This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain on Fatigue

Fatigue is not "tired". Improve your sickie life by learning the difference.

Posted Feb 04, 2014

When I started this column, I had grand plans of posting regularly, having a productive outlet for my weird fits of rage, and overall living inside a vodka ad full of beautiful people. Chronic illness, y’all! Cue the go-go dancers and balloon drops!

 …Then the fatigue rolled in, and popped all my balloons.

Fatigue is so common as to be essentially a non-symptom. Everyone has fatigue. Everyone is exhausted all the time, so what makes me special? Fatigue used to be one common ground I had with my healthy friends: “Ugh, I’m so tired,” was always matched by, “Oh, dude, so am I.”

I’m coming to realize that thing, that nonspecial thing that everyone has—is not fatigue, it’s “tired.” Tired is acute. Tired hurts. It’s also sexy in its own weird way: “I’m tired because I work insane hours!”, “I stayed up late making out with my neighbor!”, etc. Tired is a thing you often earn through living your life; it’s a kind of payback from a productive (or destructive) day before. Tired is something everyone knows intimately.

Fatigue is not “tired.” Fatigue appears from nowhere. It rusts the buttresses that hold you up from the inside so that, bit by bit, they turn to dust. Fatigue starts quietly but takes hold quickly: It makes you heavier and hard to move; it turns your thoughts to Elmer’s glue. Fatigue corrodes you from the inside out.

Though I’ve had 27 years of practice in this body, I’m only just learning the distinction. A voice in my head still keeps trying to prod me on. That voice got me through decades of “tired” (“I can learn Statistics by Wednesday’s final, no problem!”), but it has no place dealing with fatigue. With fatigue, there are no inner reserves to call on. No amount of pluck, willpower, coffee, or self-flagellation can overcome it. Expecting fatigue to behave like “tired” isn’t fair to you. Fatigue has to be respected and handled with care.

Why had I never noticed before? Tired can be fought, but fatigue must be befriended.

Well…if not befriended, more like “ankle-cuffed together like a chain gang.” Fatigue sucks, but you’re stuck with it.

Right now, in fatigue’s soggy grip, I’m lucky that most of my commitments are cancel-able, and I can sleep midday if I need to. It is not a luxury I’m comfortable with, though; the voice that helped me feign normalcy for decades won’t die quietly, and clearing my schedule for dazed TV marathons feels horrible. This is not the Caitlin I want to be. I want my vodka ad. I want an intense German DJ and a dance floor of models. At the very least, I want to be capable of interesting thoughts that do not relate to the walls of my apartment.

As a case in point, I’ve had this word document open for about two weeks. I can only do little fly-bys of work before I want to get back in bed. It’s nearly impossible to keep my eye on the ball. This kind of behavior would be unacceptable to me if I were merely tired. But I’m learning to be kinder to myself, so I’m waving a white flag.

It reminds me of that old anti-drug PSA: “This is your brain. This is your brain on fatigue.” After a few days of fog, it feels like a man in khakis has scrambled your brain. It's no crystal meth, but fatigue is real. You can’t muscle it away.

Thanks to the shifting tide of chronic illness, the fatigue will eventually go away as stealthily as it came in. While you're in the middle of it, though, be kind to yourself. Fighting helps nobody. You can trust me on this one: I did it wrong for decades.

In the words of the Khaki Man: “…Any questions?”


Caitlin Caven writes the blog "Better Living Through Snark" on being young and chronically ill. You can read her other miscellaneous writings at

About the Author

Caitlin Caven is a writer and editor who has had Crohn's disease since the age of 10.

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