Wednesday Post 4: Becalmed

We're unified beings, physical and spiritual and we have to take care of both.

Alert readers may have noticed it’s been a month or so since the last post. (Golly! I just checked; it was May 11! It’s been over six weeks! OK, now I’m embarrassed. No wonder people were worried.)

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Before I go any further, I’d like to offer a sincere thank you to everyone who so kindly donated at the end of my last post, the embarrassingly-long-time-ago “Three Hardest Words” post. (Which makes my immediate disappearance feel doubly churlish.) I was able after that to alleviate a bunch of difficulties, and get going on some other things, that we can talk about later. I’d also like to give a shout out to the people who signed up for this blog during this little hiatus, obviously more hopeful than I was of more to come. So, good thing there… Welcome all new people.


Becalmed:

A sailing ship is becalmed when in the absence of wind, it sits motionless on the surface of the sea.

First found: 1550, to becalm, to deprive a ship of wind.

“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean” C.S. Forester (1899-1966)

Things have been sliding for a long time, I now realise

Now why did I “go silent” in the last month since then? (And thanks also to the kind folk who have sent me PMs asking if I’m still alive and kicking.) I guess the shortest answer is that I was not very healthy, physically, but that I didn’t know it. I told the people who asked that I was “at a low ebb” but was working on coming back to life. I described it as being “mentally becalmed,” like a sailing vessel just bobbing motionless in the middle of the sea, waiting for the wind to change.

I know quite a lot of people, including a lot of readers here, live alone and find it difficult - especially in the Covid situation - to maintain good health practices and self-care. And I thought I’d switch gears a bit from our previous thread of conversation to relate something of a cautionary tale about how easy it can be - especially if you’re on your own most of the time with no one outside your brain to notice things - to incrementally slide into a precarious and possibly even dangerous situation, without even noticing.

As I’ve been relating, since moving into this little place after the 2016 earthquake, I’ve been having a growing feeling of “languishing,” of immobility, lack of caring, lack of hope. Questions from friends, like, “Have you been eating?” got tersely brushed off with, “Yes, of course.” But I knew I wasn’t looking after myself sufficiently, even if I wasn’t prepared to admit it out loud. And by “eating” what I often meant was, I made some mushroom risotto yesterday and had three spoonfuls of leftovers this morning while I was waiting for the coffee to do.

But in the last weeks I found I couldn’t write. And that was more than frustrating. I began to wonder and maybe fear that I’d just lost my writing mojo - which seemed unlikely for something I’d been doing since I was six. I couldn’t sustain concentration on anything - not even TV shows - for more than 20 minutes. Reading books or articles was getting close to impossible. I found it often very difficult physically to focus my eyes on a screen or page. And sleep became like something that would suddenly pounce on me.

But things came to a head last week when I started feeling lightheaded, swirly and out of breath just standing at the kitchen sink to wash dishes, and I found I had to lower my arm three times because I lacked the strength to brush my teeth.

You’re not just a disembodied soul, carried around in a meat-suitcase.

We were talking before about Acedia, what it is and how it affects modern non-monkish people. That feeling of not really having the juice, the whammy, to get things done, to organise your life or even figure out why you should, the odd feeling of moral or mental paralysis that makes the question, “Why bother?” almost impossible to answer. And I’m still reading some of the material I compiled on it, and we’ll certainly get back to that.

But, as any good Oblate Master or Novice Master knows, there is always a physical aspect to all our mental and spiritual issues, whatever they are. The modern world, created by Modern philosophy, thanks to that charlatan Descartes, believes in the “mind/body split” theory in which our physical selves and our mental, emotional and spiritual selves are radically separate. We are told we are just “1brains in vats” and our bodies are just the vats we happen to be using right now. Our physical aspects are more or less irrelevancies that can be altered, traded, bought, sold or surgically mutilated at will: the body is just a thing and the real person is only the incorporeal part2.

But this is totally untrue. We are integrated beings, our selves are perfectly fused-together elements of body and soul. Your body isn’t just a valueless meat-suitcase for carrying around your soul. You are your body as much as you are your soul3. This is why St. Benedict insists on *manual* labour for monks. It’s not just so the work that needs doing gets done; it’s to help a monk keep himself in balance. You need to “get out of your head” and the best way to do that is to swing a hammer, drive a tractor, dig over the compost, feed sheep, milk cows, harvest the wheat… do some work that doesn’t involve your thinky-machine. And it’s why he would certainly have deplored our internet-all-day habits, if for no other reason than the mental and emotional exhaustion and overload it generates.

As the ancient spiritual writers all knew (and doctors and scientists are finally starting to figure out) the two “sides” of our being are interactive and interdependent; the physical faculties affect the spiritual faculties, and the key to complete health, including moral health, is to keep all those things in good balance.

In a nutshell, if there’s something wrong with your spiritual life, check your diet first, the way a doctor would do tests to “rule out,” eliminate variables in a diagnostic equasion. If you feel bad, ask yourself, “What actual things have I eaten in the last 48 hours?” If it’s mostly coffee, rice and popcorn, you will have some useful data.

The obligation of self-care: analysing the downward spiral

So, because I’m dumb, I forgot this important rule, or somehow thought it didn’t apply to me, and that the real problem was that I was just lazy and no good. I couldn’t get my act together because of bad character - basta. Surprisingly, this thought made me feel worse, and I responded by diving deeper into inertia and immobility, and self-punishment, allowing my feeling of hopelessness to become the overriding principle of each day; “What’s the point?” grew into a dark mental fog I couldn’t see out of4.

And though it seemed like I was making a sternly upright moral judgement - one any Calvinist or Jansenist could get behind - it was actually a violation of a moral obligation, that of adequate self care. There’s this thing: the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder”. And you, yourself, being a human, are in that group we are not to deliberately harm - even unconsciously. In a way, you are to yourself in a relationship something like a jailor to a prisoner; a person completely dependent for sheer survival on whether you feed him or not. So maybe it’s better to think of it as the relationship of a nurse to a helpless patient. One of Jordan Peterson’s most useful pieces of advice: Treat yourself like someone you have to care for and help.

For me, because of certain pre-existing physical things, the downward spiral is especially easy to fall into. Since the chemo/surgery process ten years ago, I have been alert to the fact that my metabolism has slowed to a crawl, and there’s not much to be done to speed it up again. Alarmed by learning that the “usual” weight gain is up to 60-100 pounds after those procedures, I’ve got into the habit of more or less having only one meal a day. I told myself I was “fasting” and that made it feel “spiritual5”.

But here’s the catch: turns out you actually need nutrients to function.

Who knew?

And it can turn very easily into a spiral precisely because there is no such thing as the Cartesian mind/body split. Your spiritual life, your mood, your mental faculties, are all pretty closely tied to your physical wellbeing. In particular the nutrients your body is using to keep working.

My feeling of Acedic not-caring led to me neglecting self-care - failing to buy, cook and eat nutrient dense food - and that in turn does all the things to health that just not be taking in enough nutrients - specifically in my case iron and the various things you need to metabolise iron - does.

And it crept up so slowly I didn’t notice that I was in a self-maintaining downward spiral:

  • - I feel kind of low. I don’t feel motivated. I’m very tired, and it’s all the time no matter how long I sleep. It must be because I’m just older now, and chemo. What a drag. I guess more of this is what I have to look forward to.

  • - I can’t see a happy future ahead so I can’t get enthused about anything. It all makes me feel anxious, and feeling anxious makes me feel barfy, so I don’t really feel like eating anything.

  • - There’s no food in the house. I know! I’ll procrastinate! Because that ALways works out! Especially with cumulative health-things! I’ll just have a risotto tonight, and maybe I’ll go to the shops tomorrow. It’s too hot to go out now. And anyway, there’s always popcorn. Oh hey, look! There’s some ice cream in the bottom of the freezer! I bet a bunch of sugar will help!

  • - I feel inexplicably worse now. When I woke up this morning I felt really terrible, like someone had turned up the gravity. I could hardly drag myself out of bed and into the kitchen. I’ll just have a coffee to get me going.

  • - Huh… that’s funny… caffeine seems to have killed my appetite. Same as it does every day, making me not feel like eating until 4 or 5 pm, and by that time I am too tired and lethargic and zoned out to cook anything. I wonder why I keep crashing straight into an invisible brick wall every day at that time. Inexplicable.

  • - I feel weirdly detached, as though I’m not entirely in my own head, like I’m just dreaming all this.

  • - Well, that’s annoying! I can’t seem to concentrate on anything or organise my thoughts. In fact, it’s often difficult to focus both eyes on the screen or book at the same time. I have to close one of them to read. And for some reason I can’t seem to decide what to do first when looking forward to and organising the day. And, this is odd, I can’t get my thoughts to calm down and stop careening around to order themselves coherently for writing. In fact, I can’t seem to even sort out what I’m trying to say. Good grief! Have I lost my skill at writing?! How could that possibly happen?

  • - Well, anyway, it doesn’t matter. Nothing really matters. I mean, what’s the point of anything? Other people are better writers than me anyway. Oh hey, is that YouTube?

(… Fast-forward to last weekend…)

  • - Well, that’s weird. When I just walk around the house my legs feel like I’ve been exercising a lot and can hardly hold me up, and cycling to the village is way way harder, like I’m pushing against a strong wind or going up hill or something.

  • - And now I brown out when I stand up, and when I stand next to the sink doing the dishes I get out of breath and light headed. And when I was brushing my teeth last night I had to stop and rest my arm three times. And it was horribly difficult to just stand there watering the garden last night. It really wore me out.

  • - I can’t seem to stay awake through the day. I hate napping, but I’m literally sitting here with my head falling forward half asleep. I’ll have to crawl off and nap.

  • - I must be a weak person. No wonder I never accomplished anything in life…

OK, Eeyore.

A stunningly quick fix

You’re probably smiling at all this because it’s so obvious. I know. But it’s hard to see fog when you’re in it.

How did I figure it out? I’m a woman; I asked a pal, of course. The same pal I’ve been complaining to for months about feeling bad about things, slow, no energy, despondent, frustrated, muddled, disorganised, unmotivated…

I remembered the packet of ferrous gluconate tablets in the kitchen cabinet - you drop them in a glass of water and it turns into fizzy iron-supplement-Tang. I took one full dose before bed that night and woke up the next morning feeling like a zombie who had suddenly been cured.

I can’t describe the difference, except that I felt fully awake for the first time in at least six months. The feeling of the gravity being turned up too high, of being weighed down and immobile, half-asleep, unable to see or think straight… all vanished like a bad dream.

Did the same thing that night, and the next morning I woke up at five to the birds singing, bounced out of bed in the glorious misty morning coolth, sang the Office of Laudes, sat down and started - and nearly finished in one day - a painting commission that I’d been despairing of only the day before. Suddenly the enormous fight, the slog through molasses, to do anything has evaporated, and even in the hottest part of the day I’m wide awake.

And not only was the dull confusion, scattered thoughts and lethargy abruptly gone, the mood alteration felt miraculous. Suddenly I’m a cheery, smiling, tune-whistling version of myself I’d almost forgotten about. I was abruptly interested once again in all the things that the day before I’d merely felt dully hopeless about, including this substack blog, painting, gardening, art history research, hope for the future … the whole package.

It’s going to sound ridiculous that I didn’t think of anaemia or any of the other poor-diet related psycho-somatic issues. I had actually managed to forget in all that dark confusing fog that if you don’t eat, you feel bad. And if you keep not eating because you feel bad, you lose your appetite and feel worse, and get into the nosedive.

Some pretty obvious iron-deficiency related facts I should probably have known:

Those with iron deficiency or anemia can experience a host of psychological symptoms, including anxiety, irritability, depression, and a decrease in cognitive abilities (including poor concentration).In fact, it is reported that those with anaemia are four to five times more likely to perform worse on executive function tests that measure the ability to strategize, solve problems, and assess danger.

And:

When you have low levels of iron, less oxygen gets to your cells, keeping them from functioning properly and often leading to fatigue, weakness, and even anxiety and depression. Eventually, the lack of oxygen in your cells caused by this failure to produce enough haemoglobin can lead to anaemia, a condition that can cause excessive fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, and more. But beyond physical symptoms, there may also be an association between low iron and anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. A large 2020 study in BMC Psychiatry found that people with iron deficiency anaemia had a significantly higher incidence and risk of anxiety disorders, depression, sleep disorder, and psychotic disorders. 

And now I’m wondering how long this has been going on

My whole life I’ve had low haemoglobin counts. I’ve been either anaemic or prone to anaemia for forever; my teachers were always telling me I looked “pale” and asking if I was alright. So much was it my normal state that I had more or less forgotten about it. But I’m now remembering that all the way back into my teens and even childhood, doctors had been diagnosing various conditions and degrees of depression and anxiety - “dysthymia” which is what they used to call persistent low-grade depressive disorder - and I don’t think I ever remember anyone asking about haemoglobin or iron or diet or any of that.

And then along came chemo. Ten years ago I had what the docs called “Neo-adjuvant” chemotherapy, which is a short but horrifyingly sharp three cycles of intravenous chemotherapy prior to surgery. It significantly reduces the chance of recurrence - which is good because recurrence = death about 97% of the time. I don’t really want to recall it too much, but it helped to look up, “Paclitaxel, ifosfamide and cisplatin (TIP)” to remind myself what the long-term/permanent side effects might be, including “brain fog”.

Also, anaemia. At one point, a couple of months after the third and last cycle, we learned that the drugs had been merrily eating my bone marrow, and I was not producing enough red blood cells to keep things working. I was supposed to be recovering, but instead felt worse than ever, and was back to needing the wheelchair. After waiting for things to get better, I finally went to the doctor who was shocked at my appearance. He said I looked like a zombie - not pale, but “grey”. He treated the acute anaemia and warned me that it might end up being one of those forever side effects I’d have to keep an eye out for.

The New Chemo Normal includes a completely … let’s say … reconfigured endocrine system - where my body can no longer effectively regulate temperature, turns food into energy ridiculously slowly and stores a lot of glucose; peripheral neuropathy that, esp. if I’m tired, makes things like typing and walking - anything where my feet or hands strike a hard surface - quite difficult. Oh, and I get tired; suddenly and fiercely. Just toodling along having a perfectly normal day and BAM! lie down right now or you’ll get lied-down. And these things aren’t curable or, so I believed, really effectively treatable. And it’s permanent.

Neural damage from chemo takes years to heal, and normally only gets to a certain point. It won’t get any worse, but this is as good as it gets. All together it means I have limits; and they are pretty unforgiving.

But in the last few years, probably since the earthquake took the stuffing out of me, I think I’ve been allowing things to slide. Being alone nearly all the time means you can’t really notice larger trends in your own mindset and behaviour. But this sudden and incredibly dramatic change is making me wonder if all the things I had just taken as part of an inevitable decline are actually due to some easily-adjustable maintenance issues. You can be sure I’ll be carrying on with the ferrous gluconate every day, at least!

I have spent ten years figuring out how to adjust to my post-chemo New Normal, assuming that I need to just resign myself to not being able to do very much, and I have consequently been giving up many of the things I’d dreamed of and hoped for before. And it has made it difficult to get enthusiastic about some of the new things I’ve been aiming at - iconography for one, and an increased depth and intensity of prayer life for another.

And now I’m wondering rather abruptly how much of that feeling of hopeless resignation was simply due to nutrient deficiencies that have been unaddressed since the end of chemo.

1

Sci-fi absolutely LOVes this trope; witness the standard adventure in which Our Heroes have their minds “downloaded” into computers or androids, or switch minds/personalities with someone else, or are reduced to a little cube of grey chemicals that can be “reconstituted” at the press of a button. Captain Kirk reglarly encounters “beings of pure energy” who inexplicably want to take over the bodies of whatever space-faring adventurer happens along. Fully half of all Star Trek is about this. In fact, I think the Transporter was probably the most obvious example - where you are reduced to your component atoms or digitised or something, beamed down to the planet and re-enfleshed with no harm done. According to this theory our cosmic destiny is to altogether throw off the burdens of fleshly existence and “ascend” to a “higher plane of existence” in which we can do all sorts of fancy sparkly magic tricks. It’s kind of the pseudo-religion of the Sci-Fi universe, and can be found everywhere from the classics of the Golden Age writers like Clarke and Azimov and Bradbury all the way to the swashbuckling hilarity of Stargate SG1. And it’s rubbish. Pure Cartesian, 18th century materialist nonsense.

2

It takes no time at all to go from Cartesian scepticism to a certain socio-political, ideological trend that is just now getting very vocal on social media and in government.

3

The fact that the Creed includes the specific reference to “the resurrection of the body” tells me that the ancient Church Fathers knew all about the dangers of dualism.

4

One very important point to remember about Acedia is that in the ancient literature it is especially a spiritual illness of solitary monks, hermits, anchorites and other people who are trying to live a holy life alone. I think there’s a lot to be said in a later post about why Acedia has become such a pervasive phenomenon at a time when more people than ever before, perhaps in all of human history, are unmarried and live alone, work from home, have no siblings and don’t live anywhere near whatever family they do still have. You can fall into bad habits of thought and action much more easily if you spend all your time by yourself. It’s why Pachomius invented the cenobitic life.

5

The Orthodox still maintain very strict fasting rules, but also understand that any ascetic practice undertaken without the permission or blessing of a spiritual guide or father, a religious superior, is not going to work the way you want. In brief, if you take something like fasting on by yourself, outside the normal ascetic requirements of the liturgical year, you are feeding only your own vainglory, and not your soul.