Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Is Illness Your Only Time Off?

Photo Credit: Channah
Years ago, I saw a patient wanting help dealing with migraine headaches. He had these headaches almost daily, sometimes so severe he could not function and had to stay home, highly sedated and in bed, until they finally went away. We worked for several weeks, with slow, gradual improvement to his symptoms. One day, he came in with a strange look on his face. "For the first time in decades, I've been days without pain." He canceled his next few treatments, and never came back to my office.

I wish I could say acupuncture cured his migraines, but I don't think so. I think he has headaches as bad as he ever did, and when push came to shove, decided he needed his headaches. He had a co-worker who was constantly causing problems, and my patient ended up dealing with the consequences of his co-worker's mistakes. Because of his relationship with this co-worker, he hated his job and hated going there each day. His work environment was demanding, and taking time off was discouraged. Everyone in the office knew about his severe migraines, and when he had a headache he could go into a quiet office and work uninterrupted. If the headache was really bad, his boss would suggest he go home, and compliment him on all his hard work. My patient even told me several times during our sessions that he felt "the migraines aren't all bad--they're my only break from my toxic work environment."

So I was not terribly surprised when my patient suddenly stopped his treatments. As much as he hated the pain and limits his migraines put on him, he hated the environment at work more. He's not alone. I often see people who come in for various health problems, who have one thing in common: for whatever reason, they do not believe they can create boundaries around their life, so their bodies create boundaries for them. Headaches, digestive problems, recurring head colds, anxiety attacks--for some patients, these are the bane of their existence and also their only way to feel safe taking some much-needed rest.

I've been in their shoes. For many years, my only time really off from my demands was when I caught a virus. I may have had days that I didn't work, but I had social obligations I did not like, or that were more challenging than my limited resources could handle. I wanted to feel "productive" and "reliable," so I kept making commitments I did not want to make, and doing things I felt I "should" do, even if I was exhausted. If I was honest with myself, I would have realized a day on the sofa reading a favorite book was much more rejuvenating to me than going out with friends to see a movie. But I wanted to think I was "having fun." 

So I got several colds a year, forcing me to take time off from work. Since I was sick, I spent the days sleeping and--you guessed it--laying on the sofa reading a book. After more years than I would like to admit, I started scheduling down time. I have a lot fewer colds now. But I still sometimes feel guilty about making time for my decompression.

How about you? Do you go and go until something forces you down? One of the areas I try to focus when talking to patients is extreme self-care (thank you, Cheryl Richardson, for introducing me to the term). You are the most reliable asset you have, since you are the only one you can completely control. And if you are not functioning well, nothing else in your life will, either. Do you care for yourself at least as well as you care for your pets--or your car? Do you give yourself play time, good food, and maintain yourself with regular fuel, and time to repair when you are sick or injured? If you don't because you have children, is your example of constant self-sacrifice and suffering what you want your children to follow? If you are giving because you must, even though it hurts and damages you, are you showing your family the outpouring of love that you imagine? How much better a gift is it to let your family learn to manage some chores or problems, and have time to go on a picnic or take a walk together?

I am still learning the wonders of self-care. Doing nice things for yourself is harder than it seems. I've learned that it is better for me to care for myself by not eating wheat and sugar than it is to give myself a tasty treat that leaves me feeling jittery and tired for the next three days. That sometimes I need to stay up late and sing along with Pandora, and sometimes I need to go to bed early and feel my husband's arm around me as I sleep. That I can enjoy real time off better if I schedule time to clear my desk of extraneous paperwork instead of leaving early. Self-care is not simple decadence, even though I think a too-rich-to-believe chocolate truffle on occasion is a great way to be nice to me. It is taking care of your vehicle to be who you are--mind, body, and spirit. I hope you are on a path to take good care of yourself, and not force your body and mind to make you ill so you will take some time looking out for you.

*Details of the patient histories have been changed to protect privacy.