Living a slower, simpler, more meaningful life

Adrenal Fatigue

I miss writing. This is the first thing longer than a shopping list that I’ve written in 6 months.  I’ve carried stories and blog posts around in my head for days at a time, but in the end it was too much effort to capture them. Even an hour at a keyboard sets me back two weeks. My arms, shoulders, wrists and neck stiffen up and stay that way until I shell out for another round of osteopathy or figure out which elusive combination of stretching and resting will relieve the aches. There’s suffering for your art…. and then there’s self preservation. I decided to write today because I’m sick of lying around feeling miserable. I’m already weak, aching and exhausted, so I might as well have something to show for it.  Plus, it’s therapy.

In the first months after quitting work I followed a strict regime of rest on a tightly managed schedule. Two hours up, two hours down. It helped me get through the day without collapsing, but as I listened to my body I realised that two hours up was still too much. I adjusted the schedule to have one hour up, followed by one or two hours rest. If Scott got the kids moving in the morning, I could rise at 8am, get them to school and be home in time to rest. I’d have an hour or maybe two during the day when I’d get things done, then I’d have a long rest to prepare for school pick up and the afternoon. Two or three days a week I’d spend my ‘up’ hours just going to pilates, attending doctors appointments or going to the osteo to manage pain. Ultimately I gave up pilates because it tired me out too much.

It soon became clear that recovery would be slow, and with no end in sight, we decided to sell our house. I know. It seems slightly insane in hindsight, but felt perfectly logical at the time. We’d been waiting for the right time to sell and adrenal fatigue seemed to be the obvious turning point in our life. Certainly my lack of income for the foreseeable future helped us reach a decision to downsize. If I’d known the toll it would take on my health it might have been a trickier decision, but we’d probably have made it anyway. I’m glad we sold and I’m proud of how well we presented the house and kept it looking amazing through the campaign. We certainly earned those top dollars, but I learned a great deal about adrenal fatigue along the way.

Adrenal Fatigue in it’s early stages is not like chronic fatigue, when you’re often bedridden and completely unable to function. With adrenal fatigue it’s a gradual decline and for a long time you can still push through if you have to, or want to badly enough. With enough well-managed down time, it’s still possible to get out and do things. After a patch of down time you can pull yourself into action for a few days, or even a few weeks. You can go out for coffee, spend a day walking around the park or a shopping centre, have a meal out or join friends for drinks. You can pack up boxes, move furniture, style a four bedroom house and oversee minor renovations. Some people even go back to work. But in the end you pay the price. Every time.

I like to use the analogy of a fuel tank, where rest is the fuel you need to drive energy levels. Adrenal Fatigue happens when you go below empty and stay there for too long. If you top up with some fuel (rest) you might get back in the black and be able to drive for a little while. But before too long you run out again. Most people can top up their tank with a good night’s sleep, but with Adrenal Fatigue it’s never enough. When your tank sits on empty for long enough, a whole lot of other things start going wrong. Your adrenals don’t operate in isolation. Hormones like adrenalin, melatonin, seratonin and estrogen all impact upon each other. When one thing fails, previously healthy systems try to compensate and all are put under pressure. You can’t sleep, daily life becomes overwhelming and your hormonal cycle goes a little wacky. You become physically and emotionally hypersensitive and fragile. You fluctuate between feeling exhausted in the morning and over-stimulated in the evening.

I’ve always been sensitive to additives and processed foods but in the years leading up to now I’ve been increasingly sensitive to gluten, wheat, sugar and caffeine. I’m not coeliac or diagnosed as intolerant of anything, but it was clear to me that these foods left me depleted and weak. I’ve now become hypersensitive to alcohol as well. A few glasses of wine feel great at the time but in the days following I fall into a deep fatigue and become emotionally fragile and depressed. For years I’ve slept so lightly that I wake up tired every day and I’ve experienced dramatic hormonal fluctuations every month that flatten me for weeks.

I see now that these were all warning signs. I didn’t necessarily ignore them, but I managed them and kept trundling along. I adjusted my diet constantly, avoided certain foods, took supplements, saw health specialists of every variety, and did everything I could to overcome each problem as it arose. I never felt good, but my efforts most likely kept the crash at bay for years. I suspect if I’d been less capable, determined and focussed I might have crashed (and subsequently recovered) a long time ago. Instead, I prolonged the inevitable, and now here I am.

After years of bouncing between health practitioners I’ve finally found a sympathetic GP who has me on a medication regime focussed on improving sleep, managing pain and stabilising my adrenals. It is helping. I wear a Fitbit that tracks my sleep and activity levels and I try to keep steps below 4000 per day. Anything over that and I’ll struggle the next day. Although I spend between 8 and 10 hours in bed every night, I usually get less than 4 hours of sleep. Anything over 4 hours is a win. If I manage my sleep and activity levels, stretch twice a day, have a nap at least once a day, avoid gluten, wheat, sugar, caffeine and alcohol and steer clear of any mental or emotional stress, I can live a fairly normal life. That’s kind of like saying I’ll be well if I get a daily visit from a rainbow unicorn with fairy wings.

The reality is, it’s pretty up and down. We’ve cancelled the 3 month road trip we were hoping to take in April this year. It’s too much to consider at the moment. In Feb we move into a rental for a year. A family from the kids’ school is taking a 12 month holiday (lucky bastards) and we’re house-sitting their place. It’s a few blocks from school and backs onto an awesome park  It’ll be an easy place to live and somewhere very pleasant to tread water for a year while we decide what to do next. My number one goal for 2017 is to bank enough energy so that we’re ready to grab the right opportunity when it presents itself. That means my recovery regime needs to move up a notch. It’s not enough to just manage. If I want to recover I’ll need to fill up that fuel tank, storing energy to rebuild, rather than just using every last drop staying afloat.

On top of sleep, diet and rest I’m turning my focus to spiritual and emotional wellness. I want to to replenish myself with nature, creative exploration and meditation. Sometimes I feel guilty – and a bit ridiculous – for making these plans. Wouldn’t we all like to take a year off work to sit in nature and meditate? What kind of self-entitled, white-privileged twat takes a daily nap and fiddles about with watercolours. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and my new psych has me focussed on self-compassion, so I’m trying not to think like this anymore!

If I’d been born in another country, into a different situation, I might not have the privilege of recovering from this. I’d work myself into the ground, go on well beyond my body’s natural limits, and experience a physical or mental collapse. Maybe I’d find the strength to continue supporting my family, struggling on through failing health but never giving up. Or maybe I’d work myself into the ground, drive loved ones away and end up on the street. Maybe I’d self-medicate with drugs or alcohol or fail myself or my children in some other way. It happens every day, somewhere in the world, that people are pushed beyond their limits and break. In the last 6 months I’ve come close to breaking point a couple of times. What if I didn’t have access to a supportive family or good medical care? What if I had to keep getting up every day to earn money to feed my family? I don’t know exactly what my limits might be, but I’m so grateful that I’ve never had to push beyond them. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to rest, and to be cared for and supported while I recover. Who knows why I get to be one of the lucky ones. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw, or maybe the universe has something else in store for me. All I know is I’m doing the best I know how to do, which is all I’ve ever done. And according to my books on self-compassion, that is all we can ever do, and it is always enough.


(Image Credit)



  1. Edie

    I think you are doing exactly the right thing Emily. Selling the house I think was an excellent plan. In fact I am nodding at everything. Much love ❤️❤️

    • Emily

      Thanks Edie … and I think your plan is equally excellent. Here’s to 2017 being the year everything changes!

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