Accepting My Down Days


It helps to resign as controller of your fate. —Anne Lamott

It happened again. I had a “Down” Day.

Back in 2006, nearly all my days were Down Days. I wound up on disability because I couldn’t work more than two days in a row. I was lucky if I had enough energy to take a bath — showers were too exhausting. Finding the energy to walk the dog was my daily challenge. The big outing for the week was a trip to the therapist and the rest of my time was spent trying to take care of the basics like laundry and groceries.

My health has improved a lot over the years, especially since June 2013, when I made a radical change to my diet. Now, many of my days are Up Days. I not only have the energy to shower, but I workout at the gym, get some house chores done, write at the cafe with my friends, AND walk the dog. These days seem like miracles to me.

Despite the fact that they are happening more and more often, they still feel strange. As I go through them, I am constantly looking around, wondering what is happening, if everything is really OK. When I have a string of them, I get hopeful. I think “Maybe I’m finally cured. Maybe I’m going to be an energetic, productive adult from now on.” And I start making plans.

That’s usually when it happens. I wake up one morning with a day full of golden plans and realize that all the energy has disappeared. I have to let go of my goals for the day — AGAIN. It’s a Down Day whether I like it or not.

“The Tired One” collage by Kit Dunsmore

I’ve been fighting this problem for nearly a decade, so I guess it’s not surprising that my reaction to a Down Day is resentment and frustration. I think, “I was fine yesterday but today I’m not. What did I do wrong?” I’m always looking at my food, my exercise, my activities, trying to figure out what the magic thing is that gives me an Up Day instead of a Down Day.

I have to face the facts. There is no one magic thing. They are all magic things, and even when everything is in place, the magic doesn’t always work. That’s the ugly truth of it.

When I went to bed Tuesday night, I was excited about Wednesday. It was one of those wonderful days when I had nothing scheduled and could fill my day as I chose. I could plan longer sessions working on my novel than usual and still have time to knit or sew. I couldn’t wait. Wednesday morning I woke up feeling awful and was soon stuck with the truth: I felt ill with fatigue. It was a Down Day.

I’m tired of Down Days, but I’m even more tired of being disappointed with myself. I decided it was time to try something different. I would accept that I couldn’t do what I’d planned and instead do everything I could with what I had. I let go of the idea that I was in control and gave acceptance a try.

It was tough. I didn’t like it very much. I still felt that my day was not what I had hoped for, and certainly not what I planned. However, looking back on it, I think I got more done than I might have. I wasn’t good for much more than reading and watching TV, so I read a book about the Salem witchcraft trials and I watched videos of people grooming poodles. I spent the day learning about things that I want to know more about and now I feel like that day wasn’t as wasted as it might have been.

I can tell this acceptance thing is going to take some practice. I’m not sure I’ll ever great a Down Day as a good thing. But maybe, by letting go of the idea I’m in control of this stuff, I can experience a little more peace.

Unexpected Gratitude for A Suicide Attempt

photo by Kurt Fristrup

It’s amazing what you can be grateful for. Sure, we’re grateful for food on the table, a roof over our heads, robust health (if we’re lucky enough to have it), the usual stuff everyone talks about on Thanksgiving Day. Gratitude is simply recognizing the value of something. Sometimes it’s something we’ve come to take for granted, like turning on a tap and getting hot water. Sometimes it’s something horrific that doesn’t sound like any good could possibly come from it all. And yet, we can still be grateful for the terrible as well as the good in our lives.

I got a phone call one evening from someone I hadn’t known for long. Sherry* was a member of a club I belonged to. I didn’t know much about her, and wasn’t sure why she was calling me. I had talked to her about mental illness in the past, just a little, because it runs in my family and hers. Otherwise our interactions had been minimal. I couldn’t imagine what she was calling me about.

After a polite greeting, Sherry told me that she had been admitted to psychiatric hospital because she had attempted suicide. She was calling from a locked ward. I was startled, then sympathetic. I was able to listen to her and hear her story with compassion and understanding. She was afraid to call her family and closer friends, because she didn’t know how they would take the news. I reassured her the best I could.

