Overcoming Big Challenges With Chronic Illness

Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.

Yard work is one example of how chronic illness can be hard and a challenge.

I really don't like seasonal changes because some kind of house or yard work follows. The green beauty of Spring and Summer means there is a lot to be done, including mowing, trimming, weeding, planting, and putting down lots of mulch. The changing colors of Fall brings such tasks as raking leaves and pruning trees. And the white wonderland of Winter promises plenty of back breaking snow shoveling. All these outdoor chores can take a heavy toll on someone with chronic illness.  I've been thinking about practical ways to overcome these kind of big challenges.

If I was wealthy, I would just hire someone to do all my yard work. But I'm not part of the 1%. I'm not even in the top 50%. I'm just an average guy that owns an average size house in an average middle class neighborhood. Last year I hired my 14 year old son to mow the lawn for $10 a week and believe me it has been worth every penny. He knows it helps me. He's seen me deal with the body wide pain, flu-like symptoms, and brain fog that follows for 2-3 days after mowing the lawn. It feels like I've been hit by a truck, with a concussion to boot. These are typical symptoms for someone with Fibromyalgia, which is what I was recently diagnosed with, along with IBS and occipital neuralgia.

I'm not a complainer. Okay, maybe a little bit. My poor wife hears most of my whining. She also sees the toll that yard work can take on me. But I wasn't always this way. When I was younger and healthy I used to launch into yard work with enthusiasm, it was a chance to get some exercise and enjoy the sunshine. But no more. Since I got sick I've had to drag my crippled body out of bed on many Monday mornings after doing yard work all weekend. Sometimes the physical aftermath has been so bad I've wished I didn't have a house anymore just so I didn't have to deal with the endless pain and fatigue. But I knew that wasn't realistic. I had to find a way to deal with it. Hiring my son to help was a start but I can't expect him to do it all. I needed a strategy.

Yard work can be overwhelming. Whenever I've faced other seemingly insurmountable things in other areas of my life, I've first started by breaking it down into smaller tasks. Once I've done that, the project seems more reasonable, more doable. Here are some quotes by some pretty well known folks that advocate this approach:

"Start wherever you are and start small." ~ Rita Bailey
"When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don't adjust the goals, adjust the action steps." ~ Confucious
"Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs." ~ Henry Ford
"Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps." ~ Helmut Schmidt 
"The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one. " ~ Mark Twain

I decided to take small steps when facing the daunting challenge of doing Spring yard work. One of the biggest chores this year was to put down 30 large bags (that's 60 cubic feet) of mulch in the plant beds surrounding my house. I probably could have tackled it all on a long Saturday, but I likely would have ended up in my doctor's office or the ER the next day. Not very wise and I'd probably face a stern lecture about overdoing it afterwards. So I broke the project up into smaller chunks, spending about an hour or two for 5 days over a two week period. This paced approach gave me some recovery intervals in between yard work days.

I visited Lowe's 3 different days, each time picking up 10 bags of mulch.  I put down about 5-6 bags of mulch each time with the help of my awesome 10 year old son, who was eager to help his Dad and earn a few bucks.  I was pleased with the results.

I didn't feel any worse for wear. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't hard. It took a little planning and I had to carve out smaller chunks of time each day, but I was amazed both at the results and at how good I felt. I wasn't wiped out or left with a lot of pain. Small steps just might be my new mantra for other big obstacles I face with chronic illness. Who'd have thought it was so simple.  It only took me many years to actually apply it!

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