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How to Come to Terms With the Limitations of Your Illness

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To say that there is a stigma in our society surrounding the word “can’t” might be the understatement of this century. Popular slogans tell us to “Just Do It,” and to, “Sleep when you’re dead.” Modern lifestyles push us to take on more and more, and we are seen as weak or strange when we are unable, or do not want to do so. Admittedly, one of my favorite quotes is Yoda’s admonition to, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

For me, this mindset comes from my innate, aching passion for life. It’s fueled by a deep craving for greatness in everything I do. It’s what makes me intense, driven, competitive, and hardworking. It’s what gives me unlimited potential. And it’s also what almost killed me.

I’ve heard a number of health practitioners state that their sickest patients, the ones who are the most challenging to unravel and get well, are those who are high achievers, accomplished and driven. Is this because these people’s genetics are truly different than others? Maybe. Or because somehow they respond differently to their environment than those who don’t end up as sick? Quite possibly. But I think many people end up as sick as they do because they don’t come to terms with their “can’t” until it’s too late.

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my “can’t.” For more than nine years, I didn’t accept that I was truly ill. I constantly pushed through truly excruciating symptoms, like level 10 pain, exhaustion from weeks of no sleep, and unrelenting crushing fatigue even when I did sleep. I’ve pulled myself together through constant life-threatening immune reactions, disguised embarrassing disasters of bodily functions, and participated physically in activities that I had no business attempting with a smile on my face – while inside my body, my mind, and my spirit were dying a slow and agonizing death. Yet I still didn’t listen.

Why am I telling you this? Because I believe I could have spared my spirit a lot of pain, my body a lot damage, and my mind a lot of anxiety if I had just learned to accept, or even embrace, my “can’t.”

1. “Can’t” Is Not Weakness

The biggest hurdle when it comes to dealing with “can’t” is intimately understanding on a heart-knowledge level that being unable to do certain things because of your illness does not mean you are weak, lazy, unintelligent, or unmotivated. This is where I was stuck for almost a decade. I had been told my whole life that if I couldn’t perform at peak levels, it must be my fault and that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. It meant that I had a character flaw. So, when my illness started to seriously affect my work quality in the career I had worked so hard to achieve, I compared myself to those around me, and told myself that I was just “too stupid” to do the job. I listened to the lies that I was worthless and accepted the treatment from those around me who looked down on me and wrote me off. I internalized their judgements and blamed myself for “failing.” It never dawned on me that I wasn’t even making a fair comparison.

In fact, never in all of my judging myself – not once – did I stop to truly account for the fact that I was ill. Yes, I said the words, “I’m having health issues.” If fact, I said them a lot. But no one around me took them seriously because I didn’t take them seriously. No one believed them because I didn’t even believe them. Not really. Yes, I knew I was very, very sick. But instead of listening to my body, mind, and spirit and acting on those cues, I heard only the doctors who said, “It’s all in your head,” and saw only the glares from my coworkers who had written me off as lazy. In my actions, I refused to even see, let alone accept, my “can’t.”

I want to talk to you directly now. You over-achievers. You burn-the-candle-at-both-ends doers. You know-you-can-conquer-the-world types. You did not choose your health issues. You didn’t work hard your whole life just to become a “lazy” and “unmotivated”on a whim. That’s not you and that’s not what is happening in your life. It’s not a matter of motivation, drive, desire, or ambition. It’s not a matter of not trying hard enough. It’s a matter of your body revolting against the true self of your mind and spirit. It’s a matter of your earthly vessel failing the real and eternal you that lives inside. The true and eternal you is still the same as it has always been: driven, motivated, intelligent, and strong. Once you accept this and understand the gulf between the two “yous,” you can take strides to get your body back on board so that a more collected, collective you can get back to truly living.

Accepting your “can’t” isn’t weakness; it’s strength. It means that you are strong enough to look your health challenge squarely in the face and get after the business of conquering it. It means that you are brave enough to accept that your life right now must take an unexpected focus. It means that you are willing to admit your physical “can’t” so that you can open your mind and spirit to what you can and must do to regain your physical health. And the only way you can allow your focus to properly shift to healing is to first completely embrace your illness and your “can’t.”

