There’s no possible way I’m the only one having a freak flare of fibromyalgia this month. It’s so predictable, and yet I was caught off guard!
It was surprising enough to suddenly feel achy, tired, and like I was hit by a bus, that at first I thought the thought we all think when we have the littlest twinge (or a big hit that feels like the flu, as in this case): COVID??
But after like 3 hours of obsessively pointing my fancy thermometer at my head and having it be like “97, 97, 97,” I remembered
you have fibromyalgia, dummy.
It’s not the flu, it’s not COVID-19, it’s a flare.
And it sucks.
I really do feel like I have the flu, and I can’t believe how achy my body is.
It’s been impossible to exercise, and even though I’ve been eating great, my weight loss has stalled.
Here’s the symptoms I have had for the past week or so:
Fatigue that can’t be set aside
Anxiety that’s not typical for me: kind of a restless, hyperactive, underlying state as opposed to overt worry
Intense body aches especially in my shoulders, knees, and elbows.
Confusion and forgetfulness
Bloating and swelling
Skin sensitivity, especially the face
General flu-like feeling
Weird insomnia where I fall asleep fine but wake up 90 times, either from soreness or with the sudden compulsion to get up as if I’ve overslept for an important meeting
It hasn’t been fun, particularly when I’ve been on such an upward trajectory for the past 6 weeks, really losing a good amount of weight and getting a lot stronger.
Now that I’m in a better place physically and emotionally, it’s a lot easier to ask myself what triggered this flare. It’s not random, but the cause isn’t ever obvious for me, and always involves a hard look at something I’m not likely to want to look at.
Possible causes of the flare:
Weather. It finally got significantly colder here, and a change in weather is a big trigger for me.
Eggs. I know I have a sensitivity to eggs, but I’ve been eating them every day on WW, because they’re zero points and filling, and a good source of protein.
The holidays. Need I say more?
I don’t completely understand why we even put ourselves through the winter holidays, unless it’s for the sake of children, which is a good reason.
But I think basically everyone has more stress this time of year, and a lot of that is deeper than just the stuff we have to do.
Interacting with our families can be a positive experience but it’s also usually pretty fraught.
December brings up a lot of feelings for me in my interactions with my family, but also because this is a time of year when I happen to have experienced a lot of my most serious losses, particularly my colon. My time of heading to surgery was the sickest I’m sure any person can be without crossing over, and the recovery was brutal. It’s been 7 years, but the unconscious memories are still fresh.
If I had figured out how to stop fibro flares, I wouldn’t be having them anymore, but I will share the things I do to try to mitigate the symptoms or shorten the duration:
Daily naps are crucial. In spite of the weird insomnia that makes me feel like I shouldn’t rest during the day, in order to ensure a good night sleep, I have to take a nap because my fatigue is too overwhelming, and if I don’t take it easy, I will definitely spiral and worsen.
Trying to be gentle with myself about responsibilities. Work still needs to be done, but during a flare, I try my best not to beat myself up about the fact that I can’t do as much, and I might just have to be comfortable with the bare minimum.
HYDRATE! This is one of the hardest ones to do, even though it’s the simplest thing in the world to do. If I can get a gallon of water in during the day, I’m going to feel a lot better, so I try my best to make drinking water as appealing as possible. And when all else fails, I just sit at the table and make myself drink a few pints while watching a show.
Detox soup. I don’t know whether “detox” stuff is real, but I do know that taking a little pressure off my system with a few days of soup that has prebiotics and probiotics seems to help.
Gentle exercise feels IMPOSSIBLE, but it’s crucial. I’m not getting it in every day, especially with my sore knees and the fatigue, but when I do, I definitely feel better.
Staying on top of vitamins and medications can be a little tough when you feel like you have the flu, but forgetting something simple that your body runs better with—like a Pepcid AC, for me—will definitely worsen symptoms.
Consciously take time to connect with an emotional support animal, if you have one. It’s amazing how much chihuahua snuggles can do for my mood and pain levels, but too often when I’m not feeling well, I retreat from my little buddy.
And usually, one of the best things for a flare is massage, but during the pandemic I’m settling for a little electric shoulder thing like in the picture above, and it does help.
My doctor gave me a month to get my blood pressure down.
She asked me to lose 5 pounds and go on a low-sodium diet.
I’ve lost 4.2 pounds and I cut salt from my diet, but my blood pressure is still high.
And the reason it’s high is because I’m smoking.
It’s amazing and embarrassing to admit that I smoke, in 2020. I don’t know anyone who smokes, and I keep it secret from all of my friends.
I only started up again about a year ago, after having quit for 11 years.
