Free To Be

I have a tendency to overdo things. A perfectionist and “type A” personality, I hold myself to very high standards. My worldview is a sea of potential projects, with constant visions of what “needs to be done.” While this drive has pushed me to achieve many accomplishments, it also leads to wearing myself out. That could be problematic for anyone, but I have rheumatoid arthritis, and living with a chronic health condition can be exhausting enough without burning the candle at both ends.

There are times when my body lets me know I’ve pushed it beyond its limits. While some flares are not tied to activity level, weather changes, or any other trigger, I certainly have days of increased pain and inflammation that are a direct reaction to overexertion. This may take the form of intense pain in one or a few joints that were involved in the repetitive motion of whatever activity I did for too long, or it may take the form of severe fatigue and swelling throughout my body. However, RA is an unpredictable disease, and there are times when I am overdoing it in a million small ways, and the four medications I take for RA hold the symptoms at a manageable level in spite of overdoing it.

Ironically, sometimes the absence of severe symptoms can actually be a bad thing, as I’ll continue to overdo it, disregarding the low-level fatigue, inflammation, and achiness because those symptoms are speaking to me in a hushed whisper instead of a scream. If I would give my body the rest it needs, these symptoms would abate and my quality of life would improve. However, I’ve always struggled with the “less is more” philosophy, and I continually find myself pushing through stress and mild RA symptoms in my perpetual battle with my to-do list, failing to acknowledge how very overwhelmed I’m feeling.

As I have been experiencing increased levels of stress, I recently went back to a therapist I’ve seen off and on for the past few years. Very solution-focused and action-oriented, sessions with this therapist usually lead me to question my behaviors and develop healthier replacements. At my last session, I discussed how frazzled I’ve been feeling. When he asked me if I’ve been making time for myself, I was struck by the question. I have a full-time job and two small children, so making time for myself seems like such an impossible luxury. He explained to me that in Western culture, we are very focused on “doing,” as evidenced by our quintessential small talk query: “So, what do you do?” Of course, when we ask that question we aren’t asking about time spent reading books, taking nature walks, practicing yoga, or resting; we are asking what a person’s occupation is. The therapist went on to share that in many Eastern traditions, there is far more emphasis placed on “being.” There are cultures that find worth in time spent reflecting and meditating, where people build time for themselves into their daily schedules.

My therapist went on to discuss how quick Americans are to fill their schedules with long hours at work, social outings and events, and exercise, and then fill remaining free time with technology, never carving out time to truly be with ourselves. He suggested scheduling free time for myself the way I would schedule anything else on my calendar, and to cease prioritizing all else before my “me time.” Not only would I be helping myself, I’d be setting a powerful example for my kids, who are growing up in a world where children’s schedules are often as packed as those of adults, and where we can’t be still for a few minutes without checking our smartphones.

All of this really struck me, and I immediately saw the value in what he was saying. It is indeed easy to let oneself become overwhelmed in our “go, go, go” society. I feel guilty if I’m behind at work, if I cancel plans with a friend, or if I turn down a request for volunteers, yet I never feel guilty for denying myself time for myself. Somehow, I’ve allowed myself to become my lowest priority. In addition, while it seems so hard to figure out how I could find time for myself, when I take a step back I realize that eventually I end up with this time by way of rheumatoid arthritis. There is only so far I can push myself before I have an RA flare. Then I do spend time reading, watching movies, or listening to guided imagery cds, as I’m in too much pain to tackle my to-do list. What if I were to spend more time relaxing and reflecting on the front end, and headed off the flare? What if my time spent on the couch was by choice, rather than by physical necessity?

This is a paradigm shift that I know will require huge changes in my life in order to put in place, yet I think it could bring significant improvement for my health and overall quality of life. By training myself to see the value in “being,” rather than solely on “doing,” I would allow myself the physical and mental rest that I know I need to be healthy without sacrificing my sense of accomplishment. I could pat myself on the back for not pushing myself into a flare, rather than criticizing myself for not getting through all the tasks on my list. While I admit that seems like a bit of a pipe dream, it’s one that I’m willing to work toward.

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