snail’s pace. You often need to talk yourself through each task to remind yourself that you are making progress even though you’re still in the middle of the task.
There is no resting to regain your energy.
Rest is taken only to abate the further loss of your day’s energy. Talking is fatiguing. Holding a decent conversation can be fulfilling but tiring. If you’re lucky enough to be able to spend your bad days at home, changing clothes may or may not happen. This isn’t due to laziness or that #sweatpantlife, but because the process of changing clothes is so entirely draining.
The lack of physical energy begins to take its toll on your mental energy, and soon, you’re exhausted before you’ve even begun. A simple and clear task becomes a mountain that you must climb without shoes; asking someone for help feels old and exasperating yet necessary. Canceling plans repetitively becomes nearly traumatic, especially when you have put your own heart and intentions on being there. People begin to assume that you don’t like them and that you’re being rude, selfish, or lazy.
Chronic fatigue can be a fully stocked fridge and nothing to eat because of the energy it takes to prepare food for yourself. Fatigue can be loneliness, because people stop inviting you to events, assuming that you won’t be able to make it. It can be missing out on major life events—including your own. In a word, fatigue can be hell.
How has this presented for me?
My fatigue has always been up and down, though never completely absent from me. But after I began Wildewood Fibers, the fatigue set in again because I pushed myself to the brink. I felt that I had to dye yarn to support my family, who were all without jobs at the time. It was the only thing I knew how to do as a tangible job for me.
We had some savings that we were living on, but as we all know, that can’t last forever. My first year, I was working hard on Etsy updates, a trunk show, and the holiday season. Clothes piled up in the laundry basket, on my bed, on the floor. My ability to cook was nil, and the task was handed off to my mother, who had already used up all the meals that God had given her to cook in this lifetime.
Dust coated my room; I had to empty the vacuum four times when I finally got around to cleaning. I rationed showers to once a week; otherwise, I'd be too weak to work.
This was, of course, mismanagement on my part.
I tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t actually pushing myself, and that I was healthy and everything was okay. If I wasn’t dyeing for an update, I was planning and working hard behind the scenes. Cue the burnout crash of January 2021, when it all caught up to me. I finally accepted that I couldn’t do it all, and I let my body be as sick as it needed to be.
Lying in bed with my eye mask on, a pillow over my head, and the thick velvet curtains drawn, I hardly realized that a month had passed. My body did not want to move. My brain was numb, exhausted from learning, interacting, and working. I spoke to very few people outside of my family. My brain had so little energy that listening to my regular music or watching TV shows felt like being bashed over the head with a chair in a WWE ring.
It was all too much for me. I didn’t want it to show; I wanted to be competent and able to provide for myself and my family. No longer the sheltered, isolated invalid that I felt I had grown up as. It’s easy to think that because you have an illness, you have complete management over it.
Yet the denial was what did me in. I didn’t know how to own the depths of my story back then, and I kept expecting the output of a “normal” person from a sick body.
When we deny the fatigue of our bodies, it builds up like a dam about to burst.
Whether it’s a genetic mutation, part of an illness, an underlying trauma, or a dysfunction on a cellular level, denying something that our bodies cannot naturally handle or process is dire. The acceptance of our person in its entirety of where we are at is so vital to our recovery and management.
And this does not mean repeating phrases of false acceptance, such as “I accept that I will never be healthy again,” or any such unhelpful mindset. It is simply the acceptance of right here, right now, my body is tired; I must tend to my body and do what I can to help it heal.
Learning to be sick whether you have just fallen ill or have relapsed is incredibly difficult. It requires a mindset shift, new mental and physical tools, self-compassion, and self-awareness, along with foresight and personal insight. Managing and healing from fatigue is no small mountain to climb.
Chronic fatigue can eat at your brain, too.
It’s often accompanied by depression and low mood, which in turn can lead to anxiety. Not in the sense of typical social anxiety, but anxiety from the knowledge that your body can and hasbetrayed you in the past. Saying yes to a social commitment such as coffee with a friend can cause both stress and anxiety, with your brain looping questions like “What if I don’t have energy that day? What if I can’t make it?”