About 4 months ago, I made several concerted efforts to stop, but the feeling was too overwhelming.
When I research the process of quitting smoking, I see people—mainly health professionals—describe quitting as “extremelydifficult,” which it is, but I don’t see many realistic or nuanced descriptions of what quitting feels like for me, and I wonder if it feels similarly for everyone.
Quitting smoking is painful. It’s physically painful and emotionally painful.
I don’t know if the pain I experience when I try to quit is more pronounced because of the way Fibromyalgia seems to make all pain more pronounced, but the sensation is flu-like for me.
If it was just flu-like, I could handle it, but for some reason, when I feel that wave of physical and psychological pain, I start to panic, and my cognition and anxiety really spirals downward.
I often get into the totally baffling headspace where I start to think that I’m putting myself in danger by NOT smoking, because the physical discomfort becomes so distressing.
I typically make it about 4 hours when I try to quit, although I can go 12-16 hours without smoking if I’m not under pressure to abstain.
Since my high blood pressure and high heart rate are actually serious, I am going to need to fess up to my doctor at my appointment in 4 days, and I know the chain of events that are going to unfold from there.
She’s going to insist I stop, of course. It’s going to be serious.
And since I trust her and we work well together, I’m going to have to do it.
Maybe she’ll prescribe Chantix or something, and maybe those will help.
I could say what I’m “supposed” to say and be like: well, this is so positive!! I’ll have motivation to add one more productive dimension to my body journey towards health, and I’m already proving to myself that I’m more than strong enough to do this.
These are true, but I’m not giving these Shaq x JCPenney vibes at all.
I feel out of control because I’m about to be held accountable for something I’m genuinely not sure I can do, even though I’ve done it before in the past.
I’m scared that I’m going to lose my grip on myself and feel sick and tired and crazy for a few weeks.
One completely amazing level, I have to admit, is that I’ve come to a level of maturity where I can see that I must face facts and be honest with my doctor. I’m pretty impressed with myself that I’m not even calling to put the appointment off for a few weeks.
I’m not a happy camper today, but my little chihuahua just crawled into my lap as I’m writing this, and maybe if I can’t motivate myself to feel good about doing it for myself at this point, I could do it for the little guy. He’s only 2, and chihuahuas live a million years, so he needs me around.
I have to imagine that most people eat emotionally, at least to some extent, but probably to a large extent.
It seems reasonable that everyone gets hangry sometimes, and that the dysfunction of “emotional eating” is a spectrum, where some people far to one side comfortably eat ONLY for nutrition 100% of the time, and some people far to the other side eat (or do not eat) ONLY for emotional reasons 100% of the time.
Those for whom food is totally emotional might also tend to fall into the clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder, though a professional would have to determine that based on a lot more than just whether food is emotional.
Feelings inspire eating (or not eating) and eating (or not eating) inspires feelings
It seems reasonable that all people fall somewhere between the extremes of never eating when bored, sad, happy, mad, etc., and always feeling emotionally attached or provoked or relieved by food. And, most people lose their appetite or forget to eat due to life stressors from time to time.
It also seems reasonable to imagine that most or all people experience some degree of psychological or emotional discomfort in response to being “deprived” of food; even if that “deprivation” is just normal hunger that develops when we haven’t eaten for several hours and mealtime is approaching.
And, conversely, that most or all people feel comforted by eating. We are biologically made to feel discomfort of hunger and comfort of satiety, so that we keep ourselves fed and alive.
What hunger feels like to me, a person without a colon
I had my entire colon removed 7 years ago, due to severe Ulcerative Colitis. In place of the colon, my surgeon used small intestine to create a new mini-colon, called a j-pouch, which makes my digestive functioning relatively normal, especially considering my disease. Thanks to the j-pouch, I don’t have an ostomy bag outside my body, like many who have had colectomies.
Side note: I think the j-pouch diagrams are slightly freaky (although cool and amazing), so I’m not including one here, but if you’re curious what the anatomy of people like me looks like, definitely google “colectomy with j-pouch diagram” to have a peek.
One major change, however, due to my now very short bowel, is the transit time for my food is only about 6-10 hours, where the Mayo Clinic says it takes about 2 days for a normal body to digest and eliminate eaten food as waste.
Some people who have had surgeries like mine develop something called “short bowel syndrome,” where they have a difficult time gaining any weight or even maintaining a normal weight.
I’ve wondered why I don’t have a weight loss “problem,” since it’s obvious to me that I don’t digest everything I eat with such a quick transit time, but I know there is a psychological component for me:
During the initial four years of having Ulcerative Colitis, I was in extreme pain, it was difficult to eat, and I was often placed on NPO (Nil Per Os, meaning “nothing by mouth,” not even water!) for days or sometimes weeks, to allow my intestines to heal from ulcers.
