physical-appearance-with-chronic-illness

Changing Physical Appearance with a Chronic Illness

I’ve avoided addressing the elephant in the room since I started the year making personal wellness changes. It’s a sticky subject and somewhat challenging to address when it comes to a chronic illness. Chronic illness and/or disability make any meaningful physical changes difficult (if not impossible). If you are unable to move for more than a few minutes a day, then dedicating that time to exercise is furthest from your mind. Priorities change and addressing your physical appearance can drift towards the bottom of the list.

And that’s okay. Let’s move our intention away from changing our appearance, i.e., losing weight, and refocus on being healthy. Exercising does not need to be about losing weight, but about moving to help your body heal and thrive. Weight loss can become an added bonus, but not a goal.

I started the MS Mommy Blog to be a space where I detail my wellness journey into healthy living and eating. My journey was never about changing my physical appearance, it was strictly about setting a good example to Jai and taking advantage of a positive MRI result. I accepted the following three things: I would never dip below an overweight BMI, never have a body I would be proud of, and never find a source of natural energy.

Because of MS fatigue, I had little desire to go out in the blazing Southern sun and humidity to exercise. Eating was a pleasure I gave myself, especially when I was despondent post-diagnosis. I say all of this because I understand how hard it is to take the initial steps towards making physical changes, but it is possible to start the process no matter your ability levels.

What I am about to discuss is based solely on my personal experience and I am not an expert. Because this is based on anecdotal evidence, your own results will not match mine (and that’s okay). Everyone’s path looks different and that’s okay. Speak with your healthcare professional about your ability levels and any recommendations they might have for you.

Stuck in the Body

When coping with a chronic illness, we are stuck in our bodies.

If you are reading this with a chronic illness, you know this, but I say that for the benefit of those without a chronic illness. It’s easy for outsiders to forget that we are stuck with the body we are in, particularly if our illness is invisible. It’s in those moments we get the harmful comments of: “just get up and exercise,” “it’s in your head,” or “you don’t look sick.”

Getting those comments, and living in a culture where we often ignore invisible illness, makes any desire for change discouraging. We are stuck within numb, shaking, fatigue-ridden, weak bodies that don’t listen no matter how many times we yell at it.

Being stuck in a body is discouraging, especially when you see others chase after their physical goals. Or when you see people squandering their abilities. It’s even more frustrating when you start comparing yourself to others with your particular illness and see how they are able to be active ways you aren’t.

That’s where the first change needs to occur: stop comparing yourself to others. Those with a chronic illness and those without. And you have to stop listening to what people and culture tell you (this includes this blog).

The changes you decide to make must be in your time and in ways that work for you. Do not use this an excuse to not make the changes, you do want to take time to get healthier, but do it without any expectations beyond finding a way to feel better that complements your disease management course.

Determine what you can change & what you can’t

There is so much wisdom in knowing what you can change and what you cannot. There are aspects to our bodies we cannot change unless we had unlimited income, and even that’s limited.

The key is to figure out what is changeable and what you have to accept will be a part of you unless certain circumstances change. Once you know what you can change, then you have to decide how much you want to focus on it and how much of it you’ll put into the “secondary” goal category.

Everyone can lose weight, but do you want that to be a primary goal or something that happens as a side effect to being able to move more?

For some, the idea of losing weight is emotionally painful, so that should not be the first physical goal you make. Instead, if your healthcare professional recommends moving more as a means to help manage your illness, then consider adding a fifteen-minute walk in each day and build up to thirty.

Or if you are advised to cut a particular food from your diet for health reasons, rather than seeing it as a loss, view it as a challenge to figure out how to make alternatives to your favorite foods.

When you make the changes you can and frame them in more manageable ways, you should notice secondary benefits. When I cut sugar from my diet, I was shocked at how much weight I unintentionally lost.

Choosing Health

Focusing on physical appearance and any changes you want to make is discouraging. If you had a weight loss goal for this year, are you still sticking to it? Or have you given up on it entirely?

Revisit your goal if you’ve dropped it and refocus it to be about your health. Don’t think about the pounds you want to lose, but how you want to feel by the end of 2019. Not all of the suggestions below are about weight loss, but about finding ways to adapt to your chronic illness:

  • If your illness prevents you from walking more than five minutes at a time if you can safely do it, why not see if you can add on a minute or two?
  • If your weight prevents you from doing basic chores, why not focus on one chore to do and do it well?
  • If you are mostly bed bound and you want to get more exercise, consider small hand weights or a resistance band for twenty minutes a day.
  • If you want to eat healthier, why not consider dropping one sugary or unhealthy snack in your day? If you find you’re hungry, consider adding in water or some other healthy alternative.

All of these changes are small, and if you are getting started, that’s all they need to be. For myself, I found that small changes snowball into bigger ones because I was encouraged by my results to keep moving forward.

