Lana Barhum is a legal assistant, patient advocate, freelance writer, blogger, and single parent. She has lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008 and uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness.
My journey with chronic illness has been chaotic and crazy, but also one that I have learned from and can laugh at now. But eight years ago, I wasn’t confident or laughing. Back then, I was wallowing in self-pity, riding emotional roller coasters, and dwelling on the past while fearing the future.
My journey has allowed me to grow into a person who might fear the storms ahead but who is willing to ride through those storms with strength and determination. And for that reason, I consider my chronic illness journey to be quite successful thus far.
You might think that acceptance, strength, and perseverance aren’t easy feats and you are absolutely right. It has taken me a long time to get to a point in my life where my two chronic illnesses, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and fibromyalgia, don’t dictate my life’s path. If anything, they are minor obstacles in the life full of many bigger obstacles.
Here are three things I’ve learned not to do as I’ve journeyed through chronic illness.
1. Don’t wallow in self-pity
The late Christopher Reeve, the beloved actor who played Superman in movies of the 1970s and 1980s, was a great example of someone who didn’t allow self-pity to consume his life. After breaking his neck in a horseback riding accident and becoming a quadriplegic in 1995, he chose to not see himself as a patient but a person and didn’t allow self-pity to consume his life. In a 1996 New York Times interview, he shared the following: "Yes, it was terrible what happened to me. But why should I be exempt? I had one very unlucky and unpredictable moment. The choice is whether to wallow in self-pity and musings about the past or to take a pro-active stance about the future."
Mr. Reeve was a superman both on the screen and off. His story inspires me along my journey with chronic illness. We don’t all have the same adversities, but we can acknowledge struggle and realize that triumph is even bigger and greater.
We all get to be the superman or superwoman in our lives.
2. Don’t forget to get off the emotional rollercoaster
I have learned how important it is to grieve to react and adjust to your situation. While grief is healthy, it can also be an emotional roller coaster that includes periods of numbness, anger, denial, sadness, and more. If you don’t allow yourself to grieve, your emotional pain can be pent up inside, eventually boiling over and becoming destructive.
Practice expressing your feelings of grief through healthy emotional outlets like crying, music, horseback riding, and more. Watch out for symptoms of depression, such as trouble sleeping, extreme sadness, lack of energy and suicidal thoughts, and talk to your doctor if you are experiencing these.
Changes to my health still provoke additional feelings of loss and force me back onto that emotional roller coaster. While on that ride, I focus on grieving in healthy ways and then, I get off that roller coaster as soon as I can.
3. Don’t dwell on the past—focus on the future
One of my biggest fears was facing the future with chronic illness. I couldn’t predict what my life would be like five years or ten years and that scared me. Once I connected with others who had been living with chronic illness for many years, I realized that a good quality life with and despite chronic illness was possible.
Interestingly, my health challenges have taken my life in a direction I would have never taken without chronic illness. And that is has been a great thing: the serendipity of it. However, I sometimes wonder what direction my life would have gone had I not gotten sick. Would I have been successful in law school and as a lawyer? What if my marriage had survived and if I had more children like I wanted?
I could ponder these questions until I am blue in the face but I can’t change what’s happened. I can only move forward, not dwell on the past, but focus on the future.
We often miss out on the blessings of the present and the future because we are too busy dwelling on the past, especially when that past involved good health. It is understandably difficult to focus on the future when your life is filled with pain and sickness. But hope for the future gives us the strength to face so many of life’s challenges—whether they pertain to our health or not. The future can be quite bright.