Four Things I’ve Learned from Chronic Illness

Woman in a red raincoat standing on the shore of a beach with arms outstretched

I was in middle school when my body first began pushing my limits of pain and understanding of normalcy. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was finally able to acknowledge that the pain my body encountered daily may not be normal or primarily due to athletics.

When I first started facing my health concerns, I had no idea how complicated it would all turn out to be. So I happily changed my diet, integrated various supplements, and tried different protocols. But then I did that again, and again, and again with only enough results to know that I couldn’t give up. I thought it would be simpler, more straightforward, and just plain easier, but it was complex and I grew resentful.

The process of accepting my body and the permanency of some of these health concerns was slow and didn’t happen for several years.

I viewed my body as the enemy; I suddenly began believing that all the fight in me would still result in no progress – at most I would stay stable in my un-wellness. I raged against returning and new symptoms. I physically struggled to breath when feelings of inadequacy, permanency, and general despair collided.

I couldn’t accept what life had given me because it didn’t seem fair – I wanted normalcy, a life without pain, and an easy fix.

Eventually, something shifted and I began to accept my body and its struggles. It was slow; there was no moment of sudden awakening or insight. I just couldn’t fight myself any longer – there were bigger fights to have and my own tendency for self-destruction needed to be laid to rest. I had to intentionally change my word choices, admit that I needed help, and speak kinder to myself.

Throughout this whole process, I’ve learned four main things (plus many more) from accepting chronic illness.

If you’re not careful, chronic illness has a way of stealing more than just your health.

When your life is entangled with daily fatigue, pain, and numerous other struggles, it can be easy to begin to lose joy and misplace your identity. Our health is just our health. Yes, it is valuable. Yes, it affects us daily. Yes, it can be all-consuming. However, it is not the core of our identity and there can still be joy and happiness. When we calm our minds, we are able to think with more clarity. In doing this, we can identify with our chronic health issues without claiming them as the core of our identity. For example, we can adjust simple phrases such as “I am gluten-free” to “I eat gluten-free”. Your health and choices are a part of you, likely a big part, but they are only a part and not the whole definition.

Emotions are a part of the journey

We are mind, body, and spirit. To neglect our emotional health can be just as damaging as ignoring physical illness. In hindsight, I have experienced nearly every possible emotion during my healing journey anger, relief, sadness, disbelief, skepticism, denial, confusion, worry, shock, (in)validation, worthlessness, grief, numbness, happiness, isolation, shame, and disappointment. This is a part of the process, yet no one will feel or react the exact same way. Acknowledge and validate what you are feeling (whether your mindset is primarily a positive or negative) and find healthy emotional outlets – writing, exercise, support groups, meditation, music, etc.

My body is not the enemy

Our bodies are not the enemy and symptoms are not adversaries to be aggressively silenced. Our bodies have a story to tell and our symptoms are trying to speak to us, even warn us of something greater. There is enough unrest and chaos happening inside chronically-ill bodies, the mind doesn’t need to contribute more. As challenging as it can be at times, we can pause our minds and say, “I will keep fighting but I will do it with kindness and compassion and I will listen to my body”.

Acceptance does not mean passivity

Acceptance does not mean passivity; it means adjusting your lifestyle, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and finding joy in the mundane. Continue to press forward with an unrelenting belief that you can persevere.

This part of the journey is just as important as every other step. Accepting and acknowledging the effect our health/bodies have in our lives can be difficult, but it has the potential to bring peace, grace, and strength – all while continuing to press forward.