Living with reduced freedom – part 1: Choosing a positive mind set

Photo by Dr Alison Thompson

This is a post by guest blogger Dr. Alison Thompson, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering

“The world has gone mad!”, I exclaimed. I had just spent over 20 minutes in a virtual queue waiting to do my fortnightly shopping order, only to discover that the next available delivery slot was 11 days away. Time to call a friend for help.

I’ve had chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME) for a few years and have previously written about my story here ( Six months ago I suffered a relapse and have been largely housebound since then. At first I had no idea how bad it’d got, and I thought I would be back in work within a few days. Before heading back, I went for a short walk, just to check I was alright. I was not. In fact, the next day, I could barely stand up. After a few weeks of only incremental improvement, it began to sink in that this was not going to be a quick recovery. Loss of health and mobility is not an easy thing to accept; I grieved my reduction in independence and freedom. None of my friends lived within (new) walking distance. I couldn’t even go to the shops to get my own food. I missed events I’d been looking forward to, and had to cancel plans. 

That is perhaps now sounding all too familiar to you, in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, so I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me over the last six months, in the hope that they will help you too!

A new season

It is ok to grieve; grief is a natural, expected reaction to loss. It takes time to come to terms with what is happening, to get accustomed to a different style of living and reach a “new normal”. But know this too: it is only a season. There will be a “new-new normal” round the corner. We can lose sight of it in winter, when the trees are bare, but spring always will come.

It is good to get out of the victim mentality. Let go of the things you can’t change or control – things like the fact it happened, the uncertainty of how long this season will last. Yes, it’s scary having so much uncertainty but certainty is rarely the antidote. To quote John Ortberg, “We all think we want certainty. But we don’t. What we really want is trust, wisely placed.” The panic buyers are after certainty but if we all trusted that there will be enough food for everyone, that the shops will keep stocking food and that someone will bring it to us if we can’t get out, then shopping would be a lot less stressful for everyone.

Focus on the things you can change/have control over. For example, work out a new lifestyle for this season (more on this in part 2) and be proactive in setting up a support network for you and the people around you, the bigger the better!

Instead of dwelling on the things you can’t do right now, store up exciting things you can look forward to once it’s over (for me, this includes trips to Edinburgh and the arctic!). Then choose to focus on today and make the best of the situation you are in.

Practising gratitude

A number of people have been surprised at how cheerful I often am, despite my poor health. It really is possible to be content independent of circumstances, but it is a discipline, and attitude is key.

Back when I first contracted CFS/ME, I became severely deaf in one ear. Now, if I find myself getting anxious about my other ear, I stop and take some time to be intentionally grateful for my hearing, for speech and music. Instead of worrying about the future and the what-ifs, choose to be thankful for what you have today: food, a place to stay, energy, life. Instead of focusing on the disappointments, focus on the things you are grateful for. Being intentionally thankful can make a huge difference to your mood and outlook, so why not try and find a few things each day that you are thankful for. 

In October, our boiler broke and needed replacing. Initially, I felt very vulnerable, being housebound for over a week with no heating. Yet, through the help of others, it left me feeling so loved and thankful. People lent us heaters, a neighbour offered the use of her shower (her house was about as far as I could walk at this point!) and some friends graciously put me up for a couple of nights while it was being replaced, to avoid the extra disruption. We are so used to having independence and don’t always find it easy to ask for help but there is a great beauty in community and in being there for each other. Small acts of kindness can add up really quickly to make a significant difference.

Incidentally, when I logged on to update my online order a week later (just once, as requested), the waiting time in the virtual queue was estimated at two hours. This time, I couldn’t help but laugh. There are some things I can’t control and some I need to wait out. I’m thankful for the food that I have, the friends who have kept me stocked up and who have offered if I get stuck in future, and thankful that I will be getting an online delivery soon!

Coming soon: Part 2  – practical tips on how not to go stir-crazy at home.

Dr. Alison Thompson is a research associate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, at the University of Sheffield.

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