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The Things My Chronic Illness Has Taught Me

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I find that it’s easy to be negative when you have a chronic illness. Let’s be honest, every person facing a challenge could recount a negative experience with a medical professional or bemoan the lack of understanding from friends or family. 

So I want to do something a bit different and highlight the positive experiences that can emerge out of having a chronic illness. I do this not to downplay the challenges an illness can bring, but instead to emphasize there can be moments of gratitude in this new and challenging life.

My illness has taught me so much about myself. I’ve learned I’m a perfectionist (despite the list of failed projects in my wake), and I really like being helpful. This means the loss of feeling useful has hit me pretty hard. I’ve learned that self-compassion is difficult, but it is perhaps the most useful thing you can cultivate to help you in your life. Lately, I have turned all that external effort inward and found joy in simple acts of compassion like texting a friend or acknowledging what I’m going through is tough.

I’m learning how to ask for help. Despite my loss of functioning, I remained fiercely proud of my independence. I could cook, clean, split firewood and prime a pump by the age of 14. Being able to ask for help (gracefully) is not only a great skill, it’s an essential tool for surviving in this world. We’re social creatures for a reason, and asking for help has shown me not only that people care about me, but that it’s also a normal part of living in our social world. 

Despite its well-publicized pitfalls, social media can be used to create real community among the chronically ill. Like any good friend, Instagram consoles me when I’m down, makes me laugh when I’m anxious and distracts me when the fatigue and pain are bad. The vibrant and fiercely supportive chronically ill community on the platform should not be underestimated for its ability to offer genuine solace, advice and an open ear for people whose disabilities would otherwise leave them isolated. 

Being forced to take a step back from life has clarified for me what is important, and at the top of my list is my relationships. Relationships sustain and nourish us. They’re miracle workers that keep us lifted and grounded. The good ones are absolutely key to surviving a life being ripped apart by illness. I’m grateful for the time to help me bring perspective to my priorities and to spend it on the people I’m lucky to have in my life. 

Having a chronic illness has also allowed me to challenge the “cult of busyness” prevalent in the Western world. I used to pride myself on being productive, got a kick out of ticking off a to-do list and had a genuine sense of pleasure and identity from “doing.” Since getting sick, I have learned to just be for the first time in my life. Nowadays, I can sit still and not do a thing for about 15 minutes. Granted, this is partly because I’m always exhausted, but it’s also a skill I’ve cultivated by overcoming my restless mind. And this “not doing” is a vital and productive form of recovery “work.”

Chronic illness can still be a nightmare for me, and yet, every day I also experience sweet moments of gratitude and perspective. I have learned to cherish the people in my life, love myself better and slow down and figure out what genuinely fulfills me and brightens my world.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: August 31, 2016
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