A lot has happened physically over the last seven days. My digestion is moving pretty smoothly again, though I’m lacking almost completely in appetite. Already during the first two or three days following the fast, my stomach was working well, digesting and passing on food to the intestines. From here, though, I could feel my intestines trying to draw out and absorb every last possible gram of nutrition. In doing so, a kind of digestive traffic jam began to build up as my body slowed down the forward progress of food to achieve this goal… The result was a feeling of more or less perpetual bloatedness, which is something I’ve experienced in previous 7-10 day water fasts. I certainly don’t enjoy the feeling, but I know it’ll pass in time. Fortunately, in the last couple of days, I have begun to ‘deflate’ – and with it, I’ve regained my appetite to a small degree.
I suspect the feeling of bloating relates to more than just a kind of nutritive hoarding taking place in the intestines, because it’s also the body’s priority to rebuild the central, inner organs before moving on to restore the surface muscles. If I did actually lose volume from the core of my body (see Day 15), then the feeling of swelling may also be due to the organs expanding, reclaiming their original positions, and stretching out connective tissue in the process. In addition, I think I’ve become slightly oedemic since the end of the fast. There’s a slight swelling in my ankles, as well as in my face upon first waking up. If I really am oedemic, then perhaps it’s possible that the core of my body is also storing extra fluid. It makes sense: from a survival perspective, a long water fast is going to put the body into alert mode afterwards. Given that reserves of fat are running low, the body doesn’t want to take any risks in case another ‘famine’ strikes in the near future. In parallel with drawing out every last gram of nutrition from food, perhaps it also absorbs the maximum possible water content – just in case a ‘drought’ accompanies any famine.***
Otherwise, I’m still quite weak compared to my former self. Of course, this isn’t much of a surprise! I tried running for the first time on the fourth day after finishing the fast. Actually, ‘running’ is a bit of an exaggeration. All I could manage was a lazy barefoot jog: little more than a brisk walking tempo. Nevertheless, I was happy with this; the rhythm was completely sustainable and it felt good to move. I continued without any tiredness for half an hour – although it’s true that subsequently I paid the price with sore calf muscles the next day. Nothing too extreme, and honestly, after a whole month of no running, I can’t complain, especially if my body hasn’t really moved on to the task of rebuilding muscles just quite yet. I’m not going to attempt to increase pace or distance until it feels natural, because I can feel that if I force either one, it’ll only damage my body. The plan for now is to keep moving, but to do nothing which causes soreness, fatigue or pain.
I’ve also made a gentle return to push-ups and sit-ups, but again, without expectations in terms of intensity or quantity. The first time I tried push-ups on the fourth day after the fast, they felt entirely foreign to my body, despite having practised them almost every day for the last 30+ years, since I was sixteen. This was a very strange feeling, given their usual familiarity. (I even calculated that a few months ago I reached my millionth all-time push-up!) Not only did they feel strange now: I practically collapsed after managing only a third of the usual amount! After three days of them, I’m currently up to about 100 instead of my usual 160 per day – but I don’t think I’m going to be able to increase much beyond this for a while. Interestingly, I find doing planks much easier than push-ups and can manage my usual 7 minutes. Perhaps it’s because they involve deeper core muscles than push-ups, and these are being rebuilt first. Likewise, leg lifts are easier for me than sit ups.
Psychologically, I’m still in a transitional zone. The truth is, I don’t feel entirely grounded, and as much as it’s been easier to acclimatise back to family life than it was to the entirely new experience of being a hermit on retreat, I’m still not entirely here – perhaps, if I’m totally honest, because a part of me doesn’t want to be here just quite yet. I do miss the breadth and expanse which became the default experience of being while fasting. I know theoretically – and somewhere deep inside can also feel – that I’m integrating the whole experience into my everyday life here and now. I know that’s a good thing. The deeper being while fasting has also given me extra momentum to find that same expansive silence in my daily meditation practice. I know that’s a good thing too. But momentum to find it, no matter how strong, no matter how determined, isn’t the same thing as effortlessly being the silence…
I think many of my ambivalent feelings are linked to the changes taking place on a physical bodily level, as well as to the rather unanchored state of my biorhythms. My sleep patterns, for instance, still haven’t entirely stabilised. On average, I’m sleeping about an hour less than before the fast – which feels good – but it’s not consistent from day to day. I tend to sleep a couple of hours less one day and then compensate or even over-compensate the next. It’s been a bit of a see-saw. The return to gentle running on a more or less daily basis definitely seems to help stabilise me physically, but it also tires me. I think on a deeper level, rebuilding myself nutritionally is a tiring process. On a cellular level, it feels similar to when I was training hardest for my ultramarathon earlier in the year. All that digestion and assimilation takes energy!
I’m also getting a little impatient with myself. After previous 7-10 day fasts, I’d be pretty much grounded by now, and somehow I have a body memory of this duration as being enough to get me back on my feet. Of course, it’s nowhere near enough after a 21-day fast!
(Next post: the one-month follow-up)
*** In reading this now, without the benefit of hindsight, I believe that the oedema was more likely a symptom of having reintroduced too many calories too soon in the refeeding process: a telltale first sign of refeeding syndrome, along with muscle cramps (especially in the fingers/hands and toes/feet). See previous post for more details.