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4 Problem-Solving Hacks for Chronic Illness Warriors

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The thing about life is, not everything is going to work out the first time, or even work out at all. Life with chronic illness is no different. The difference for chronic illness warriors is, we don’t have the extra energy and time to keep going round in circles making ourselves unwell — we have to learn quicker than most how to problem-solve.

Here are four problem-solving hacks — learned the hard way by me so you don’t have to — that might just help you work out why you’re hitting that brick wall time and time again.

1. Do you believe everything your brain tells you?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is, apparently, the definition of insanity. And yet, we all do it, ill or not, every single day. It’s like our brains trick us into thinking that, despite a lifetime of knowledge, data and evidence to the contrary, this time we will suddenly be able to go for a run without nearly killing ourselves, or that we somehow developed the ability overnight to wake up at 5 a.m. feeling refreshed and able do more in one day than we have ever done in one week. I’ve written those “to do” lists myself, ones I now look back on and think, “Who the hell did I think I was?! Wonder woman?!” Stop believing everything your brain tells you, because despite all those quotes about following your head rather than your heart, your head can be just as misguided as your heart — maybe even more so. Be brave, be honest with yourself, look at the reality of your situation and ask yourself if you need to try shaking it up with a new approach.

2. Are you getting in your own way?

Sometimes things get in the way and it’s because of the illness, but sometimes it’s easier to blame everything on the illness rather than admitting we are also at fault. And just because you are at fault doesn’t mean you meant to sabotage yourself or were even aware of doing so, because so much of what we do as human beings happens on autopilot. Our reactions are sometimes so quick and easy to explain away that we put things down to bad timing, not feeling in the right frame of mind, bad luck, tiredness or not feeling well.

Sometimes what we really mean in those moments, deep down, is: I’m afraid, I need comfort, I need love, I’m overwhelmed, I don’t want to be in this situation, I’m uncomfortable, I’m lost.

This happened to me a lot when I started to work online and put my writing “out there” for the world to see. I would be fine one moment and would feel frozen like a rabbit in headlights the next. In that moment I would find all sorts of excuses not to press send, all sorts of other “priorities.” Sometimes, after a piece went live, I would wake up the next day unable to focus. I felt sick to my core with fear and would often have days of feeling numb and being unable to do anything useful. For people with chronic illness, the last thing we need is reactions that bring about more illness. Now when I feel like this, I sit calmly, breathe and ask myself, “How do I really feel right now?” and then, “What do I need in this moment?” Normally I need to do something to make me feel better, something that re-connects me to my purpose and why I do what I do — I find my passion again. Next time you feel blocked, next time you see the signs of sabotage, give yourself permission to stop and check-in with yourself and how you are feeling.

3. Do you really want it?

OK, silly question, but this thing you’re striving for or working towards, be honest: do you really want it? Take a moment and really think. Where did the idea come from? Was it born out of a healthy curiosity and drive/passion to pursue it? Or was the seed planted there by someone else — by friends, family members, teachers? Was it born out of a wish to “show them all” what you could do, from a place of anger and frustration? Is your wish to succeed more about not wanting to let others down or feel like a failure than it is about how good you will feel from that achievement?

The things we do for someone else don’t give us the same drive to achieve them as the things we really want to do. It’s why we always gravitate towards the thing we find easiest or most fun and fulfilling on our “to do” list. Don’t get me wrong, real drive can come from negative places, from that desire to prove everyone wrong, but unless that is paired with a genuine wish to achieve it for yourself, why bother? Why commit all that heart and soul to something unless the outcome is going to bring you joy? Sometimes the “someone else” in this situation is actually an older version of yourself, representing things that mattered to you once. But now you have changed. Even chronic illness itself has maybe changed your outlook. This can be a really hard question to ask yourself. It’s going to make you uncomfortable, but I promise you there is no greater feeling of freedom than finally walking away from a dream that was never your dream to begin with. And the thing with dreams is, there are always new ones to create.

4. Do you believe you deserve it?

Do you believe you can be happy, that you deserve happiness? Yes, of course! But do you believe you can be happy without caveats? How often do you attach your happiness to an outcome? “I’ll buy those jeans once I lose 10 pounds,” “I’ll take that amazing holiday when I get a better job,” and the one most widely used by chronic illness warriors everywhere, “I’ll be happy once I’m well.” It’s not so easy to believe we deserve it when we give ourselves so many hoops to jump through, is it?

As someone in a “tentative recovery” from an illness that has a really, really annoying habit of fooling people with a reprieve only to provide heart-breaking relapses, I choose to believe I am in recovery. I say it with caution but yes, I hope this is a genuine recovery, and I’m OK with saying that. But I made a promise to myself that I would be happy regardless. I am four stone (56 pounds) heavier than when I first became ill. My confidence took a real hit and I’m playing catch-up with some areas of my life, but I’m starting to believe. After years of telling myself but not really believing it, I am starting to believe I deserve happiness. Unadulterated, unfiltered happiness. Happiness that is unattached to achievements and outcomes. Ask yourself: if there was nothing standing in your way, what would give you joy? Then stop asking for permission to have it — because you, my warrior friend, deserve happiness. Right now.

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Originally published: October 20, 2016
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