FATIGUE AND FIBROMYALGIA: THE FACTS
The popular theory of fatigue in fibromyalgia is that it’s prevalent because the body and the brain/ nervous system are in constant warfare with each other.
There are days that are excruciatingly difficult to get up from bed in the morning. And days that I find it challenging to move from one task to the other like washing dishes to sending an email. But what about when I pray? Should I just give up my scheduled prayer time, so I can rest my poor body? Or should I toughen it up so I can become the patron saint for people dealing with chronic illnesses?
FATIGUE DRAINS OUT ALL YOUR ENERGY
The thing with fatigue is that it drains all your energy and you feel physically and mentally incapable of doing anything.
Which is different than feeling tired. When you are tired, it’s usually because you did not get enough sleep or you spent your energy on tasks or were out the whole day. Hence, using up all your spoons!
Fatigue is a daily whole body experience. You may have had your night’s rest and yet you wake up with a physical exhaustion that makes it feel impossible to get up and brush your teeth. When my physical energy drains out, I am more susceptible to low sunken moods and a depletion of motivation of whatever goals I had for today.
FATIGUE CAN LEAD TO SPIRITUAL DESOLATION
The widespread pain and stiffness of my body piled up with the overcoming fatigue are the cherries on top of spiritual desolation, well, they can be if you let them be.
But as someone who has a few years with fibromyalgia (diagnosed much later after the battle of my aches and pains), spiritual desolation is a common theme as I go through the slow-moving traffic of fatigue. Lifting my attention to Scripture or meditation becomes a much more challenging task than it already is!
I not only need to surrender my mind to God, but now my body is also actively engaged in this art and mystery of surrender.
But how can I focus on prayer when I am in fatigue?
There is no easy answer to this question.
I used to force myself to pray while the intense exhaustion overcame my senses. But it did no good to me. I was being hard on myself which was an assault to my body already in pain. I constantly need to remember that I am not an angel–I am a human person with body, mind, and soul. If I am not flexible with my chronic pain, then my life of prayer and intimacy becomes an island, far from God.
My ongoing reminders are: Be kind to yourself. Be merciful to yourself. Know thyself–which is a segway into coping with fatigue:
Three Ways to Cope with Fibromyalgia Fatigue
Self-awareness is a superpower we can have when living with chronic illness (actually, it’s a superpower for everything). Turning my attention to my thoughts and bodily sensations helps me to recognize shifts of my energy level. When I do not make time to pause and listen to my body and mind, I risk losing valuable information that my body might have been communicating to me, but out of my avoidance, the information was piled under my activities. As a consequence, the next few days (or even a whole week!) is set aside to regain my strength and reorient myself to healthy management of my pain and fatigue. Self-awareness, for me, has become a humbling and disciplinary tool for me. It draws me from childishness to childlikeness. Self-awareness stops me from getting all the toys that I want for today, but it helps me to be content with one or two toys.
BODY SCAN MEDITATIONS
Body scan meditation is a form of self-awareness that I use improvisationally throughout my days. For me, it’s a body and mind check-in. Anything new (or old) I notice in my body and mind? I like to do these between transitions of activities, such as from sending emails to making lunch. Sensing where my pain is and how my energy level is gives me information for the next couple hours (I can’t ever be sure what my body will be informing me an hour from now!). Information is power. Knowledge is power. As long as you do something with it.
When I notice low energy, I make a conscious effort to pace myself for the rest of the day. I move onto the next task in slow steady movements. No rush. If you want me to do something quick for you, sorry man, I gotta take it slow. I gotta pace myself. And this is self-awareness for me. If I spend my morning moving like Speedy Gonzalez, then I will be a turtle in a shell for the rest of my day. When I pace myself, my mind and body are in sync. When my body and mind are in sync, my soul is an open window, blinds rolled up, and I am more present to God-physically and spiritually.
WATCH OUT FOR TRIGGERS TO YOUR FATIGUE
Do these things undeniably help me all the time? No. The thing with chronic illness is that, no matter what you do, you can wake up with fatigue–unexpectedly.
Some triggers can be diet, insomnia, lack of exercise, stress, unhealthy environment, and other factors. If I do my body scans and eat poorly, then I am setting myself up for fatigue.
One thing to keep in mind is that fatigue or physical tiredness/exhaustion can be a sign of depression. Unfortunately, people with chronic illnesses commonly have co-morbid conditions like depression and anxiety. It is SO important that you don’t confuse these things. In the past, I had ascribed my low energy to fibromyalgia when it was actually an early symptom of depression.
Again, information is key. Know thyself.
FATIGUE IS MY CALVARY
But anyways, when fatigue comes like a wild card, I don’t force myself to pray or kneel. In all honesty, I am at Calvary.
Saint Mother Teresa would say that, “…suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you.”
My old spiritual director had shared this striking image when I would feel so blinded by my pains. Ever since then, being at Calvary feels more intimate, personal, and vulnerable. It always has been, but bringing fibromyalgia, especially the fatigue, to Calvary uncovers a layer of my salvation history that I have never tapped into.
BUT WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE AT CALVARY?
I moved back home with my family, so because of my mom’s zeal for the rosary, I cannot escape the rosary (not that I was escaping it…!). My mom’s signature look of rosary over her neck or held on her petite fingers gives me the encouragement to draw nearer to the Blessed Mother while I’m at Calvary. Sometimes one decade would do. Or two. And then I rest for probably 15 minutes or so until I commit to reflecting the Mass readings for the following day. I consciously make this commitment out of sheer gratitude for His mercy and kindness for me. If I try to do Lectio Divina with resentment and animosity, I will only be steeped into greater desolation. An open heart is necessary when I am in Calvary.
If God gives me a word or an image, that’s great. But if he doesn’t, that’s great also.
Thankfully, it is usually the end of the day when I experience the harsh effects of fatigue, so after prayer, I would fall straight to sleep and skip my nightly routines like washing my face and brushing my teeth (which is a scary habit to create…!)
Each person is different though. What works for you?
I did not mention medication because I am in the process of finding a new medication for fibromyalgia. Amitriptyline and Gabapentin had not shown any improvement for my pain relief. Being without medication has been a trial for me, but managing my mind helps me to manage my body since they’re interconnected.
What is your Calvary? What do you bring when you are at Calvary?
And like Saint Mother Teresa said, your pains are kisses from Jesus. Your pains bring you so close to Jesus that he can…kiss you.