Re-Learning to Pace
This is a cross-post from something I wrote for ReConnected Life. But, as it’s directly relevant to my MS journey, I’m repeating it here too.
Pacing is something I am learning (again) to do. When I look back at my DisConnected Years, I realise that I had become quite adept at pacing myself, although not in a conscious or mindful way. My pacing at that time came from the limbic animal survival brain and from a place of unconscious disassociation, on autopilot. Back then, I needed to pace, but the way I was doing it wasn’t actually helpful to my recovery.
When I was first diagnosed with MS, some of my friends said to me, perhaps this has happened for a reason, perhaps this has happened to make you more determined to maintain your mission (to help you and other survivors live full and whole lives again, whilst also ending rape culture), perhaps this will give you new insights into how to help and make you even better at what you do. I hated them for that (I still love them as friends, it was what they said that I wasn’t ready to hear). And whilst I don’t think I was ‘given’ MS for any reason but that the universe is random with where it decides to throw its shit, and bad things just happen because fairness is a human concept, not one the universe is familiar with or subscribes to, I do recognise that the MS is giving me a new perspective on recovery.
The DisConnected Years
The pacing I did on autopilot during my DisConnected Years, when I was ‘faking it’ holding down the job looked like this: I would get up and try to get to work on time, or vaguely on time, after staring down multiple panic attacks about leaving the house, or getting on the train, or being amongst people. I worked long hours, insisting on achieving my high standards, left late, got home to eat late, I watched TV until even later; I only wanted to fall asleep when my body was so tired it would have to sleep through, not wake, in the hope the nightmares wouldn’t come. And then, I’d do it all again; until the weekend. When I would take some pills and sleep and sleep and sleep.
On the outside, everything seemed fine. Only I knew about the panic attacks. Only I knew about the wine to forget. Only I knew about the pills to sleep. One time, a colleague did point out the scratches on my arm. I think I muttered something about a cat. It was working. I was getting done what needed to be done, pacing myself to do what needed doing, pushing through, knowing that I had two days of rest at the end. But it wasn’t living. And it only worked until it didn’t, when I started working even on those days that had been of rest, and led to my breakdown.
During those DisConnected Years I wasn’t being mindful about how I was coping and pacing through the things that needed doing. And I wonder, how much of your pacing to cope with your lives is being done mindfully, and how much is being done on autopilot? If we want to stop feeling broken and less-than, if we want to stop mistrusting ourselves, we have to reconnect to our core, and we cannot do that on autopilot.
We Have To Break Free
The things we do to survive do not help us to thrive. Surviving is one day at a time, holding on, trying to get through it, looking over our shoulder, running from the past. Living is also one day at a time, but this time it’s appreciating and noticing the now, and looking forward, building, planning for the future, so that we can put in place the blocks that will help us thrive. We cannot do that on autopilot. We cannot do that whilst pacing ourselves for survival. Somehow, we have to break free from that cycle, and create new habits that will help us reconnect, that will help us live again.
But, how? And this is something that this year I have been grappling with, and grappling with in a more consciously mindful way than I was back then.
Back then, I was pacing to fake it, to ward off the shame I would feel if people knew I was broken, if people knew I had been drunk and had been raped, if people knew that I was self-harming, if people knew that maybe I was ‘unreliable’ and didn’t deserve my job. I paced myself to manage what I needed to do to make sure people knew they could rely on me, that I could do my job, that I could keep the roof over my head.
And now? I find myself also pacing to ensure that the people I work with know they can rely on me, know that I can do my job, so that I can keep the roof over my head. I prioritise those hours 10am to 7pm, Mondays to Thursdays, they are sacrosanct. But my pacing is different now. And whilst before, these things would have been helpful to avoid the burn-out breakdown that exposed my pacing for the fakery it was, now, these things are absolutely necessary because I know my MS-body would simply not function without them. I am so grateful I learned these techniques in my recovery, because they are my lifelines now, and I still wish I had known them before my breakdown, and so here are my pacing tips for you.
Listen To Your Body
Listen to your body. Not your mind. Your mind will tell you that you ‘should’ do something and will then tell you off if you don’t, or you can’t. Your mind will tell you that you are weak if you don’t, and cause you shame. (For tips on how to quiet the inner bully, see here). Your mind is often a false friend, it wants you to go further than you can, and at the same time it wants to keep you exactly where you are. Learn how to listen to your body. It knows when it needs to be vigilant, it knows when it needs to replenish.
Our bodies hold our trauma and our pain. In my case, right now, my body is screaming out at me for attention. It hurts. A lot. Every day. All the time. At first, I wanted to just numb it all down, and I do need to take the medication because without it, all I would be able to do is scream. But, it’s there, all the time, hurting. My instinct, my habit, was to disassociate from it, drink the wine, binge on the TV, try to ignore it. Well, it’s MS and it’s transverse myelitis (causing neuropathic nerve pain and various other joys like the feeling of insects crawling over the body, and random electric shocks, amongst other things), so ignoring it is not an option. So, now, I listen. It speaks to me. When I am feeling stressed, the pain is worse, and I know I need to take some time to breathe. When I am gobbling my food, I find it hard to swallow and I know I should slow down and appreciate it. When I’ve been sat too long, it seizes up, and I know I need to stretch. My body talks to me, and I am learning to listen. (For more on how to be bodyful, see here).
