The Tortoise and the Hare: Lessons From an Incorrigible Overachiever

August 6, 2009

A Guest Blog From Lisa Johnson

(Lisa Johnson, a former marathon runner, first came down with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) in 2003. She temporaily recovered and returned to her ‘hare-like’ existence only  to suffer a severe relapse in 2004. She has been unable to work since then).

Aesop’s fables date from the 6th century BC. He published in excess of 300 fables, ancient pearls of wisdom. (Aesop collected the fables, he didn’t write them). Who doesn’t remember the famed fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare”? Until I became an ME/CFS statistic, I dismissed it as a silly child’s tale. Face it, in our culture we are groomed to become high achieving hares.

The Hare - The theory of Type A and Type B personality originated in the 1950s. Many of us who develop ME/CFS share characteristics of the Type A personality, myself included,  (I epitomize Type A). Always driven to succeed, I pulled all-nighters, was doggedly determined to get A’s so I could graduate from an Ivy League college. This burn the candle at both ends approach to life served me well… until I became ill.

An Early Lesson: It was in college that I learned my first lesson about pacing. Marathons were the rage. Flash back to a sultry summer day: my college sweetheart and I waiting at the starting line ready to run our first marathon. Both competitive, we ran the first nine miles at full speed, but with temperatures in the high nineties and a paucity of water stops, I was running out of steam and considered dropping out of the race. My boyfriend, still feeling strong, made a mad dash towards the finish line, as he was a contender to win a trophy.

Ironically, I placed first for the women by walking, resting, and running at a slow clip. My boyfriend was nowhere to be seen, and after investigating, I learned that he had been rushed to the emergency room and was hooked up to IVs due to dehydration and heat stroke.

I ignored this lesson on pacing, addicted to the overachiever mentality. In fact, a few years later I won a full length Iron man triathlon race. I learned that I could override my body’s fatigue and that I’d find a second and third wind. My competitive nature served me well when I felt well, but now that I have ME/CFS my greatest challenge has been to change my personality style from Type A to Type B. Type A behavior leads to the push crash cycle, which is counterproductive for those of us with a debilitating illness, often resulting in health setbacks and relapses.

Needless to say, old habits die hard. Even my pursuit of the elusive cure for ME/CFS has been intensive. To uncover a quick fix, I have tried practically every accessible supplement, alternative and mainstream treatment, and the search has worn me out.

The reality that doctors lack a definitive cure for ME/CFS is fertile ground for feeling powerless. When I asked my primary care doctor (who was rated the #1 doctor in my HMO plan), about treatments for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she told me there were none. Nothing could have made me feel more powerless, more disillusioned. In Greek mythology, Panacea, the goddess of healing, was said to have a potion with which she healed the sick. I have found no panacea, but thanks to the Internet I have found some valuable sources of information.

Type A Personality Meets…..Bruce Campbell (Ph.D). Surfing the net in 2005 I discovered Dr. Bruce Campbell’s online self help classes. Bruce, a former ME/CFS patient and champion of our cause, has facilitated over 250 self-help online classes since 1998. His books are practical sources of applicable knowledge. I have taken most of his classes and am considered an alumni. His bottom line message is a modern version of Aesop’s; doing less and pacing is likely to result in health improvements and increased energy.

For me, it has been a rocky internal battle to transform my Type A mindset, a colossal effort to retrain myself to do less. However, with Bruce’s guidance and role-modeling and the support of other resourceful friendly class participants from across America and from around the world, (including Europeans, Canadians, even Aussies), I have begun to make progress. It would be impossible to impart the totality of tools and wisdom I have acquired from these groups, but I would refer the reader to an article by Jo Wynn from the CFIDS Chronicle in 1999 for an articulate detailed description of Bruce Campbell, Ph.D.’s programs.

Here Are Some of the Things That Have Helped Me.

