by Joy Selak
Before I got sick, I had a lot of coulda’, shoulda’ woulda’ mantras regarding health. There was the perfect diet I could adhere to, the fitness program I should be on, and the carefree life I would have if only I’d manage my stress properly. These came at me from many angles—magazine articles, books and TV shows spouting the latest science and testimonials from people who claimed to have peak performance. They all told me how I could have this perfect life if I would do what I should do.
After I got sick, at thirty-five, all these rules went straight out the window. Even if I believed they could work for me before, undeniably they did not work with this new life with illness. I realized I could no longer manage my health and fitness taking instructions coming from the outside in. I had to manage my life from the inside out. I had to let my body tell me what worked. My guide was always how I actually felt. If my symptoms got worse, I was on the wrong track; if they got better I had something to build on. As I learned to listen to that subtle voice inside my body, it began to teach me what was uniquely right for me, to trust this knowledge and, in time, to enjoy my own peak performance – with illness.
Are there coulda’, shoulda’, woulda’ ringing in your head? Try completing the sentences below to find out, including the one to assess your attitude toward sick people. The biases you have about people like me just might carry over to biases you have about yourself.
- The perfect diet for me would be…
- I know I would be fit if only I could…
- My stress could be reduced if only…
- My energy level would be higher if I just learned to…
- People who feel sick all the time should just…
Now we have a starting place to see if your conventional wisdom holds up any better than mine did when tested against that wise inner voice. The principles I discovered, based on my inside out method, are purely anecdotal and refer only to my own experience. I share them with you not to dictate what you should do, but to offer examples that might lead to your own discoveries. If you learn to listen, really listen, to your body, what would it tell you about how to live now?
My best diet is the best fuel mix to run my body’s engine. As a young adult I was diagnosed with low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, a relative of diabetes that ran in my family on both sides. I often felt dizzy, faint, nauseous and fatigued, until my doctor told me these symptoms were caused by unstable insulin production, aggravated by eating simple sugars such as candy, sugary drinks and fruit juices, especially on an empty stomach. There’s nothing like feeling lousy to motivate you to change your ways. I began to listen to my body. I altered my diet to eat small meals, more often and to include complex carbohydrates like whole grains. I ate more vegetables and stopped adding sugar to any food. I rarely ate dessert. And I never ate a simple sugar, like orange juice, on an empty stomach. I learned to like this diet because I felt better when I ate this way. I still do. A low carb diet, so popular today, does not work for me.
When I got sick, friends and physicians often recommended a regular exercise regime. We’ve all heard this advice, “You just need to get out and exercise more, then you’ll feel better.” But like many with chronic pain, my symptoms can be triggered by exercise, so if I exercise vigorously one day I might spend the next three in bed on pain medication. I began to listen to my body and soon learned that having several moderate exercise options, more or less intense depending on how I was feeling, was the best plan. I choose between walking, swimming, stretching and a light weight routine and alternate between them. I exercise when I feel like it, for as long as I feel like it, in the manner I choose. If I don’t feel like exercising at all, I honor that. As a result I am able to manage my symptoms more successfully.
Stress, for me, is a real health risk and prevents me from enjoying peak performance. I know my illness is exacerbated by stress and that my stress levels are lower when my mind is quiet and my spirit calm. I struggled to find a path to this serenity. Then I remembered those rest periods I took in kindergarten. I was offered a snack, told to spread my little mat on the floor and lie down. No talking allowed, just rest. I began to take a rest period again, every single day, whether I wanted to our not, like I did in kindergarten. In this still, peaceful time I found I could quiet my mind and calm my spirit. Antidote to stress—rest period and a snack.
I was a ballet dancer for many years and like most dancers, very preoccupied with being thin. When I became ill and therefore less active, I tried to manage my weight the way I always had, by cutting fat from my diet. If I gained a pound or two, I cut out more fat. While I maintained my weight, I really struggled with fatigue. My body was telling me this wasn’t working the way it used to. I tried adding more fat to my diet, and the lift in my energy was immediate and dramatic. I continued to experiment, listening to my body, adjusting the fat in my diet. I soon found that I could exercise more, improve my energy and gradually gain strength and stamina. Now, when I have a bout of fatigue, I know that I might need more rest, and more olive oil on my salad.
The prejudice against the chronically ill in our society and in our health care system is profound. Americans demand the quick fix; as do physicians, insurance companies and people who write books about how to ‘battle’ illness and win. The blame placed on chronically ill patients for being unfixable is perhaps the most difficult aspect of coming to terms with our new lives. However, chronic pain represents the number one reason Americans go to the doctor, miss work and ultimately claim disability. We are not a rarity. We need to allow illness its rightful place in the great scheme of things.
I’ve come to believe that illness is part of the balance of nature. There are supremely healthy people at one end of the scale, like world-class athletes, and so there must be the desperately ill at the other. If we take a global view, the chronically ill in America are far closer to the middle of this spectrum, or the average, than the extreme. Most Americans with chronic conditions have access to health care; many continue to work. We marry and raise our families. We volunteer in our communities. We do this while living every day with pain, fatigue, a foggy brain and little hope for a cure. From our illnesses, we learn patience and compassion and courage. We learn to quiet our minds and open our spirits. We know that the small and petty irritants that may preoccupy the healthy are hardly worth thinking about. We ultimately learn that it is more important to live well, than to get well.
I say that rather than being judged, we should be admired. We should be viewed as heroes. We have learned a lot and have much to share. Part of living at peak performance may be just this, our ability to make the most of our lives, tell our stories and perhaps improve the world we live in. So, I ask you, what’s your story? How have you found peak performance and learned to live well, even while sick?