“You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
-Norm Kelly

Whatever lessons we’ve learned about self-care, community care, and compassion fatigue have been amplified by the 2020 global pandemic. The stress and anxiety, the loneliness, the mental effort it takes to process, and the unknown finish line have been brought to the surface for not just chronic illness patients, but most everyone in the land.

I’ve been in a comfortable place with my own IBD for some time now, and I’ve stated repeatedly that when you’re in remission, it’s your opportunity (if not obligation) to give back to those who are where you once were. After all, when I was disastrously sick, navigating a new diagnosis, and learning to live a life incurable, I took what I needed, and I found it from those who were so able to give, even when I had nothing to return at the time.

Now that we’re collectively experiencing a similar-but-also-way-different health crisis, I’ve found myself on both sides of this struggle once again – lonely, anxious, numb, and needing the support of others, without the energy to ask for it – alternatingly grateful, relatively safe, and energized by my own adaptability – with a cup that’s full. A cup that has the capacity to share with others. A cup that’s maybe never been more critical in recent history.

The expression “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.” was originally said by Norm Kelly, although I’ve seen it make its rounds, unattributed, across social media. It means simply that if we give too much of ourselves, then we’re in a bad place personally, and we don’t have capacity to support others – and nobody wins. But it also means that when we do have a little bit in our cups, it’s an important time to share it with others. Especially with chronic illness. Especially with chronic illness in the time of COVID-19.

Okay, it’s not a literal cup – but if your guts can handle the caffeine and coffee, it can sure add some happiness.

How Full Is Your Cup?

You can easily tell when your cup is full – it’s when you have energy, when you’re in a productive state, when you’re feeling safe and connected with your community (even if it’s just virtual).

In normal times, this might be more of your baseline, but for many of us, it’s part of our typical up-and-down cycle. Because of *gestures wildly at current circumstances* these “full” times are often fewer and farther between, and we are finding ourselves in desperate need of a refill.

We cannot acknowledge enough that when you’re living with a chronic illness, in a global pandemic, that feeling generally empty, or feeling like you’re stuck in a vicious cycle is a common experience. You’re not failing. It’s also very normal to seek out professional mental help support during these times – so if you’re thinking you might need that – do it. Go after it.

When You’re Feeling Empty

Thanks to 2020, I’ve been particularly paying attention to what makes me feel a little more full or empty. Of course, everyone is different, but for me it’s things like feeling disconnected from friends, and even missing out on casual human interactions, like at the grocery store or the dog park.

But I’ve also identified some less obvious culprits.

Making a cup of coffee is just right, but making breakfast seems exhausting. From thinking about what I want to eat, through knowing I made some extra dirty dishes.¬†Keeping up with household tasks is getting harder. I don’t mind doing laundry or dishes – but I struggle with the management side of it all. Did I remember to do it today? Do I need to find some extra time?

Tasks like scheduling meetings or events, responding to text messages, and reaching out to keep up with friends who I also know are in similar outlooks as me – some days, it’s just too damn much.

I mean seriously, who can relate to the emotional difficulty that is putting on actual pants in 2020?

Two things that have really been beneficial are 1. to simply better recognize these empty triggers or burdens and 2. to be okay with asking for help, appreciating it when it’s given, and understanding when others are just as empty as me at the time. We’re all doing our best.

Here are some Empty tips:

  • Pay attention to what drains your energy. Just recognizing these is incredibly helpful and can help you feel a bit more in control of your life. Keep in mind that these might be small or even illogical things, and that’s okay.
  • Prepare some simple responses to common things. Responding to communication can feel extra hard. Getting some pre-written lines together takes a whole step out of the process, so you don’t have to think about and formulate a response. Things like “I’m feeling down right now, I will put this on my list for next week” or “Just wanted to acknowledge that I received this” are little enough to keep the conversation going with minimal effort.
    And remember, you’re never obligated to give a reason. “I can’t right now” is sufficient.
  • Ask for support. Confession, I am the worst at this. And I know many with chronic illness can relate. But I’m getting better and it’s hugely beneficial. After all, it’s totally understandable to struggle in a journey with IBD, and it’s also totally understandable to struggle amidst these times. It’s honestly a good time to ‘practice’ letting people know you’re feeling empty and that you could use support, and being receptive to it, without feeling burdensome.
  • Learn what support looks like to you. Speaking of which, friends have indeed shown up for me, and asked what they can do for me. I’ve quickly learned what means the most from others, and how to ask for it. For me, it’s checking in regularly and not always expecting a response. Locally, it’s sitting on opposite ends of the backyard and chatting over a few glasses of wine. It’s being reminded that I still matter in all of this.
  • Be with your emotions. On paper, I’m in in a relatively great place. I’m employed, I have health insurance, my partner can cook really well. I’m not homeschooling anything. I have a really cute dog. But I’m still angry/sad/overwhelmed/frustrated/numb a lot of the time. It took me a bit to come to terms with that. I can be grateful for my place right now, but still reeling from the mental effects. I can be empathetic to those who have a more challenging, complex situation, without downplaying my own. Does this sound familiar to you? Just know that it’s perfectly okay to have all of these feelings at the same time. It’s even okay to give others permission to do the same. Stifling our negative feelings doesn’t change the fullness of our cup, or that of others.
  • Get professional mental health support if you think you might benefit.
    *Looks around* Are we past the stigma of mental health support yet? Yes? Okay great.
    Mental health has always been important, especially for IBD patients, but it’s worth going after. I just want to acknowledge that I know how hard it is – recognizing that you might need it, finding a provider, dealing with insurance, setting up an appointment, opening your heart – but all of those are just stepping stones to long term improvement. Go after it, friend. I know it’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

