9 Valuable Lessons Gained From Chronic Illness

Our advocate Lana shares nine valuable lessons that have shaped her life over the last six years.

9 Valuable Lessons Gained From Chronic Illness

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.

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5 Ways I Used Chronic Illness to Better My Life

5 Ways I Used Chronic Illness to Better My Life

Living with chronic illness and finding ways to make your life better requires an approach that is both realistic and positive. “Wait,” you might think, “How does one use chronic illness to better their life?” It is possible.

My Coping Strategies

Here are the five ways I have used chronic illness to improve my own life.

1. I allowed myself to grieve and heal.

I recognized that grief is just as important as healing. I allowed myself to grieve the loss of being healthy and having an identity of good health. I have mourned and I have permitted myself to feel denial, anger, frustration and sadness. I knew all these emotions were an important part of working towards healing and finding a better quality of life despite chronic illness.

I also learned that healing is both physical and emotional. Often times, we need more than just medicine to help our bodies get to a better state of health. Having a meaningful and rewarding life often requires recognizing that healing is all around us. We must allow ourselves to heal by connecting to nature, to God or with people who can help us to rebuild our inner strength and mend our souls.

2. I chose to appreciate life.

Having had my life changed by chronic illness in my early 30s, I know all too well the value of appreciating all life has to offer. Former President John F. Kennedy once said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” I know that even if I cannot find a reason to appreciate chronic illness, I can still appreciate the ways that it has changed my life for the better. This is because chronic illness becomes a way of life that allows you to see what really matters, how important loved ones are and how to find blessings in the smallest of life’s gifts.

3. I chose to accept what I could not control and to control what I could.

I have allowed myself to accept that chronic illness is just one part of my life. Accepting it does not mean I hate my life or that I give in to my diagnoses. It means that I choose to feel my emotions about my illnesses while I work to manage my health and enjoy a different, yet good quality of life. I have learned that by building acceptance for what is out my hands and for being compassionate towards my experiences, I can redevelop myself. Moreover, I have found strength I never knew I had before.

Living with chronic illness may have closed some doors for me but it has also brought with it many unanticipated opportunities. Further, it has allowed me to take inventory of the standards I set for myself and of the goals I strive to achieve. I know what is important in my life and how to commit myself towards my goals. Last, I am well aware of the possibility of unexpected stress or medical problems that may arise and interfere with my ambitions. In being conscious to potential problems, I am able to better accept what I cannot control and to better control what I can.

4. I took control of my health.

While I recognize that my body and health are mine, chronic illness has, on numerous occasions, made me feel like a victim of circumstance. Self-pity does not make anything better and I was not able to truly take control of my health until I came upon this realization. If you are not getting a proper diagnosis or your medications are not working, it is your responsibility to do what is best for you. After all, taking charge of your wellbeing is the key to happiness and healing.

5. I reached out and served others.

I made a choice from day one to reach out so that I did not feel isolated. There are countless individuals who understood my fears and challenges and who have a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer. Deciding to reach out is your choice alone and it is something no one else can do for you. There are numerous support groups in your local community and online which offer a connection to support and resources for working towards a better quality of life despite chronic illness.

I also choose to serve others struggling with similar challenges brought upon by chronic illness. In doing so, I found that my own burden of feeling alone was lessened and I was creating new friendships and strengthening old ones. By finding ways to help others in your local community, online, and/or your church, you can make a difference in your life and the lives of others. As you share and help, your love and compassion will increase and you will find that your own trials are easier to bear.

Bettering Your Life

Tough times bring out the worst and the best in all of us. Choosing to allow chronic illness to better us is winning half the battle. In reality, none of us can change our circumstances, but we can choose to decide what living well and being better means to us.

Originally posted at Arthritis Connect.

Living with Chronic Illness Changes To Your Life

Waiting

Living with chronic illness is overwhelming and it brings with it a whole range of emotions from shock to anger to sadness to grief. Chronic illness can feel like a life sentence because it impacts our lives forever.  The good news, however, is that, while most chronic illnesses do not have cures, they usually can be managed with medication, diet, exercise and lifestyle changes.  Moreover, being sick doesn’t mean your life is over or that your plans have to change.  It just means that the timing and path likely will.

 I often think about at how my life has changed since chronic illness came into it.  For a long time, that unwanted and forced change created unhappiness in my life.  Over time, however, I have learned that if I allow myself to be flexible and open to change, I can adapt, accept, and even use the change to my benefit.

 Chronic Illness Has Changed Me

Like many others living with chronic illness, unwelcome change from chronic disease has been a daily reality for me.  Having two children, a career and dealing with the trials and demands of a work-life balance, I understand that illness can drastically affect a person’s lifestyle, relationships and future goals.

 Not only has chronic illness brought change to my life but it has also changed me.  Some of the change has been positive and some of it hasn’t.  Most notably, it has made me a stronger person – both in conviction and in the ability to see past my limitations.  At the same token, I have struggled with forced change from chronic illness, including failed personal relationships, a different career path, and a changing financial situation.

