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3 Things Having a Stomach Bug Taught Me About Those With Chronic Illness

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This week I was sick. Not chronically sick. Not even break-your-leg sick or appendicitis-need-operation sick. Merely stomach bug sick.

Uncomfortable, rather depressing, but half a week later and I was over it and back at work.


But something had changed. While I was unwell I learned three very important truths about chronic illness – and I don’t want to ever forget

1Chronic illness means you are ill.

Don’t get me wrong, I never thought it was a walk in the park.

All my life my mum has battled various autoimmune diseases, and in the past few years I’ve watched my younger sister go through many similar struggles. I know personally how chronic illness can drain families, disrupt lives and sabotage futures.

But there’s nothing like being sick yourself to remember that the act of being sick in itself is awful.

It’s not just about the consequences or the collateral damage.

The minute-by-minute pains and nausea, the feelings of exhaustion, the frustration and the helplessness – it’s a horrible thing to experience.

I never want to forget that chronic illness means you are sick, and being sick is awful.

2. Chronic illness can affect your reputation.

Perhaps this sounds silly. After all, if you struggle to get out of bed every morning, do you really have time to dwell on what other people think of you?

I’m not sure. I don’t have a chronic illness. But for the three days I struggled to get out of bed, it certainly mattered to me.

Stomach bugs are such elusive creatures. Am I still sick? Am I better? Will the nausea return? The uncertainty was awful.

Would I be letting my friend down if I didn’t go to her engagement party? I wanted to go – but if I have to leave early because I feel ill, what would the other guests think of me?

To my mind an “upset stomach” seemed like such a silly excuse. I began to double think even my own perceptions. Was I imagining the nausea?Could I actually just be lazy?

If this was my experience with a brief illness, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be ill every day.

I never want to forget that chronic illness means uncertainty and sometimes loss of face.

3. Chronic illness does not mean you are helpless.

I’m not talking here about the amount of tasks you can accomplish, or whether you can drive yourself to your doctor appointments. Chronic illnesses may limit your ability to do all that or more.

Yet while I was sick, my mother showed me that even with a chronic illness you can care for someone.

Someone with a chronic illness can still love.

I fell sick while visiting my parents. That was unfortunate, because if my mother caught the stomach bug she would end up in the hospital, possibly for days. Yet as I went miserably to bed that first evening, shaking and sweating, my mother came out of the kitchen and said, “If you need someone in the middle of the night, you can wake me.”

It sounds like such a simple offer, but it was not.

My mother made it knowing she might fall sick, and be ill for weeks. She made it knowing she already barely sleeps, and another night with hardly any rest would leave her even more exhausted and dizzy. She made it, knowing better than anyone what it would cost her, but she said it anyway.

That is love.

I always want to remember that having a chronic illness does not mean you are incapable of great acts of love.

And so tomorrow I’m going back to work. I’ve lost my stomach bug and gained a greater sense of empathy. I cannot ever claim to know what it is like to struggle chronically, but my mere three days of pain has taught me to stand in awe of those who do.

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Originally published: September 15, 2017
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