Going into my sixth year living with a chronic illness, I consider myself experienced in meeting the challenges imposed by chronic illness. The term “chronic illness” doesn’t bother me and I no longer see my illnesses as a burden. Rather, I view them as a determinant of who I can become. Further, how I choose to cope determines the lessons I gain and how those lessons shape my very existence.
Here are nine valuable lessons that have shaped my life over the last six years.
Enjoy Life Even When It Hurts
There have been many occasions where I just didn’t feel motivated to follow through on plans with friends and family. But when I forced myself to get out and push past the pain, I was glad I got to enjoy that time and to make those memories. And yes, it is true that we should take care of ourselves — and there will be plenty of plans that do get cancelled — but we shouldn’t make canceling plans the norm. If you are going to be in pain, you might as well do the things you enjoy to help you forget. Trust me, your mind, body and soul will thank you.
I am Not Lazy
Getting the rest I need doesn’t make me lazy. If anything, it is a reminder that I am chronically ill. I deal with fogginess, fatigue, and pain daily and these symptoms force me to rest and conserve my energy. There have been times where I have pushed myself for fear of being called lazy and sometimes, I worry that if do less or rest more, I might actually be lazy. I have learned that my illnesses cause physical limitations and I can only give what I can give and nothing more. That doesn’t mean I am lazy. If anything, it means I do the best I can and often, it feels like I am giving more than others do.
Acceptance Isn’t Always Easy
There was a time I believed acceptance meant giving up. Now, I know it means taking control of my life the way it is now and acknowledging it cannot go back to what it once was. I have to be willing to see past challenges and make my experience positive. But acceptance doesn’t always come easy. In fact, there are times when I feel like I have accepted everything about living with chronic illness and then something happens, and I begin to struggle with new challenges. This is because acceptance is a continuous journey, involving a lot of back and forth between acceptance, denial and emotions.
Each person’s experience with chronic illness is different. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t understand why someone who had lived with chronic pain and illness longer than I had seemed to be doing better than I was. And there were times, I pushed through pain and wondered why others couldn’t do the same. After meeting and talking to numerous chronically ill people over the past six years, I understand that each person, regardless of whatever or not they have the same illness, has different symptoms and pain levels and each reacts differently to treatment. I also know that I cannot compare my own illnesses to others. My illnesses are mine alone and everything I feel — from my physical symptoms to my emotions — is just a part of living with them.
Dealing with chronic illness and pain is no walk in the park. It is challenging and life changing. Share your feelings with family, close friends, a support group or even a mental health professional. My experience has thought me that it is vital to get involved with others, share experiences and try offer to some hope along the way. In addition to helping others, these things help me to overcome weaknesses, find joy despite pain and see the silver lining when there doesn’t seem to be one.
I Am Stronger Than I Ever Thought
There was a time that I couldn’t have imagined myself meeting challenges imposed by rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. But so many in my life — from my family to my doctors - tell me that I cope well with chronic illness. Sometimes, however, I have to be reminded it is acceptable if I am not strong and confident all the time. But, it is when my world feels like is about to fall apart at any minute that my true strength shines. I stop what I am doing, take some deep breaths and assess the situation, and that is when the solutions come. I know that I am, without a doubt, stronger than I ever thought possible and I am grateful for the lessons that have gotten there.
A Positive Attitude Helps
I completely understand that simply having a positive attitude isn’t somehow going to cure me or minimize my physical symptoms. But that attitude makes my challenges easier to overcome. And I have my moments where it seems like I cannot make it through a slump but my mind and my attitude are two pretty powerful tools and I use them to my full advantage. I try to thrive and work on not feeling sorry myself. I make the effort to love my body even it is waging a violent war against me. And it isn’t easy to love a body that rebels against you but changing how you respond to stress can improve outcomes and better your life.
Family and Friendship Are Everything
Having strong relationships with family members has meant ongoing support. However, there are times where it is hard to communicate my feelings and needs to loved ones because they don’t always understand what I am going through or why I make certain choices about my health. But I have found a new group of friends that understand many of the struggles that come with chronic illness. Many of these friendships are online and online support has been a great opportunity to help others and to receive support.
It is Important to Find Your Passion
The first year of being sick was the hardest of my life as I struggled to find my purpose despite illness. I began blogging, advocating, and figuring out where my legal career was headed. I also realized I couldn’t be sick, be there for my kids, attend law school, and work a very stressful legal job. I decided law school was no longer a part of my plans and I left that very stressful legal job for one less stressful. I have found enjoyment in my legal work and writing about chronic illness and I have stopped focusing on the long term. My biggest passions right now are being there for my kids to the best of my ability, advocating for chronic illness and improving my writing skills. My passions give me the strength to hold on when my illnesses make me feel like I am falling and have nothing to hold on to. These are the reasons I get up every morning and keep fighting the fight.
Chronic illness can take away so much from us if we let it. Sometimes, it helps to just live in the moment looking towards what is gained rather than what has been lost. And, it helps stop worrying about what the future holds. Instead, challenge yourself to find new lessons and choose to overcome adversity daily.