You would think writing about my journey with chronic illness would be easy. After all, who else would know my journey and the struggles that came with being sick better than me? But it was not until I sat down to put the words on paper that I realized that journey was a chaotic and crazy but one that I have learned from and can laugh at now. But seven years ago, I wasn’t confident or laughing. Back then, I was scared, angry, and full of grief. I was wallowing in self-pity, riding emotional rollercoasters, and dwelling on the past while fearing the future.
A Successful Journey Thus Far
My chronic illness journey hasn’t been easy or smooth sailing. But it hasn’t been a complete utter nightmare either. If anything, it 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 alone, I consider my chronic illness journey, at least from my perspective, to be quite successful thus far.
You might think that acceptance, strength, and perseverance aren’t easy feats. And you are absolutely right because 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. They don’t determine my abilities as a mother or friend or daughter or sister or employee. They don’t decide my career path and my ability to love or be happy. If anything, there are minor obstacles in life full of many bigger obstacles. And truth be told, I wasn’t always this self-assured and sometimes, I can’t be but there is a journey that got me here and lessons I take with me as I live a rather unordinary and sometimes, difficult life.
Here are three don’ts of my successful journey with chronic illness.
Don’t Wallow in Self-Pity
The late Christopher Reeve a.k.a. Superman was 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 choose to not see himself as a patient but a person and he did not allow self-pity to dictate his day-in-day. 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 have to be disabled or sick to understand that self-pity is a small thing in the grand scheme of it all. We don’t all have to have the same adversities but we can acknowledge struggle and realize that triumph is even bigger and greater.
My struggle with chronic illness may different than someone else’s hardship but whether you are in an abusive situation trying to get it or trying to raise your children without the help of another parent, or trying to escape the past or even addiction, it’s your choice to wallow in self-pity or to be proactive in making your life better. We all get to be the superman or superwoman in our lives.
Don’t Forget To Get Off the Emotional Rollercoaster
Grieving any loss, whether it’s an illness, divorce or a loss of employment, can be quite challenging. However, I have learned how important it is to engage in some method of grieving to react and adjust to your situation. While grief is healthy, it can also be an emotional rollercoaster that includes periods of numbness and shock, anger, denial, intense emotional pain, and so much more. If you don’t allow yourself to grieve, your emotional pain can become destructive.
Practice expressing your feelings of grief through writing, crying, music and talking to others about what you are feeling. 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.
My grieving timetable is different than the next person’s and changes to my health still provoke additional feelings of loss and force me back onto that emotional rollercoaster. While on that ride, I focus on grieving in healthy ways and then, I get off that rollercoaster as soon as I can.
Don’t Dwell on Past – Focus on the Future
One of my biggest fears was the 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. However, it has not been all smooth sailing and I sometimes wonder what direction my life would have gone had I not gotten sick. Would 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 and focus on the future. We often miss out on the blessings of 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 past is dim, and sometimes dark, but the future can be quite bright.
Still My Life, Just a Little Altered
My life with chronic illness isn’t the life that I envisioned and often, it is out of my control. The only things I control are my behavior and my reactions and that where the “don’ts” of my journey come into play. And while there are ways in which I manage my illnesses and cope, I don’t dictate the direction in which my health is headed. My life involves being sick and in pain every single day. But because I have lived with RA and fibromyalgia for almost seven years, I have learned to channel most of what I am feeling – both physically and emotionally – out. Being sick has become one small obstacle in my life and unless I am having a bad flare day, I continue to march on. My normal is something that no one can see but it is still my life, just a little altered.