“Better listen girl to what I’m tellin’ you
You better listen girl, or we are through
You better stop all your foolin’ around
Stop your runnin’ all over town
‘Cause you’re pushin’ too hard
Pushin’ too hard on me (too hard)”
The Seeds 1966
Crash. Time’s up. Your goose is cooked. I think that I am both strong willed, and a bit thick in the head about certain things. In the years leading up to the cancering diagnosis I pushed myself really hard. I crashed. I kept in motion. I ignored the hundred and one signals my body was sending me. It is laughable the expectations I held for myself. “I can’t be tired yet, I’m not done.” I would not accept the truth that my body was telling me. I couldn’t stop all my running around. Eventually my body contracted with a really mean Loan Shark.
The Loan Shark knew I was overdue on all my self care payments. So the ante was upped. What started out as subtle polite whispers became more crude. I did get better at listening. After I didn’t have a choice. For instance when I had an episode in which I could no longer stand up while at work. I had rationalized a free pass if such things happened at home. Like an alcoholic that is still keeping it together in the outer world. “As long as I can still go to work everything is okay, Right?”
The Stress Circus, adrenal depletion, longterm elevated cortisol levels leading to burnout and collapse, is not fun. Plus it suppresses your immune system. Which can lead to additional serious health issues, in my case breast cancer. My initial collapse happened in fall of 2009. By 2010-2011 I had begun my lessons with the Loan Shark. These were very difficult years for me in every way – physically, emotionally and mentally.
Though there was a sharp increase in stress in 2012, I had begun to get much better at managing the available resources of my body, and felt fierce about taking better care of myself. I know now that I was already cancering. Ironically in summer of 2013 I felt better than I had in years, even though I was still at the mercy of my internal Loan Shark, still operating on the zero credit game, and actively growing some whopper tumors.
I am grateful for the lessons that the Loan Shark taught me. Primarily that the concepts of “Toughing it out” or “Pushing through” are not an appropriate response to the messages I receive from my body. By the time I did get a diagnosis, any idea of being a Warrior was completely out of the question. In fact trying to be tough is probably the single biggest contributing factor of my cancer.
The thing I learned from burning out at the Stress Circus is that the only way out is to change your thoughts, change your behavior, nurture and accept yourself. All of which are very good strategies to address cancering as well.
The reason I bring this up now is that May and June were very stressful months for me. And despite how far I have come in the last 7 years, since I first recognized the dangerous game I was habitually playing, I found myself pushing too hard. By the third time in as many weeks I found myself saying, “Wow I haven’t felt this _____ since the black years of fatigue.” I realized that I needed to take action, or rather to step back and take a break.
Clearly this is difficult for me. My puppet show of worthiness has a lot to say about how hard I “should” be working. And the more worn down I become the less my resistance to the puppet show becomes. I am a bit fearful that I have pushed myself into a place that will require a recovery of several weeks, or even months. As I move farther away from the “crisis” of more active cancer treatment, my level of comfort with taking adequate steps towards self care goes down. My inner voice that wants me to “get on with it” doesn’t want me to need to take a sick day from work just because I feel shaky. Though I know from hard experience that by the time I start to have shaky muscles I am pretty near the abyss.
At one time I had worked out a whole system of symptom management, and had assigned colors to various levels of functionality. I noted the colors of each day in my daily planner. Each color meant something very specific in terms of symptoms that accompanied the crushing fatigue that was my life at that time. From Green – All systems Go, to Red – Stay in bed. I usually got only a few green days per month. I noticed that I crashed 2-3 days after any big adrenalin events, for instance an argument at work or slipping on the stairs.
Taken individually any symptom can be easily disregarded, but taken in combination they add up to a sum greater than the individual componates. Which is why, by the time I notice shaky muscles, I have to recognize that I have been ignoring a whole host of other indicators of depletion. The first step to healing is awareness and acceptance. The second step is learning to differentiate between behaviors that are about distracting myself or soothing myself, with the behaviors that are actually nurturing and rejuvenating. This is something I am still working to observe. My mighty powers of creativity can be used to distract myself into a deep dark hole in the ground.
Because the fatigue years lacked a formal diagnosis – “You are profoundly exhausted.” doesn’t have the same weight to it as “You have cancer.” I didn’t have much social support for healing. As I move forward post cancering, I need to be aware that I am the expert on my body, and that being a fatigue warrior makes as little sense to me now as being a cancer warrior. Letting myself run away to the Stress Circus is like signing up for sickness. I am so grateful to my friends and Joe and the Boys for noticing that I have that circus look in my eye. They encourage me to check into reality rather than engage in the “Greatest Show on Earth” at the expense of my wellbeing.
Getting to the point that I don’t need an iron clad case to justify self care is a priority that is resurfacing now that I am more than a year out from the end of cancer treatments. I have to recognize that the rules for self care apply despite circumstance, or diagnosis. I think that this is really important because I know so many people who push themselves too hard, including people who are still recovering from cancer treatments.
American culture does not support listening to our bodies, to do so is considered weak and pathetic. THIS HAS GOT TO CHANGE. It is particularly ironic when you consider how self indulgent American culture can be, I think this may be a result of a national self care deficit. We are so used to being in the middle ring of the Stress Circus that we try to compensate by taking measures of self gratification.
I am so proud of Sam. In June we celebrated his transition from unschooling to college. His homeschool commencement ceremony was really great. Two days afterwards he went with the Clatsop ROV team to Houston for the MATE international ROV competition at NASA. Though I am proud of how well he did academically this year in his first foray into formal education, I am more proud at how well he has learned to negotiate managing his overwhelm levels, and taking good care of himself. And his efforts to help his teammates to take breaks, and get enough good food the week of competition. His help came not in the form of codependent care taking, but in encouragement and acting as an agent of reality. “We need to eat and rest, now.”
Both of my boys have witnessed the consequences of trying to over extend as a strategy to accomplish goals. I am so very grateful that they are teaching me to try a new strategy out, Self care as a prerequisite of accomplishing goals. I am even more grateful that Sam does not seem to be setting himself up for the boom and bust cycles of the Stress Circus. These past few months have shown that I am still vulnerable to the siren call of that Circus, I am hoping to try out this new paradigm, in which self care coexists with tasks, I just don’t have words for it yet.
I’m going to go take a nap now.