#17. Taking care, travel edition

This week’s change is special, because it was suggested by an actual, live healthcare professional. That’s right, I wrote a check to someone, as I do weekly in return for their patient absorption of all my angst, and they gently suggested the course of the past week for me. And I think that when one’s therapist makes a gentle suggestion of a change for an upcoming blog entry, one should listen. Otherwise, it’s like throwing your money away. Right? Right.

This week’s change emerged before my recent trip to Scotland and Finland, as I was regaling my therapist with my anxieties about the upcoming journey. There’s my fear of flying, which ebbs and flows in direct proportion to a number of highly complex and sophisticated factors including, but not limited to, amount of sleep, caffeine consumption and whether or not the pilot is kind enough to fly smoothly. Circling around all of this – and it’s hard to tell if it’s chicken-or-egg – is the fact that I generally feel pretty lousy when I’m traveling. That’s the part I was striving to avoid this past week.

Part of this whole “not feeling good business” is, of course, my fibromyalgia. (If you’re tired of hearing me go on about it, I’m sorry, but I’m pretty tired of having it, too, and I don’t know how to write about my life without talking about it.) The baseline from which I operate is Tired ‘n Sore, so you can only imagine how travel compounds this. Particularly that pesky international travel, with its hours spent cramped in a torturous airplane seat, tons of lugging luggage around, walking miles from one gate to another, waiting for weeks for your connection.

Plus let’s not forget the additional complicating factors of jet lag, odd time zones, strange beds, unsupportive pillows. It is all compounded, as I told Nice Therapist Lady, by the fact that I tend to use travel as an excuse to eat even more poorly than usual – easy, fast crap! snacks! tons of caffeine! sugar! more sugar! Huh. Maybe it’s not a surprise I don’t feel good.

On top of that, there’s the guilt. You see, reader, I feel really, really bad about feeling bad. I hate the business of trying to explain to people that I’m sore and exhausted, let alone why. You try telling your 92-year-old Grandma why she can walk further than you can. Or telling your kind hosts that you’d love to see everything they love about their place in the world, but not as much as you’d love to just stay still, feet up, ice pack on your neck. And let’s not forget the traveler’s guilt at having spent All This Money to come All This Way only to miss out on The One Chance to See Everything.

It’s a lot of pressure. Most, if not all, of it coming entirely from me.

So my therapist suggested that maybe while I travel this time, I try for one week to make some different choices than I have in the past. She suggested that I try to figure out what it means to take care of myself, to pursue good health, to set some boundaries while on the road – all with the goal of feeling better during my journey. It was an interesting theory. Perhaps worth a shot.

I gave it a shot, creating a few key areas of focus: getting sleep, eating well and setting boundaries. Then I sallied forth, summarized my efforts at week’s end, eventually awarding myself a grade for my efforts. Let’s just say I won’t be getting into a good graduate school with these marks.

1. Getting good sleep

This one’s a doozy. I don’t, as you may recall from earlier weeks, sleep well under the best of circumstances: my own bed, my own pillows, ear plugs, ice pack on my neck. So imagine what it’s like in a strange place. Add to that the fact that our flight over to Britain (Detroit to London, followed by London to Glasgow) is an overnight flight – and that I can’t sleep on a plane, or any other form of transportation. If I wanted to stay up all night and feel like crap, I’d never have quit drinking.

In other words, I start out my trip minus one night’s sleep and exhausted, which always, always means more pain. And it means feeling weird. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that: just … weird. And that means I drink a lot of coffee to try and stay awake. Which only really makes me sleepy and shaky with an upset stomach. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Normally, by the time we catch our London connection to Glasgow and get to where we’re staying, we can’t resist a short nap, even though we know my relatives are chomping at the bit to see us. It’s not that we’re very exciting; it’s just that TV isn’t that great over there and they’re bored. On this trip, with the aim of trying to establish a regular sleeping patter, Chris and I eschewed the nap and soldiered through the requisite first visits with family, so tired it was like we were floating up and down the streets. Not in a cool way, either. Then we got to bed at a decent hour, left ourselves room for a good night’s sleep and waited to Feel Great.

It didn’t happen. Not during the entire trip. Now, in fairness, when traveling east, they say to allow yourself one day of adjustment for each time zone you travel through. At that rate, we could have expected to feel recovered and normal by the last day of our time in Scotland. Which was about right, all thing’s considered. Not until the day before we left did I start to feel like my sleep was accomplishing something. Just in time to fly to Helsinki, through another body-adjusting time zone. Sweet.

So how’d I do? I’d probably give myself a B for trying to get a decent amount of sleep each night. I didn’t stay up inadvisably late watching bad British TV programs even once. But even though that looks good on paper, it still doesn’t mean I listened to my body and gave it rest when it wanted it. I slept when I thought I was supposed to, not when I needed it. For that, I award myself a big, fat D.

Final grade: C

2. Eating better than usual

Notice I didn’t name this one Eating Well? Visiting Glasgow is like a tour through the culinary delights of my childhood and I tend to spend most of the trip shoveling one chocolate-laden memory into my mouth, washing it down with a bag of vinegar-drenched chips and a giant cup o’ Irn Bru. (Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel well?) And even though I hadn’t been to Helsinki before, I’m generally guilty of experiencing new places through their sweet treats and local flavors. I am a gut tourist.