When that phone call was over, I thought the strangest thing I may have ever thought in my life — how grateful I was that a suicide attempt by one of my relatives had prepared me for this moment.

I am still floored when I think that I could be grateful for something so horrible, but I am. When I first heard that a close relative had been put in the hospital for a suicide attempt, I was grateful she was still alive, but otherwise, I was a mess — frightened, angry, unsure, confused. I never thought I would be grateful for my part of the experience: hearing her story, visiting her in the locked ward, watching her go through therapy and recover. How could I be grateful for something so harrowing and painful?

And yet, only a year later, there I was on the phone, talking calmly to a woman I barely knew, and being of comfort to her. I was able to talk to Sherry about her situation because it wasn’t exotic or bizarre to me. It was something I’d dealt with before.

If Sherry had called me the year before my family went through our suicide crisis, I don’t know what I would have said or done. I would have been completely flummoxed, probably said all the wrong things, or worse yet, hung up and left her to deal with her problems alone.

Knowing how badly I might have responded makes me even more grateful that I was prepared for that moment and able to hold Sherry’s hand as she went through her ordeal. Thanks to that phone call, I am grateful for one of the worst times in my own life. I try to remember now that even the darkest moments can have an unexpected silver lining.

Is there anything awful in your life that you are grateful for today?

*Not her real name

Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about gratitude. To see a list of other posts on gratitude and compassion, click here.

Stop Worrying About Successes And Failures


Things are not going according to plan. I didn’t get my post for Monday ready in time to publish. Working on it Monday night, I discovered a huge flaw that I may not be able to fix. I may have to scrap the whole thing. Hours of work down the drain, plus my personal goal of posting three times a week is in danger of going unmet.

Right now, I need to hear these words:

You must once and for all give up being worried about successes and failures. Don’t let that concern you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures. — Anton Chekov

Mistakes are inevitable, and by association, so are failures. So be it. I’ve goofed, and my post idea may be a complete fail. I’ll keep working anyway and try to accept that it’s all part of the creative process.

Accepting Differences: One Woman’s Mess Is Another’s Desk

Sometimes I look around my house and despair. I seem to have so much stuff. My desk is a great example. Along with the piles of notebooks, index cards, and scraps of paper, I have a stack of reference books, a bunch of journals, and a herd of critters — ceramic, knit, and fabric — who all keep me company as I write.

My desk at its cleanest would make some people weep.
My desk at its cleanest is still pretty crowded.
But this is how it usually looks when I'm working.
This is how it usually looks when I’m working. Or worse.

I have a friend whose house is spotless, and it’s not an illusion. Not only does she have a minimum of knickknacks, but even her closets are neat, organized, and only half-full. Open the cabinets in her guest bathroom and every shelf is bare. Every single one. The last time my cabinets looked like that, we’d just bought our house and hadn’t moved in yet. They won’t look like that again until we pack up and leave.

I used to get upset about this. I wondered what was wrong with me. I admire minimalist living, and it coincides with my beliefs about avoiding unnecessary waste and simplifying to save both time and money. Whenever I visit my friend, I look around her house and think about how easy it is to breathe there, how calming the environment is, how soothing those huge expanses of white are.

But after a few days, I start to get edgy. What seemed soothing becomes cold, what was calming feels dead. My discomfort grows until I am desperate for the color and patterns of the beloved objects that surround me at home. I miss the comfort of my mess.

I didn’t understand what was going on until I read about the different modes of learning and how they affect the way we interact with the world. In an article about decorating a writer’s office, Jeanne Adams explains that our decorating style is directly linked to how we learn. Each person leans towards at least one of three learning modalities — visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Those same learning preferences affect what makes an office space appealing and easy to work in.

I’m a combination of a visual and kinesthetic learner, and my environment shows it. I need color and texture (visual) but I also place a lot of emphasis on being comfortable physically (kinesthetic). My kinesthetic tendencies apparently override my visual ones, since I put up with a lot more chaos in my environment than a pure visual learner would. I realized that my friend is a musician and an auditory learner. She thrives in a minimalist environment because of who she is.

