A few months ago my Partner-In-Crime, Lynne, told me about a study detailing the Chocolate And Radish Experiment (carried out by Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice), in which a group of researchers set about exploring a person’s capacity for willpower and self-control by pushing those abilities to their limits.
This was interesting to me because, as a chronic pain patient, I need a level of willpower I never could’ve dreamed was possible just so I can bear living each day with unbearable, debilitating pain. As a matter of fact, my fellow sufferers and I have pretty much elevated willpower into our own personal Super Power.
I need willpower to help me get up and face the day, even when I’ve woken up to day number 847,000 of my current pain cycle.
I need willpower to help me continue to take my meds, exercise, stretch, meditate, take a hot bath, lay on an icepack, track my symptoms, do some EFT, increase my Lyrica, decrease my Lyrica, go to the chiropractor, and all the other things I do to support my body, even when none of them seems to be doing a damn bit of good.
I need willpower to help me stay on the couch, breathing in and out, when all I really want to do is run shrieking down the street, tearing off my clothes and ripping out my hair, and then throw myself in front of a bus.
I need willpower to challenge the thinking of my Pain Brain, which attacks me at my lowest and most vulnerable to shriek at me that I am just a burden, a weakling who doesn’t contribute anything at all to my life or the life of those around me.
And, ironically, willpower is what I need in order to finally surrender my bracing-against, “I-will-bend-you-to-my-will!”, pushing against my pain (which makes it a billion times worse), so I can relax a bit and get a touch of ease and relief.
However-and unfortunately, this is something that we sufferers are EVEN MORE familiar with-eventually, willpower gives out. That’s what these researchers wanted to explore: what is involved in exercising and sustaining willpower, and what happens when willpower runs out.
“In the first part of the trial, Baumeister kept the 67 study participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies and then teased them further by showing them the actual treats alongside other chocolate-flavored confections. While some did get to indulge their sweet tooth, the subjects in the experimental condition, whose resolves were being tested, were asked to eat radishes instead. And they weren’t happy about it. As the scientists noted in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper two years later (PDF), many of the radish-eaters “exhibit[ed] clear interest in the chocolates, to the point of looking longingly at the chocolate display and in a few cases even picking up the cookies to sniff at them.
…After the food bait-and-switch, Baumeister’s team gave the participants a second, supposedly unrelated exercise, a persistence-testing puzzle. The effect of the manipulation was immediate and undeniable. Those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle compared to the chocolate-eating participants and a control group that only joined this latter phase of the study. In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat pungent vegetables could no longer find the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already too tired.” (Emphasis mine.)
This is pretty much the essence of what it is like to live with a chronic illness.
But please know that I am absolutely not saying that we’re the only people who feel pain or experience stress-not at all. Holy cow-we all have to eat radishes, all the time.
It’s just that when you live in such a constantly impaired state, this process and its affects are exaggerated to the most extreme degree possible. And you rarely ever get any relief, or at least, not enough to ever really be able to replenish yourself. Plus there’s the added discouragement of having nothing external to show for all the superhuman effort you’ve put forth in surviving days upon weeks upon months in unrelenting pain. It’s not like we ever win a gold medal in the Holding Your Shit Together Olympics. (Although we TOTALLY should. We can teach the world a thing or two about marathons and other Olympian Feats.)
Plus, there’s the fact that one of the causes/effects (of fibromyalgia, at least) is that you spend your nights experiencing what is laughingly called “non-restorative” sleep. Which means that the things that is supposed to help us heal is just another agony to be endured (EVEN IN SLEEP, THE RADISHES FIND US.)
I know that this is kind of a bummer of a post (YOU’RE WELCOME!), but it will not surprise you to learn that I’ve been in a pain cycle that’s lasted for almost 3 months now. This sucks enormous donkey balls for many reasons, but one of the worst is that when I’ve been so strung out for so many days in a row, some of the metaphorical chocolate chip cookies I use to help myself feel a bit more comfortable start to turn into things that feel like radishes instead. Even my snark-my saving grace-runs out (damn you, fibromyalgia.) (See-I’m too exhausted to even rant in capital letters anymore.)
So pretty much the only thing I’m up for doing these days is sitting on the couch and watching reality TV on TLC and the Discovery Channel (last night: “How Booze Built America”). And there have been lovely chocolate chip cookie stand-ins like Coca-Cola and regular M&M’S, and I have finally figured out the combination of meds I need in order to get some sustained relief from this pain. Not to mention the fact that I’ve been able to write again the past week or two. So life is looking better by the minute.
In an ideal world I would have something insightful and lightly humorous to conclude with here, but all I’ve got right now is a Pain Brain that is trying to convince me that this piece is totally stupid and dumb and not worth posting, so I’m going to hit publish really fast and then go learn about rum and the American Revolution. (Rum? Or whiskey, maybe? Clearly I need the wisdom this show is offering.)
And in case you’re in the middle of running your own marathon today, for whatever reason, this is me handing you a cup of water (or rum), and cheering you on as you pass by.