How the Hardships of Chronic Illness Have Taught Me to Be Grateful
I have so much to be thankful for, even in the midst of the loss of my husband and illness that has robbed me of my former life. I have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, insulin resistance, autonomic dysfunction, adrenal fatigue, dysbiosis, osteoporosis, hypothyroidism, MTHFR mutation and endometriosis of the digestive tract – all diagnosed after contracting a rare lung infection called Nocardia wallecei.
Prior to becoming ill, I was working 12-18-hour days as a crisis clinician for a large hospital group in Dallas and as a therapist in private practice. I was only a couple of years into my new career – one I had dreamed about my entire life – when my life came to a screeching halt. Now I spend most days on my couch, unable to do the things I used to do. My outings mainly consist of going to the pharmacy, the grocery store and to church. On the rare occasion I divert from the usual, I almost always pay for it later. Still, I’m grateful.
I’m grateful for the new perspective I am gaining through my illness. Being chronically ill has taught me lessons I might not otherwise have learned. I have been forced to slow down and live in the day I’m in. I’m no longer “zooming,” always thinking about the next thing on the list, multitasking. The list has now been cut down and my attention has been forcibly shortened to doing one thing at a time instead of several.
Therefore, I have gotten so much better at living each day for itself, realizing it doesn’t serve me to dwell on the what ifs, what was and what is to come. Not that I don’t think about those things, or that they aren’t always in the back of my mind or even that I don’t get overwhelmed some days. I do. I am human after all. But I’ve learned to make a conscious decision not to dwell on them. I try to acknowledge the fears and anxiety and move through them, instead of sitting in those emotions. I like to say it’s OK to have a pity party once in a while, as long as you don’t stay too long. Nobody needs a pity party hangover! And so I’m grateful for the gift of learning to live in the present while being mindful of the future.
Part of this new perspective is having to learn I no longer have complete control over my choices. Illness has a way of either making decisions for you, or forcing you to make them. Sometimes I have options, but my illness always gets a say in the decision. In fact, most of the time, my illness gets the bigger say. There are times when I override it, however. I do that knowing there will be a physical cost, but in those times, it’s worth it. I’m grateful for the brief periods of respite from my symptoms that allow me to push through and enjoy simple pleasures, even with the costs that inevitably come.
Usually, I am forced to spend my days in my house, on my couch. In my illness, I’ve had to learn how to be bored and to accept it. Most of us have difficulty with boredom, with being still. But when one doesn’t feel well, it’s imperative to make friends with boredom. There are days when my mind wants activity, but my body disagrees. That can be frustrating, but more often than not, because my body needs to be still – bored – my mind goes along with it. It takes too much energy for a mind/body competition. I’ve learned to embrace the idleness. And so I’m grateful for the gift of acceptance.
In this stillness, I’ve also learned to be more dependent on my faith. I’ve always had a strong faith. However, the quietude thrust upon me has also pushed me to connect even more with God. I’m learning to trust in a way I hadn’t in the past. This trust gives way to peace, which in turn leads to gratitude. I’m so grateful for my faith and the strength it has given me.
I gain strength not only from my faith, but also from the support of friends and family. I often read about people with chronic illness, who have lost relationships, even close relationships because of it. Being chronically ill can be draining on loved ones. I’m so fortunate my friends and family have stuck by me. It’s really quite remarkable and I don’t take it for granted. Because of my illnesses, I don’t have the energy to call them, to go out to lunch or dinner or to go shopping like we used to, with any regularity. But my family and friends still call, they still invite me to do things, they still visit, even though I often can’t reciprocate. They still ask me how I’m doing, even after two years.
My life has been fraught with difficulties: a husband who was chronically ill with several rare conditions and eventually died in 2013, following a year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer, plus financial struggles and health issues with my daughters. It seems like there is always something, yet my family and friends are ever-present. They have never made me feel like a burden. I’m blessed with a solid tribe that continues to stand by me through it all.
I’m grateful my foundation of support has never wavered in their belief in me. The thing about chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia is they are invisible illnesses. So while I can put on makeup and act like I’m “fine,” most of the time I’m not. But the outside world doesn’t know that. I know my illnesses are a mystery to most people. I hear stories about how family and friends doubt others with these conditions, about how they are made to feel like they are faking or it is psychological. Thankfully, I have never experienced that. I did hear it from a couple of doctors early on, but not from my family and friends – if they ever had those thoughts, they never said anything to me. They never made me feel as though I was a hypochondriac, or faking it, even though I don’t “look sick” (when I’m wearing makeup). And so, I’m grateful.
Finally, I’m grateful I have several doctors who believed me and followed up on my symptoms, instead of telling me, “You look good! Go back to work.” (Which is what my pulmonologist said to me in the early days of my illness. That’s when I realized makeup was masking my symptoms for him and others. Vanity has no place in illness, apparently.) I was fortunate to find doctors who not only believed me, they validated me and are treating my conditions. It took a year and a half to find them, but I am so grateful for supportive doctors. I know that is not the norm with these conditions.
For any of you who have people in your lives who don’t support you, whether it be doctors, friends or family, I urge you to limit your exposure to them (and keep searching for doctors who will listen!). Make it a priority to surround yourself with people who will lift you up and validate you. This can only aid in your healing. There is no room in chronic illness for doubters or anyone who brings you down. Your illness has that part taken care of already. Find what you can be grateful for in the midst of your hardship. You will be rewarded. It’s a small thing you can do to help yourself. Every moment of gratitude gives you points towards healing.
Because of my illness, I’ve learned to strive to be grateful. It is a conscious decision; my goal every day is to live in gratitude. I continue to try to stay in the day I’m in, trusting God’s plan for my life and putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, one moment at a time. I’m not always successful at it, but I will always keep trying, because some days we have to lace up our cement shoes and move forward, whether we feel like it or not. I’m grateful to have a team backing me up and oftentimes holding me up, with a safety net of love and support. I hope you too will find your safety net that will give you the fortitude to put on your cement shoes and slog through this journey called chronic illness.
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Thinkstock photo via Zdenka_Simekova.