Pacing – Bruce inspires, mentors, shepherds his lambs to lay in the pasture and rest. He emphasizes the need to practice pacing techniques. How these are applied varies from individual to individual. For one person it might mean setting a timer when initiating an activity and scheduling regular relaxation time, for another it could mean limiting the number of phone calls per day or per week. As an example of pacing, in the past I’d have played four or five rounds of cut-throat Scrabble, but recently I played a non competitive game with a friend and stopped half way through to avoid overexerting.

The charting techniques he provides are particularly helpful in enabling one to find and live in one’s energy envelope. Incorporating pre-emptive rests is a hallmark tool. For example, many members have noted that if they are going to travel, they must rest for a day or more before and after their trip. Posting written targets, (goals) to the group each week helps with accountability. The online format the courses use is ideal even for a shy private person because members can post as little or as much personal information as they choose.

Setting Priorities – Since our energy is finite, Bruce encourages defining priorities. Personally, I have learned that I must choose between paying bills, preparing a simple meal, or talking to a friend. One member described her life as “walking along the highway as vehicles whiz past.” She went on to say, “listing priorities in general as well as daily priorities really has helped me understand that I am making progress on those things that are most important to me. The other things —  well, maybe sometime in the future, or maybe never.”

Another member succinctly summed up core lessons : “…I have learned that rather than going with how much I can get away with (as I have for years), I work out how much I can do (i.e. going out of the house two times per week) without sending me backwards. So, no matter how good I feel, these are my limits. The energy envelope is made up of 50% for use, 50% for healing. Now when I am feeling good, rather than using it, I think of how much benefit this (resting) is doing, healing and allowing me to recuperate. I tell myself, “SAVE ENERGY, DON’T SPEND IT”. I was reluctant at first to go for using just 50% of my capacity, but found that I am happier, not pushing, more peaceful, and feel in control…   I am also much more vigilant about what I do with that 50%. It has to be good.

Paradoxically, I am also much better at saying ‘no’ now because I realize using all my energy, or more, is damaging to my health, mood, life experience.  The struggle is (mostly) over and I increasingly feel better for it.”

Avoiding Stress – Bruce’s course is not all about pacing; he also advocates stress avoidance, as stress is an energy drain. Techniques range from avoiding certain people to avoiding over-stimulating settings that result in sensory overload.

Charting, Pre-emptive Resting, Setting targets…. I applied Bruce’s pacing techniques to writing this article, setting one of my targets to write for only a half hour at a time, sandwiched by rests of at least an hour. Any diet requires long term changes in lifestyle and habits to be successful, and I’ve slowly shifted my ‘activity diet’, so that it contains more rest and healing time and less active time. I no longer resent rest, but embrace it as a healing tool. My epiphany has been to think of rest as medicine.

It’s been no small feat, learning how to live life in the slow lane. Taming the wild hare within requires discipline and commitment.  Aesop didn’t provide a road map on how to become tortoise-like, but Bruce Campbell has created a user friendly ready-made guide. It’s made a big difference for me and I highly endorse Dr. Campbell’s approach.

Lisa Johnson


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

chris August 7, 2009 at 8:08 am

When my daughter crashed and got much worse in the winter of 2005/2006 I, out of desperation, came across Bruce Campbell’s online book and ideas. We immediately adopted the principles and put them in place. They have served as a very important defense against further deterioration, and, equally importantly, as a baseline tactic for my daughter’s long slow move towards betterment. His ideas are among the first things that a CFS patient should adopt – although they are difficult to learn, as they are so “counter-intuitive”. You have to be super disciplined to learn and maintain the practice. In our case, we arrived at his doorstep through painful reality. I really wish I had learned about him in 2003 or 2004. This is a very nice article and it covers such familiar and necessary territory and is so well written. Thank you for this. Little things can be very big in the illness.


chris August 7, 2009 at 9:48 am

I would add that Bruce Campbell insists that you gain a healthy respect for this complex illness. Reaching that point of “respect” helps one move in a positive and focussed direction.


