This is Part 2 in an ongoing series where I go in-depth on how I have successfully hacked my life through technology and science despite having a chronic illness: Fibromyalgia. Read Part 1 here.
The most fundamental skill to successfully hack your health is developing iron fortitude.
Simply stated, fortitude, as I narrowly apply it here, is resolving to improve yourself through discomfort. Not in spite of suffering, but by means of it. Fortitude is not something you are born with but rather a precise skill you develop through calculated failure over time.
The difference between my life today and newly diagnosed 17-year-old me is fortitude. When you are introduced to a life-altering event, grappling with pain and suffering depletes your courage to face further discomfort. Coming to terms with disability, whether mental, emotional or physical, has a deleterious effect on your ability to persevere.
Chronic disorders are especially adept at gnawing away at your fortitude. At 17 years old, I was a perfectly healthy, active young man. I played tennis, loved school, and was in the best shape of my life. That all changed on October 13, 2003. Blindsided by this alien disorder (later diagnosed as Fibromyalgia), I awoke in a someone else’s body. Gone were my strength, stamina, tolerance for pain, and mental precision. I didn’t know whose body I was in, but it wasn’t the one I went to sleep in the night before.
It took years to come to terms with this (see previous story for the personal account) and to realize that if I was ever going to move from surviving to thriving, I had to develop a very rare and challenging skill: improving my physical, mental, and emotional condition through calculated discomfort.
What’s true of losing (or gaining) weight is true for chronic illness: starting is the hardest part. Newton’s first law applies to our lives and our physical bodies: an object at rest stays at rest, but an object in motion stays in motion (unless acted upon by an outside force). Our bodies obey the laws of physics just like all other matter in the universe(s?). If you continue to stay at rest, both physically and metaphorically, you will remain there. The moment you start following a system that works, you break free and have the laws of the universe propelling you forward. And that momentum you’ve created is not easily stopped.
When I was first diagnosed, the idea that I would be able to have the energy to do anything more than go to the doctor or engage in the occasional 10-minute conversation with a visitor was insufferable. Not because I didn’t want my life back, but because the idea was a phantom reality. A wholly unattainable fantasy born of someone else’s imagination — someone who didn’t have Fibromyalgia.
It’s not just the pain (though it can be excruciating), nor the complete fatigue (like having the bad flu or jet lag after crossing 5 time zones), but knowing what will happen when you push beyond your comfort zone: debilitation. Knowing that improvement requires pain that will (temporarily) make you worse is a stronghold that keeps most people with health issues from ever breaking through to success. You stand outside the fortified castle walls, peering up towards the heavens, not understanding how you could ever scale them and reach the comforts of the city life inside.
If you’ve ever broken a bone or been severely injured, you know this mental struggle intimately. You walk into the doctor’s office and begin preparing yourself for the inevitable: the range of motion test. They move your arm as far as possible until pain shoots across your body, consuming your thoughts and focus. You know it’s coming, you have no way to avoid it.
This is the mental anguish that conquers 99% of people. We innately avoid pain and suffering, just like all animals. And we, like them, are really good at it. When pain is fundamental to progress, we stand divided against ourselves. Our biological instincts flash alarms at the first site of a potential threat, entreating with us to flee. Pain is bad, comfort is good. You’re tired, you have to rest. Your legs are sore from being restless all night, you should lie on the couch. But when you have a chronic illness and/or are in poor physical shape, your wiring is crossed. Your body is giving you alarms when there is no danger, and the very thing you need to do is the very thing it warns you against.
The ability to discern the difference between damaging pain (which of course still exists) and healthy discomfort is the single most critical factor in developing fortitude. Nothing else I talk about will make a difference if you do not embrace this. Here’s something to consider: you’re already suffering, constantly battling pain and discomfort every hour of the day. Why not endure a little more temporarily knowing that it will create a life with less pain over time? I sure as hell don’t want to suffer for nothing.
