Adjusting to Life with Chronic Illness

by Mary J. Yerkes

Adjust to life with chronic illness?

Mary J. YeresIt might seem counterintuitive, but according to experts, you can live a full and meaningful life despite having compromised health. Millions of people living with serious chronic conditions have used their struggles as a springboard for emotional, relational, and spiritual growth. Many have gone on to launch new careers, friendships, and businesses.

“Eventually, you adjust to a new normal,” explains Lisa Copen, founder of Rest Ministries, Inc.™, an organization that serves the chronically ill.

According to Copen, once you find the right doctor, medication and support, you can learn to cope successfully with your limitations—as long as you remember that you are not just dealing with your physical well-being; instead, you are learning to cast your relationships, as well as you emotional and spiritual health in a different light.

Adjusting Relationally

Couples should devote as much time to managing their relationship as they do to managing the illness, advises Deborah B. Dunn, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

“Find a third-party, outside of the family, who is supportive, encouraging and able to help you process the changes,” she says. “Don’t let your illness define you or your marriage.”

She also advises against telling children “everything will turn out fine.”

It may not.

Family relationships are not the only ones to suffer. Friends, co-workers, neighbors—even people from your faith community, may not know how to respond to the “new” you. Some may reject you because they are uncomfortable with your physical or emotional pain.

Copen also advises relying on a confidant who understands what you’re going through.

If you are having trouble finding support at the local level, use the Internet to find the help and support you need. In addition to Rest Ministries, organizations like Invisible Disabilities and Association™ and the national organization or association that supports your condition can offer practical tools and resources to guide you.

Adjusting Emotionally

For many, healthy grieving, which includes periods of shock and numbness, denial, anger, disorientation, and intense emotional pain, is the greatest challenge. Experts say it is essential that you engage your grief reaction. If you do not, they warn, it will surface in other, more destructive ways.

Here’s another important point experts want sufferers to remember: While, the “grieving timetable” is different for everyone, changes in your condition may provoke additional losses and seasons of mourning. That’s why it is important to practice patience with yourself, eat well, get sufficient rest, express your feelings—journal, cry, sing, and talk to others about your pain.

Scott Twentyman, M.D., a practicing psychoanalyst in the Washington, D.C. area, urges the chronically ill to watch for signs of depression and to seek professional help when needed.

“Trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, weight gain or loss, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable, lack of energy and certainly suicidal thoughts… all are indications of clinical depression.”

And if you are depressed, don’t rely on medication alone.

“Treatment for depression is more effective when medication is used in conjunction with therapy,” says Dr. Twentyman.

Here are some additional tips that will help you adjust to life with chronic illness:

  • Educate yourself about your condition.
  • Recognize your limits and learn to say no.
  • Accept help from others.
  • Build fun into your life.
  • Focus your physical and emotional resources on those things that matter most.
  • Share your gifts and talents with others.

Facing the Future

One of the biggest fears those living with chronic illness face is about the future. While no one can predict it, the experiences others have faced can help it if we have to deal with chronic pain or illness.

Trish Robichaud lives with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis and depression.

“My health challenges…have taken my life in a direction that I would never have gone with the illness.”

After her diagnosis, Trish built a home-based business that gives her flexibility and allows her to manage her condition.

“It’s been a blessing,” says Trish, “and I thank God daily for where I’m at in life today.”

Then there’s Linda Aufrance. She suffers from Lupus, but she believes her health issues have taught her children compassion and sensitivity for those who are hurting. She says that it has also had a positive effect on her marriage.

“As hard as it has been, my illness has brought me and my husband closer,” she says.

Despite the obstacles those living with chronic illness must overcome on a daily basis, experts agree that, yes, people living with chronic conditions can live full and meaningful lives, regardless of the severity of their condition.

Choosing Life

But living a meaningful life with chronic illness, requires that we make some important choices.

Although our chronic illness might rob us of many things, it cannot take from us our greatest freedom, the power to choose our response to our circumstances.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl shares this story:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. “

We can choose to become bitter about our illness, or we can choose it as a catalyst for growth. We can choose to focus on what we cannot do, or we can look for opportunities to cultivate latent talents and use the abilities we have. We can choose to believe the most significant seasons of our lives are past, or we can choose to grieve our losses, reorder our lives and relationships, and find the help and support we need to move forward in our lives.

The choice is yours.