Learning to Love your Body

Before you reach your personal health goals, the first thing you need to work on doing is loving your body as it is, warts and all. This includes accepting the chronic illness that inhabits your body. You don’t have to like that it’s there, but just accept that it’s a part of you and you need to adapt around it.

When you take the time to accept your body as it currently is, in this very moment, it takes the pressure off of yourself. When you don’t meet your goals for the day, you can say to yourself “that’s okay, there’s always tomorrow and these things take time.”

Don’t take this as an opportunity to slack off, you still want to work towards making healthy changes, but you don’t need to put as much pressure on yourself that you might feel you need.

Additionally, when you learn to love your body in its current state, you no longer seek validation from outside sources. We look to media and others as opportunities to compare and rarely do we measure up. If we have friends and family influencing our decisions because of a snarky response, we may get sidetracked.

Rather, say to yourself: I am doing this for me, I am doing this to be healthy, and I am doing this because I want to make a change. Then mentally give the middle finger to those who want to keep you down.


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Featured photo credit: Jennifer Burk on Unsplash

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Setting Attainable Personal Goals

Setting Attainable Personal Goals

A few months back I was looking for an effective way to create a one-year and a five-year plan for myself as a means to set attainable personal goals.

I was tired of coming up with the idea of doing something with no actionable plan to achieve it. I would say to myself, “I want to achieve x,y, z,” but had no plan of action. Many meaningful life goals require more thought and attention to details than simply naming them.

It was at this point I did some research and found a system that helped me better organize my thoughts, create a plan of action and feel like I could attain my personal goals.

Setting SMART Goals

Want to feel smart? Try setting S.M.A.R.T. goals.

S.M.A.R.T. is a mnemonic device for “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.” Created back in the early-80’s by George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham, S.M.A.R.T.  goal creation started off as a business tool that worked its way into personal usage over the years.

Each word acts as a writing prompt, a means to get you thinking about each aspect of the overall goal. When it comes time to figure out these five elements to your overall goal, you answer the question each word presents. The question might look something like this:

  • Specific: can you be clear & exact about your goal?
  • Measurable: how can you quantifiably assess your progress within your goal?
  • Achievable: how realistic is this goal and is it attainable?
  • Relevant: do you have other goals and how does this goal relate to them? How well does this goal relate to your current needs/desires?
  • Timely: what timeline do you see yourself achieving this goal?

For a really clear explanation for each word, Mind Tools has a fantastic page breaking each word down with clear examples to get you started.

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A Berry Picking Time

Another favorite outdoor activity I had growing up, besides camping? Berry picking.

Every late-spring my mom would take me berry picking at the local farms. We tried to do two trips a year: strawberries and some other local fruit (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, or apples). Living in New England meant shorter picking seasons so we could miss a specific harvest by a week depending on how well the fruit developed.

This meant my mom would announce one morning that she’d be heading to the farm in a few days and ask if I’d be willing to help her. When I was younger, I had little choice in the matter but I loved it anyway; and when I was older it would depend on my work schedule for the week.

I found on the days I had to work or go to school and miss helping her were always disappointing. She’d try to adjust her schedule to accommodate me, but sometimes the weather and harvest wouldn’t cooperate.

Our Family Traditions

Strawberries were a must in our family.

If we could only do one picking a year it was strawberries. We had a rhubarb plant growing in our backyard so my dad always requested a strawberry rhubarb pie every summer. My mother never believed in doing anything half-measure so she would make sure to bake him a pie with only the freshest ingredients: rhubarb and strawberries she picked herself.

With the haul, she would preserve a batch of strawberries in syrup. My mom would freeze this mixture and thaw it for Christmas morning every year. Our favorite traditional Christmas meal, besides the evening feast, was homemade scones, clotted cream, and those syrupy strawberries picked earlier in the year.

There was something wonderful in knowing that I helped make Christmas breakfast a little more special by helping pick those berries. During the cold, dark New England months it brought a little bit of spring sunshine for the day.

Another fun tradition that started while strawberry picking was the story about a mouse visiting his relatives whenever we picked. No matter the farm and no matter the location (I happen to know he’s moved down South), my mom and I would create this elaborate story about his adventures over the past year and all the fun he was having while visiting.

It was one of those fun traditions that started one day when my mom spotted a mouse in the patch we were picking in. I think she started talking about it to make sure I wasn’t startled or to keep herself from being startled, so a story began about why he was there. Our stories grew over the years, though we’ve never physically seen him again.

berrypicking

Jai helping pick strawberries this year. Photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography

Like all my favorite traditions and childhood memories, I’ve wanted to share them with Jai in some small way. I didn’t even wait for him to be born before I took him berry picking: I was between 5 to 7 months pregnant when I went picking for strawberries, peaches, and blueberries.

Last year, we took him peach and blueberry picking while he was in my carrier. This year we’ve gone strawberry and peach picking so far (blueberries are around the corner). Because peaches are on a tree, it was easier for him to physically help this year, though he may have grabbed several under-ripe ones for Ash, who’s a fan.