Making the Best of Life with Chronic Illness

Every day, chronic illness finds new ways to challenge me and I am reminded daily how being sick has forever changed me.  Prior to being diagnosed, I was a busy working mother who had plans to attend law school in addition to my already busy law office job and family life.  One very sad day, I realized I could not take care of two children, attend law school, work fulltime, and be chronically ill.  However, I still could decide what I wanted out of life.  I could either choose to dwell over my changed plans or I could make the best of my life even with chronic illness as a dominating factor.

How did I make the best of my life despite chronic Illness?

I chose acceptance.  I have often applied the Serenity Prayer to various aspects of my daily life and I have also learned to add it to my long term goals.  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”   I may not have much control when it comes to being chronically ill but I still have a choice when it comes to managing my health and being happy.

I offered and sought support.  I found that in doing so, I not only helped myself but I also helped others. I also found out that I wasn’t alone in the change that chronic illness brought to my life.  By sharing experiences with others, I learned that there are better ways to cope with change and that I can make the best of what life has to offer with and despite chronic illness.

I looked for the silver lining instead of asking “why?” I realized that while I didn’t have a choice in being sick, I had a choice in how I responded.  I could spend my time asking “why?” or I could ask “what now?”  My dreams may have changed but being sick has challenged me to find out what I am truly capable of and how I can use my abilities to my advantage.

Using Change to My Benefit

I understand all too well that chronic illness has changed my life and has forced me to change.  And sometimes, I mourn the person I used to be but in the grand scheme of things, I am happy with the person I have become.  Further, accepting the change that chronic illness brought into my life has allowed me to better focus on management of my health while continuing to find better ways to accomplish my goals and to challenge myself.

Dealing with chronic illness is no walk in the park. It can be demanding and it can be hard.  However, the ability to overcome and accept is a personal preference.  You can either choose to dwell on your weaknesses or you can dare to find your strengths and to look for a silver lining even when life forces your hand.  Forced change can either be to your determent or your benefit.

Having Hope and Keeping it Alive

Think positive, do not negative

I know it can be hard to have hope when you have spent years seeking answers and trying to find treatment options that allow you to live a normal life and even then, your life is not normal. It look me over ten years to get a diagnosis for what was wreaking havoc inside my body so I can tell you from experience that sometimes hope can dwindle. Despite that, I think it is important to hold on to hope.

So what is hope anyway? Hope is the belief that good things are head. It is a way of thinking, feeling, believing and acting in order to get past tough times. I have faced my own challenges since RA and fibromyalgia came into my life but hope is what has helped me to hold on. I have heard people say that hope and denial are similar because to be hopeful means to pretend things aren’t as they are. I don’t believe that. To me, hope means finding a way to deal with difficult times and overcoming fears and doubts. Hope means I can be honest and true to myself and I can look for positive outcomes. Without hope, survival is impossible.

Hope is different for everyone and it can be different at different points in our lives. These days, I hope for remission and strength to do what I need to do despite not being in remission. I hope that I can continue to be strong for my children and for my mother. I hope that each day living with chronic pain gets easier and I feel like my continued hope guides me to the person I strive to be.

Some people find hope through spirituality and/or religion. Sometimes people look to science and medicine for hope. Others look to those they love for hope. Hope can come from one resource or from a combination. When finding hope, there is no right or wrong way.

Hope also changes. That is what is so unique about it. Moreover, it is adaptable and accommodating and hope changes as often as our lives, our goals and our dreams do. When we find ourselves losing hope, we need reexamine our goals and find ways to be more realistic about hope. We cannot always change certain outcomes but we can look to hope for answers. After all, it is about changing your response and not necessarily what is out of your hands.

There are times where hope isn’t easy to find. The challenges that come into our lives are often out of one’s control. Life’s struggles can be daunting and can create uncertainty. Hope is what helps us to move past the disappointments and obstacles. Even when challenges are huge, hope helps us to find the courage and the strength to face them head on.

Just like many of us, I have had my ups and downs living with RA and fibro. For me, hope isn’t just about me; it is out those who love. My kids rely on me for hope and I am not about to let them down. If I don’t have hope, how will they have hope?

How does chronic illness define you?

 

The first piece of advice you can from people when you are newly diagnosed is to not let the disease define you. While there is good intention behind that, chronic illness is going to define because it changes you and your very way of living. You have to find ways to live with chronic illness successfully and most changes in your life are due to chronic illness being a part of it.

Living with a disease like chronic illness throws you into a whole new world and you start to question who you are and who you are becoming. You can no longer define yourself on the things you accomplished or had plans to accomplish. A part of us knows that the people who love us always will but the other part wants so desperately to connect to those people as we were before chronic illness came into our lives. Many of us have had to quit jobs, change jobs or cut our hours. We have also had to limit our involvement with friends and activities we once enjoyed.

