Just like brushing your teeth

One of my friends recently asked me how best to manage a chronic condition.


During the transition between noncompliance and acceptance, I clearly remember that all I wanted was to get to the point where I could relegate my regimen to a tiny corner of my life. I would be “normal” and it would become so easy and routine that the whole thing would take up no more of my attention every day than, say, brushing my teeth. I’m here to tell you it’s possible!

Well, sometimes.

For a little while, anyway. Or even a long while.

The reality is that it is possible, but it’s hard to maintain. You can go for years sticking to the plan you and your providers have devised. For me, that means nutrition plan, exercise plan, logging everything (logging covers different categories for different people -- symptoms, blood sugars, food intake, whatever information you need to understand the patterns of your condition), and several appointments every year. And when I’m on it, I’m really on. I feel strong and powerful, motivated, and present in all aspects of my life.

But then your condition begins to feel neglected, so it starts to have a tantrum to make you pay attention again. After all, no one likes being relegated to a brief bathroom routine twice a day. You get sick, or your biorhythms change (mine tend to do that as soon as I have settled into the right insulin dosage), or some event in your life overwhelms you with stress – difficult project, death in the family, it could be anything, really. That powerful feeling begins to fade, and your energy goes with it. You start to channel the energy you have into surviving that situation, and the easiest place to draw from is the voluntaires – the time you take to exercise or monitor or whatever it is you do to care for your condition. You say to yourself, “I will go back to it as soon as X is over.”

I went through this very recently. In fact, I’m just starting to get my feet under me. For two years, I followed my regimen so closely, I lost 30 pounds and my kidney disease started to actually get better (this never happens). Then I faced a situation where I had to take a project at work that I didn’t want. It was either that or lose my job. And my health insurance.

I told my boss on my first day that the situation was not going to be sustainable due to the location, commute, and an overtly hostile work environment. First, I stopped cooking, which was fine because I could always use frozen meals. Then, I stopped exercising because I was just so tired when I came home, I needed to catch up on sleep. (It’s not healthy to exercise when you’re exhausted, is it?) Finally, after about six weeks, the stress finally started to get to me. My blood sugars started swinging, which made me feel sick. There’s no predictability to how stress will affect blood sugar, so you’re always running to catch up. Functional is about all I could manage at that point. It got so bad that I asked one of my providers to write a letter stating that I absolutely could not work in that environment past a given date.

In real life, there is no way to stop the clock and hit reset. You still have your job, your family, your house, your car, school, whatever myriad responsibilities take up all of your time. Recovery has to be one baby step at a time. It’s taken me three months to get back to about 50% level of effort, as they say in my industry. I go back and forth on the nutrition plan. I cook, but I can’t stay away from sweets. I exercise the way I did at the beginning of my good stretch – cardio only. I have given up logging altogether.

The only element I still follow to the letter is seeing my providers. In fact, I have asked them to shorten the time between visits from four or six months to three. I need the external motivation, and they need to know what is happening. I expect that there will be a considerable delayed impact to my bloodwork. I live in fear of my kidneys regressing. However, I will not borrow trouble.

Instead, I will adjust. I went from little exercise to cardio and weights five times a week (exercise is the magic elixir for blood sugar control). I can do it again. I went from eating out half the time to cooking all but twice a week. I can do that again, too. I may not go back to logging, at least not formally. I hate it too much, so I would rather spend my effort on the first two right now. The other thing I will not do is dwell on the progress I have lost. What’s the point?

No, I will keep dragging my monster up the mountain one baby step at a time. One foot in front of the other until I reach peak performance once again. I will hand it my toothbrush and enjoy the view until I fall again.