2. “Can’t” Allows Healing

Sadly, it took me waiting the many years until I received a diagnosis to objectively remove myself emotionally from the equation and truly look at how sick I was and understand that I wasn’t weak at all. I say “sadly” because not accepting my illness and my “can’t” early in the game held me back many years in making any progress toward diagnosis and treatment. Why? Because if you don’t fully believe and fully accept that you are sick, no one else will ever believe and accept it. Not your family. Certainly not your doctors. If you look deep in your heart, listen to your body, and know in truth that you are sick, accept it. Fully allow it. Internalize it. Feel it. Believe it. Trust it. Embrace it.

I can’t stress this enough. Because until you wholly feel the weight of it, until you embrace it and believe it, you can’t get truly angry about what your illness is stealing from you. And until you get angry you cannot mentally and emotionally prepare for the battle ahead of obtaining a full and accurate diagnosis, proper treatment, and finally optimal health. This is how coming to terms with your “can’t” sets you on the path to healing.

If you’re early in your health struggles, this next part may shock you. The medical system (at least in the United States) will not facilitate you regaining your health. Not. At. All. Unless you are exceptionally fortunate, your journey is not going to look like: get sick, see a doctor, get better. No, if you have a chronic or complex undiagnosed illness, generally speaking you need to prepare for battle. You need to arm yourself with knowledge and with the mental fortitude to be your own advocate. You need to prepare to fight for your life. You need to push for answers and drive the process. No one else will or can do it for you.

This is why embracing your “can’t” is so important. Because when you truly realize what you “can’t,” you get really, really angry at this invisible thief of life that is your illness. I don’t mean “bitter” angry, I mean “motivated and determined” angry. And you’re going to need that determination to drive the (sometimes grueling) battle that lies before you. And that drive to press forward in the battle is the only thing that will lead you to wellness. The. Only. Thing.

It’s all you, baby! So get really angry at your “can’t” and resolve in your soul to do everything you humanly can to regain your health.

3. “Can’t” Is Not Never (Or Forever)

One of the more valuable pieces of advice that I’ve been given is to take the words “forever,” “never,” and “always” out of my thoughts and vocabulary. For me, realizing that “can’t” was just the current season of life I was in was comforting. Just because you have been ill awhile doesn’t mean it is forever or that you will never regain your health. I can say that with complete confidence because, if you’re reading this site, then you are possibly searching for answers. You may be researching your health issues and becoming empowered.

You can look at your “can’t” from a big picture and more detailed perspective. Maybe right now you can’t travel, but in 18 months you might be able to again. Maybe today you can’t take a walk in the sunshine, but perhaps tomorrow you can. It’s important to discard “planning-type” thoughts because these thoughts bank on the fact that things are forever, never, or always. I’ve found that these mindsets really are not conducive to a good quality of life even when one is completely well. This is even more relevant when you are dealing with a health state in which you don’t even have a “typical” day, let alone an extended period of time that embodies normalcy. It will do you much better to take steps to structure your mindset and lifestyle to allow for flexibility and variability so that you can accommodate both your “cans” and “can’ts” from day-to-day. Take this as an opportunity to really, truly learn that nothing is forever, never, or always.

4. “Can’t” Makes Room for “Can”

Another critically important thing that coming to terms with your “can’t” does is that it makes room in your life and in your emotions for your “can.” Some of your “cans” may look something like:

  1. I can make healthy, life-giving meals for myself to help my body heal.
  2. I can research my illness for myself so that I have the knowledge to ask good questions at my appointments and to make educated treatment decisions.
  3. I can apply to utilize the benefits I’ve worked hard throughout my life to obtain.
  4. I can maintain a positive attitude, despite how I feel.
  5. I can make time for self-care activities that will help to heal my body.
  6. I can surround myself with people who encourage me in my wellness journey.
  7. I can purposefully structure my life so that it supports wellness.

These are broader examples of things we can do. Depending on the nature of your illness, you may need to drill down to more bite-sized “cans.”

