Saturday, 24 February 2018

Simplify in Order to Deal with Chronic Illness

Minimalism isn’t for everyone and I don’t even know if it is for me, although I write about it, read about it and dabble in it.  What I do know is that there are some basic ideas involved that do work for everyone, and could be embraced without the need to even use the terms minimalism or minimalist.

The key ideas are simplifying and quality over quantity.  I don’t know anyone who actually believes they want quantity at the cost of sacrificed quality, it’s more a matter of not being aware that it’s happening or not knowing how to prevent or reverse it.  The concept of simplicity doesn’t appeal to everyone, as for some people it’s the opposite of abundance and certainly abundance has great appeal.  But the actual idea behind minimalism is to simplify so you can find what you do want in abundance.  The idea is to reduce or eliminate what you don’t value to make space and time for what you do.  When it comes to living with chronic illness it can also mean making space and time for what you need and letting go of the rest.  While we can all benefit from that, those of us with chronic illness cannot really afford not to take this approach.

If you are sick and/or exhausted, the process of minimalism might be incredibly daunting.  It is always advisable to take small steps, tiny bites, do what you can, take the time it takes, get help.   It depends on your abilities and limitations what you choose to undertake and how to undertake it, but consider that there are optional strategies for the things you think you possibly can’t do.  Perhaps the process of simplifying will take years and you will tackle it as you can, perhaps your condition fluctuates.  Or perhaps you will simplify some areas of your life and not worry about others.  There is no one right way, there is only what is helpful to you and your particular situation.  I can only describe what has been helpful to mine and what I am able to do, have done so far and still hope to do.

The first simplification step I took was in managing paper work and bills.  I made sure that all bill payments were set up to occur automatically debiting either my bank account or a credit card if that was the only option.  This way I don’t have to worry if I am in a state of such fatigue that I am mostly bedridden, often sleeping and not particularly clear thinking.  This does happen to me and one symptom I must deal with is very fuzzy thinking.  Strangely some of the tasks that should be very simple can become overwhelming and I just cannot think my way through them.  There are times when I could write an essay but not fill out a form giving basic information, can’t keep track of bills due or paid.  Having it all set up to happen without my input saves me hassles, debt, interest charges and embarrassment.  I have online banking so I can check my accounts and make transfers if I need to.  

There are some things for which I hire help.  I am fortunate to be able to afford this although I must also add that the definition of afford in my case is that after the mortgage, utilities and food are paid for there is not much left over and I spend some of it on cleaning help and having someone do my annual Income Tax.  A clean home is important to me and contributes to my health because a messy and dirty home makes me stressed.  I can do some of the work but not all of it so I get help. Asking friends and family for help is harder and I admit I rarely ask friends for help.  But sometimes  if a friend and I are getting together for coffee,  I ask that she pick me up because sometimes when energy is low my concentration is poor and I don’t think driving is safe.  I have read that one of the quirks of human psychology is that people like us more if they have helped us in some way and more so than if we are the ones who help them.  So, here you can accomplish two things.  You can be a bigger person than average and have the courage to ask for help, knowing those lesser mortals are entangled with their silly pride, and you can make people like you more!  Thank you chronic illness for making me so awesome.

Find a hairstyle, style uniform, makeup routine and a colour palette that makes you look and feel awesome.  Put it on repeat.  Stick to it.  Learn it so you can do it in your sleep and if you don’t rely on it all of the time rely on it when you are struggling.  This is no time for experimenting.  Everyone’s version of simple will be different.  Find yours. 

Consider having nice pyjamas or lounge-wear.  This one has been difficult for me as I’ve typically resisted spending money on clothing nobody outside of my home will see.  But if you spend a lot of time in these types of garments, endless days of it can leave you with negative feelings.  This doesn’t mean they have to be expensive or fancy.  This is a personal thing and you want to choose what is uplifting for you.  Maybe you want to wear all black because it feels elegant to you.  Maybe you want bright colours, fun graphics, super soft fabric or witty slogans.  Maybe you want the variety of all of these options.  Make sure that whatever you have is easy to toss into the washing machine.  This is not the time for hand wash garments.

Make a portable basket or box containing supplies for things you like to do when you are sedentary.  This can stay with you beside a bed or sofa if you are resting but want to get away from tv or internet browsing.  If your preferences lean towards an extroverted and outgoing social life I am deeply sorry.  It is much more difficult to be ill and isolated in this case.  Encourage your friends to visit you or take you out.  Some people are very uncomfortable with illness and will not initiate contact with you, fearing that they may be intruding or interfering with your need for rest.  Let them know what you want and need from them and encourage them to contact you if that works for you.  Or accept that you will be the one who reaches out and invites them over or suggests an outing on your own terms.  The direct approach is often the simplest.

For those of us who are introverted, it is not punishing to spend time alone.  If you have lived with chronic illness for a while, chances are you have already had to give up or minimise vigorously active hobbies. It’s a difficult loss and some grieving and transition time is required before you can replace active hobbies with sedentary ones. 

