Chronic Illness and the Reward of Achievement

While at an appointment for pain management, the physiotherapist told me something so utterly profound, it has changed the way I manage my life.

When you are chronically ill, you do not feel a reward for doing stuff, achieving stuff. You only feel punishment from your body for doing / achieving the thing, whether that’s by increased fatigue or increased pain. So we don’t actually want to do anything because we are punished for it.

And suddenly so much of my life makes sense. I don’t want to do little tasks, like hanging up washing, because it will exacerbate my fatigue and pain considerably. I don’t even want to un-pack the dishwasher for the same reason. Some days I don’t want to get off the couch, because walking is going to cause pain and fatigue.

Over the last couple of days I have trialled a new thing. It’s a bit of a triple whammy. Instead of trying to remember to do things, and when they need to be done by, I have downloaded a task management app on my phone (and chromebook) and begun adding things to it. Right now I’m trying to de-clutter my lounge, so I’ve scheduled myself a small task to do each day, something bite-sized that I can actually achieve – today was ‘clear the top of the desk’. Yesterday was ‘clear the floor around the desk. Tomorrow I have ‘organise the top shelf behind the desk’ and the day after I have ‘organise the bottom shelf behind the desk’. Now, admittedly, some of this organising and clearing is ‘I don’t know where to put this thing and I don’t really have anywhere to put it right now so I’m going to move it further into the de-cluttering area’, but the majority of it is actually organising things and putting them in their proper place. Once I have completed my task, I get to ‘tick’ it off on my app, and then administer the reward!

This is where it got a bit tricky. What should I reward myself with? Should I have a scaled reward system, so the bigger the task, the greater the reward? What can I give myself that won’t be so expensive so as to be unsustainable?

I asked a good friend of mine who suggested I look into love languages to figure out what will work best for me. So off I went to research love languages, and then self-love languages (which apparently can be different), to discover that I am a physical contact and quality time kind of gal. No real surprises there. But even with that information I was still stumped. I don’t exactly feel comfortable giving myself a hug, self-massages are out because they’re painful rather than relaxing, and I already have excessive amounts of down time.

But I did realise that I could give myself small amounts of very high quality relaxation time by listening to meditation music (courtesy of some random list on Spotify, bless other people doing the work for you!) and lighting a scented candle and just staring at it. It’s a small circle of calm in my otherwise hectic life, and provides my body with powerful relaxation, which reduces the pain and fatigue. It’s also my favourite scented candle.

For other, bigger tasks, I’m thinking about things like a hot shower with music and scented candles, and then massaging my favourite skincare products in. I have a delicious foot moisturiser that relieves tension and pain, and a face cream that helps to soothe my trigeminal neuralgia. For really big tasks, maybe a massage, or maybe I rope my amazing human into giving me a head rub or extra cuddles.

It took hours to work through this, but it is well worth having a think about. I’m hoping that if I can provide enough positive reinforcement for completed tasks, then getting the motivation to complete tasks will be easier. Because I’m tired of being punished. It’s time to turn the tables.

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