Jai is a blueberry lover,  and the farm we go to has such tall bushes that he’ll be able to help me again, so I know most of the fruit he picks will be put straight into his mouth and squished into my shirt. I have accepted and plan to be prepared for it.

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Beating the Heat with MS

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Multiple Sclerosis is no fun. Especially in the summertime.

Around this time of year, every year, I find that my energy and motivation wanes and my productivity level drops. I am pretty hard on myself, always having high expectations of my abilities and what I can get accomplished on a day-to-day basis, so any time I feel like I am doing less than what I could be doing, I get really down on myself.

I recognized that there is a pattern to my productivity levels depending on the temperature outside. On the cooler days of late fall, winter, and early spring I am able to get more done every day. It isn’t perfect or guaranteed, I am just more likely to get everything done that I want.

But once late spring, summer, and early fall hits, when the really hot and humid days sink in, I find that I am lucky to get more than two major things done on my to-do list. Most days require me taking a nap and if I push myself through it (and therefore too hard), I won’t get anything done past a certain time in the day.

Weekends are the hardest. I am so worn out chasing Jai around all week that when I get the opportunity to stay in bed for most of the day while Ash does the “heavy” lifting, I do. And then very little gets done on my to-do list.

There is a definite correlation between my productivity and the weather.

And I am not imagining it.

Heat & MS

It’s well-known that MS and heat do not go hand-in-hand. Many other MS patients find that the heat can be particularly draining, possibly due to electrical connections between neurons no longer being efficient from the heat. Because of this, flare-ups are more common, especially for those who suffer from spasticity.

In researching this post, I learned something I didn’t know: prior to MRIs and other efficient tests to diagnose MS, patients were submerged in hot water baths to gauge their symptom reactions to the heat.

I find this fact particularly interesting considering my intense love of hot, hot showers. Ash does not understand why I love them so much. And now I don’t know why I love them so much, I don’t find that it affects my body in a negative way, in fact, I find them extremely relaxing and soothing. I should try some lower-temperature showers to see how it impacts my energy level for the day. I may be negatively impacting my productivity in favor of a hot shower.

The recommendations by medical professionals are for MS patients to avoid the heat and humidity as much as possible. Some recommendations go so far as to tell patients to move to better climates. This is all well and good, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, not economically feasible, or we don’t want to let the weather affect our social plans.

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Outdoors for Urban-Dwellers

Living in a major metropolitan area makes having daily access to nature a challenge. While we’re lucky enough to have a wooded area near our house, but I know that not everyone is so lucky and wanted to compile ways to increase one’s exposure to nature.

Growing up in a rural area I learned to appreciate all that nature had to offer, but because Jai is going to grow up either in an urban or suburban location (unless something drastically changes), he’s not going to have the same amount of exposure I did. So bringing nature inside will be one task I will want to do as much as possible for his sake.

Bring Nature to You

Here are some simple and easy ways to bring nature to you to help you with reconnection. I didn’t want to limit it to adults with children, so you’ll find all of these suggestions work for adult-only households:

  • Container Gardening: a great way to create your own produce, especially if you live in a food desert or want to know the origin of your fresh vegetables. You don’t need a yard to have a container garden, as a window or balcony can afford you enough space.
  • Potted Plants: you don’t have to have a green thumb to grow and maintain potted plants. If you are worried that you’ll kill a plant, buy a succulent. They tend to be really difficult to kill.
  • Nature walks & classes: find a local nature preserve and check their class schedule. Most have outdoor classes for adults and children on the weekends with a suggested donation fee. Learn a new skill and get yourself out in the wild.
  • Remove the blinds and curtains: if you can, keep your blinds/curtains up all the time to allow for maximum sunlight in your space. Choosing to use the sun for light sources can also be soothing.
  • Picnics in the park: have a park nearby? Why not bring some food and blanket for a quick picnic. Perfect for any day, especially if you work on the weekends or have a tight schedule.
  • Wading pool: For adults and children. Nothing feels better than filling a wading pool in the heat of summer and dipping your feet in.
  • Centerpieces and home decor: If you spend enough time outdoors, consider creating a centerpiece for your table of the interesting sticks, rocks, or leaves you find interesting. Dry flowers and arrange them according to the season with found river rocks in the vase bottom.
  • Companion animal: this is pricier and more time intensive AND dependant on allergies, but consider adopting a companion animal. Animals are known stress-reducers and their wild natures can bring the outside in for you (especially walking the dog). Reptiles are great for places that might have pet fees or those with allergies.
  • Fruit picking trips: If you can, look to see if there is a local farm where you can pick-you-own fruit. It’s a fun experience and a great way to discover fun recipes with the leftovers.
  • Nature Arts & Crafts: I have a flower press that my dad made me when I was a child. I used to press the flowers and leaves I found to make cards or bookmarks. Finding a cheap flower press and making art with dried pieces is a great way to reconnect with nature and a fun gift for a friend.

What do you do to bring nature to you when it’s hard? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography