Running on Empty



We recently had new insulation installed in our attic… which now means we have to clean up all the debris from the old insulation. It’s also a good time to de-clutter and get rid of a lot of things we’ve held onto that we don’t really need.

If you’ve read other posts of mine, you may recall that I suffered a bad back injury twenty-three years ago – a ruptured disc. A true ruptured disc, blown to smithereens, little fragments clearly visible on the scans. Luckily, I had a doctor who pointed out that none of the disc fragments was actually pressing on the nerves, so he hypothesized that all of my symptoms – pain radiating down my leg, foot slap, positive straight leg raise test, on and on – were due to the chemical irritation of the rupture and that, if we waited for the inflammation to subside, I would probably improve. So, no surgery. Just a long healing process. A very long healing process.

It was months before I could stand up straight, months more before I could walk without my foot slap announcing my arrival before I rounded a corner. I resumed working out, started bicycling, even running some. Two years later, I was able to complete a local triathlon. My body was still cattywhompus on the run, and I am a horrible swimmer, but I finished.

Twenty-three years later, I still have pain every single day. I think this injury has given me a certain empathy with my patients who suffer from chronic pain, but it also makes me impatient with the ones who only want to take a pill and have their pain go away. It doesn’t work like that. I have learned – the hard way – that I can easily push my back past its tolerance if I overdo it.

Which brings me back to the attic, kind of. Just this past week, I had a talk with a patient who is returning to work as a mechanic after a spinal fusion. Over the two plus decades I’ve been dealing with my back, I’ve come to realize I have a certain amount of “back energy” at my disposal, and I have to budget it.

Some things don’t cost much: laundry, mowing the yard, walking the dogs. Other things come with a much higher energy cost: washing the car, mulching, attacking the ivy and weeds that regularly try to eat the air conditioner or… cleaning the attic.

I know that if I have a high-cost task facing me, I have to budget for it. That means whatever I do the day before and after has to be low-cost enough not to push me into a budget deficit. If I do that (and I have), I am in for a bad few days.

When I put it this way to my patients, I can see light bulbs go off for them. It kind of makes sense to them then that maybe six hours on a riding mower followed by stacking a load of firewood wasn’t a smart choice. Neither was vacuuming the whole house and then scrubbing the bathroom. They have to learn to assess for themselves the physical cost involved with the various activities in their lives.

I have learned to apply the same logic to my mental and emotional energy levels. That’s the place my writing comes from. I am very much an introvert. Some weeks, my interactions with patients are incredibly draining and leave me emotionally depleted. My battery is on Empty. Fortunately, my partner and our friends understand and no longer take it personally when I sit silently through dinner or beg off completely to have some alone time.

When I know there’s some social obligation coming up which I can’t avoid, I start saving up ahead of time – giving myself enough ‘I’ time that I don’t go into overdraft. If I can’t anticipate and save up ahead of time, I know I have to give myself time to replenish again afterward. My best writing comes when my ‘I’ battery is full. When I’m in that place, the words just flow. When the emotional budget is spent, I stare at the same page and nothing comes.

Many people, women especially, feel that they have to push through for their families or their jobs even when they’re physically or emotionally or mentally spent and depleted. We all have times like that, but I think it’s important for us to remember, we’re not much good to anyone if we’re constantly running on empty. Giving ourselves permission to do whatever it is that replenishes us is not necessarily selfish. Sometimes, it’s the only way to be the best we can be for the people we love.

Okay, enough stalling. I think I hear the attic calling…

(photo credit: Beth Skinner)

copyright 2013 Caren J. Werlinger

All rights reserved


4 thoughts on “Running on Empty

  1. Add me to the people who have had a lightbulb moment reading this post. I’ll learn to budget my days better in the future. Thanks.

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