During those years, I often lost huge amounts of weight very quickly, and since that experience was coupled with often life-threatening medical experiences and tremendous pain, I think I was surely traumatized; I associate weight loss with dying. I vividly remember the discomfort of having nothing to eat for 5 or 6 weeks. It’s a unique kind of emptiness that is tinged with fear, and I’m sure that’s a natural biological response to starvation.
Since the process of getting back on my feet after surgery, and back to eating normally, took several years, I very gradually adjusted to my feelings about having been so extremely ill, having lived in the hospital for so many years, and now having a very different anatomy to get used to working.
I was pretty constantly on high doses of prednisone and other steroids, which, as anyone who has ever taken them knows, caused me to gain huge amounts of weight. Over my illness period my weight fluctuated from about 135 to below 100 to over 175.
So, when I started to stabilize about 5 years ago, I was around 170 pounds at 5’0”, and having a lot of trouble finding foods I could eat comfortably with my new pouch. The best kinds of foods for my tummy were soft things like mashed potatoes and applesauce, and other carbs, but I wasn’t worried about losing weight quite yet.
In fact, I noticed that I was afraid of losing weight.
For the first year I was stable, I was definitely feeling fragile and vulnerable from the war I felt like I had been inside of for about 5 years at that point. I was jumpy and had trouble sleeping, and I started thinking that every little twinge or ache might mean something was an emergency. At this same time, I started developing troublesome fibromyalgia (intense fatigue and body aches, much like the flu), which makes sense; many researchers believe fibromyalgia comes on after a physical or psychological trauma, and my illness had definitely been both.
I wanted to keep weight on so that I wouldn’t experience the terrifying sensation of wasting away to a skeleton before my own eyes, while I had no control over anything in my life, trapped in a hospital.
And I started feeling a strange new kind of hunger. I am sure that it was partly biological: since my system empties quickly, I do feel a deep kind of hunger when there is nothing in my GI tract, and I think that’s normal.
But, the hunger I have had since my colectomy must also be psychological because when I get hungry, I feel it so strongly that it takes over my consciousness. It is very difficult for me to think about anything at all when I’m experiencing hunger, to the extent that I can’t even concentrate on a fun movie or maintain a normal conversation. I also wake early in the morning with intense hunger pains that keep me from sleeping as long as I want to.
That’s been hard, and it’s something that I know delayed my desire to start a weight loss plan. Even though I want to get back to my pre-illness, super fit, 130 pound body, I convinced myself that I was perfectly comfortable at 170 lbs and sedentary, because (a) I was at least relieved to be alive and stable, and (b) I didn’t know how I was going to do battle with the new form of hunger I was (and am) experiencing.
My medical doctors have all been so wonderful through my entire illness, and now, as I continue to deal with occasional pouchitis (similar to colitis, but inflammation of the new pouch), inflammatory arthritis, and fibromyalgia, but they’re not very concerned with my sense of extreme hunger on a medical level. That makes sense to me; I think it is primarily psychological.
I have a great therapist I’m working with, but I haven’t started talking about the hunger yet. I think I will, soon, but I think that in the same way I haven’t wanted to fight with this hunger, I have been reluctant to bring it to therapy where I will have to really look at it. Once I start to look at the hunger, I’m going to have to unravel all of the painful emotions and gory memories I’m carrying from the scary years of the most dramatic parts of my illness.
I need to face that, and I’m almost ready.
Basic Factors that Cause Emotional Eating
In the meantime, I’ve been learning about emotional eating.
One very brief resource from Healthline gives a succinct explanation of how emotional eating works for us:
Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.
Other factors include:
retreating from social support during times of emotional need
not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on
not understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger
using negative self-talking that’s related to bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating
changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.
A Process for Addressing these 6 Contributors to Emotional Eating
Something I like to do when I’m trying to improve something about myself, or develop new skills, is to take things in parts. Particularly for lists like the one above, I like to take each item and assess whether/how it applies to me and to identify a strategy for addressing that element.
You can go through this same process by identifying the unique way you relate and a strategy that works for you.
So, here we go:
1. Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.
How do I relate?
If I’m being honest, I often do feel empty emotionally. Even though I have a job I love and friends I love, being chronically ill involves a lot of grieving over things I want to do but can’t do. I try not to focus on the negative, and it’s possible that by forcing myself to always be cheerful and push those sad feelings out of my mind, I’m making them show up in my belly as a feeling of physical emptiness.
Be mindful of the fact that I need to face my grief, and I need to look for other sources of emotional emptiness, through journaling and through working with my therapist.