  1. Even though I couldn’t yesterday, today I can go for a short bike ride.
  2. This morning, I can rise early and sit peacefully to watch the sun rise since I slept well last night.
  3. Right now, I can practice mindfulness or other stress-relieving practices to help with the symptoms I’m experiencing.

Don’t get hung up on committing to daily schedules of “cans” or expecting some type of minimum performance of “cans.” While it’s absolutely important to have bigger, more overarching “can” goals, embrace what you can do today and accept that tomorrow’s “cans” may look very different based on your symptoms. Every day is a new opportunity to discover and put into practice the things you can do.

Here are some practical steps that can be used to work towards peace with your current “can’t:”

1. Ponder and Meditate

Allow your mind the quiet time to truly contemplate, process, and meditate on where you are currently with your health and how that affects what you can and can’t do currently. Purposefully set aside time to sit quietly, ponder and grieve what you can’t do right now. This is not a happens-in-one-sitting kind of thing. Just learn to let it be there and exist in your mind. Make the time to fully process and accept, but don’t get stuck here. Once you’ve had time to really ponder that, set aside time to start dreaming about what you can do. Think outside the box and meditate on what you can do now and what you want your longer-term (but loosely-timed) goals should be.

2. Write It Down

Journaling is another great way to get the thoughts about your “can’t” out and explored. So often I find that taking the time to physically write out my thoughts helps me to truly process them in a way that I can move past them. As with the meditation and contemplation mentioned above, it’s important to take the time to journal thoroughly about your “can’t,” but don’t get stuck there. Once you’re ready, start journaling about what you can do now and your “can” dreams for the future. Celebrate your successes. Write detailed stories. Make lists. Do whatever works for you. I have a list on my phone of things that I want to do in the future. Some are big and some are small, but anytime I come across something really neat, I add it to my “bucket list” of sorts. The same concepts will work for your “can” goals.

3. Talk to Someone Else About Your “Can’t”

This may be as structured as regular counseling, or it may just be that you find a really good friend and explain to them what you’re working on and ask for their help in this process. If you use a non-professional, such as a friend, for this discussion, you probably want to be up front with them about what you’re wanting to discuss. Let them know why and ask up front that they provide a supportive, listening ear only and keep any temptations to encourage you to “just push through” your health symptoms to themselves. It’s imperative that they fully understand that the whole purpose of the conversation is to get to a point of being comfortable with your “can’t,” not trying to “fix” the issue. Even with a professional counselor, it’s important to be up front about what your needs are at this point, which may be more validation and empathetic listening than true direction on the matter. Any direction given should be focused on getting you to contented acceptance of your current “can’t” and then working on truly realistic “cans.” Because of this, it might be helpful to work with a counselor that has experience working with chronic illness or grief issues. Coming to term with your “can’t” is a grieving process in many ways. So, make sure that you and your counselor (or listening friend) understand that and are working under that type of paradigm.

4. Talk to Yourself About Your “Can’t”

If I had to choose only one thing for you to get really, really good at doing to make peace with your “can’t” it would be this: learn to talk back to the discouraging thoughts you have. That is, talk to yourself about your “can’t.” This is extremely important when it comes to those “forever, never, and always” thoughts. Such discouraging thoughts are lies and are not helpful to either your current situation or your future wellness. It’s very easy to be sucked into thoughts of, “I’m never going to get better,” but this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

It’s also very important that you actively manage your thoughts since your thoughts and attitudes have a direct impact on your physical wellbeing. Actually and audibly talk back to thoughts of forever “can’t” and audibly proclaim thoughts of, “Today I can’t ____, but I can ____, and I can get better.”

5. Be Encouraged and Well

Coming to terms with your “can’t” may be difficult, but it’s so important and it opens the way for healing and wellness to come in time. You are unbelievably strong to live with your symptoms day in and day out and even stronger to accept and face such a challenge head on. Be encouraged that your “can’t” is just for right now and that nothing is forever. For today though, taking your illness into your own hands and actively working at wellness is something you can do and it’s what will lead you back to a state of vibrant health.

Follow this journey on Researched Wellness.

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Originally published: November 28, 2017
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