That realization has saved me. I no longer have to think I am a bad person for surrounding myself with an abundance of things or that my friend is better than me because she lives in such a stream-lined home. We are both doing what we need to do to function well in the world. Accepting that we are different people with different needs has enabled me to be compassionate and understanding towards us both. Our ways of living each have their pros and cons. One is not better than another, however one is better for her, the other, better for me.

I’m constantly working on being more accepting of myself and others. Most of the struggles in my own life come from me fighting against what is true instead of accepting the facts and working with them. This insight about learning modalities and living spaces was a lesson in acceptance for me, and I’m grateful for it.

Today, members of 1000 Voices of Compassion are blogging about acceptance. To see a list of other posts on acceptance and compassion, click here.

How Changing to a Paleo Diet Has Improved My Health

It’s been one year since I started eating meat again. I’ve written about why I made the change, my ethical struggles with eating meat, and my fear of what others would think. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask myself, “How am I doing?”

At the top of Arthur's Rock with Dory, after hiking up at record speed. See the big smile? I enjoyed it!
At the top of Arthur’s Rock with Dory, after hiking up at record speed. See the big smile? I enjoyed it!

When I was trying to decide if I could turn my back on 23 years as a vegetarian, I educated myself on the health benefits of eating meat by reading The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain. I noted the things I hoped would change for me if I followed his food plan.

According to the book, eating meat might help:

  • with weight loss (thermic effect of a high protein diet, p. 21)
  • improve my ability to exercise (p. 65)
  • decrease my hypoglycemia (p. 70)
  • increase my thyroid production (p. 71)

Eliminating grains and legumes might help:

  • improve vitamin B absorption (p. 55)
  • improve biotin absorption (specifically wheat and whole grains, p. 56)
  • improve my mental health (also being dairy-free, p. 95)

I’ve spent the last year eating meat every day while removing all grains, all legumes, and most dairy products from my diet. This is my experience:

  • Great improvement in strength and endurance. Exercise is starting to be fun again. Also, my body shape has changed as a result of putting on more muscle, although my weight is about the same.
  • A marked decrease in hypoglycemic symptoms. I used to eat by the clock. One extra hour between a snack and a meal gave me severe symptoms that took 24 hours to disappear. Now I can skip a snack completely or go for long periods between meals with no ill effects. (Well, I might get a little grumpy. I don’t like being hungry. But I do not suffer like I used to.)
  • A definite improvement in mental health (decreased depression and anxiety).

I don’t think that my thyroid function has improved because we haven’t had to make any adjustments to my thyroid supplement. (I dream of one day not needing to take that little pill every morning, but it hasn’t happened yet.) I haven’t bothered to have my B vitamins tested so I don’t know if my absorption is better or not.

But other than that, the things I hoped might improve have improved. I have more energy. Activities that used to require days of recovery are no longer as taxing. Most mornings, I wake up with ease and am eager to face the day. Even the days when I am tired, I am not as tired as I used to be.

Letting go of my vegetarian life style has been challenging for me, but I need only look at the improvements in my daily life to see that while I may not want to eat meat, I need to eat meat.

My Severest Judge When I Abandoned Vegetarianism

This time last year I was struggling to decide if I was willing to make a dramatic change to my diet for health reasons. After 23 years as a vegetarian, I was considering eating meat. I’d been getting signals from my body and from health professionals that this was a change I should make, but it took desperation and a gentle suggestion from a friend before I was willing to even think about changing my ways.

As soon as I started thinking about eating meat, I was filled with fear. What would other people say? I know many vegetarians. My sister has been vegetarian even longer than I have, and I know she stopped eating animals for ethical reasons. I was terrified of telling her, or anyone for that matter.

I imagined everyone I talked to would look like this. (Judge Doom by Me2)
I imagined everyone I talked to would look like this. (Judge Doom by Me2)

I lost sleep worrying about the reactions other people would have when they heard my news. I expected the vegetarians to brand me a traitor, and the meat-lovers to laugh and say, “I told you so.” (Everyone who has ever tried a vegetarian diet has gotten the “you need more protein” lecture at least once.)

But I greatly underestimated my family and my friends.

