Level-Up: Part 18

Every Sunday I record my health achievements and discoveries for the week here. To find out why I decided to start doing this, you can read an explanation in the first post of the series here.

After all the evaluation drummed up by my various GP appointments I wanted to start putting his advice to work. Especially as my batch of top-up counselling may be a few months in coming. I felt that I wanted and needed to manage my stress better. Victim mentality isn’t fun for the person who feels overtaken by it and it’s rarely endearing to others either. I could start to feel it creeping over again, so I went with what helps me the most. Information. Well, what helps the most after a big hug and a chest to rest my head on, anyway. Knowledge is power, after all. And it’s my best way of coping with a problem; to research and throw information at it.

Three things in particular made this long and tiring week feel progressive…

Understanding My Brain 

It was about a year and a half before I was given my Vestibular Hypersensitivity diagnosis. Before that I had no idea what was happening to me. I remember lying in the tight tube of the MRI scanner, half terrified because I’m horribly claustrophobic, half frightened that the radiologist taking pictures of my brain might be looking at a tumour they’d have to pretend they hadn’t seen when they escorted me back to my clothes. The scan was completely clear and my diagnosis with a condition that greatly affected but didn’t threaten my life was peace of mind.

I’ve always had a deep fascination with psychology. I like to understand people. I’m interested in what makes us tick. In fact, I wonder why I’ve never just taken the plunge and done a psychology degree. But I thought it might be helpful to understand the chemistry of the brain and how that impacts upon us physically and emotionally. Two weeks ago I started taking a short course at FutureLearn.com called Good Brain, Bad Brain. It’s basically neuroscience for absolute beginners. It only runs for three weeks, but there are follow-on courses coming up, building on the basic explanations of how the brain and our nervous system operate. I’ll be taking those too. I’m particularly interested in the course on how Parkinson’s Disease works.

Whenever anyone asks why I can’t walk well or why my body feels like it’s perpetually moving, I try to explain that the messages my inner ear sends to my brain on my body, head and eye position aren’t read correctly in the brain. Nobody’s completely sure whether it’s the inner ear sending out false information or if my brain isn’t processing the data correctly, but there’s definitely a fault. It’s like an error in a computer hard drive that makes it crash over and over again.

This course goes into great detail on how the process of normal brain function takes place. I now understand a lot more about the science behind what’s happening between my ear and my brain. It now makes more sense as to why my brain and my body react the way they do to the false messages being transported between them. There’s something very freeing about that. Yes, this illness has impacted upon my everyday life dramatically because of the restrictions it’s put upon it. But taking the emotion out of it and viewing it as neurology rather than thinking about the effect it’s had on my psychology goes a small but important way to separate myself from the sadness and frustration it has brought about. It’s just science.


Task and Finish 

I recently canvassed opinion on Twitter on how people who live with chronic physical illness motivate themselves to get through their daily tasks. Everyone has a to-do list they rarely get to the bottom of, but when you have an unpredictable illness it’s tricky to know how to dish out the things that need doing every day. If you make a list and then don’t get through them, you’re left feeling frustrated that your illness stopped you from achieving all you needed to. It feels like failure. But if you don’t make a list and attempt to tick things off, they often go undone or unnoticed.

My (almost) sister-in-law suggested I set some achievable goals either daily or weekly, tick them off as I go and allow myself a tactile reward at the end of each week. I love lists. I love pens. I love notebooks. But sometimes you need a little more than grabbing a brightly coloured marker and putting a tick in a box. You need a treat.

Every morning I’ve been setting myself some tasks for the day. There’s space for eight things, but I’ve been realistic and set as many tasks as I think I can manage, depending on how I feel each day. Sometimes they’re work based, like carrying out research for a particular article. Sometimes they’re rehab related, like going for a short walk. Sometimes they’re home tasks, like clearing out a cupboard I keep ignoring or doing some ironing. If by Sunday evening I’ve completed 75% of what I set myself, I’m allowed to buy myself something frivolous and pretty that I wouldn’t have bought otherwise. ‘Stuff’ is a great motivator.

I’ve been quite flexible, but not so much that I can cheat. For example, on Thursday I had planned on going for a walk. I then got invited out to dinner, so knowing I’d struggle to do both I switched the walk to dinner and crossed it off once I got home. I’ve got a few things to do this evening, but assuming I complete them I’ll be on target to get over the 75% threshold. Here’s the notebook I’ve been using to scribble everything down into. It just happens to be designed by Samantha Hahn, who I wrote about earlier this week. But I bought it because the shoes seemed apt for someone trying to learn how to walk again.


How Olympians Stay Motivated

A week or so ago I took one of those silly Buzzfeed quizzes where it tells you which career you should really be pursuing. It told me I should be an athlete, the irony of which was not lost on me. But what it was really saying is that once I set my sights on achieving something I tend to see it through. I’m driven. Fair enough. To mark the start of the Winter Olympics this week, The Atlantic ran a piece on how Olympians stay motivated through years of monotonous training, and how they stay focussed on their end goal.

I found it immensely useful and so many of the tactics they use to get through to the other side when they feel like quitting can be applied to any challenge; from just finding the motivation to get up in the morning, to picking yourself up again after a crushing loss. I particularly liked the example of breaking large tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks, where you only concentrate on what’s immediately in front of you and not how enormous the task appears in its entirety. I tried that when I was out walking this afternoon. One step at a time. It helped. Maybe I’m more of an athlete than I thought. If there’s an Olympic event called ‘shuffling along like a penguin’, I reckon I can win us a gold medal.


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