This trip, I tried to set some goals for eating better. I reminded myself that the idea was to feel better, not to deprive myself of anything I really, really wanted. I should note that it helps that now, unlike in former years, I can get most of my favorite British sweets here in the states, so I don’t have the invented “urgency” to sample everything I can get my hands on BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

I felt very Zen accepting that there would be crap, but deciding that I should augment the crap with some real, actual food. You know, fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Something with actual nutritional value.

I wish I had an explanation for why this, for the most part, didn’t happen. I failed pretty consistently, on a meal-by-meal, snack-by-snack basis. I’d like to blame the fact that we ate on the go most of the time and healthy food is not so quick and affordable in Glasgow. But I think that’s pretty much bullshit and that I just ate what I wanted.

That’s not to say there weren’t small moments of triumph. I did make a point on a few occasions to shovel some salad into my gullet. In fact, I think that – compared with previous trips – I ate less overall. It’s just that I prioritized eating a lot of carb-heavy stuff that dragged down my energy and it didn’t leave a lot of room for Actual Food. Based on my highly scientific knowledge, I’d estimate I got only about 17% of any of my vitamins the entire five day period, but feel it’s worth nothing that a lot of Scottish desserts went uneaten, too.

Final grade: D

3. Setting boundaries for myself

Another person might refer to this as “honoring my fibromyalgia and its limitations,” but that might make me want to punch that person in their face. Still, it’s hard to escape that’s essentially what I mean. On the flight over, when not gripping the arm rests, I established some lofty and great intentions not to apologize to anyone for the way I feel. I decided I wasn’t going to worry, for once, about whether or not other people understood or believed the way I was feeling. I decided I didn’t have to explain myself and I wasn’t going to allow my concerns of what other people thought about me make decisions for me.

Oh, sigh.

I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong on this one. I think maybe the problem was that I forgot to have my codependence chip removed before I went, and it tripped me up at every turn. Well, at almost every turn. I did have a few little triumphs here and there. For example, when I landed in Glasgow that first day, I let my family members know that I was only feeling up to brief visits and I did adhere to that. I trotted home at a decent hour and, as I stated previously, got to bed like a good girl. But that was sort of the end of that.

For me, one of the biggest challenges of having conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic pain is that they’re invisible. If you look like a relatively healthy person on the outside, it’s easy for other people to forget that there’s something wrong with you. Especially if you do a bang-up job of pretending like you’re fine most of the time, because you don’t want anyone else to feel bad.

And say that, on top of all that, you’d experienced environments where you were often challenged or invalidated about how you feel. (“I’m depressed.” “No, you’re not.” “Oh, okay…”) You could see how a person might have some serious issues with, at the very least, raging self-doubt and, at the most, a nearly pathological fear of expressing to other people just how bad she feels most of the time.

Compound that with the fact that the relatives you’re visiting are your 92-year-old Grandma, who’s two months off a heart attack, and your 54-year-old uncle, who’s recovering from a hellish throat cancer that required all his teeth to be removed. Bear in mind that all the players involved are imbued with the famous Scottish stoicism that practically requires the downplaying of any medical condition. In other words, it’s complicated. Who thinks they have a right to claim stakes to the title of Sick One in that bunch?

Given all the particulars, I suppose I did an okay job of setting some boundaries for myself. Progress is represented by the fact that I set any boundaries at all, made any decisions that involved resting or cutting short outings. It helped that none of my Glasgow folks are night owls, so being finished with everything by late evening usually wasn’t a problem. But I still let guilt make a lot of decisions for me, in terms of where I needed to be and why – and even if I didn’t let others dictate my schedule that much, I still felt bad about it. I don’t think that’s the idea.

In Helsinki, visiting good friends, I think I walked a middling line of self-care. I was absolutely knackered, as the Brits say, by the time we arrived but we had only two short days to catch up with our pals and get a fair feel for the city. I think I did a pretty good job speaking up about how I felt – and how much I felt I could do. But I also pushed myself beyond what was comfortable, fueled once again by that Fear of Missing Out.

Final grade: C-

Waking up at 4 o’clock on the morning we left Helsinki, my head rattling against the window pane on the bus ride to the airport, I had some serious misgivings about how I’d taken care of myself while we were gone and the choices I made. There’s a real temptation to rub the salts of regret and guilt in the proverbial wound of failure.

But now that I’m back home, with a two nights’ rest in my own bed, some actual food in my belly and a nearly endless supply of ice for my neck, I’m not sure there’s room for either regret or guilt. Because, in hindsight, I don't know if I'd really have done anything that differently. I still probably would've had the chips. I'd have pushed myself to walk a little further with my Grandma, aware as I am that opportunities like this are a lot more precious than feeling good is. I likely would've stayed up a bit later than I needed to, catching up with good friends and watching the light begin to fade on a Helsinki cathedral at 11 at night.

I guess, in modern therapeutic parlance, I “own” the poor choices I made and, in turn, I have to “own” feeling crappy as a result. I suppose if I can raise my grades to C+’s next time, across the board, that’ll do.