Too Good to be True; Lessons in Gratitude

Do you remember watching Madelaine Kahn in Blazing Saddles do that magnificent number, “I’m Tired”?  Now she was speaking of love (and a few other things), but if I may ride on Mel Brooks’ inspired lyrics, I’m so tired of being tired.

Fatigue is one of those symptoms that really doesn’t get you much sympathy. When I tell folks that there are days when I just can’t get much done because I am so tired, the response ranges from the enthusiastic supporter’s “Well, of course you are!  You are so busy!”, to the worried well’s, “Have you had that checked out?”

It is also one of those symptoms that usually DOES have an underlying issue that COULD mean something is changing. Problem is, it is vague. My fatigue is problematic in that it interferes with what I want to get done and it interferes with doing what I need to do to stay healthy.

My fatigue has been a constant since I had COVID. Initially, I put my tiredness and lethargy down to jet lag. But that didn’t explain its lingering after the rest of my COVID symptoms resolved. Now, two years into this pandemic, studies are confirming what has been my experience; fatigue may be a persistent companion, possibly for the rest of my life.

Adaptation and Accommodation

One of my pillars of aging has to do with renegotiating our relationship to our bodies as they age. Changes in stamina, flexibility, metabolism, and overall functioning are all predictable when speaking of cohorts or groups. All old people become frail. All old people slow down. All old people take naps. This may be confirmed by cohort observations, but they are also ageist stereotypes that we consciously or unconsciously compare ourselves with.

As they happen to me, however, they are internal reminders that I am now experiencing consequences of decisions I made decades ago (i.e., smoking), and need to pay attention to if I am to have the active, functional future I desire.

This means making changes in diet, exercise, and sleep habits, as well as in staying connected to others who challenge and support me socially and keep me engaged cognitively. It also means wrestling with guilt and shame at what I have failed in doing and finding ways to turn those negative messages into motivators for positive change.

Fatigue as a Barrier

My fatigue gets in the way of these goals. It is not an excuse. It is a reality that I am negotiating on a daily basis. There are some days when I wake up with energy. I find myself focused and able to accomplish tasks such as making meals, shopping, doing laundry, and even going out to dinner with friends. For most people, these activities are not overly draining, but for me, they are. This runs counter to my unquestioned expectation that I should be able to be as active as I have always been and do these things as I always have done them. I have no such guarantee any more.

For the past two weeks I have gone to bed at 10 pm and wakened at 6:30 am. The cats keep me to my schedule, so I don’t use an alarm clock. But in these last two weeks, I have had to take a nap in the morning around 10:30 am, then again at 3:00 pm. These are not 30-minute alpha-wave naps. These are two and three-hour delta-wave sleep sessions. I wake refreshed and ready to go. I just can’t go for long.

The Usual Prescription Isn’t Working

I know I should be exercising and watching what I eat. Many well-intentioned friends and strangers have proffered opinions and solutions that will fix me right up. Facebook now targets me with ads for cool sculpting, and guaranteed weight-loss with gummies and/or apple cider. I have plenty of information on fasting, keto, and insulin-resistant/leptin-resistant cures.

It is not for lack of information that I am not making progress. It is because I am tired.

My fatigue, like the one Madelaine Kahn sang about, is more than just physical. It is a world weariness that I carry with me and cannot seem to release. It has temporary reprieves, but returns unexpectedly and seems to come and go as it pleases.

Permission to be Tired

So, I do what I can. For example, I have been taking a gentle yoga class once a week. The class is an hour long and is something I look forward to. The group is supportive and congenial. After the class I feel renewed and ready to take on the day. And two hours later, I am napping. It’s not like I can fight the urge; it is insistent and demanding. And so I nap.

I do a quick inventory of things I accomplished before I go to sleep each night. Sometimes I feel quite positive about what I have gotten done. Other times, I feel like I am making things up just to justify my existence. But I still claim the accomplishment. It is like drawing a line in the sand against the fatigue.

Maybe Tomorrow Will Be Different

There are days and even weeks where I have had energy and not had to nap at all. I have been seduced into thinking that this is the return of the “old me”, and that things will finally return to “normal” (whatever that is/was).

So when the fatigue appears, it feels doubly intimidating. Just like having an unwanted guest in the house. I don’t know how to refuse admission, and just surrender. Of course, the cumulative effect of this is that my overall physical condition continues to deteriorate, or at least is weakened.

Illness as My Compassion Teacher

I have also learned to just keep my mouth shut (most of the time) and no longer offer my valuable insights into someone else’s situation. This is not to say that I don’t have information that may be useful; I do!  But sometimes the share is hard to receive, no matter how well-intentioned.

There is a meme going around about being kind, since we really never know what is going on for people. We assume they are like us, feel like us, suffer like us, and so we can connect with them. I think I do this out of a need to connect when in truth, it arises from a fear of not belonging or being overlooked. My assumption that they are just like me bridges that gap of fear. But it is not a solid bridge.

Acceptance

What does bridge that chasm of the unknown and unwanted is acceptance. Right now, in this moment, I am as I am, which may not be how I want to be, or who I am becoming, but, right now, in this moment, it is who I am.

I am writing this after having taken a nap. I feel refreshed, and a little hungry!  I think I will make myself a little dinner, then watch the sun go down and then go to bed. Maybe tomorrow I won’t feel so tired.

4 responses to “The Burdens and Gifts of Fatigue”

  1. nan sullivan Avatar

    world weary is spot on to me-i often feel like herding the children of the nations and having a lesson on getting along with each other-no pushing, shoving, hands in your pockets, no name calling, respect for differences and cultures-sounds like the UN; we are so remiss

  2. Geri Avatar

    This is my experience, too. Not from Covid, but from other issues, and world-weariness, and general ennui. Gratitude helps. A walk usually does. Naps often.Holding hands with my significant other, laughing with anyone, telling my dog “be grateful you’re a dog”: always. And trying to remember we are all always connected.

  3. Patricia Bradley Avatar

    I worry about losing energy from past years and surprise myself by sudden daytime naps. But I think what is upsetting is the loss of productivity, feeling guilty and
    that I am at fault. Also it reminds you that there is not much time to finish whatever it is that is important to you and tie up loose ends before it is too late.
    I admire women who activate their passions and ambitions while the rest of us are napping!

  4. Berkeley Fuller-Lewis Avatar

    I have two suggestions for all of us who are eldering, i.e. no longer having sprightly 40 (or 50-) year old bodies, while also being deluged by so-called “news” (deliberately filtered to ALWAYS BE “dramatically” bad), etc.

    (1) Cease “doom-scrolling” (a new term for looking at the so-called “news” online or on tablet or on phone.)

    (2) Remember a handy Buddhist tenet, i.e. that “nothing MEANS anything.”

    Re: #2 above, My knee hurts. Ow! That doesn’t mean (a) I have cancer of the knee, and ALSO it doesn’t mean that (b) my body is falling apart. Or that (c) I should fall into orgies of self-pity, irritation or other “interpretations.”

    My knee hurts = my knee hurts. It is an EVENT, like all events. Cease succumbing to the mind/brain/machine’s maddening / non-stop quest for every EVENT to “mean something.” This takes work after (as is true for most of us) we have been “ascribing meaning” to everything, 24/7 for our whole lives. Oh brother!!! (and HAHA).

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