When Your Cup Is Full

The ups-and-downs of life have been magnified this year, to say the least. Often, when people ask me how I’m doing and I respond with just that – I typically get a nod of understanding. We’re all having good days or weeks, and bad days or weeks.

When my cup is full, I feel as close to normal as I can these days. I’m motivated and productive in my job, I’m more social, and I’m more proactive at all the things. All of them.

After nearly 6 months of our worlds being turned upside down, I’ve also come to realize that being full isn’t permanent. Again, I’m working on identifying my ‘full’ triggers, what I can do to capitalize on it, and how I can prepare myself for the ’empty’. I also make a point to reach out to people who are currently empty, and see what I can do to help fill them back up.

Here are some Full tips:

  • Fill someone else’s cup. We’re living in a time of great empathy. I often think about what I needed or received when I’m down, and give that back to others in a way that matters to them. Sometimes, it’s a little something sent to them from Prime, or a text message to check in. It might be a joke, a dog picture, or something more serious. It might spark an interaction, or it might just be a note to let them know I’m thinking of them and they matter.
  • Help others manage their past energy barriers. I’ve learned to recognize others’ barriers, often similar to my own.¬† I’ll text with clear language that I’m not expecting a response – “Letting you know I’m thinking of you” is often better than “What have you been up to?” – it’s eliminating the effort of response – a big little thing in a time of high stress. You can even call out “Don’t worry about responding”.
    I know the back-and-forth of scheduling a video chat can take that extra effort, so I’ll send a calendar invite with ‘change if it doesn’t work for you’. This takes away some of the emotional energy of considering schedules, making decisions, and setting up a call. Now, all they have to do is click to join.
  • Set reminders. This a small but favorite life hack – I occasionally set calendar reminders to check in with people that I know need it a little extra. Despite my very best intentions and very high adoration for these people, I know that forgetfulness, and emotional fatigue distract me from reminding people that I still care.
    Things like new diagnoses, flares and surgeries, and mental health challenges don’t pause for a pandemic. I’ve got a reminder in my phone every other week to ask a friend how she’s dealing with her new diagnosis, and one to check in with another who I know is feeling extra anxiety and loneliness. It takes the remembering off my plate, and sets me up to show up for my friends better. And let’s face it – with IBD, we’ve all been on the other side of feeling forgotten and lost amidst illness, and it frankly, is the worst.
  • Set yourself up to do better when you’re empty again. I think about the hardest things to do when I’m empty, and set myself up to do them better. I schedule appointments, chat with friends, go through bills and things. I might find a new recipe or two, during a time when I enjoy browsing. When I’m more empty, I’ll just have to follow directions, not make decisions. I might even work ahead on some bigger work or creative projects, knowing I have momentum now, and I can have an easier week when I’m feeling low.
  • Work on good habits. It’s really hard to make big life changes when you feel like you’re barely hanging on. These fuller times are good opportunities for little things, like reading before bed instead of watching NCIS reruns. I’m not running any 5ks, but I can put on shoes and walk the dog – just to the corner and back. It doesn’t have to be a huge life change, but take that momentum and chip away at little things. Most importantly, take note if you felt a tiny bit better afterwards. Put that in your back pocket and remind yourself next time.

When You’ve Got A Few Drops Left

Inevitably, the ups and downs will happen, and like everything else – it’s not all or nothing. There are some times where I’m sliding, and I know I’ve got just a few drops left before I feel like I’ll have nothing to give others for a bit.

But these few drops can still mean something, and at this time, they might mean a lot. There are some people in my life that I really relate to their struggles, or I know that a check-in text is exactly what they need. I’ll spend those few last drops reaching out, doing what I can, staying on just this side of not breaking, and knowing that a few more drops in someone else’s cup might be just what I need from them down the line.