Lisa Johnson August 7, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Thanks for your affirmation, Chris.
To clarify, I am not related to Cort Johnson. I do know that Mr. Johnson is humble. Why do I say this? I had written a paragraph in my article to the effect that ignorance is not bliss; that information is empowering. Cort edited that part out.
I feel indebted to Phoenix Rising because I don’t have the energy to keep up with ME/CFS research. Cort investigates and summarizes findings in a reader friendly format, and for that I feel indebted.
Because of Cort, I was able to apply pacing techniques in the comfort of my home, while watching short segments of a recent ME/CFS conference featuring top medical experts presenting findings. If I’d have attempted to attend that conference, I’d have undoubtedly relapsed.


Cort August 9, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Thanks Lisa – and thank you for illuminating such an important aspect of managing and even treating ME/CFS. One of the most important lessons from my experience with Ashok Gupta’s amygdala retraining program and other mindfulness/meditation activities is getting in touch with how much activity my body can handle. Essentially I’ve cut my physical activity down substantially and it’s paid off in fewer symptoms and smaller flareups. Bruce Campbell’s website is easily the best source we have for learning how to do that.


Colin Noden August 11, 2009 at 6:39 am

I’ve gone through this same path and am having to relearn this lesson. Our identities, and the praise of activity; not to mention the damnation of sloth and idolatry of youthfulness, make pacing and resting very difficult. Ironic!


Lisa Johnson August 11, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I couldn’t agree more, Colin. Here’s another brilliant excerpt from a member of my online class,
“We have been brought up to believe that working hard is vital, that finishing what we start is necessary, that putting others before ourselves is honourable, that looking after others is our fundamental reason for existing and that, basically, we ARE what we DO.
It’s not that we lack self-discipline. It’s that we are still tied to the rules which guide what it means to be a “good person”, a “good woman”, a “good worker”, a “good wife “, and a “good friend” in our societies. That’s why pacing and learning to say no and putting ourselves first is so hard. How can we do any of those things and remain what we have always thought of as good people?
We can ultimately learn to change. But it takes more than self-discipline. It necessitates a whole new way of living and thinking.”

Rest is not slothfulness. Previously my self-esteem was tied up in my physical, academic, and professional accomplishments. It’s impossible to rapidly shift how one measures one’s intrinsic worth when the world at large is not making that shift and people continue to be judged by their level of productivity. No pain no gain is harmful thinking for us. Someone said, “feeling good is dangerous”. Sounds like the title of a song that’s waiting to be written.
But for me it’s not just about seeking praise for accomplishments, it’s about wanting to pull my own weight. I want to be an active participant in life vs. an observer of others, sitting on the sidelines. I miss travel, I miss social gatherings with friends, I miss banal activities such as grocery shopping. Now I praise myself for doing less. I praise myself for my minute accomplishments. My praise comes from within.


Adam R October 29, 2009 at 12:51 pm

You said you’ve tried every available supplement. Does this mean you have been tested for nutritional deficiencies and neurotransmitters? Some testing is better than others. I have CFS, and am an overachiever as well. My test results showed I have hypoglycemia, am low in D3 and B vitamins, have low urinary excretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine, low serotonin, low DOPAC and high taurine. I take AdreCor and Serene (from and phosphatidylserine, D3 and B vitamins and I am sleeping so much better and my energy is returning. Don’t rely on cortisol testing alone, it can be misleading.

I understand the mechanism of the supplements I am taking is not for stimulation, but for providing nutrition (amino acids and vitamins) to allow cells to repair. These are particular to the effects of adrenal fatigue (the glands where tissue gets damaged with going mental activation i.e. “fight or flight” stress), which is related to “CFS”. A lot of CFS sufferers are not yet onto the idea of taking amino acids and it seems few get enough testing done to see where their problems are. Some people with CFS take adrenal stimulants, which make them feel better short term, but deplete the glands further. There are pitfalls with amino acids too, it needs to be done by someone who is experienced with amino acid therapy. Anyway I hope this helps somebody!


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