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4 Coping Strategies That Can Help in Life With Chronic Illness

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These are four things I wish someone had told me when I first became sick 12 years ago. I’ve learned them over the years, and hope they help if you’re newly diagnosed with a chronic illness, or serve as a reminder if you’ve been living with one for some time.

1. Talking About It

Talking about illness tends to make people uneasy. It’s usually because of their own fears surrounding illness, so don’t take it personally. Talking about illness can also be revealing. The people you think will be there for you might not be. On the other hand, you could find comfort and support from the most unexpected places. In this way, illness re-arranges your contact list, and illuminates the keepers.

There will also be times when you don’t want to talk, and that’s OK too. Even when asked with the best intentions, the raw feeling of having to explain your condition can still be too much. If it feels safer, you could try talking to a counselor. There’s no shame in asking for help; facing your emotions and feelings takes courage. Talking isn’t the only way of expressing and processing your experience either. Try exploring different creative avenues as an outlet (e.g. journaling, poetry, painting, singing, etc.).

2. Setting Boundaries

People can often say insensitive, hurtful things without even realizing it. Many can be quick to judge how you’re doing, tell you what you should or shouldn’t do and tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel. It could also confuse people to see you smiling and feeling good on some days versus others. You’ll likely have to explain this doesn’t mean you’re cured, on more than one occasion. This doesn’t guarantee they will hear you. This doesn’t guarantee they will understand. The same applies for when others are puzzled as to why you’re “still sick.” In these moments, remind yourself that there is no timeline for healing. You can’t rush what’s beyond your control, and there is no right or wrong healing journey. Validate the one you’ve chosen that is right for you. There will also be people who say things that aren’t even remotely true about your illness. In any of these situations, it’s OK to tell people that they’re not being helpful, or their comments are hurtful or misinformed. It’s also OK to ignore any commentary, and conserve your energy. If it persists, don’t be afraid to take a step back from a relationship. You deserve respect, and establishing healthy boundaries ensures that.

3. Feeling Grief

It’s normal to experience grief in chronic illness. It’s normal to question yourself, your identity, meaning, purpose, values and trust in life itself. Know that grief is not processed in five neatly defined stages you graduate through with seamless ease (I’m sure you’ve seen the diagrams). Grief is actually disorganized, confusing and can rear its ugly head when you least expect it to.

painting by the author
By Christina Baltais

Beware of grief triggers; those are the things that remind you of your former life and prior abilities. If you encounter them, know it’s natural to experience sudden outbursts of emotion. Don’t be afraid of having a good cry if that’s what you need; you might feel better afterwards. Anger is also a very normal response to grief; try to find an outlet for it. Remember any loss you grieve is valid. There’s also the possibility that you may never go back to your “former self.” Illness changes your body and vitality, and you may never be the same as you once were. A part of grief is learning to befriend an entirely new version of yourself and your body. Grief is messy, but I promise you, you will be stronger for it.

4. Reaching Out

There will be many times when you will feel completely and utterly alone – even if you’re in a crowded room of people or if you’re by yourself. The truth is most illnesses are invisible, and people don’t walk around wearing signs and advertising. To help find others experiencing what you’re going through, join online chronic illness communities. They’re an invaluable tool for encouragement and validation. When you’re sick, you may also experience shame surrounding needing help. You are not selfish and a burden because you have needs. Please know it’s OK to ask for help. Cut yourself some slack; living with chronic illness is a full-time job and is no easy feat.

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Originally published: November 28, 2017
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