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The Tiny Accomplishments We Should Celebrate in Our Lives With Chronic Illness

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For many with chronic illness, our lives change drastically before we even receive a proper diagnosis of our disease. It took about seven years from the onset of symptoms to diagnosis for me. By the time I was properly diagnosed, life involved moving between my bed, my sofa, and my bathroom. I ate processed convenience foods, never exercised, felt depressed and frustrated, and spent the bulk of my life in front of a television set. I was a lump of pain and sorrow.

Recovering from a lump of pain and sorrow to find some humanity and function isn’t an overnight transition. Many people misunderstand diagnosis and the start of treatment for chronic illness. They think diagnosis and treatment will make me well. But that isn’t the case. It is called “chronic” for a reason. It does not go away. It keeps affecting me. I don’t get “better.” Wellness can come and go like the tides. It is an elusive and complex concept for those of us who cope with chronic conditions.

I have multiple co-occurring conditions. And the most affecting of those are fibromyalgia and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I work constantly to achieve the greatest possible wellness despite these conditions. But neither of them are going to simply go away or be healed.

And because my illness will never go away, the lump of pain and sorrow is a tempting state to remain in full-time. I believe all of us with chronic pain and mental illness would be totally and completely justified if we chose to be the lump of pain and sorrow for the rest of our existence, because these conditions can be terrible, life-altering and incurable. We could just keep living on in this painful, psychologically affecting state — indefinitely.

So, it becomes easy for some to focus on what you cannot do. I cannot clean my house alone. I cannot vacation. I cannot go dancing. I cannot work. I cannot pay for things. I cannot cope with various aspects of life. I cannot, cannot and cannot.

list of accomplishments and pen
Christy’s schedule of accomplishments.

But I believe the way to wellness is not through the “cannot.”

The way to wellness lies in the celebration of even the tiniest of accomplishments.

About two years ago, I was constantly struggling with the fact that I could never finish my “to do” list for the day. I did not have enough energy. I couldn’t sustain projects until their end. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I was overwhelmed by the need to nap. So, to alleviate some of the “beating myself up” that the list was inspiring, my therapist suggested I pick only two or three things to do each day.  And that gave birth to the “big three.”

The big three were written down on a dry erase board — three tasks per day. And they started out as the most simple of tasks. “Shower.” “Dishes.”  “Pay bills.” I would cross off the three items as they were completed. And every time I crossed one off, I would have a miniature moment of celebration. (“Woohoo! I showered!”) I used this process for over a year before graduating to what I use now, which is an expanded version of the same concept, and now contains eight spaces (three of them filled with meals to achieve more balanced eating).

The other day, as I was shifting some stuff around in my office, I discovered the big three template, and I realized that I had moved past that marker of success naturally, on my own, as I began to find greater wellness. I got off of the sofa slowly and methodically, with celebrations of each and every accomplishment — no matter how small they might seem.

I now celebrate all the tiny things in my new eight-spaces-per-day calendar. I still celebrate showering. I celebrate eating, napping, cleaning and even watching “Game of Thrones.” Because they fill a space in the plan for the day, I celebrate them as amazing accomplishments.

Managing my life in microscopic accomplishments helps me feel like I am getting somewhere in life. And a side effect of that feeling is that it starts to offer me encouragement, faith in myself and in my body, and the hope that a tomorrow I can be proud of is just over the horizon. Celebrating the smallest of accomplishments gives me joy. And joy is a catalyst for more joy.

Christy Bloemendaal after shower
Christy after accomplishing a shower.

Allowing myself to celebrate mundane tasks — ones that healthy people may take for granted every day  — allowed me to tackle increasing my wellness in very small increments. And it helped me look at the positive side of things, instead of always dwelling on the negative. It made me take pride in my ability, instead of feeling the shame and stigma of what I wasn’t able to do.

Today’s list includes breakfast, food prep, lunch, writing, dinner and the aforementioned watching of “Game of Thrones.” And while that list might seem silly or inconsequential to some, it is huge for me.

It is an amazing transformation to behold when you compare my early big three to today’s list. And it is even greater when I see that every single item on that list is meant to make me even better, if possible.  Naps and yoga and meditation and doctor appointments and swims all get put on the list. Because those are tasks that improve my life and increase my wellness and make me even more able and more joyful.  And I celebrate each one of those tasks. (“Woohoo! I made waffles and went to the rheumatologist!”)

So, if you have chronic illness, try celebrating all of the miniscule tasks you can. Woohoo! You brushed your teeth! Woohoo! You left your bed! Woohoo! You walked to the mailbox! Put all the thought and energy you are able into joy over the little ways you are tackling life. And if you love someone with chronic illness, support them in that celebration. Tell them how amazing they are, even when they accomplish nothing of (seeming) consequence. Celebrate with them!

Think of the ways you might treat a toddler. We cheer when they take a step or share a toy. And that is the type of unbridled enthusiasm that I put toward my list for the day.

Doing so has helped me gain wellness. And there is no guarantee that I will remain as well as I am today. My situation could change in an instant. Then I will go back to a “big three” list, or even a “Woohoo! You got out of bed!” celebration. Because I know the only way to cope with the illnesses that plague me is to keep fighting for the smallest achievements and keep looking toward positivity and hope.

Celebrating all the little things makes that coping possible.

So throw yourself a party (on the sofa, in your pajamas, alone or with a BYO-Everything-and-clean-some-stuff-while-you-are-here invite). Celebrate all the things you can accomplish, and toss aside any thoughts of what you cannot. And keep on doing that — indefinitely.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s the hardest thing you deal with as someone with a chronic illness, and how do you face this? What advice and words of support would you offer someone facing the same thing? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 13, 2016
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