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The Great Teacher That Is Chronic Illness

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Editor's Note

Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

I know that if I tell people I’m glad I got sick, they will think I’m putting a positive spin on things. Of course, I grieved the life I had before, and everything that went with it. But going through a long and complex illness had led to an awakening of sorts. Suddenly, you are removed from a lot of the trials and tribulations of modern life. You have time to reflect on the system you were part of and the path you happened to be on, and what led you there. For perhaps the first time in your life, you have the space to get to know yourself inside and out. You question things. Were you happy? What does happiness look like for you? What kind of person do you want to be? What is your purpose in life? I’ve shed a lot of ideas I had about myself and about life in general, and for these revelations, I am extremely grateful. Let me explain what I’ve learned:

How to Slow Down

As we all know, modern life is nonstop. Sometimes it’s hard to even catch your breath. The impact that our packed work schedules are having on our mental and physical wellbeing is becoming more and more evident. People are demanding more of a work-life balance. I welcome this shift in attitude, as burnout is one of several factors that instigated the onset of my ME. Back then, it was still frowned upon to take a day off work if you were sick, or exhausted. So I pushed through. I pushed and pushed until my body stopped for me. You get the picture. So, like many, my health forced me to slow down. No more caffeine, no more late nights spent in smoke-filled bars. I had to recharge my batteries. It was hard; at first, I felt guilty, even ashamed of having to rest. Now I embrace the slow lane. I don’t think I am built for a high-pressured lifestyle, and that’s OK. Whatever I do in the future, I will prioritize flexibility and downtime.

The Value of Solitude

I’ve always been an introvert, but like many, I still felt uncomfortable about time spent alone. What did being alone say about me? How could I fill my time to distract myself from the thoughts in my head? I never really sat with myself. Through mindfulness techniques, I’ve learned to appreciate silence. I’m not afraid to put my phone away and examine my thoughts and emotions. Spending time alone can be scary at first, because it’s been given such negative connotations, but it doesn’t have to mean that you’re lonely. You don’t have to sit in silent meditation; you could also go for a walk in nature, bake a cake, take a long bath, or engage in any activity that makes you feel in the moment (not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past). Tell yourself that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend time alone; in fact, it’s perfectly natural. That’s the key to enjoying solitude (you can call it self-care time if you want!).

The Meaning of Unconditional Love

When you get really sick, sadly, only the strongest connections survive. Those true friends who stand by you, and family members that will look after you and care for you through those dark times (not to mention supportive furry friends). It is a shock when your circle diminishes, I won’t lie. It can take a while to recover. But it drives you to protect and forge more meaningful connections in your life over superficial ones. This is not to say you won’t meet new people along your journey or reconnect with lost friends later on. Anything can happen. But it definitely makes you grateful for the people who do stay in your life, as in my experience it takes a village to overcome chronic illness. I’ve also learned how to love myself through thick and thin. Don’t underestimate the importance of your relationship with yourself, as you ride the stormy seas of illness. Beating yourself up doesn’t get you anywhere, while being your own cheerleader can. Be gentle and compassionate with the person in the mirror; your longest relationship will be with them, after all.

You Are the One Who Can Heal You, Not Your Doctor

We are taught to believe that the man in the white coat has all the answers. But that’s rarely the case for anyone with a chronic condition. He can make it better, but only with pills. And those pills come with a host of side effects that you need to take more pills to alleviate… you see where I’m going here. Taking my power back and realizing that I could make the lifestyle changes that would be far more likely to have a lasting impact on my health, rather than just a sticking plaster, was by far one of the greatest lessons I have learned. While I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a lot of support from practitioners of various disciplines along the way, who guided me through the dark and uncertain times and pointed me in the right direction, I have had to do a lot of the work myself. Particularly on my mental health, which has been transformational. I’m not healed yet but am no longer popping as many pills (though I totally understand when they are needed) and am looking at alternative routes to health.

Nature Is a Great Healer

Spending time outdoors in green spaces is priceless for our well-being (though I know it’s not easy for everyone to access, especially if you live in a city). I credit my life in the countryside for giving me the headspace to heal. I needed nature’s quiet and green embrace to process the trauma. Grounding, listening to birdsong with the morning sun on your face soothes the nervous system. It’s a certain kind of magic that cannot be bottled and sold. Many are reporting that eating a diet rich in plants, including a range of fruits and vegetables (all colors of the rainbow), is assisting them in healing from a variety of diseases. Maybe Hippocrates was right! I’ve also found herbal supplements and tinctures to be a lot easier to tolerate than pharmaceuticals, and now use more holistic treatments, where possible.

What Pain Really Is

Using mindfulness meditation, I’ve managed to alleviate a lot of my pain. The first step was understanding what that pain actually was: a lot of it was in fact my emotional reaction to the symptoms (or sensations) present in my body. The migraines were there, but my stress response was making them a lot worse, or even bringing them on in the first place. The pain in my arms and shoulders was made much more intense by my wishing it would go away. This is known as secondary suffering. (Primary suffering being the original symptom.) This was invaluable knowledge to me and I’m keen to share it with the rest of the chronically ill population and those who experience chronic pain. Resisting and fearing your symptoms can amplify them tenfold, but if you learn to release the emotions associated with your pain, and befriend your fear, you may start to find relief. So what are you waiting for?

Getty image by Swiss Media Vision.

Originally published: February 15, 2022
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