Chang­ing your neg­a­tive thoughts

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - SHUTTERBUG - For more in­for­ma­tion, email Claire at claire.jack­[email protected]­ti­va­

One day Claire Jack­son (40) re­alised that if she didn’t take con­trol of her health prob­lems, she would be the ul­ti­mate loser. So she took stock, did what she needed to do, and to­day, she is see­ing real progress.

Claire grew up in a Pres­by­te­rian fam­ily in Dun­gan­non, Co Tyrone. Af­ter school, she did busi­ness and mar­ket­ing stud­ies in the UK. In her third year at col­lege, her fa­ther died, so she took time off to be with her griev­ing mother. Claire then went back and fin­ished her de­gree, and af­ter that she moved to Belfast, where she got a job and bought a house. Soon af­ter, she was in­tro­duced to a young man from Dublin called Michael Jack­son. Claire was soon smit­ten. “He was the fun­ni­est man I’d ever met,” she says fondly. In 2002, they mar­ried and set­tled in Dublin; they have two chil­dren. “I don’t think my mother ever for­gave me for mov­ing to the South,” ad­mits Claire, “but she loved Mike.”

In 2003, her idyl­lic life was chal­lenged when she was in­volved in a car ac­ci­dent in Stil­lor­gan. And though Claire walked away un­aided, about a month later she be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence se­vere pain in her shoul­ders. Her GP re­ferred her to a rheuma­tol­o­gist, who was un­able to make a con­clu­sive di­ag­no­sis. Mean­while, the symp­toms in­creased. “Over the next few months, I be­gan to get mus­cle pain, and flu-like symp­toms through­out my body,” says Claire. She un­der­went many scans and blood tests, all to no avail. “They med­i­cated me for the pain; none of which did any­thing, ex­cept to zonk me out,” she re­mem­bers, while adding, “Mike re­mained very sup­port­ive and took me to all my ap­point­ments.”

Over time, Claire con­tin­ued to get worse. Her mem­ory be­came af­fected and, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, she be­gan to drop things. There ap­peared to be no tan­gi­ble rea­son for her prob­lems, and of course, no cure was likely with­out a di­ag­no­sis. So she be­came even more de­spon­dent. In 2004, she had to stop work­ing full-time. How­ever, over the years, she has man­aged to work part-time on a rea­son­ably steady ba­sis. The chil­dren are now eight and three years of age. “The preg­nan­cies were just dread­ful,” ad­mits Claire. “I was bent over like an old woman. I had mas­sive amounts of help in the house, and sev­eral au pairs over the years, to help with the chil­dren. But I still feel ter­ri­ble guilt that I ne­glected them.”

Claire be­came so ex­hausted she be­gan to ne­glect her own ap­pear­ance as well. “I’d al­ways taken great pride in how I looked,” she says, “but at times I couldn’t even wash my hair be­cause my wrists were too painful.” It was a har­row­ing time; she felt she was let­ting Michael, the chil­dren, and even her­self, down. About two years af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Claire went to see a pain spe­cial­ist at St Vin­cent’s Hospi­tal. “The doc­tor did a prick test,” she re­calls. “He put light pres­sure on 18 spe­cific trig­ger points through­out my body. When he touched me on those spots, I nearly hit the roof, so I was di­ag­nosed with fibromyalgia.”

Ac­cord­ing to the HSE, fibromyalgia is a long-term con­di­tion caus­ing pain all over the body. While the ex­act cause is un­known, con­tribut­ing fac­tors may in­clude a ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tion, phys­i­cal trauma, and vi­ral in­fec­tions. Claire was urged to do a three-week pain-man­age­ment course at St Vin­cent’s.

“Psy­chol­o­gists, pain con­sul­tants and phys­io­ther­a­pists ad­vised us to take a multi-pronged ap­proach to cop­ing and liv­ing life, rather than ex­ist­ing in a de­pressed state,” Claire ex­plains. “The course was ex­cel­lent for de­vel­op­ing cog­ni­tive be­hav­iour ther­apy (CBT) skills and in em­pha­sis­ing the im­por­tance of light ex­er­cise. They rec­om­mend con­sis­tency rather than over-ex­er­cis­ing, which can leave you in bed for days. They even urge you to do a lit­tle ex­er­cise on those days when you feel you can’t get out of bed.”

Do­ing a job that is mean­ing­ful is also con­sid­ered im­por­tant. Claire had been work­ing spo­rad­i­cally for Mo­ti­va­tion Weight Man­age­ment in Dublin. She was ad­vised by her train­ers on the pain-man­age­ment course that she needed to work in a more reg­u­lar, but paced way, as this would pro­vide a life­line to like-minded col­leagues, while boost­ing Claire’s con­fi­dence.

“Fibromyalgia strips away your self-es­teem and con­vinces you that you are worth­less,” ex­plains Claire. “So I took their ad­vice to work about 15 hours a week; if I do any more, I suf­fer dread­fully. My boss has been very un­der­stand­ing.” Claire ex­plains that she started out by help­ing clients with weight prob­lems by us­ing CBT. “I could re­ally em­pathise with their [psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional] pain,” she says. “It’s like ther­apy for me, ex­plain­ing to them that if you have a real de­sire to change, cou­pled with per­se­ver­ance, you can do any­thing. Do­ing this work made me feel worth­while again; there had been pe­ri­ods when I’d been very low, even sui­ci­dal.”

To­day Claire’s brief has ex­tended to in­clude re­search and writ­ing work for the or­gan­i­sa­tion. In time, she came across the work of John Jack­son, an im­mu­nol­o­gist and fit­ness ex­pert, who had de­vel­oped a pro­gramme for peo­ple suf­fer­ing from fibromyalgia and ME (chronic fa­tigue syn­drome). “A struc­tured ex­er­cise pro­gramme ab­so­lutely does work for me,” de­clares Claire. Cur­rently, she does light re­sis­tance train­ing un­der the di­rec­tion of Eoin Walsh from Strength For Life, a train­ing and life­style-coach­ing busi­ness. “This has made a huge dif­fer­ence to the man­age­ment of my pain, and to the qual­ity of my sleep,” she says.

“Th­ese days, I walk ev­ery day and I do weights three times a week. CBT is also

‘CBT is also vi­tal, be­cause if you don’t change your neg­a­tive thoughts, you’ll never get well’

vi­tal, be­cause if you don’t change your neg­a­tive thoughts, you’ll never get well. I con­stantly work on my thoughts, and through rep­e­ti­tion, the mes­sages be­gin to sink in. I also lis­ten to re­lax­ation CDs and eat good, nu­tri­tious food.” Claire says while diet is very im­por­tant, there are oc­ca­sions when she may not have the en­ergy to pre­pare healthy meals. So on her “bet­ter” days, she makes nu­tri­tious food and freezes it. She is also a firm be­liever in the power of smooth­ies, made from any com­bi­na­tion of spinach, kale, broc­coli, av­o­cado, berries, and so on. “When I have one, I can feel the en­ergy cours­ing through me,” she says with a broad grin. “This is all about how you bear your prob­lems.”

Right now, Claire, though she’s not bet­ter, is in a much bet­ter space. “I do my best from day to day. Fibromyalgia doesn’t go away, but I now have an ac­cep­tance of it, and in­stead of it con­trol­ling me, I con­trol it. I have a set of rules and I know my own lim­i­ta­tions. I know what I have to do to achieve a de­cent qual­ity of life. And I will do that for the chil­dren, and for Mike, my rock, who has had to bear the brunt of all this.”

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