Find more things that genuinely fill my life with joy and satisfaction! There are many hobbies and activities that give my life meaning that I put to the side because I’m “too busy.” If I want to feel less empty, I need to fill my life with authentic positivity, either by adding new things or by amping up my gratitude practice, so that I can become more aware of how full my life really is.
2. retreating from social support during times of emotional need
How do I relate?
Well, this is definitely a big one for me! I didn’t feel like I had a strong support system as a child, and I think I just closed myself to some extent from the idea that other people could help me. I also sometimes feel like my chronic illness is burdensome or boring for others. Not that anyone makes me feel that way at all, but I know it must be hard for my loved ones to really relate to an illness that never clears up. So, I’ve gotten in the habit that I think the majority of chronically ill people fall into: putting on a happy face and failing to be authentic.
The easy answer to this one is: stop retreating from social support during times of emotional need!
But, of course, if it were that simple, it wouldn’t be a problem to begin with.
So, I think the right strategy is to focus on what makes a good genuine friendship (with a friend, family, spouse, or anyone): being authentic, caring unconditionally, and sharing life.
Of these three elements, I can ask myself to consider myself in the PROCESS of being more authentic, by testing out sharing more about my real life. I can see how it feels to share a little more about how things really go for me, and I’m sure that will give me more confidence that my friends really do want to support me, the way I support them.
3. not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on
How do I relate?
Another big one. I have limited my activities over the course of my illness to preserve my energy, but I’m not always sick. I’m underestimating what I can do; an activity to relieve sadness can be as easy as watching a funny movie!
I’ll create a list of difficult emotions and then create a list of healthy (and accessible) activities that help me cope with those emotions.
For example, I think the biggest emotion I tend to eat because of is fear/anxiety.
Some healthy and accessible activities that help me with anxiety are:
Take a bath
Walk the doggo (if I’m feeling up for that)
Sometimes I’m only anxious because I’m overworked and under-rested, so: take a nap
Call a funny friend
Watch a “safe show.” I have a handful of standby TV shows (such as The Office) that never fail to calm me down
Play with my chihuahua!
4. not understanding the difference between physical and emotional hunger
How do I relate?
This one is interesting, and probably worth pondering for most people. How do we KNOW whether we understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger if the sensation is the same?
This element is complex for me and I feel like a beginner when it comes to really being able to tell the difference. So, my initial strategy is to study the article above and do some more research about how I can teach myself to tell the difference.
5. using negative self-talking that’s related to bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating
How do I relate?
I don’t, really relate to this. If I give into a craving and eat more than I want to, I accept it and feel fine. Probably much too fine!
As I was learning to eat again after such a long period of intestinal illness, I celebrated being able to eat, and placed no limitations on myself.
While I certainly don’t want to start down a path of negative self-talk about over-eating, it is time to rethink how much I have come to accept emotional eating as perfectly normal, or even “good.”
I’m definitely aware of when I’m indulging an emotional craving—I did it just yesterday as a “reward” for a stressful day at work—so, I can take a moment to pause when I’m deciding whether to get some food to soothe myself.
Instead, I can stop and ask myself: “What could you eat to nourish and love your body with nutrition?”
6. changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.
How do I relate?
I’ve thought about cortisol a lot over the past decade, since my doctors tell me stress leads to cortisol which leads to inflammation which leads to disease flares.
Reducing stress is a huge part of my life now, but it’s not easy with everything going on in the world and in my life. Here are some things I try to do every day:
Exercise. Even if it’s 10 minutes. Every day.
Any kind of arts/crafts are amazing for stress
Talk with fun friends
Playing with my dog as much as humanly possible
Writing, like I’m doing here
Talking with kindness to myself
Keeping a routine
Keeping a routine is definitely my biggest challenge, especially working from home during this pandemic. But I can’t even blame it on the circumstances. It’s about cultivating the discipline and deep-down will to actually put my needs first in life
All of these elements are huge challenges, but the first step is concretely understanding what they really are.
I woke up on Election Day kind of out of sorts. The pipe under my kitchen sink had sprung the strangest leak the night before: a hole in the SIDE of the METAL pipe. Not a leak at a joint or something normal, but a little punch hole as if it were possible to drill into the side of a metal pipe and make a perfectly round hole.
And, of course, that meant that I turned on the faucet and heard the ominous sound of water pouring inside the cabinet, and saw the ominous sight of water streaming onto my floor.
This happened right after I had finished my Clean Food Dirty Girl batch prep, so basically every dish in my kitchen was dirty… and now my sink is out of commission.
