As soon as I took the first bite, I knew something was wrong. But the little voice in the back of my head told me not to make a scene, to just eat it. So I did.
The meat was delicious, after all. With Meniere’s disease, I have to order my food without salt everywhere I go, and while some places do a better job than others, I rarely have a problem. At such a nice steakhouse, I didn’t think I had anything to worry about.
But about halfway through my meal, I knew I was wrong. My fiancée Megan, and our friends, knew it too – they could see it on my face.
Have you ever driven into a wall of rain? Where one second your car is dry and the next you are in the middle of a downpour? That’s what it was like. The brain fog hit me all at once like a ton of bricks and I started sweating through my shirt. Everyone else at the table noticed right away. They stopped eating and turned to me. “Glenn, are you okay?”
I wasn’t okay. I had eaten too much sodium and triggered my Meniere’s disease symptoms. The dizziness was coming on fast. I rarely make this kind of mistake, and when I do, I’m always shocked at how quickly my body reacts. Some people don’t get symptoms until later on. Not me. I always know that I’ve messed up within minutes.
But it’s the wrong way to think about it. I did mess up, but not by eating the steak. I messed up by staying silent, by trying to avoid confrontation.
Be Your Own Best Advocate:
It has taken me a while to understand that I have to be my own best advocate. That’s not to say that I shouldn’t let other people help. Having a strong support network is important. It’s just that no one will ever understand my illness as well as I do. No one will ever care as much as I can. And most importantly, no one will ever fight as hard as I’m capable of fighting. It’s important to recognize this, and it’s something I forget far too often.
Having said that, I know that I’m lucky have a caring fiancée who has been there for me every step of the way. She is understanding and is always the first to step up and say something in a situation like what happened at the steakhouse. I also know that I’m a people pleaser and that Megan’s personality is better suited for those kinds of interactions. I just don’t always realize it in the moment.
At the time, I felt embarrassed, and I tried to act like everything was okay when it definitely wasn’t. I tried to brush it off, thinking, “these things happen.” Megan and my friends disagreed. “Glenn you have a medical condition. They messed up, not you! You need to let them know. It’s not okay that this happened.” I wish I had listened to them. I’m grateful to have them in my life.
In hindsight, I realize that they were right. These things do happen, and I have nothing to be embarrassed about. No one wants to be sick. I didn’t choose to have Meniere’s disease. I should have spoken up.
I fight so hard for my health in every other aspect of my life, it’s hard for me wrap my head around how I could still let something like this happen. If you gave me the choice, right now, to be sick or feel awkward, I would never choose to be sick. But that’s what I’ve done, time and time again.
I know I need to be my own best advocate more often. Nobody else is going to know how my food tastes as I eat it. I won’t make that mistake again.
Part of being your own best advocate is learning to be assertive. For me, this has been a hard-won lesson that I have been unfortunately slow to integrate, but it’s so important.
When you suffer from a chronic illness like Meniere’s disease, being assertive starts with having a better understanding of yourself. At the end of the day, no one else is going to know how we feel, physically, mentally, or emotionally. It’s up to us to be mindful and pay closer attention. At the very least it starts with us. No one else will ever be able to help us until we first understand how to help and advocate for ourselves.
Fortunately, over the years, I have learned to pay closer attention. In the past, I might have shrugged off the experience at the steakhouse without much of a second thought. But I’ve become much more introspective. I start to wonder why I acted like I did. What kept me from speaking up. What could I have done differently, and what can I do differently next time?
But it’s much deeper than that. By paying closer attention, I can assert myself to my doctors who might otherwise make false assumptions about my circumstances. By intimately knowing how I feel, and when I need to rest, I can assert myself better to my family and friends. By knowing my own weaknesses and shortcomings, I can be more assertive with myself. I can silence the inner voice that tells me to not “make a scene”.
The better we know ourselves the better we can assert ourselves when it matters most. And its not just a good habit to have. It’s a powerful skill that improves our self-efficacy, which is the belief that we have the power to affect positive change in our lives.
So the question is: how can we get to know ourselves better and how can we become more assertive? Its simply a matter of making the right information more readily available.
Journaling and Practice Makes Perfect:
If your goal is to better understand yourself, to be more assertive, you need to figure out why you feel the way you feel and learn to pay closer attention.
For starters, most people are not very good at noticing the connection between how they feel and their environment. There are so many variables to consider that it’s basically impossible to find the patterns on your own. But you can quickly overcome this limitation by keeping a journal.
If you keep a detailed record of your days, along with your symptoms and how you feel, then finding the connections is simply a matter of reviewing the data. You can take a look back at the days when your symptoms were at their worst, and find the commonalities. A while back I created a free printable one-page journal template to help you with this. If you haven’t already, you can get a copy here.
Keeping a journal is only part of the equation. To better pay attention to how you feel in the moment, you will need to practice mindfulness. Unlike most forms of meditation, where the goal is to clear the mind, mindfulness is about paying closer attention to the present moment and being a casual observer of your thoughts and feelings.
To give it a try, simply sit down in a comfortable position, relax your body, and focus your attention on your breathing. As you do this your mind will wander, and thoughts will arise. Any time you catch it happening, gently release the thoughts and refocus on your breath.
Once you have a comfortable rhythm, try shifting your focus and attention to your body and mind. Are you dizzy? Do you have pain? Are you happy or content, anxious or sad? It helps to imagine that you are observing a stranger. And the trick is not to judge the thoughts and feelings that will inevitably arise.
I find this practice helps not only to reduce my stress levels, but it makes me consciously aware of how I feel more of the time. Instead of just reacting to my emotions, I have become more analytical. When my symptoms arise, I don’t just try to ignore them. I look closely, and try to figure out what might be going on.
I know that all of this is easier said then done. This level of awareness certainly didn’t happen over night. It took a long time before it became second nature. But you can learn to be more in touch with yourself, too. You can gain a much better understanding of what’s going on inside of you, and as a result you will be able to better assert yourself. You can be your own best advocate.