Have you read any self-help lists lately? You know the ones I mean—“10 ways to solve this” or “15 ways to never do that.”
By David A. Thomson
These lists often show up on social media or in tabloids at the grocery store, or are e-mailed to you by well-meaning friends or relatives. If only it was that easy to follow the advice on those lists!
A love/hate relationship
I have had a love/hate relationship with lists and the practice of keeping lists throughout my life, and especially during the last 15 years of my illness (a rare form of fibromyalgia). Lists can be annoying, but they can also help you through difficult and painful times.
I became a list-maker from about the age of 14 years, an organizational skill I inherited from my father. Before my illness I maintained a yearly “goals and reminders” list. I often made a monthly “responsibilities, important days and appointments” list and always kept a weekly “to-do” list.
As a type A, ex-military corrections officer with a crazy schedule, I needed and craved the organization and structure of lists. I had been married for five years and my wife and I had a one-year-old son. I was working on call and was close to starting my own business. Using lists helped me to keep some control over my chaotic life. The weekly list reminded me of appointments with doctors and dentists, strata meetings, pick-ups and drop-offs here or there, and so on. By keeping monthly and yearly lists, I felt less guilty about the things I wanted or needed to get done but was not getting to. And I loved the effectiveness and motivational aspect of the list-making process.
In June 2000 and for six months after, my brain and body “theoretically” aged rapidly. By Christmas, I was a 34-year-old man functioning like a 74-year-old. A minor household fall had triggered a hereditary illness that my body had been secretly managing since my teens. Post-traumatic hyperirritability syndrome is a rare form of fibromyalgia that encompasses insomnia, full-body pain, chronic fatigue and severe sensitivity to noise, light and smells. I wasn’t doing well, and was struggling to adjust to a complete lifestyle change.
I tried my best to stay committed to list-making, but the content had changed significantly. My lists became short and, needless to say, depressing:
1) Get the mail.
2) Read the newspaper.
3) Remember to take medication.
4) Doctor at 1 p.m.
5) Buy milk.
I began to hate my lists and abandoned them for several years during the more acute phase of my illness.
A few years passed, and I developed a number of pain-management techniques and tools to help me when things got really bad. The problem was, things were bad a lot. I usually forgot about my tools and could not stop myself from moving, twitching and bouncing around. I nearly lost my mind.
So, I would combat flares and bad evenings with reminder lists. I posted them in strategic areas around the house—next to my bed, in the pantry and on the fridge door. These lists reminded me of things such as:
• how to stop or reduce my flare-ups while they were happening.
• what not to eat out of the pantry.
• what to eat out of the fridge.
I would like to say that these lists really helped, but it was a long time before I liked and started following them.
Then I found the book Fibromyalgia: How to Combine the Best of Traditional and Alternative Therapies by Milton Hammerly, MD. The book introduces a pain-management list—“100 Ways to Feel Better Right Now”—that my daily life and workshops are based on.
The list doesn’t take itself too seriously, being funny and whimsical. It provides a great range of options for people and really helped me to quickly focus on specific tasks right away.
1. Find a number of items/ideas in the “100 Ways” list that are fun, enjoyable and good for limited use.
2. Find a number of items/ideas in the list that are realistic and suitable for your long-term pain/disability-management plans.
3. Find a number of items in the list that could be used as “stepping stones.”
4. Start to recognize and develop how to make your own lists that will work for you within the parameters of your illness/disability and your everyday life.
The first three goals represent different stages of illness or disability. For people in the earlier stages, the first task is the most relevant. It directs the participant to look for items in the “100 Ways” list that will help them to have a little fun and relax. There is a lot happening at this stage, and people need to know how to release the pressure valve.
With the second task, the focus turns to those whose illness or disability might be or is becoming a permanent situation. This stage can be very emotional and there is a great need to find answers. These people will be helped by finding items in the “100 Ways” list that can be realistically maintained and will help in the long term.
The purpose of the third task was to reach those whose illness or disability has passed, say, the 10-year point. These people can be a little bit more jaded and might not respond to some of the items on the “100 Ways” list as others would. They can be a little stuck with their health management and these “stepping stones” might be what they need.
The last task is hopefully something that all the participants will find beneficial, no matter what stage of illness or disability.
There are many things we can do to help lessen the effects and severity of an illness or disability. Yet we can also be pulled and pushed into many possible “cures” and “miracle quick fixes.” It is vital to recognize that none of the items on the “100 Ways” list are cures for your condition. I had the list for many years before I was ready to use it, so I suggest revisiting it often. Remember and collect the items on the “100 Ways” list that resonate with you. Then, when you feel the time is right, manipulate them into “stepping stones” towards an improved quality of life in the future.
David Thomson is the Public Education Coordinator for the Richmond Center for Disability in Richmond, BC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.