Remember, learning how to listen to your body is not an instant thing. It takes time, and I’m thinking possibly a lifetime to be on fluent terms with the language it speaks.
When waking up, or going to bed, or anytime in the day, do a body scan. How do your feet feel, your toes? Work your way up. Ask your body how it feels about the day, where do you feel the fear or the block in doing what you want to do? Is it real, or is it just a passing ache?
Know that sometimes your body will change its mind. And what it could do yesterday, it might not be able to do today. Recovery is not a straight line.
Nurture Your Body
Nurture your body. Learn how to calm your parasympathetic system. Learn how to ask what it needs and nurture that. Some bodies need exercise, some don’t. Some bodies need to stretch, some don’t. Some bodies feel bloated with carbs, some feel alive when full. Some bodies want the release that meditation brings, some find the blank space overwhelming. We’re all different and there is no one formula for all, but I expect these three foundations for nurturing ourselves will be consistent for everyone and yet when we’re in survival mode, we usually forget.
- Drink water, lots of it – it helps our whole system cleanse itself and flushes out toxins. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, make water your comfort blanket and sip it as often as you can. If you find the taste boring, add lemon, lime, cucumber, mint – experiment with what you like.
- Take rests and know when to push a little, and when to sit back and not push at all. Know that pushing a lot is unnecessary and often counter-productive requiring more rest than you wanted.
- Sleep. The only definition of too much sleep is when it consistently stops you doing your number one priority for living. And that priority can shift. And usually be time-shifted anyway. Sleep as many hours as you can, and don’t be afraid of naps. Sleep heals. (I know that sleep is often a dream in recovery – you can find out more about some of my tips for sleep rituals here).
Ditch the barricades that you’ve been building around you, instead create boundaries that will support you. This is akin to the difference between building a wall to keep people out, and instead building a bridge to help people connect to each other. Your bridges are your boundaries. You consciously decide what is ok with you, and what is not ok. Instead of barricading yourself in a self-made prison of not-feeling and not-connecting, define your rules of engagement.
For me, right now, my boundaries are about how I spend my time, what I prioritise, what I ditch. That means I am prioritising my means of keeping my roof overhead, and I am doing it by taking breaks (five to ten minutes) to breathe when I need to, to meditate, to stretch my body. And those boundaries of time are being monitored as closely as I can; unlike the DisConnected Years my innate desire to excel can’t creep into ‘my’ time.
I am listening to when I need to go to sleep and not binge on Netflix. So, there are boundaries on my bedtime, and waking. I am not engaging with activities that drain me (arguing on social media), and I am being careful about how I spend my spoons in exercise and socialising. (If you haven’t come across spoon theory, see here).
On the days when I’m not in the day-job, and I’m working for you on ReConnected Life, I am doing the same, pacing myself into the day, ensuring I am not attempting to do too much, so that I don’t have the whip to beat myself with, that I haven’t done ‘enough.’ My planning has become about pacing, about ensuring there is time for ‘catching up’ because I know now my body won’t let me create as fast I my mind still wants.
And I am creating boundaries about who I engage with too, and how I spend the time I connect with others. Some people are drains, some people are radiators. We are all drains and radiators to different people; I am finding the people who I radiate, and who radiate me. And I am noticing when people drain me, and I am creating boundaries which limit the time I need to spend around them. When surviving, this is critical, because spending time with those who drain us keeps us in survival mode. We must make those changes to start living again.
Find Your People
Have a support network of those people who are always there for you. That might be one person. It might be people you’ve never met. When we’re pacing, we often feel that we’re the tortoise in the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare. It’s easy to be in our own head, to let the inner chatter steer us off course, to feel that the pacing we are doing is holding us back, that we’re not enough after all, to feel that we need to race ahead and be the hare. Our people keep us sane. They love us for us, not what we do or how we do it. They always have our back, they always tell us that it’s ok, we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have available on that day in that time. They don’t judge, they just hold us with their acceptance of us. Find your people. (The ReConnected Life Community is a place that many have found their understanding and acceptance; if you’re not a member, join us, it’s free. More details here).
Make Your Plan – And Know It’s OK To Ditch It
And, finally. The biggest secret of pacing consciously is making a plan, and knowing that it’s ok to do half of it in the time available. Or, none. To live, and not survive, we need to plan. Surviving only has one plan, and that is to get through the day. Living is about planning the life we want to live when we’re thriving. (And our definition of thrive is entirely personal – and can be as simple as no longer being caught in the past). But pacing is about letting go of the judgement of not building the life as quickly as we think it.
Bringing It All Together…
Pacing is about being connected to our plans and consciously choosing how to execute them, whilst listening to and nurturing our bodies, respecting our boundaries, and asking our people for support when we need. Pacing means we’re ok with the fact we might not win the race, but we’re consciously noticing how we are whilst we’re in the race. Pacing is about the journey, not the destination.
Thank you for reading xx