My sister was completely supportive. Without so much as a hint of judgment in her tone, she said, “You have to take care of yourself.” When I complained that I didn’t want to eat animals, she asked me if I hated my dog for eating meat. I don’t of course. Dogs are carnivores. They need to eat meat to be healthy. “So don’t hate yourself,” she said, much clearer than I was on who was really judging me for making this change.

When I told my friend who has been vegetarian her entire adult life that I was eating meat and feeling great, I burst into tears. She consoled me by sharing her own goal: to be thoughtful about consumption and to do everything she can to reduce waste. Her understanding helped me reframe my own thoughts about my actions and to start looking at the things I could do while eating meat that were still in line with my principles.

Even those I felt sure would be dancing on the grave of my vegetarian past were kind and loving in hearing my news. If they gloated, they never did it where I could hear them.

It turned out there was only one person whose judgment of my behavior was going to be truly severe. That person was me.

As I wrote in my journal just days after I started eating meat again:

As much as I fear the opinions of others, I should be worried more about my judgment of myself. I am the one with the iron fist that cracks bones and draws blood. I hurt myself more than anyone else does.

And I was right. Even now, when I tell the story of my conversion from vegetarian to meat-eater to a friend I haven’t seen in ages, he or she listens with compassion and interest. I’m the one seething with emotion about how I have betrayed my own beliefs.

I’m no longer afraid to tell others about the change I’ve made because there is plenty of evidence that this diet is much better for me than any version of vegetarian diet I ever tried. But I still feel guilty and even defensive when I see a photo of a lamb or calf with a caption that says we shouldn’t eat our friends.

I now know that it’s not the photo or the slogan but the voice inside me that is making me uncomfortable. I’ll have to keep working on accepting that this change isn’t just a necessity for me. It’s a valid way to live.

Why I Hate Naps

I get naps with a little help from my friends.
I get naps with a little help from my friends.

As much as my health has improved in the last year, I still have slow days, exhausted days, days where I drag myself around trying to live up to my obligations and expectations of myself. When they happen, I grit my teeth, back pedal, jettison the non-essential tasks and prioritize. I still have to fight my way through the day and often wonder what I can do to feel better.

The answer is obvious to anyone with half a brain.

Extremely tired? Take a nap.

Only I hate naps. Here’s why.

1) I hate what needing a nap means. It means that I’ve either over-extended myself (with too much work, not enough sleep, or both) or that I’m getting old. Either way, not the happiest news (although getting old does beat the alternative). Of course, what it really means is that I’m human. Getting enough rest is part of taking care of myself. Dammit.

2) I hate giving up the time. It’s bad enough I have to sleep through the night, but to sleep during the day seems like a crime. I have so many things I want to do — stories to write, quilts to make, new things to learn — and I’m not getting any younger (see number 1). I only have so much time and it seems like a waste to sleep it away.

3) I’m bad at napping. I can lie awake, head spinning with worries despite all the relaxation techniques I apply, for the entire time I’ve allotted for the nap. Or if I do sleep, it’s a druggy unreal sort of sleep that leaves me groggy and disoriented for a long time after I get up again. It hardly seems worth the effort. Very occasionally I will just sleep and wake up feeling better afterwards. If I could trust myself to do this more often, I would be more willing to give naps a try.

4) The more I need a nap, the less likely I am to take one. This is the ironic kicker of the entire situation. When my fatigue is so great I actually catch myself thinking “I need a nap”, my cranky Inner Toddler comes out and throws a major tantrum. She looks at all the fun things on the to-do list for the day, the very things I have already abandoned trying to make my day more manageable, and she screams. Usually this leads to compromise. Instead of napping, I do something restful that my Inner Toddler considers fun, like easy knitting or mindless sewing, that will also help me to feel at least a little better. But I know in my heart a real nap would be best.

Clearly, I have some evolving to do. I need to find a better way to sooth that Inner Toddler and all the other voices (Inner Perfectionist, I’m looking at you), that kick in on my exhausted days so that I can make a rational, adult choice to nap. Better to take care of myself in an effective way than to rage again the need for rest.

How about you? Are you a nap fan or a nap hater? Are naps unnecessary or a critical part of your usual day? For those who love to nap, please share your napping tips. I wouldn’t mind getting better at this.