We are all interested in self-improvement, better relationships, financial well-being and an outstanding career. These are significant areas of our lives and most people will put forth various efforts to improve their situation in each of these categories. This will include developing new skills, finding better ways to manage our mental and emotional self and working hard to improve our working and personal relationships. By itself, this is a lot of work and for the average person, it will constantly challenge us to change and pursue healthier options. If we are physically in good health and have no other major life issues, this work, while demanding, can actually be intriguing and stimulating as we build a new us.
However, what happens if we are confronted with a lifetime or long term chronic ailment? What difference does this make in our efforts of self-improvement? We could be living with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and asthma among others. These diseases are taxing as they impact our vitality, energy, mobility and frequently our mental and emotional sense of well being. This can lead to anger, frustration, fear and sadness that underlie our daily experiences. These psychological pathologies further impact our physical ailments and make a bad thing even worse.
How to live a meaningful life with chronic illness.
So what is the solution to this problem? How do we improve our life situation while encumbered by a chronic ailment? This will require skill, knowledge, and various tools. The following ideas and approaches to this problem are based upon my personal experiences of living with severe Crohn’s disease for 48 years. This includes 10 surgeries, many other hospitalizations and ER visits, significant pain, and the occasional loss of hope along with being overwhelmed with sadness, fear, and anger.
My first realization about living with a chronic ailment was it is a lifetime ailment. No amount of wishing and hoping, at least based upon current technologies, was going to make it go away. I learned to accept this truth and importantly, stopped my fretting and fussing about this unfortunate part of my life. Each time I whined and complained and filled myself with self-pity, I felt worse. While it is legitimate to occasionally be overwhelmed with mental or physical discomfort, I needed to stop adding fuel to the fire through my incessant criticism of my fate. One understanding that helped me was that almost all people have issues in their lives. Some people might be regularly confronted with difficult relationships that they have little control over, others might struggle with various other ailments besides Crohn’s disease, and still others might be subject to chronic chemical imbalances that result in various psychological ailments. I was not alone with my illness and was not being singled out by the universe as the only one to suffer an uncomfortable situation. There was nobody to blame here, including my body. I just had a part of me that is ill and I needed to do my best to manage it. My approach was to see my illness as a young child that I treat through respect, nurturing love, comforting thoughts, and optimism.
The next point I recognized was there were still something I could do about being chronically ill. I could seek out the best possible healthcare professionals; look for new breakthroughs in technologies, and network with other people to garner new ideas. I did not have to sit there and take it. Over the years I have experimented with everything from medications, diet, meditation, acupuncture, EMDR, chiropractic, mental and emotional work and prayer. Not all of my attempts were successful but I have created a potpourri of skills, knowledge and tools that have allowed me to better manage this part of my life. Furthermore, my process of looking for healing options is ongoing and never ends as there is always more to learn.
I have also found that living with a chronic ailment can result in both physical pain and psychological suffering. Physical pain is something that is important to manage and I have been fortunate to live in a time when physical pain can frequently be dealt with through a variety of medications and psychological tools. However, psychological suffering was my most significant misery and was also my greatest area of potential healing. My suffering was based both upon my reactions to my ailment and my reaction to life in general. This includes my disappointments, setbacks, lost opportunities, and feelings of worthlessness that come from a chronic ailment and from my involvement with life. It was necessary to work on both of these together to effect any type of healing. This is because the psychological suffering from both my disease and living life had the same impact on my well being and that was it filled me with more anger, fear, guilt or sadness.
Creating an effective program for managing my anger, fear, guilt, and shame is a daily process. My approach has been through seeing many of my toxic emotional responses as worn out attempts at managing life; many that I developed as a child. I have used my mature adult mental skills to counsel this childlike part of me and create better and healthier responses to life. This process continues because my mind contains many unconscious beliefs and responses to life. Managing the many issues I am conscious of is something I can work on but I must still probe deeper to uncover the unconscious ones.
The other work that has helped me is to build healing psychological energies such as forgiveness, gratitude and joy. This has required me to be more cognizant of the many areas of my life that work well and acknowledge them as true gifts.
Finally I have experienced the meaning and transformative nature of living with a chronic illness. I think it has changed my values and focus in life. My early life was driven by acquisition, gaining ego strength, and acquiring a standing in the world through more properties, a higher social function or promotions. However by living with a chronic ailment, I have seen my attention add in inwardly confirmed values such as honesty, joy, love, forgiveness and understanding. I find it interesting that I had to experience some level of distress or conscious suffering to drive me to find meaning and new values. This might occur with all people at some point but I think living with a chronic ailment forced me to focus on these new values.
In my experience and opinion, life contains many meaningful opportunities and blessings for all of us, even those with a chronic illness. I spend a few minutes each day and ask myself what I learned today, where I need help or improvement, and what more I can do to help myself. I then note where life has blessed me and given me a gift. I consider myself to be fortunate and am grateful for life’s blessings, even as I live with a chronic disease.
About the author: Jim Patterson has spent the last 22+ years as a medical recruiter. He is currently writing a book on his experiences in this area. Jim has also recently written a book on what he has learned about managing a lifetime chronic illness; in his case Crohn’s disease. You can follow Jim on Facebook.