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Why I'm Doing Away With To-Do Lists as Someone With Health Challenges

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I’ve always hated to-do lists. Rather than being a gentle reminder of the tasks I had yet to complete, they loomed over me like a book of judgement: solid black and white evidence of my own befuddlement, poor willpower or plain, old-fashioned laziness. It never mattered how many items that were crossed off as completed — any gaps made me feel as though I had allowed the day to go to waste, particularly if some of the items at the top of the list had been left in limbo. The troubling thing is that those feelings of failure and inadequacy were already prevalent before my health completely caved in…

When a couple of illnesses are added to the already crowded roster of “being an adult,” relatively simple tasks such as buying groceries or cleaning the kitchen get translated into “climb Everest” and “win the London marathon.” Personally, I was already poorly wired for that little berating inner voice continually reminding me of my various foibles. Having a dramatic mutation in my circumstances did nothing to alter the tone of that voice. Instead, it ensured that I went from feeling moderately inadequate to utterly useless. I was so bad at ‘”life” that even my own body had given up on me.

Looking back on my rather frustrating interactions with a psychologist, I feel as if I now truly understand why the obsession with goal setting got me so riled: the idea behind it appears solid, but by its very nature, it has to ignore what has already been achieved, unless it is directly related to said goal. Saying “I’d love to spend a day at the National Gallery, but the bathroom isn’t going to clean itself,” cannot in any way chime with the treatment program – you’re simply not trying hard enough to reach the goal of getting to the gallery.

With that in mind and as an attempt to redeem my sanity, I have decided to completely do away with to-do lists (even though continual bouts of brain fog would suggest that I should keep track of my plans, however small) and write “done” lists instead. We all know what we want to do, what we ought to do and what we’re trying to do, but how often do we take full notice of, or accept full praise for, what we already accomplished, despite how small it may seem in comparison to those for whom wellness isn’t something they have to strive for?

Last week, I had a bit of an attack of FibroMania — that state of mind where you don’t feel completely hellish and therefore assume you can live like one of the “normals.” I decided to go to the cinema straight after work, simply because I love film and, due to my body making the greatest efforts in a good while to actually kill me, I hadn’t been to see a movie in almost 10 days — for me, that means I may as well have been embalmed. It’s true that I had less energy than a jail-broken iPhone (don’t we all?) but I assumed with the movie being not much longer than an hour and a half, and the cinema being five minutes from my home, I wouldn’t feel the effects badly enough to need full bed rest. When I discovered the following morning that my body had once again been filled with concrete, I realized that I had made a grave miscalculation.

I had gone from an average speed of Warp Five to one-half Impulse Power, and I could feel the day’s initial intentions slipping away from me before I had even been able to roll out from under the duvet. The tiniest things were doing their typical transmutation into monumental undertakings, and I was performing my characteristic act of castigating myself for willfully expending all of my reserve energy on the previous day: and, almost as though I had written a list, all of the things I was managing to complete were getting forgotten.

The missed trips to the post office and the haberdasher’s left me feeling as though I was buried under a mountain of self-imposed duties, despite how dreadful I was feeling and how much I knew that I was running on empty. But when I switched my focus to the fact that I had done a full load of laundry, started a new sewing project, and managed the classic energy drain of getting showered and dressed, I realized that I hadn’t spent the entire day collapsed diagonally across the bed.

By the standards of wider society, we are often viewed as not pro-active, or even active, enough to warrant even a smidgen of recognition for overcoming what is often considered to be “basic adulting,” so how about we stop using those who rarely have to “keep an eye on the cutlery drawer” as a benchmark and start celebrating all those tiny warrior steps we take on a daily basis?

This is in no way a call for the aggrandizement of mediocrity, as hardly anything we do could be considered mediocre. Juggling appointments with various specialists at many different hospitals and health centers, managing medications (and their myriad side effects) as well as alternative treatments and keeping ourselves appraised of all the new research means that there is very little room for baseline normalcy in most of our lives. Whether it’s managing to get from the bed to the sofa or completing a 5K run, every hurdle cleared deserves to be lauded, and every period of rest we require to recover from those triumphs should not be gazed upon as time wasted, but time utilized to the best of our abilities.

Our challenges already fall outside of the realm of commonality; should it not then be obvious that our victories will do the same?

By the way, the film was “The Shallows” and it was worth it…

Originally published: August 25, 2016
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