I’m not really a big fan of rules, but the 24 hour rule is something that has been drilled into me since I was a child (you’ll have seen it mentioned in my interview with Mummy Lipman last week), and I think it has played a huge role in shaping how I manage life around my chronic illnesses.
It’s pretty simple, really: when things are particularly rubbish, you have 24 hours to feel sorry for yourself (and get all the attention that comes with it) and then after that you need to figure out a way to sort your shit out.
Sounds a bit harsh, and it may feel impossible for many. But I honestly think it’s the reason that I’ve managed to do a relatively large amount of “things” considering how unwell I am. This is what works for me, and today I’m sharing my experiences – we all have different coping mechanisms.
The rule apparently first emerged as a way to try and stop us sneaky kids from trying to get out of school by pretending to be sick. We knew that we’d only get sympathy for 24 hours, so if we were faking (as kids are prone to do), we’d be back at school the next day because we wouldn’t get away with lounging around – unless we were actually unwell! And it just stuck.
Grieving is a totally natural part of chronic illness. We grieve for the life that we lost. We grieve for the things we could have done. We grieve for the opportunities we’ve not been able to take advantage of and the things we wish we could do. Those feelings are total normal and healthy.
We also have days when our health dips and we feel particularly unwell and depressed. Again. Totally normal. I know that whenever I have a bad flare, I get very depressed. It makes me hate my entire situation (because, like, it’s shit) and I get very fed up and emotional and want to give up on everything. Living with a chronic illness is a daily challenge, and it can be really painful and scary.
What are you supposed to do when you can’t exist in your own body?
Last week I had a few days like that. I found out that my back could take months longer to heal than I was initially told (meaning that I can’t do the exercises and maintenance work I usually have to do to keep my body as strong as possible – scary leading up to winter), the season change had hit me hard, and I’d been put on Valium to help with my back. Turns out Valium is NOT good for people with PoTS. I was pretty much entirely out of it, shaking, sick, seizing up and passing out. It was really scary. And when things like that happen you get worried that that will become your new normal. Because the current normal is bad enough, thank you very much.
The problem comes when you let those feeling overwhelm you and it stops you from being able to keep pushing on.
That’s where the 24 hour rule comes into play.
As we all know by now, for many of us with chronic conditions there’s very little that can be done medically to help us. It’s usually a case of waiting things out and not pushing too hard (lol – I’m the best at taking my own advice *rolls eyes*), but I find trying to find ‘hacks’ around the things that I want to do is what keeps me going.
24 hours of being at the house, wrapped in a duvet, crying, and feeling sorry for myself. And then I have to stop. Even if I feel unwell and need to rest and be really gentle with myself, I ask a bunch of questions:
Can I figure out how I can keep up with a hobby or learn a new skill in a way that doesn’t require me going out? Can I push a project that I’m working on forward?
Pretty much everything that I’ve done, from the IPF, this blog, Instagram, and Project Chronic have come after I’ve been at my sickest. It doesn’t matter how I channel it – I just need to find something that I’m passionate about that I can put the energy that I have into. Sometimes it’s as small as trying to read a book – even 5 minutes a day. Sometimes it’s finding a campaign I can help with. Sometimes it’s starting a charity. Sometimes it’s teaching myself keyboard 1 tiny course at a time.
It doesn’t matter what it is. The key is to find something to focus on that’s not about how you’re feeling. I know it’s hard, but we all have a distraction of some sorts that helps us stop thinking about ourselves. And let’s face it, when you have a…precarious…body, then it’s actually imperative that we do think about ourselves a lot. It’s for our own protection.
Some people may think this sounds a bit insensitive. And for some it may very well be. But for me, letting myself wallow in self-pity indefinitely only makes things worse. By knowing that I have a fixed time to let myself feel emotions and then that I need to find something, anything to get my mind into a different place is really helpful, and stops me ‘falling’ into a deeper depression. The reason I’m able to do as much as I do is because I force myself through those emotions. I’m conditioned to do it now.
I will also add here that my mental health problems are what I call ‘reactive’. Any depression or anxiety that I experience is caused not the cause of my chronic illnesses. This is an important distinction. The 24 hour rule works for me because these feels are shaped by events and not by a chemical imbalance in my brain. For people with clinical depression, anxiety or other mental health problems, ‘just getting on with it’ is not always an option, and can be unhelpful. I do believe that there’s always an element of needing to ‘try’ – no matter how unwell you feel. You may not be able to change your feelings, but there are always things we can do to give ourselves the best possible chance of feeling a tiny bit better or being able to slowly climb out of that pit.
Of course, even for me it can take longer than 24 hours (especially when things are at their worst) – but the key is tiny tiny steps. I’m not saying that after 24 hours you’ll miraculously feel better. But it’s about learning to accept that you’re going to be feeling this way and you might as well keep on keeping on.
Or as my good friend says: