The Turtle Of Overexertion – A Chronic Illness Metaphor

pippa sat outdoors wearing coat and scarf, harbour visible in background

As you may know, I’m a chronically fatigued human being. I was lucky enough to acquire a debilitating long-term illness as a teenager, and the time following my diagnosis was a real struggle. However, even with all the pain and suffering I still have today, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My health has slowly and gradually improved over the last few years, and my quality of life today is a million miles away from what it once was.

Through careful adjustments, I now manage to work part-time, from home; something that I’ve built up slowly, in line with the improvements in my physical health. And although there are so many invisible challenges and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain, the transformative effect it’s had on my illness experience is clear to see.

The problem, however, is that as my capabilities have expanded, so have my ambitions. And when, after so many years of waiting, you finally have your goals somewhat within your reach, it can be extraordinarily difficult to pace yourself and keep within your means… particularly when you’re dealing with a fluctuating illness.

My best friend Izzy and I were having a good old natter about all of this one day; the conversation had been provoked by me as usual saying ‘yes’ to yet another commitment and taking on more than I could realistically handle, then ending up confined to bed in a frazzled state of overwhelm as a result. If you’re a chronically ill person reading this, I’m sure you’ll know this particular feeling well… that sinking feeling of dread as you realise you’re somewhat out of your depth and have no choice but to try and keep afloat whilst minimising the consequences.

Now, one thing you should know about Izzy is that she’s seen more of my unfiltered illness journey than anybody else in my life. Another thing you should know is that she’s prone to coming out with pure metaphorical wisdom at the most unexpected moments.

“Pippa,” she said, on this particular day, munching on her cereal bar, “you’ll end up like a Turtle of Overexertion.”

I waited. The gal was going somewhere with this.

“It’s like you’re walking along through life wearing an empty backpack, and every time you pick up a new commitment, you add it to that bag. And since you’re able to keep on walking forward and you can’t yet feel the weight of it, you decide to pick up ‘just one more thing’ and pop it in there too. But if you keep on adding one thing after another the way you have been, without taking anything out, there may well come a day where the backpack suddenly gets too heavy. And then it’ll tip you backwards, you’ll fall, and find you can’t get up again. And there you’ll be. Splat on a floor like the Turtle of Overexertion.”

And after a few minutes of hearty laughter at that glorious mental image that she’d painted, it dawned on me that as always, she was right on the money.

I reckon each of us have our own backpacks in life, and our own desires of how to fill them; reflective of our different commitments and priorities. We all begin with a baseline weight that we’re carrying on our backs, and then as we set off walking through day-to-day life, we slowly begin to pick up more and more along the way.

And thanks to the world we live in, I personally think that no matter how full our backpacks already are, we’re conditioned to think they could and should be even fuller. It can be very easy to look at others and think that they’re carrying much heavier loads than ourselves. This in turn can lead us all to pick up more than we can handle, attempting to emulate this problematic idea of success that we’ve internalised; the idea that overexertion is something we should be striving towards.

These days, we’re often expected to be all of the things, all of the time, regardless of the toll it takes on our own wellbeing. In working age people in particular, it can sometimes even seem like a competition over who’s dealing with the most, whose backpack is the heaviest to bear. As a result of these beliefs, our own loads quickly begin to double in weight, becoming even more cumbersome to carry. And even when that’s the case, many of us are still trying to cram even more stuff into the space we have left. No matter how heavy our backpacks become as the inevitable challenges of life arise, if we want to keep up, it can seem as though we have no choice but to keep on walking forwards.

When my health first began to improve, simply metaphorically wearing an empty backpack was enough for me; there was a point where even the material of it against my skin would have been too much to bear. But it wasn’t long before I tentatively began to pick up my first items and pop them on my back: first my charity fundraising, and then my blog, which at the time was just a little hobby to explore my love of writing. These things caused the weight of my backpack to change for the first time, but only very slightly. As long as I was careful, metaphorically walking with this weight on my back was still no real issue. These two things became a core part of my life, and my backpack. They haven’t budged since, and I doubt they ever will.

When opportunity knocked, however, it took a slightly more considered decision to add the weight of an internship, my first ‘proper’ job since becoming ill, to my backpack. This one significantly increased the weight I was carrying, and for the first time, I felt my knees buckle. However, the extra load did get easier to bear with time, even when that internship evolved into a permanent role.

So, around now you would think that my backpack was plenty full enough. It might not have been as full-to-the-brim as a non-chronically ill person’s would have been, but I was carrying more than I ever thought I’d be able to, and I was still managing to take steps forward, keeping the overexertion to a minimum. That should have been more than enough.

However, we’re still living in a time where disabled people’s value is seemingly grounded on how well we emulate the actions of the non-disabled public around us; how well we integrate into a world that simply wasn’t designed for us. And with overexertion becoming dangerously trendy in this day and age, it implies that for chronically ill people to be successful in this world, we should be carrying loads heavier than those we can safely manage. We believe we should be making increasingly bigger strides forward… no matter how much our muscles cramp up in complaint.

However, I can’t blame only the world around me for adding one weight more than I could safely manage to my own backpack. Because when something you’ve always wanted is within reach, who isn’t going to seize it with both hands? My blog gained traction, and the writing opportunities began to materialise. Each individual engagement only added a small weight to my load at a time, but when they began cumulating, once again my knees began to buckle, and the load began to pull me backwards.

I began to feel completely consumed by all that I’d taken upon myself, and somewhat unfathomably, could never shake the feeling that it still wasn’t enough. It was as though the more I proved myself and began to achieve, the higher my expectations rose and the more critical of myself I became. And when this began to infringe on my condition management, such as being too anxious to fall asleep more often than not, I knew it was time to re-evaluate what the heck I was doing.

So, when any of us reach this point, I suppose the obvious solution would be to just take something out of the backpack, making it easier and less cumbersome to carry… right? But when you’ve worked so hard and waited so patiently to fill your backpack with the things you love and which give you purpose, it’s much easier said than done to let something go intentionally. Often, the time we should be spending thinking how to lighten the load we’re carrying is actually spent thinking how we can cram even more things into that increasingly confined space. And even I can see that that’s a problem.

I don’t mind telling you that my backpack has been full to the brim recently, and I’ve been struggling to bear the weight of it. I’ve been working way beyond my means, feeling the threat of burnout, and frequently struggling with feelings of overwhelm. And I know first-hand that even when we’re all working at our absolute capacity, it can still feel as though we’re not enough.

However, if one day the weight of the backpack were to win, and you were to end up stuck on the floor and unable to jump back onto your feet, would you live to resent the decisions you made? The consequences of chronic overexertion are not to be messed with, and if we’re not careful, there could well be a situation where even an empty backpack touching your own body would be too much to bear.

Sometimes, it takes the threat of a situation like this to approach things more mindfully. So, instead of constantly trying to increase our capacity, perhaps we should focus on prioritising what makes it into our backpack, and learning to walk straight past other things instead. As for what’s already part of your current load, perhaps we can learn how to compress these things down, making them a slightly less hefty weight to carry. Maybe a big part of the entire process is simply recognising that regardless of those around you, your best is plenty good enough.

I suppose my take-home point is that we all have different capabilities, and different circumstances, and this isn’t always reflected in the different loads we’re carrying. We shouldn’t be adhering to this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to productivity. Really, I reckon we should be focussing on our individual situations and ensuring we’re keeping ourselves safe and healthy, rather than putting pressure on ourselves and striving for overexertion to try and be what society deems as ‘enough’.

As for me, I’m slowly learning how to streamline what I want from life and how all the different components of my backpack could combine to work together; without the need for constantly taking on additional loads. I still have a long way to go, but I’m getting there. It’s all about the baby steps.

So, I have a very specific goal for the New Year, and it’s this: remembering that it’s not cheating to take time out. Our backpacks don’t have to be surgically attached to us 24/7: we can pop them down and walk away for a short-while, and we can even temporarily take things out of them, should we need to. Easier said than done, I know, but the option is there. And for goodness’ sake, may this be the year that we all learn that resting up and taking care of ourselves is an equally significant part of the process.

Messing with your health is a risky game, and take it from me, the consequences just aren’t worth it. And if that realisation is the alternative to ending up splat on the floor, like the Turtle of Overexertion that my best friend conjured up so vividly, then personally, I think the time has come to act upon it.

I’m going to do my best not to compromise on any of my ambitions for the future, but by this time next year, I hope I’ll be achieving a better balance and taking care of myself in the process as well. And I reckon that’s a goal that everybody carrying their own loads in this day and age could benefit from keeping in mind too.

So here’s to a new beginning and championing not only our achievements, but the efforts we make to look after ourselves as well. Whatever weight you’re carrying in your backpack, I hope you know that you’re absolutely doing enough. You are enough.

18 Responses

  1. I absolutely loved this post, it sums up perfectly what Chronic illness is and i can DEFINITELY relate. Thank you for WRITING this Pippa xxx

  2. hi Pippa
    this is so beautifully written!

    thank you so much for this post xx!

    chears to a happy, healthy and amazing year ahead!

  3. Even at my age, newly retired due to Fibro, I have so many ambitions and interests. It’s so hard saying no and resting. Izzy is a wise one. Boy do I love this metaphor. It’s so true. Just one more thing. Not a big deal. Boom, flat on my back, unable to roll over and get back to my feet!

  4. Having been newly diagnosed with AS I struggle constantly to balance my wants, needs and taking time out to rest. I’ve always been on the go so this is hard. Tha k you for sharing your story as I will remember the turtle of Overexertion!!!

  5. This is absolutely amazing, it completely explainS how the struggles of life especially extErnal pressUres and expectations which aren’t immediately visible have an effect on the chronic fatigue life.
    Thank you

  6. As a mother of a 20 year old daughter recently diagnosed with P.O.T.S, C.F.S and Fibromyalgia, your words so eloquently explain the struggle my daughter is facing everyday in trying to get through her final year at University, not wanting to give up, but at times, finds it all so over-whelming.

    Hopefully, with family support, our loved ones that are struggling can achieve their goals and live a fulfilling life. Hang in there, lean on your families whenever you can to preserve that valuable energy.

    The nursery rhyme “The Tortoise and the Hare” springs to mind – just because you have to take things more slowly and use your time more wisely, need not mean you can’t achieve your dreams.

  7. The turtle of over exertion really made me smile. Its exactly how I feel. Thank you for that mental image and for all the positive words you give about being enough. We all need to remember that and say it as our mantras.

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