Let’s face it, you really only have two options: suffer for naught or suffer for success.
OK great, but how do you develop fortitude if everyone responds differently to pain? What about the people who are able to endure more pain than others? Aren’t some people (e.g., gym rats, athletes, runners) fueled and energized by pain, while others resort to whipping out their inner diva over a minor paper cut?
Sure, some people have naturally higher pain tolerances than others. I’ll be transparent: I fall into this category. Ever since I was a baby, I’ve been simultaneously sensitive and innately resilient to pain. Both a blessing and a curse (as anyone who has Fibromyalgia will understand).
While fortitude does seem to be preferential for high-pain-tolerant individuals, it is an ability anyone can develop. Without it, you will never achieve success in managing and hacking your health.
So let’s discuss how to do just that.
Understand your body’s signals
Your body is an organic machine that has developed remarkable ways of informing you about what’s going on underneath that mushy outer layer of skin. Pain is merely a physical signal from your brain telling you something is wrong. Without pain, we would have no knowledge of issues lurking beneath the surface. So how do you identify the false positives? How can you discern “stop, you’re hurting yourself!” from “No, this is good. Keep going!”?
So firstly, you need to become an expert in listening to and deciphering your body’s signals — including pain. I’ve played classical piano since I was 5 years old. It’s one of my great loves in this world. After 26 years of playing, I know my piano almost as well as my own body. I know when it’s out of tune, when the action is muddy, when the dampers need adjusted, when the upper keys are too bright and require needling and the damp catcher on A2# is catching just a little too soon. Not because I’ve played for 26 years, but because I’ve spent those years developing an acute attention to how the piano responds to my inputs. I recognize its physical signals. When I need to play pianissimo (very quiet), I know how the piano should respond. If it puts up a fight, something is misaligned.
So the first thing you MUST do is pay attention and begin to understand and recognize your body’s signals.
Your body is your instrument. You tell your arm to reach out, and it responds. You (subconsciously) tell your left foot to move forward 1.5 feet, and it complies. With a chronic (or merely out of shape) condition, your body obeys your mental inputs but the output is not what you expect. Your instrument is out of tune and misaligned. It resists your requests and fights back, rather than submitting itself to your gestures. It’s the difference between being a master over your body and being mastered by it.
How to Start
This is not difficult, but it takes time to begin thinking scientifically.
Start by recognizing how your body responds to your daily actions. Whether it’s exercise, making lunch (don’t eat breakfast!), driving your car or sitting on the couch. Everything is an input, and your body signals back in response.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Start noticing them.
When you eat crap, how do you feel afterwards?
When you go to bed past 10:30 pm, how does it effect your sleep?
When you sit for more than 30 minutes, how does your neck, back, and butt feel?
When you slouch and slump into your computer, how does this effect your energy levels?
Your body has a signal for every single thing you do. Start noticing it. Even small adjustments will pay enormous dividends over time.
The key to being able to differentiate between false positives and real alarms requires you to hear your signals. Everyone is different; no two bodies are the same. Without this, you’ll mistake growing pains for real injury. Without discernment, you’ll continue to be a slave to your illness and current physical condition. You will have no fortitude, and you’ll watch your life pass by as a helpless observer. Chronic illness (or simply being out of shape) is neither your identity nor your life sentence. You are only a victim if you choose to be.
OK, this was a lot to cover. I know. So let’s end it here and recap what you’ve learned. (I realize I only have 1 step on here, but that’s because the next ones will follow. I don’t want to overwhelm you.)
Fortitude is the single biggest skill you need to develop to hack your health towards a better life.
With chronic pain disorders (and being out of shape), your body’s signals give both real warnings and false alarms.
To develop fortitude, you must know your body’s signals as intimately as a pianist knows their piano.
Start by seeing everything you do as an input and your physical, emotional, and mental symptoms as a signal response.
Pay attention to how what you do makes you feel. It’s not so important to make a causal connection as to develop the mental ability of recognizing signals.