Fatigue isn’t just “feeling tired”. Everyone feels tired at some point. It’s coming out of the other side of tired. It’s feeling your muscles aching constantly. It’s fighting to keep your eyes open and not even having the energy to smile. I’ve described it before as that feeling you get when you have the flu. Imagine having the flu for years, sometimes decades, and then think about how tired you’d feel. *That’s* fatigue.
Christine Miserandino wrote a fantastic analogy for fatigue in people with chronic illness. In it she tells the story of a meal with a friend where she used the spoons from the tables around her to demonstrate energy levels and how fatigue makes it dwindle faster. It’s called the Spoon Theory.
It’s a great read for those who aren’t aware of it and is an eye opener for those who haven’t considered it. The theory helps you to think about the effects of daily life on people with a chronic illness. Every activity has a cost in spoons and each one will whittle away at your store. For people with chronic illness this means that every activity needs to be considered.
Consider that, you have enough energy to get up, get ready, head for the bus and go to work. But then you’re stuffed, no going home and visiting friends or family on the way, and when you get home, no energy to tidy up. Sometimes you don’t even have the energy to get changed or even feed yourself.
But it’s not just a case of having a nap. The chances are that you will, but any slight boost that you’ll get from that is counteracted by the fact that you won’t be able to get a decent night’s sleep. And that’s the cycle, it’s like having a car that has a very small fuel tank. You can try to drive economically, but you still need to top up the fuel levels regularly.
Don’t worry though! There are plenty of tricks up your sleeve to try to make the most of what you have. None of them are particularly healthy or recommended as a long term solution, but since when did I only do things that are good for me?
- Rest – It sounds obvious, but make sure that you get the right amount of rest for your body. That’s different for everyone, for some people it’s six hours’ sleep, for others it can be nine or ten. Rest doesn’t have to be sleep though, it could be time to sit in the middle of the day and recharge.
- Mild exercise – Yep, I’m back to talking about walking again! Anyone would think that it’s WYASO month! If your energy levels are beginning to dip then this can be a useful little boost as exercise releases dopamine which lifts your mood. Remember, fatigue has a mental as well as a physical element so this can help you face it. Exercise also gives a boost to your epinephrine and norepinephrine levels (adrenaline) which is a good boost.
- Eat regularly – Yes, do as I say, not as I do! (A running theme for the next couple of suggestions). Remember that your body gets energy from what you put into it. by eating regularly throughout the day you can give it a series of little boosts that can help. Fruit is a great way to do this as you get that sugar boost too.
Energy drinks/caffeine/sugar – A great quick boost if you’re flagging, but not a good idea as a long term solution. Caffeine and sugar have a huge range of drawbacks that are strewn across the interwebs. So I’d never be silly enough to start my day with one and top up throughout with multiple espresso based coffee drinks. Nosiree!
- Borrow spoons – This is my main coping mechanism. I need to work to be able to afford more Doctor Who plays from Big Finish so I “borrow” spoons from later in the day, or the weekend. Basically, I push myself beyond my limits and promise myself that I’ll rest later. Thankfully I’m not a very social person, so I don’t feel like I’m losing too much. But I do sometimes feel guilty about always being the person who says no.
- Suck it up buttercup – Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do, you’ve reached the bottom of the spoon drawer and there’s something that you have to do, no ands, ors, ifs, buts or maybes. I’m afraid that these are the times when you’re just going to have to suck it up and just do it. Yes, you’ll look like shit on a stick, and you’ll be awful company. But that’s just the price you and your friends have to live with for being special!
The Spoon Theory has also created a few great shorthand phrases to help communicate experiences quickly such as:
- Spoonie (a person who lives with a chronic illness and experiences fatigue)
- Running out of spoons (having no energy)
- Borrowing spoons (as mentioned above, fighting through fatigue with the promise of rest later)
- Plastic spoons (a temporary energy boost that you would get from energy drinks or a sugar rush)