By Suzan L. Jackson
Although some people with chronic illness are severely ill – even bedridden – every day, for many of us, chronic illness is an unpredictable roller coaster of good days, bad days, and everything in between. In the first years of my ME/CFS, waking up feeling horrible on a day when I had plans or things to do caused me a great deal of stress. I often pushed myself to do those things that “had to be done” and ended up in even worse shape afterward. After many years of trial and error, I finally learned (I’m a slow learner) how to deal with those kinds of days. I call it a Plan B Day.
In my previous life, I was super-busy and always on the move. I liked to stick with my plans (some might even say I was a bit controlling!), and I would get upset if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I may have been tired or battling a cold or extra-busy, but I convinced myself these things had to get done today – no other options.
Then, in 2002, ME/CFS hit. In one day, I went from can-do to can’t-do (though it took much longer to recognize it). In those early years of illness, I had trouble letting go of my too-high expectations of myself. If I was planning to go to the grocery store one day and woke up feeling awful, I was still in the mindset that I had to go. You know what happens when you push past your limits with chronic illness – you end up flat on your back the next day (and possibly for many days afterward).
Now, not being able to do what I planned is a daily occurrence. My way of coping is to call it a Plan B Day and change my attitude entirely. Let’s say that grocery store trip is planned, and I wake up achy and worn out, with a sore throat. I still often start thinking, “But I have to…” but now I stop myself. Can I cobble together a meal with what’s in the house already? Can my husband stop after work to pick up what we need? I make myself relax, calm down, and think through the alternates.
Here’s how you can adopt a Plan B attitude on those days when you just can’t (or shouldn’t) do what you planned:
Take a Mental Inventory – Put the brakes on that “must-do” mentality and really assess how are you feeling. How bad are your symptoms? Sometimes I don’t notice how severe they are until I slow down and make myself take notice. Consider what your true capabilities are today and what you’ve learned in the past from pushing yourself when you feel this way. Don’t panic – just tell yourself it’s a Plan B Day.
Revisit Your To-Do List – Look at what you had planned to do today. What is really essential and what can wait? Can you pull together a meal without going to the store? Do you have to go to the post office or bank today? Pare your list down to what absolutely cannot be put off (like picking up your kids from school, for instance!) – only the truly urgent things. Be honest and drop that “must get it done today” mentality.
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Delegate and Revise – What is your Plan B? For those things that must be done today, who can you delegate to? Can you ask a friend or family member for help? Can it be postponed? Is there another way to do it without the exertion (maybe an e-mail or phone call instead of going out, for instance)? Look in the freezer to see what your meal options are without going to the store. Text your partner or a friend to see if they can help. It’s hard for many of us to ask for help, but the truth is that most of our friends and family members would love to help and just don’t know what we need.
Drop the Guilt and Rest – Now that you have your Plan B, do those few things you must (from the couch or bed!) to postpone and enlist help, and then forget about it all. Let your Plan B do its job. Rest, take care of yourself, and give your body a chance to recover. Stress and worry will only make you sicker, so let it all go and focus on recuperating. Indulge in a good book, a funny movie, or binge-watching your favorite TV show to take your mind off the to-do’s and signal to your body that it is time to rest.
Once I adopted the Plan B attitude, I was surprised to find how few things are really, truly critical to get done today. It required a complete mindset change from my previous approach, but I find that using the phrase Plan B Day reminds me to slow down and look for alternatives instead of panicking or pushing myself. It’s a constant struggle to drop those expectations and take care of myself, but I easily see the results – feeling better the next day instead of worse or having the energy to spend time with my family at the end of the day instead of being totally depleted.
And, if you wake up tomorrow still feeling awful, there’s always Plan C.
Suzan Jackson, a frequent ProHealth contributor, is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 13 years. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of illness and the other is in college, also dealing with three tick infections. She writes two blogs: Learning to Live with ME/CFS (with an emphasis on LIVE!) at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com and Book By Book at http://bookbybook.blogspot.com. You can follow Sue on Twitter at @livewithmecfs.