Buckets & Levels: An RA Story

Photo: barbara baldocchi

Each morning I wake up, stretch, and evaluate how my body feels. What pain level do I have this morning? Is it a five or is it a three, or did I toss and turn all night because my pain registered a seven? Then energy evaluation – how much is in my bucket today? Like a bucket to gather water at a pump with a small hole in the bottom, that’s the bucket I imagine energy fills each day. When I exert a lot of energy on gardening, it sloshes over the sides. I sit and work, drips start leaking out of the bottom. During the course of the day, my bucket is empty.

Some days offer a bucket half full, others 3/4 full, but rarely is it overflowing anymore. I can predict the level fairly well and plan important events, chores and work in the morning. Other days, by noon I have a little left. The outlier is the amount of pain – this depletes the bucket of energy faster like pulling a plug. Buckets and levels – this is how I measure and plan my life with rheumatoid arthritis.


The understanding and planning have been an adjustment and a lesson God has shown me to deal with this chronic illness. I set limitations based on how much energy I feel is left in my bucket (or will be) and what level of pain have I experienced lately. Travel is challenging but doable with careful planning. How long will I be riding in a car? Will I drive or my husband? How long is the flight? What type of vacation is best suited for me and my husband to enjoy? What is the best way to spend time without overdoing it? All of these factor into my travel plans.

Then there is everyday life. I work a full-time job – yes, from home and yes, sitting at a desk writing brevity news for the healthcare industry. Sounds tough? It can be – especially when my pain level is high and energy bucket low – both fight my productivity. (P.S. Sitting is the new smoking – read more by the Mayo Clinic)

When I use more energy than my body supplies, it’s as if I walk neck-deep in a swimming pool while running a marathon – my descriptive definition of fatigue. My body will not cooperate and making the bed is the biggest thing I accomplish some days. My bucket empties quickly and I rest to replenish the bucket and bring the pain level down. All while trying not to wallow or feel sorry for myself.

Yesterday my feet were so painful I didn’t even want my fluffy slippers to touch them. I did exercises the physical therapist taught me two years ago and it helped. By the afternoon, my bucket was empty, my pain level was a six, and I rested the remainder of the day. But I worked a full work week, taught a class at church, helped my husband cook dinner (once), did a few chores, and went to the store several times. I called that success.

Tomorrow may be better bucket/level day. To have pain at a one or zero and 100% full bucket, my goodness, what a marvelous day that would be. I would spend it wisely, thoughtfully, and deliberately. Realistically, I would clean the house from top to bottom, work in my garden, tinker in the garage, and move until my legs gave out. I pray I have one of those days soon. (Just sayin’, Lord, Amen).