‘I’m Sorry, I’m Too Tired’ – on being tired from mental illness, chronic pain, and just from living.
I am always tired. As I write this I am sat in bed, my muscles ache and my chest feels congested as if I’m about to get a cold. My skin is hot, like the first flames of a fever are licking around me, my eyes prickle like I’ve been up all night. Except I haven’t. Today I went to work, sat at my desk, went home, went to the gym for a gentle 15 minute jog, made myself dinner, and got into bed by 8.30pm. Yet I feel like I have run a marathon, climbed a mountain, or walked miles home in the rain. This is not the contented, warming tired that comes with those achievements, it is the weariness I feel in my bones, that climbs up from my ribs into my chest and spreads out across my shoulders until I know, that if I don’t stop I will be stuck in bed for a whole weekend, barely able to make it to the kitchen and back before curling back into sleep.
My whole life revolves around finding enough time to rest and sleep, to feed myself so my body can make more energy, while many of the things which help take from my already limited resources. So I am frugal with what little energy I have, spending a little to see a friend who lives more than a short bus ride away one day or to make an unplanned trip to the shop, and sleeping through night and day to try and gain it back the next. I don't remember what it was like not to have to weigh up every choice against the aching, heavy exhaustion that comes if I get the balance wrong. And even when I get the balance right, I am still pushing back against this dragging wave which pulls me down.
When I am tired I am short-tempered, irrational, and panicky and I move through the world fumbling and bleary eyed, making stupid mistakes and lacking enough resources to care or to fix them. When I first went on antidepressants I would sleep all day, wake for a shower and some food and then climb back into bed, shaking from the effort I'd exerted. I fear that place of barely existing, barely moving out in the world so much and yet every day that I am unable to keep going, that I have to cancel my plans and return home to lay my weary body down I feel as if I have not come so far from that place at all. This is not the tired of a long successful day, or of an unusual exertion, it is a daily weight I carry that I can only manage but never escape. A close friend of mine has chronic fatigue syndrome and helped me understand with the process of measuring my 'spoons'. ‘Spoon theory’ is a metaphor commonly used by people with disabilities and long-term conditions to explain how energy works for them. The essential idea being that you get a certain number of spoons, each task and activity (which can be as small as cleaning your teeth) takes a spoon, and once the spoons are gone there is no way to replenish them except to rest.
I am keeping my head above water, I go to work every day and manage a social life but it's within the constraints of this fear, this fear of what happens when I go over my limit. I am so lucky to have friends who understand without question that sometimes I can't, I just can't - that the invite to my flat instead of theirs has more behind than laziness or selfishness. It doesn't take much to wear me out, and I can't always predict when it's going to happen, something as small as planning out a nice Saturday with friends and then a surprise extra activity or an accident while cooking which needs cleaned up, or something bigger like a night out that I don't leave early enough and then - I am empty. Once emptied of my resources, I cry like a toddler (if I have the energy), unable to find it in me to articulate words for how frustrated I am - I've been running for too long and there's so much left to go and I cannot keep on. To recover I know I will have to treat my body like something made of glass: early nights, nourishing food and nothing too exciting or stimulating on the telly - I don’t want to let my body create adrenaline, because that in itself can be tiring. This is the level at which I have to operate when I am at my lowest. And then, eventually, I am recharged enough to hope for a spontaneous adventure which I can complete without the nagging fear of the recharging time. But my life doesn't have space for that realistically, I have rent to pay, a cat to take care of and interpersonal relationships to maintain.
But why? Why am I empty of resources? There isn’t an easy answer. My tiredness is part of my mental illness; the draining hyper vigilance and adrenaline of anxiety leaves me panting for air like a marathon runner at the end of each day, the fog of depression adding another rock to the pile on my back I am trying to carry. The exhaustion of putting on a brave face when another conversation at work comes back around to #metoo, or the thudding fear of running into my abuser on my morning commute, and the burning ache of chronic pain in my jaw joint that has no cure – drip by drip my reserves are drained away by this tangle of intersecting illnesses and experiences. This piece of writing is my acknowledgement that my tiredness is part of my illness, but it is also part of my existence, living in this patriarchal world is part of the weight I bear, and some days the fear of being catcalled in the street, or accidentally outing my sexuality to someone who is going to respond negatively is what tips me over into emptiness. Johanna Hedva put it far better than I ever could in her piece on Sick Woman Theory which explores how gender, race, sexuality and class dictate whether your pain is acknowledged, whether you have access to the resources for it to be treated, and how the world treats and views you has an impact on your physical and mental health.
We are always told to push ourselves, to get up early and work hard, then stay up late to party. We are expected to skip breakfast to squeeze in extra hours at the office, throwback coffee after coffee to keep going and wear the dark circles under our eyes with pride. All of this in the hope of being the best, achieving a dream (whether that be a first class degree, a promotion at work, or even just escaping the fear of not being quite enough). We are expected to constantly be pushing and aiming for more. I am living my life in rebellion to this, I want my life to be steady and manageable and mediocre. Part of me still pushes for more - I finish a day at the office, exhausted and drained and I come home to sit at my laptop and work away on my writing or head to the gym to try and beat my personal best on the treadmill. But these are small moments of endeavour in amongst the ordinariness that I crave. I know my resources are limited and that my successes come at the cost of days spent in my pyjamas, barely able to stumble to the kitchen and back. I am trying to be enough whether or not I am achieving anything. As I write this I think about the things I have missed out on to save my energy for the things I have to do to survive, even just today. I know I should feel sad but its past feeling like a choice - I live within my means and accept the consequences that comes with (the lost friendships, the experiences I’ve missed) because there is no alternative for me right now. I want to collapse on the sofa after a day of work because I want to, not because my whole body aches with exhaustion from sitting still. When people became outraged at the prevalence of pre-prepared vegetables in shops I thought about how I've had to tailor my cooking around what I can buy prepared because that means I'm more likely to be able to eat something balanced, of the spoon that saves me.
I don’t know when it gets better, I dodge between regular gym sessions in the hope of gaining fitness to make this easier and weeks of exhaustion that comes after a successful month of doing so. I take my multivitamins, tell the doctor how I feel in the hope that one day there will be an easy answer to living like this, when really I know this is how it is for now, and I should be glad for the things I can still have despite the tired. I know too that I am lucky, I have resources and privileges that many do not, but I am still all too aware of what I do not and cannot have because I am too tired.