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Finding the Silver Lining in My Life With Chronic Illness

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What is the silver lining of your chronic illness?

Pema Chodron, American-born Buddhist nun says, “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” I find that living with chronic illness can be like this – like a refinery – burning away the impurities and stripping us down to our essential, elemental and indestructible selves. Sure, it would be nice if we maximized our growth during times of ease and comfort, but that just isn’t how most people are wired; it’s in the fires of adversity that our backbones are forged. Chronic illness has offered me the opportunity to grow in ways I never imagined. It has stretched me and changed me.

One gift it gave me was the opportunity to stop and take a look at my habits. I was born people-pleaser. I built my life around giving to and serving others, caring more about others’ opinions of me and rarely stopping to think about my needs or the toll things took on me. I didn’t know how to say “no.” Illness forced me to learn how to change this dynamic. Out of necessity, I learned how to say “no.” Slowly and with intention, I’ve learned how to attend to my needs. Part of this has been learning how to ask the question “what is it that I need?” and listen deeply for the answer.

A related gift that illness has given me is to learn how to ask for and receive help from others. Prior to getting sick I was the one on whom others relied. Rarely if ever did I ask for help. Mind you, this way of operating, while seeming selfless, was loaded up with self-importance and judgment. It has been a slow learning curve to learn how to ask for and receive help from others. But if I enjoy giving help, why can’t I allow others the opportunity to do the same? Learning to ask for and receive help has strengthened my relationships with the friends who have remained – allowing us to deepen and balance dynamics that may have been imbalanced by my prior, one-sided habits.

The most significant silver lining of my illness is a deep friendship and love for myself. I grew up with the worthiness wound so many of us struggle with – the one that says love has to be earned or that somehow I wasn’t enough. In being stripped of so many of my identities: by having to stop working, having to drop out of the ways that I was used to participating, I had to reckon with who I was at my core.

If I wasn’t a human doing, what was my value as a human being? In this journey I experienced a transformation and understanding that I am not this illness, I am this wholeness. I am worthy. I am enough that I don’t have to justify my existence. What matters most is not what I do but who I am. Whether or not I am healthy, I am well because it is well with my soul.

I can’t feel connected to Chodron’s quote every day; I don’t always believe I’m becoming indestructible. Some days I do feel completely destroyed. But more days than not I look to find the invincible in me, the sure, solid, true core in me that remains after each diagnosis, each hardship, each relapse, and I once again return to well. It reminds me of a buoy out in the ocean – it gets tossed, pummeled and covered at times by surging seas, and yet it remains: tethered to the seafloor, righting itself once again as the waves, wind and weather die down.

Have you identified the silver linings of your illness? Have you found the gifts? If you haven’t, I challenge you to do so. I believe you’ll find them. Talk about them at dinner tonight, ask those around you for their reflections, think honestly about what you’ve learned about yourself in this difficult process. I’m eager to hear from you and know what life has offered you in this storm.

This story originally appeared on Annette’s blog.

Getty image by Augustine Fernandes.

Originally published: September 23, 2019
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