Chronic illness: Learn to be gentle with yourself

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In the last few years (meaning many), I have learned to live life at a new pace (meaning slower). And sometimes I even like it.

If you have a chronic illness, a rare disease, or even an undiagnosed illness, you will likely understand what I mean when I say that chronic illness strips away your level of choice. Choices like how you spend your time, where you go and what you eat. My illness is progressive, so each year it seems I can do a little bit less. I have less energy to burn, therefore I must move slower. So one of my highest priorities is to choose how to use the energy I do have well.

But this is harder than it seems. Because it’s not just prioritizing life choices that weighs you down when you have a chronic condition. The emotions involved in being sick can turn ugly. You might get angry with people who provide you with services. You can find yourself out-of-your-mind upset with medical professionals. You can take out your frustrations on your family. But unless you’re accustomed to playing the victim card, the person who typically suffers the most from your raging emotions is you.

Recently I’ve been sick. Coming down with a regular illness (like a cold) on top of being chronically ill just stinks. The illness stays around longer and seems to knock me down harder than it might the “normally healthy” person. So whenever I get a cold, I watch as it slowly turns the corner to bronchitis. And when I have bronchitis, for the first few days, I can do nothing. I lie in bed (propped up of course) and wait. Wait for the days to pass. Wait for the virus to exit my body. Wait for my energy to return. Just wait. And of course this happens whenever I get an illness flare too.

If you’re a caregiver of someone who is chronically ill, think about all that waiting time. For most of us who deal with bouts of illness that confine us to bed, we can have a lot of unproductive time on our hands. And when you feel like you got run over by a fleet of semi-trucks, being unproductive is about all one can manage. Sometimes, we can feel well enough to contribute to the world in small ways from our bed. But often, waiting is what we must do.

And during all this waiting time, our emotions can get a little messed up.

Healthy or ill, each of us have limits. We are not omnipotent. I never have liked the fact that I cannot leap over tall buildings in a single bound. Or that I’m confined to travel by foot or car; flying (like Superman) would be so much more efficient. But I cannot leap over buildings, and I cannot fly. Sometimes I cannot even get out of bed.

In my younger years, I was pretty hard on myself when I would get sick. Endless hours of television aren’t very activistic, and I love action. I used to blame myself, question God and get angry at each and every bad day. Part of this anger was dealing with undiagnosed illness. But part of it was I had no compassion for my own weakness.

Now…I work hard to give myself a break. To be gentle with myself; for I am fighting a hard physical (and therefore emotional) battle. And nowadays, I find my significance in life not in how many times I can pick the children up from school or go grocery shopping or meet a friend, but in the breadth and depth of my own humanity.

My spirit is rich because I no longer fight to rid myself of this illness. Instead, I wait steadfastly…knowing my down time, while not my choice, is what it is. And somehow, once I stopped fighting, I could even enjoy some of those sickbed moments.

Please, be gentle with yourself and your loved ones who have chronic illness. They did not choose to be sick. But in gentleness, they may find peace.

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