Depression is also factor because getting depressed is a response to all the affects that the disease has our lives and our bodies. When you are depressed, you feel unworthy and it is hard to see through that logic. It is no wonder so many of us feel defined by our diseases.

Living with both fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis, I know that my health defines my day to day. It defines whether I can spend time with family and friends or whether my laundry and housekeeping will get done. It also defines my work day and whether I will make into work. We are always working so hard not to let our diseases define us but we don’t stop to wonder why they do. The only way to NOT let disease define you is work toward disease management but as hard as you try, your disease will always define you in some way or the other. How can living with chronic illness NOT define you?

I have learned that HOW chronic illness actually defines me is more important than the actual idea of NOT letting it defining me. Does it define me with anger, self-pity, sadness or resentment or does it define me with patience, empathy, endurance, and determination? I pick the latter every time. Does chronic illness push me further way from loved ones and God or does it bring me closer? Again, I pick the latter option.

Instead of spending so much time not allowing chronic illness to define us, we should allow it to re-define us in positive ways. HOW does chronic illness define you? Does it define you with anger, self-pity, sadness or resentment or rather does it define you with empathy, patience, endurance and determination? Does it push you further away from loved ones and God or does it bring you closer to these things? What things do you do so that chronic illness defines you in a positive light?

Developing a Positive Attitude

You have heard the saying, “attitude is everything.” When you suffer from chronic pain, your attitude plays a big part in how you feel and so it is important to develop a positive attitude in order to cope effectively. Like many of you, chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia is a daily part of my life and I know that maintaining a positive attitude is something that is easier said than done. People who live with pain have their good days and their bad ones. When the bad days come, it is hard to be in a good mood let along have a positive attitude. Living with pain is bad enough but when you add a negative attitudes, things go from bad to worse pretty quickly.

So how do you develop a positive attitude from life is all about living with pain, doctor visits, weight gain and a whole lot of chaos? We have all had to cancel plans because we are having a bad pain day and even when do decide to attend to plans, our attitude gets in the way. I think the hardest thing for me during my RA/fibro journey has been the weight gain because I stress so much about it that it keeps me from enjoying life. Between medications and being inactive due to pain, I feel like I have no control. For others, it could be not being able to work, anxiety over money, and/or medical bills that create a feeling of lack of control but the fact is that the only thing any of us have control of is our attitudes.

Despite having my moments where the burden of chronic illness and pain are a dominating factor, I have learned to maintain a positive attitude overall. Here are some of the things that have worked for me in maintaining a positive attitude.

1. I count my blessings. I do this every day, with or without pain. I think about all the things in my life that are good, about my loved ones and about all things that make me happy.

2. I remind myself that the pain will pass. When a flare occurs, things do get worse but they eventually get better. Even when things don’t seem to get better quickly, I continue to hope that that will because hope is good medicine for the soul.

3. I find ways to distract myself. The human brain can easily mask pain through other activity. For example, you could read a book, watch TV, go for a walk or have a phone conversation with a friend to distract yourself from the pain.

4. I connect with others. I am so glad that there are support sites like the ones I advocate for so that no one has to suffer alone. You can also connect with others outside of support groups such as friends and family. If you need help, ask for it but do yourself a favor and do not go through a painful flare alone.

5. I decide to be positive. I tell myself that my attitude is the one thing I have control of. Further, my attitude doesn’t just affect me. It affects my children, my friends, my family, and coworkers. Even if I cannot be positive for myself, I know I need to be positive for others in my life.

6. I choose to see past my pain. I think it is so important to try to see past your pain whether through spiritual means, such as meditation or religious, such as prayer.

From personal experience, I know that developing a positive attitude is like winning half the battle of living with chronic pain.  The fact is that none of us can change our situations.  However, if we strive to give ourselves a way to live better, we can see positive change.

Having a Social Life Despite Chronic Illness

I know that this is an area that a lot of us do not like to discuss. How is maintaining a social life even possible when you are always sick and in pain? Your healthy friends may try to understand and support you, but they still have a social life and that is nearly impossible for you on most occasions.

Despite your many obstacles, it is important to have a social life. This is because dealing with your condition and its unpredictability is not something you want to go at alone.

Some things to consider:

• Your true friends will try to understand your condition and support you so they will understand your limitations when it comes to your social life so don’t cut yourself out completely.

• Know that you are not your disease and your disease is not you. This distinction is important and it might help to remind yourself of this.

• Let you friends know when you are unable to be a part of something but also let them know that they can still ask you to participate.

• You should have two sets of friends, those with chronic illness and those without. It is important to separate your identity so that chronic illness is not a constant reminder of your limitations.

What other reasons are important to having a social life when you have a chronic illness? Have you been limited by your chronic illness when it comes to having a social life? How have you been able to overcome some of these limitations?