As mentioned earlier, canceling repetitively can lead you to internal anguish at the thought of having to do so. There is so much emotion in this simple act. On your side, you genuinely wanted to be able to make your doctor’s appointment, or date with a friend, or important life milestone of a family member. But your body simply could not keep up. And on their side, once again, you are not able to be present to witness a life event; or in the case of a doctor, they wonder how someone can be too sick to see a doctor. It’s also watching your hopes and dreams slip through your tired fingers time and time again.
Commitments coupled with chronic fatigue create stress.
In those moments, it’s important to recognize the pressure we are putting on ourselves to meet a deadline or commitment. I’ve learned to take a step back and ask myself: Why is it vital that I meet this deadline or commitment? How can I approach this in a way that is more helpful to myself and my well-being in the long run? Why am I so concerned about what this person will think of me if I can’t fulfill this? Do their thoughts validate my worth?
Stress is often rooted in ourselves. We are creatures that can assign meaning—deep meaning—to ordinary events, people, wants, and objects. With meaning comes great joy, great sadness, and great disappointment.
As we dig a little deeper into these corners, it often overturns a surface-level of living that we have taken in from the rest of the world. A level that is commonplace and expected. Chronological living, where each life event should happen at an exact moment in our lifetimes.
When we’re able to sort through the rubble, we find our true strength: Protecting our energy.
Understanding and embracing boundaries. Learning how to breathe, away from the superficial flow of society. Valuing each second of joy, happiness, and each little experience. A life lived in the fullness of ourselves. And most importantly, learning how to create and observe these tiny moments of joy for ourselves.
Fatigue can be a call to a more gentle style of living.
In chronic fatigue, there can be a strength of soul that grows with each new experience. We become precious to ourselves, sheerly by our limitations. The mind slowly shifts from the identifications of “I can’t do this anymore” to “Here are the things that I can do.” That's not to say that one should always focus on the positive; there are negative aspects in life that must be observed. But here, we are speaking of a perspective shift that is helpful to someone dealing with chronic fatigue.
Dwelling too long and too hard on the why-me's and why-can't-I's leaves us stranded. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the best one: I don't know. And perhaps, I'll never know. If there is no answer that can benefit me, why am I spending this precious resource of energy, even if internal, on something which is neither nurturing nor helpful?
When we are able to shift perspectives and look at our situations as a whole, rather than from comparison, we go from watching others live the life that we had envisioned for ourselves to watching ourselves live a life beyond our best imaginations. It is done simply by coming home to ourselves in a way we weren’t able to before. We begin to know ourselves. To value our daily strength.
The grief of loss never fully dissipates, and though the perspective shifts, the heart will always remember.
But there is a luminous embrace that burns even brighter because of it.
In knowing this painful side of life, we also understand the deep power of compassion. There is a tighter and sweeter grasp on the goodness that finds its way to us.
We search out the light with a vigilance we had not known before. And it is often well-rewarded. The value of this ember increases to us as we place a deeper meaning in its glow. A once humble abode has become a sanctuary, a refuge, and a friend. Simple little things begin to matter dearly.
Sometimes, I find I need to be alone to hear my own voice and sort my thoughts so that I can identify this sanctuary and inner light. Other times, I find I need to talk to someone to engage a part of my brain that has otherwise been inactive, lying dormant as the days of weariness have passed by. We need the reminder that this flicker is burning within us.
That reminder might be a conversation, or a book we recently read. It might be wearing your favorite underwear, or handmade clothes. You might be having the energy to put on makeup or wash your hair. Perhaps it's the smell of the rain. Whenever it alights upon the soul, the spark is unmistakable.
It is easy to forget what a daring experience life is.
Plato holds in the dialogue Theaetetus that all things are in motion—both in spatial motion (movement) and in altering motion (the changing of state). Nothing is the same as it was the moment before, and we are all moving and altering in state as time passes. My cells are in constant motion, doing so much work for me beneath the surface and out of sight.
I try to remember this about my fatigue and pain: I am different in this moment than I was the moment before. Time has passed, which means my state has been altered: blood has flowed, nutrients have moved, cells have produced new energy, and toxins have been carried through to waste.
I am not the same, and my fatigue is not the same, and both are in constant motion. Perhaps for better or for worse.
But now is not my forever.
To my chronic crew: What are some ways that you have to work hard for yourself to get through the day? Where do you find that inner spark burning brightest in your life?
To my non-chronic crew: What are your biggest questions? There are no stupid questions; if we can’t ask for help, we can’t grow!;)
*I was reminded of this by @morningdewstudio on IG!