 Depending on your physical stamina and ability you may wish to simplify your physical environment.  The popular term for this is decluttering and unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably heard of the Kon Mari method.  If not, the internet abounds with information on how to systematically declutter a home, including most of the information in the Kon Mari book.   Enlist the help of family members or friends as there is bound to be someone who won’t mind or will even enjoy it.  Other people can help you by being more objective about items as you decide what to keep and what to let go of.  They can also do heavy lifting, physically moving items while you make the decisions and designate items as keep, toss or donate.  They can take items away to donate or to recycle or organise a garage sale for you.  You can advertise items for sale on internet selling sites and a friend could be present with you when a potential buyer comes around. 

You don’t have to be a minimalist to benefit from tidying, organising and decluttering and if you are a person who is overwhelmed and stressed by clutter why let this exacerbate your illness?  Simplify the appearance and function of your environment.  If you do your own house cleaning, the less stuff there is to dust and vacuum around the easier the job is.  Reducing or eliminating items that constantly need tidying and putting away also reduces work load and stress. 

Order your groceries online and have them delivered.  Have a few basic meal plans or recipes you can cook when you don’t feel well or can cook ahead of time and freeze to have on hand for your worse days.  If other family members don’t know how to cook they can certainly defrost and re-heat.  Slow cooker recipes are great. 

If you do nothing else to simplify your life do this:

In a world that values busyness and super humans who do it all, it’s not hard to go to bed each night thinking that we just didn’t get anything done, didn’t do anything that mattered, didn’t do anything at all and to beat ourselves up over it.  There is a very simple strategy I call lowering the bar.  Yup, go ahead and lower it.  Put it way down there, right around your ankles where you can just step over it.  Yes, that’s good.  I will tell you how I do it.

I am somewhere in the middle on the planning vs spontaneous spectrum.  The best way to describe it is that I like to be so well prepared that I am free to be spontaneous.  When I wake up each day, once I get a sense of how I feel and what I think my energy level is, something I tend to judge based on how difficult the concept of showering and getting dressed seems, I set a goal for the day of two or three things that I want to do.  My plans might look like these shown below.  I may do more but I will usually at least accomplish my small set of plans and the plans are usually geared towards what my ability that day seems to be.  Periodically I don’t accomplish what I hoped to but it’s usually not the end of the world.  I can postpone until the next day.

Sample Priorities for the Day

  • make tea, read my book, spend a bit of time doodling 
  • do two loads of laundry, water all the plants and make a casserole
  • shower, dress, go for a walk/coffee date/shop

I have the definite advantage of no responsibilities regarding children at this point in my life.  When I did I had the help of a spouse and I sometimes called upon my parents for help.  Sometimes the goals were simply to make sure my child had food, got to school and that I was awake when he came home again.  My point is that it is sometimes possible to narrow it all down to the absolute must-do things and have no other expectation of yourself and quite often the important things on the must-do-today list should be about self-care.  I’m not a big fan of that term but it’s a bit unavoidable in this situation. 

Do what you have to do and only what is necessary.  Break jobs into the smallest chunks you can.  Do the most important thing first in case that is all you manage that day.  When you go to bed at night tell yourself that you accomplished what you set out to do that day, even if it was to stay in bed reading.  If you didn’t manage all of your goals focus on what you did manage and say or think the words ‘today I got X done.’   The words we use in our self-talk matter and so often we speak to ourselves in ways we wouldn’t speak to a friend.

Be your own best friend.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to learn to do and I’m still learning.


  1. This was most helpful. Simplifying life, finding ways to make life easier, sticking with life strategies that actually work, it is all something that most people could use but for those living with a chronic illness it is essential. As someone who lives with two chronic illness and experiences chronic pain on daily basis, I could relate to everything your wrote. Asking for help can be really difficult (for whatever reason) but it is something that we need to learn to do. There is no shame in asking for help, especially since most people will want to help. I love what you wrote about being direct, that's really the best way. With a chronic illness, social life can be especially challenging. Some people can't deal with it, and that's ok. Those of us who have a chronic illness just have to deal with it and all we can do is to do our best to explain, when explanation seems necessarily. I certainly would recommend everyone with a chronic illness to read this post. It seems to me that you covered all the important points, both practical and more in-depth ones.

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. I'm sorry about your pain and illnesses and I hope you found something useful in my ideas. I think your blog is a very inspiring and uplifting place to spend a bit of online time and you spread some good vibes despite the pain. xo

    2. Thank you. I always find it helpful to do creative things. I think that chronic pain often makes us feel like we're prisoners sometimes, recurring pain can make us feel we're stuck in routine, so doing small creative projects can help to break that feeling of routine. That is why I enjoy DIY projects a lot. My DIY projects are not that impressive, but they are always something new to me and trying new things makes me feel better. I suppose that keeping a blog can also be seen as a creative hobby.

      Besides those little things to make us feel better/happier, I think it is very important to be organized and have a system to fall back on, like the one you described. Any kind of chronic illness comes with higher levels of fatigue, so avoiding losing energy on things we don't really need to do is extremely important.

    3. I completely agree! I think that accomplishing some housework or cooking gives me a greater feeling of satisfaction and pleasure than it might if I took for granted the ability to do those things. Today I am lying in bed feeling stressed over three things which must get done soon and three things which I want to do always. It's time to put my strategy into action.


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