I weighed in this morning and had gained 1.2 pounds, and I definitely know why.
Last night, I got so tired batch prepping all of my Whole Food Plant-Based meal accoutrements that I ate c. 45 pounds of nachos. So, on the bright side: it’s a miracle I only gained a pound.
I decided to do what any sane person would do, and take the world’s best shower, and give my skin some deliberate TLC with the “Water Drench” collection (on theme with my mini plumbing disaster) from Peter Thomas Roth which is their Hyaluronic Acid focused line.
Basically the minute I turned 40, like 2 months ago, I started to see that my skin looked older. I’m sure “looking older” was mainly the psychological element of The Big 4-0, but I definitely decided that good skin care would need to be a part of this body transformation journey.
These products, especially when I use them together after a good cleansing, really change the appearance and texture of my skin, at least for 12 hours, and I imagine routine use doesn’t hurt either. I’ve been using the serum for a few years, and you can see from the unfiltered, no-makeup selfie above, that my skin isn’t too terrible for 40.
Click the image for a closer look at the whole line I use:
Eye Gel, $42
Hydrating Moisturizer, $52
Hydra-Gel Eye Patches! $46.75, and worth every penny!
The patches are a teeny bit small for my eye shape, but they really feel amazing and plump up the skin. My dark circles don’t necessarily look better after using them, but they create a very even and hydrated canvas for concealer to glide over.
They’re definitely a splurge, but they do have a very pleasant, luxe feel, and I think they deliver hydration better than any eye cream or patch I’ve ever tried.
Plus, just putting them on for 10 minutes kinda does get me in that self-care headspace where I start to imagine I’m the kind of person who keeps to a daily beauty routine, and does so with all the fabulous little products that make me feel fancy.
Turning forty: fat, fabulous, fatigued, fibromyalgic, and fine with it all (at first…)
I turned 40 about 6 weeks ago. It was a pretty pleasant experience, in spite of the fact that we were 6 months into a global pandemic and in the middle of major civil unrest in the U.S.
I was “comfortable” enough with my pleasantly plump frame, my creaky autoimmune joints, my achy fibromyalgia muscles, my fatigue, and the fact that I hadn’t exercised at all in nearly a decade.
And then I went in for my annual physical. High blood pressure, high sugar, high cholesterol. Last year, these levels were all fine and all I had to worry about was keeping my Ulcerative Colitis in check, and that was going pretty well.
Now my doctor wants me to lose 5 pounds, cut sugar, limit carbs, follow a low-sodium diet, and exercise EVERY DAY.
This is a LOT of changes to make, and she wants to see me back in one month to check my blood pressure, and then three months for the “pre-diabetic” glucose levels, so this is a LOT of changes to make IMMEDIATELY.
Luckily (I guess), I’ve been fussing around with the Clean Food Dirty Girl Meal Plan, as a pandemic-boredom project, for the past season. Though, full disclosure: the best I’ve done with that so far is occasionally buying, like, 30 pounds of produce, promptly getting too tired to batch cook everything, and then gnawing on piles of veggies at random for a week, between boiling up some frozen pierogis.
In terms of exercise, (a) I hate it, but (b) I had spent a huge section of July 2020 lying in bed binge watching early-90s nostalgia TV on YouTube, and stumbled upon the awesomeness that is RICHARD SIMMONS Sweatin’ to the Oldies. If this sounds too kitschy for words to you, you’re darn right, and just wait for my reviews of these vids, coming soon.
But then I was just innocently washing the dishes when some kind of switch flipped in me… a skinny switch?
I suddenly realized:
I have spent the past c. 25 years of my life imagining that I have no way to control whether I’m fat or thin. Do you know what I mean? Something in the back (or front) of my mind has always been telling me I’m destined to fail, and should instead vehemently pretend to embrace my curves, whether I truly love them or not. But, what if I have always been in complete control of what size my body is? And what if exercising that control is actually something I’m already good at, despite what I’ve always believed?
I know that statement sounds both stupidly obvious and frustratingly impossible, in terms of how most of us feel about actually losing weight. But, what I’m trying to describe is a shift in my mindset. I can all of a sudden imagine what I will look like and feel like at 125 pounds, even though I haven’t been that weight since I was in 10th Grade. I can imagine becoming completely comfortable with daily exercise and feeling like it’s totally natural to eat healthy plants in reasonable portions.
This is a new feeling, so it’s going to take me time to sit with it and understand it, and the purpose of this blog is to explore the various parts of this process in order to see it through.
So, I finally batched up some whole foods plant-based meals for this week, and I’m cuing up Sweatin’ to the Oldies 3, and there are 364 days to go until I’m transformed.