Almost as soon as I had decided to raise the limit on my heart rate monitor to 105 beats per minute, my physical therapy team smacked that idea down. They told me that one week with the monitor was not enough to really get the hang of pacing, and suggested that I was raising the limit so the monitor would not go off as frequently rather than because of any real improvement in my energy management. On their advice, I set the alarm back down to 95 beats per minute.
They were right.
One week was not enough. Neither is one month. My activity sets off the alarm multiple times a day. Climbing stairs, carrying objects, making the bed, moving anywhere too quickly – it all sets off the alarm. I tracked my activity, position and heart rate carefully for several weeks. And I tried – I really really tried – to make different choices and limit my activity.
It worked, sort of. After recovering from a family event, I went three weeks without a crash. My pain levels have decreased. I haven’t ended each day crawling into bed at 6:30 pm, shaking and exhausted. But this came with a price. I did not leave the house for those three weeks. I was much less productive than normal – just more inactive overall.
And I was miserable. I worried about the long-term effect of being even less active than before. I was bored, so terribly bored. I realized that pushing hard to exhaustion actually prevents me from feeling bored. If I’m completely wiped out, my brain can’t care about the fact that I’m spacing out to a baseball game. It doesn’t bother me when I’m too tired to care. But now I’m aware/awake enough to notice that I’m doing nothing, thinking nothing, and that I’m bored.
I feel the bars of this prison more acutely. It’s like standing outside a bakery and looking at the goodies in the window. I can see the things I want to do, but I can’t touch them without setting off the monitor. So I stand at the glass and stare. I want to fuss in the garden, tidy up, bake bread, cook dinner, write more blog posts, read read read the stack of articles in my queue, take photos, visit with friends – and I can’t. Not without hearing the boo-doop chime of the alarm. These are all things I did before, and I accepted the consequential pain and exhaustion. Now I am not doing them, and struggling to accept the consequential boredom, loneliness, and despair.
It’s a trade off, either way. But which is the right choice? When is it better to be bored? When is it better to be in pain? Living with CFS is always about moving targets, shifting limits, and hard choices. Wearing the heart rate monitor is designed to help me stop before I get to pain and post-exertional relapse. When I obey the alarm, it works; I experience much less pain and relapse.
But is it worth it?
What kind of life is it to stop halfway up 13 steps to rest? To not be able to cook and then also do the dishes? To not kick the ball around the yard with the dog for a few minutes? To say no, no, and no again to invitations and fun plans? To shrink my world so that I’m not free to move within my own home without a chime sounding? To sit and sit and sit and sit and sit and all the time knowing that I am sitting while opportunities slip by?
There are people with CFS who are bedridden. I am fortunate to have only suffered that way for short periods of time. But when I have been that ill, I have been so hazy and weak that I didn’t really notice. It’s like the first few days after acute gastroenteritis, where you’re not throwing up (which is good) but you can’t do anything else (and you don’t care).
Living with this heart rate limit is not like that. This feels like a cruel experiment. There’s a plate of cookies on the table in front of me, and I want a cookie. But every time I reach for the cookie, I get a powerful electric shock. So I sit, looking at the cookies, acutely aware that I can’t have one. I’ve made these adjustments before. When I gave up my job. When I gave up driving. When I gave up cooking dinner for friends. When I gave up walking more than 50 yards and submitted to using a wheelchair. I’ve been there, done that. And each time, it did not feel optional. I gave those things up because to continue doing them meant unbearable pain and exhaustion. But these day to day life things that set off the heart monitor are not like that. No single thing – carrying a few books up stairs, kicking the ball for the dog – puts me down. But cumulatively, or done for too long, these things do knock me out, and the heart monitor can prevent that.
What I’ve learned since strapping on the heart rate monitor is that the glass box of my limitations is too small. If I obey the monitor, if I focus on setting it off as little as possible, I will lose my mind. I will sink into deep depression, isolated and unsatisfied. I will resent the healthies in my life. I will surrender more of myself to this greedy illness, and I will live each day focused on what I cannot do rather than on what I can. The longer I wear this monitor, the more clear it becomes to me that I cannot abide the speed limit of 95 beats per minute.
Edited to add: My friend Wilhelmina Jenkins posted a comment on Facebook that I’ve posted with her permission below, but one sentence really captures how I feel: “How long can you stare at the cookies in the window without feeling that you are starving to death?”