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8 Ways Living With Chronic Illnesses Would Help Me Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

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I’m a “Walking Dead” fan. In fact, my mom and I get together every Sunday night to watch our favorite group of post-apocalyptic characters struggle to survive and maintain their humanity. I’m also sure a few fans have on occasion thought about how they might do it better. I know I have. With 16 chronic and life-threatening illnesses, I believe I would be the most unlikely candidate for survival.

My dependency on 21st-century medicine and pharmacology would make me a huge liability to any group that takes me in. Since no one is going to risk their lives to scavenge for hearing aids batteries, once my supply ran out, I wouldn’t even be able to hear the Walkers coming. Although, oddly enough, that actually might be an item still left on drug store shelves.

Six seasons of “The Walking Dead” have taught us that the advantages of youth, fitness and strength mean nothing without the right psychology. I believe the lessons I’ve learned from living with chronic illness have made me unbeatable when it comes to the psychology of surviving the end of the world. Basically, all you healthy people need me on your team.

I was born with the majority of my illnesses and had lived most of my life not knowing what I experienced was different from the lives healthy people lead. It was all I had ever known, so I just thought it was normal. I thought the fatigue and pain were just signs of me not being tough enough and not symptoms of a physical disease. Therefore the obvious remedy was to just work harder, so I relentlessly pushed myself. That approach allowed me to obtain success, but it only worked for so long. As my health worsened and the stabilizing forces in my life fell apart, it became brutally apparent that my perception of my disorders had to change. It really wasn’t until this last year when I was diagnosed with several autoimmune disorders that I truly came to understand and accept the significant impact these illnesses have on my life.

Since then, I have been searching for a way to properly explain what life is like living with chronic illness, especially the psychological aspect of it. Chronic illness is not just a physical experience; it drastically alters your life in ways that may be hard for healthy people to comprehend. On the last season of “The Walking Dead,” Rick made a comment about the people of Alexandria that has stuck with me: “They have only lived and they don’t know what it is to survive.” This immediately made me think of life with chronic illness. The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that the zombie apocalypse is a readily understood and an easily imaginable correlate for chronic illness. Thanks to the immense popularity of “The Walking Dead,” most people who may not relate to chronic illness will be able to relate to similar aspects of the zombie apocalypse.

The following is how my experience living with chronic illness mirrors surviving the zombie apocalypse.

1. Everything you were before is gone, and the accouterments of self are striped away. You now live in a world that will not allow you to use your previous definitions of self. Your career, hobbies, talents, passions, abilities, future plans and even relations seem to disappear, leaving you with the job of piecing together a new sense of self.

2. What once gave value and meaning to your life will drastically change. Maybe you were proud of being a good employee, advancing in your career or pursing academic goals. Maybe having an active social life or traveling the world gave meaning to your life. Well, that is gone. Now you must find value in the things you never attributed worth to or even thought about. You washed your hair today? Amazing, that’s some serious progress! You organized your medical records. Way to go, champ! You finally completed those obnoxious fasting labs? That definitely deserves a Facebook status update!

But it isn’t all desolation and despair. From the ashes of your loss can grow the seeds of a new beginning. Chronic illness can help foster a deeper sense of satisfaction and appreciation, teaching you how to drink deeply from life’s simple pleasures.

3. Most of your time and energy is spent maintaining the bare necessities for survival. Before finding the town of Alexandria, the “Walking Dead” group was near starvation, wandering through the woods. All their energy and time had to be spent on finding food, water and shelter. No one was thinking about finding a pasta-making machine. As it is with chronic illness, your focus becomes myopic as you function on a day-to-day level. In addition to feeling like sh*t and barely maintaining basic ADLs (activities of daily living), your days are now consumed by multiple doctor visits, physical therapy appointments, dealing with medical insurance issues, picking up prescription medications, making countless phone calls to actually obtain these prescription medications, struggling to understand disability documentation, completing diagnostic testing, waiting on hold to schedule appointments, researching your condition, staying informed about recent medical advances for your condition, keeping all your medical records organized and refilling your pillbox. Thinking about learning how to make pasta from scratch and what brand of pasta machine to buy is a luxury: one that will most likely take from you the ability to maintain the necessities.

4. I know money no longer has value during the zombie apocalypse, but I have to mention it because chronic illness is ridiculously expensive. Oh, no one told you when you were 7 that you should be saving every penny you earn to pay for the medical costs associated with staying alive? You aren’t independently wealthy? Gee, that’s too bad. I guess you have two options now: have no income and receive Medi-Cal or risk your health by working full-time and maintaining private health insurance. Clearly, you should have prepared better for this.

5. The most consistent stability is the lack of stability. The “Walking Dead” group now has a home, and they live within the comfort of four walls with a roof above their head. Even with this sense of permanence, chaos constantly finds its way into their lives. The most carefully planned missions come with the very real knowledge that things could go very wrong very fast. Chronic illness tends to create chronic instability. No matter how carefully you have planned, allotted your energy resources and prepared in advance, there are always times where you have no choice but to be at the mercy of your disease. You have to learn to live with the reality that you are not in control and that anything may happen. This goes both ways, though, and there is also the possibility for things to be far better than what you imagined.

6. People who have not experienced the reality of the zombie apocalypse struggle to understand your experience. Chronic illness can be a very isolating experience.  You feel like a foreigner in the land of the healthy. Just like we all rolled our eyes when Deanna stabbed the Walker in the chest (how does she not know to strike the head?!), people with chronic illness might roll their eyes when they hear their healthy friends say, “The hubby and I just took a spontaneous road trip this weekend. It was only an eight-hour drive and we didn’t get much sleep, but oh my God the coastline was so beautiful. We should totally go together sometime.” Well, it must be nice to live in that world.

7. Although it may feel like it, the world hasn’t ended and life isn’t over. You definitely have experienced trauma and have had to endure physical and psychological pain, but you are still here, and you can make a life that has meaning and value. Although it won’t seem easy, you can be a whole person again. It may be very different from the person you once knew, but it is possible.

8. It comes down to your ability to maintain hope. When were Morgan, Rick, Sasha, Abraham and even Deanna all at their worst? When they were losing their sense of humanity and hope. As it is with chronic illness. These diseases may be physical, but how you perceive being ill, how you allow yourself to react to being sick, what role and meaning you give to the physical pain, what you allow illness to take from you and what limits you put on your own life can hugely influence the impact chronic illness has.

Exhausting, disheartening and challenging as living with chronic illness is, I think it is more than possible to not only survive, but also to thrive.

Woman wearing blue top with the words "seizures," "lupus," "migraines" and more diagnoses written on her upper body

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Originally published: March 1, 2016
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