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The Importance of Accepting Your Chronic Illness

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There’s a big misconception around accepting chronic illness. 

The idea of acceptance may immediately make us think of resignation, that by accepting chronic illness, we are accepting that this is our life now and we are resigned to it. But actually, that’s not what acceptance is about at all. Accepting chronic illness is not about resigning yourself to illness forever, it’s about understanding and no longer fighting where you are right now. Because as long as we deny where we are, we can’t formulate a plan to move forward.

I appreciate that this isn’t easy. 

All our lives we’ve been taught about PMA (positive mental attitude) and how we should be looking on the bright side, never giving in. Accepting chronic illness can feel like the opposite of that, like we are focusing on how bad things are rather than how good we want them to be. Also, there’s this huge mental game we often play with ourselves. We can just about cope with difficult circumstances, as long as we don’t look too hard or focus too long on the reality. Because deep in the pit of our stomach, we have a fear, that if we spend too long evaluating our reality, it might be about the last thing we can take.

My recent acceptance story

I didn’t say it would be easy, only necessary. For nearly a year I bumbled along, consistently telling myself I was not perfect but definitely improving. And that as long as things kept going in that direction I could cope. But in reality, I wasn’t improving, not in the long-term. I would see improvements here and there. But I would also see times when I appeared worse. Deep inside I knew my lifestyle choices and trying to carry on “as normal” (although my life in no way represented what had been normal several years ago) everything would be OK. I could cope.

Ultimately though I was only fooling myself. While I thought I didn’t have the strength to admit in my thinking brain what the rest of me already knew, I was preventing myself from truly getting better. I was preventing myself from formulating a real path for healing in my life. I was dabbling, and in reality keeping going down that path was going to break me a lot sooner the dreaded exercise of accepting chronic illness and the impact it was having on my life.

In truth, acceptance is a gift. 

It’s the permission we need to stop fighting against reality. Which might I add is a pretty fruitless and energy-wasting task. And instead plan for some more worthwhile and real changes that may move us forward towards wellness.

One of my favorite sayings, because it’s so true, is “what we resist, persists.” By failing to accept our chronic ill health (or anything come to that matter), we are resisting and ultimately not giving ourselves a fair chance to move on.

At this point it is prudent for me to issue a warning with this advice. 

What we must accept is the facts about our situation, not a story.

As human beings we are storytellers, always have been, likely always will be. From cavemen carving visual stories into cave walls to our modern culture built entirely around stories in the news, films, TV, books, everywhere, we love to tell stories, hear stories and frame our life into stories. And that’s great. Imagine how boring our dinner party anecdotes would be if we were to tell them as a string of facts alone!

However, there are certain times when our story doesn’t serve us. When it can actually prove to be a disservice. Accepting chronic illness is certainly one of those times. The best way I can demonstrate this is with two examples (made up for demonstrative purposes):

I accept that my life has changed forever, that my body is now useless and I have to give up everything that used to be fun and good in my life. I accept that I can’t get out of bed or look after myself and that I will continue to be a massive drain on my family and friends. I accept that my life is miserable now and will never be the same again.

Whoah – don’t do that. That certainly will not help! But what about…

I accept that I am currently not at peak health at this time. That my body is signaling to me that it is currently struggling to keep up with the demands I am putting it under. I accept that there are times I struggle to get out of bed as my body clearly needs rest at this time, and I probably need to review what is pushing it beyond what it can cope with. I accept that at the moment I don’t appear to be getting better and so I may need to review my lifestyle choices to see if I can create a better environment for healing and productivity. I accept that while my life has changed considerably, and may never be exactly as it was, I have an opportunity to really listen and work with my body and mind and provide a better environment. I am also motivated and committed to doing this work, to giving my body what it needs and making the most of finding joy in my life in whatever way it comes.

OK, a little over the top and cheesy I admit, in reality that’s not how most of us speak to ourselves or how this is likely to go down. But actually, even if I’ve exaggerated it a little, the attitude behind that statement is what needs to be embraced when we face up to accepting chronic illness.

Blaming, shaming, beating up – they’re all part of the story around our illness, not the facts of the illness itself.

It’s also important not to be one-sided with the facts. 

I was reading an article in a newspaper the other day about a rare autoimmune condition. I was researching as it’s something my doctor is investigating for me. Everything I’ve read about this illness from genuine sources says that in the overwhelming majority of cases it is non-life-threatening and although it cannot be cured, it can be successfully treated in most cases. The newspaper headline however (when referring to an athlete who had the illness) was “Athlete defies life-threatening, incurable illness…” Factually incorrect? Well, not exactly, but clever use of the facts is another way of building story, that perhaps isn’t quite as representative of reality as it could be.

Most chronic illnesses are described as incurable, and if that becomes our focus for acceptance, the future sounds pretty bleak. But huge amounts of chronic illnesses have treatments that can be successful and patients who have overcome them using lifestyle changes alone. (I appreciate not all, but focusing on maximizing life rather than minimizing it is important for mental health, and before you say it, I know that is easier said than done.)

Take Action on Accepting Chronic Illness:

1. What are the facts about your health, that relate to your life right now? (Don’t project the future or dig too deep in the past as this is unlikely to serve you in this exercise.)

2. Write an acceptance statement that includes these facts, but also any other facts important to you, e.g. I have a loving husband who will do anything to help me heal, or I have a helpful neighbor who will continue to provide assistance with household tasks.

A small side note here, both examples focus on people. Yours don’t have to. But if you don’t have a support network of people then the first thing I advise you is to try and find some. Whether it’s a local support group for your condition, an online community, trying to befriend a neighbor or making contact with an old connection. Chronic illness is hard enough, please don’t try and face it alone. (Chronic Wellness Community is a Facebook Group where you can connect with a positive community who understand and can support you.)

3. Feel free to cry, rage, whatever you feel you need. Just because the act of acceptance is positive for your future, doesn’t mean it isn’t bloody hard right now!

Note: just try not to break anything when raging (relationship, household items, etc.). You could probably do without the extra energy requirements it’s going to take to tidy up afterwards.

4. Try reading your statement to yourself in the mirror. This sounds a bit silly I appreciate but when we have to look ourselves in the eye and admit something (particularly if we’ve been avoiding it), it helps it to hit home. Try doing it a few more times if you feel it’s beneficial. If you want to go full woo woo, why not add the statement “It’s OK, I love you, we got this,” or something similar to that end.

5. Try sharing your statement with someone else. Again, this can be hard. We can no longer stick our head in the sand when we have to admit something difficult to someone else. Whether it’s a friend, associate, a loved one, a doctor or a coach, whoever. Commit these words to someone else and you will instantly feel more accountability to them.

6. Finally, download my “Take Back Control” workbook from my website. Once you have found acceptance, there’s nothing holding you back from getting straight down to it and working out how to move forward.

My only additional advice here is, be kind to yourself! Start small and listen to your mind and body, don’t push things that aren’t ready to be pushed, or if you do push and your body shouts no! then step back a little and reformulate.

If you decide to give accepting chronic illness a try, please let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.

What is it that you are ready to accept in order to move on? If you have already accepted something in order to move forward, how did it go? What changes did you see?

This post originally appeared on Chronic Wellness.

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Photo via m-imagephotography on Getty Images

Originally published: December 11, 2017
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