If Chronic Illness “Defines” Your Life, Make These 3 Changes Right Now￼
Your affliction is a part of you, not the summation.
It’s entirely common and, in many cases, acceptable to let one factor of our lives serve as the defining factor. For the young professional, when he or she conceives of themselves, the first thought that pops to mind may be: “I am a lawyer” or “I am an artist” or “I am a programmer,” to name a few examples where career is the defining element for the person.
At a different stage in life, the trait that most prominently defines a person – in their own estimation and, quite likely, then, in the eyes of others – may be that of motherhood or fatherhood or as a grandparent. Other people may define much of their persona by their religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs. Still others may be defined by a love of the outdoors or adventure or travel. And some may take a more nuanced view of themselves and think first and foremost of their definition as of, say, a dreamer, a maker, a searcher, and so on.
Disparate as all of these definitions of self may be, they all have one thing very much in common: they are elective. You choose your career, you choose your hobbies and passions, you decide (in most circumstances, anyway) to have a family. You believe in your faith or you are comfortable to eschew religion.
What no person chooses is to be afflicted with a chronic illness, thus what no one should do is let a chronic illness define them as a person. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but with a concerted effort of the mind and the will, and with a few action steps planned, you can reorient your thinking and not let chronic illness define your life anymore.
What Constitutes a Chronic Illness?
Before we can talk about changing the way you think about yourself through the lens of someone with chronic illness, let’s make sure we’re on the same page as to what defines chronic disease. According to the CDC: “Chronic diseases are defined broadly as conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.”
Common examples of chronic diseases fall into two broad categories, the first being those that can be lifelong conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, or mental health issues like depression. In the other category, we have illnesses that can last for many years but that must be cured at some point, or else will lead to early death; these include cancers, heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, and hypertension, to name a few.
While some chronic diseases are more serious than others in terms of how rapidly they can overtake and even shorten a person’s life, it would be a fallacy to compare one to the other and diminish the negative impacts a less-deadly (or less rapidly concerning) chronic illness has on a person’s overall wellbeing and quality of life.
Broadly speaking, whether you are battling cancer or have a long history of depression or you have Type II diabetes, these three steps can help you improve your health, restore some mental wellness, and help you stop being defined by chronic disease.
Improve Your Diet and Exercise and Avoid Risk Factors
Poor nutrition, an overly sedentary lifestyle, and exposure to avoidable risk factors, like use of tobacco, alcohol, and other harmful substances, are major factors that worsen chronic illness. By improving your physical health with better nutrition and fitness and a reduction in harmful habits and behaviors, you will improve your overall wellness, including your sense of self-worth and optimism.
As you start to feel better about yourself, physically and emotionally, it will almost always follow that you will not see your chronic disease as such an overbearing force in your life. This will be true both because you will have more positives in your life, and also because your healthier body will be better able to fight back against the illness. From depression to diabetes to high blood pressure and beyond, a healthier body is one less afflicted by chronic illness, and that means you will feel better about yourself and less like a sick person.
Accept Your Limitations and Embrace Your Abilities
So much of a person with a chronic illness’s life becomes defined by the ways that condition limits what he or she can do. If you get stuck in that sort of thinking, you will have a chronically negative outlook to go along with your chronic disease. You need to fully accept the fact that, yes, your condition is going to limit some of the things you want to do in life; you can (and should) journal about or talk about these things out loud, allowing yourself to acknowledge and process them such that they don’t consume you.
And then, as a counterbalance to those limitations, generate lists of all the many things you can do in spite of your condition. These can be things you already do – your job, your hobbies – and also aspirations you have that are fully attainable even given your chronic condition. By talking and/or writing about all the things you are able to do, you will be able to see yourself as capable and with potential, not as limited. This acceptance of limitation balanced by embracing all you can do is the basic difference between ableism vs. disablism.
Establish a Meaningful Support Network
Dealing with chronic illness is hard work – it’s even harder if you’re doing it alone. You need to have people in your corner that understand what you are dealing with – emotionally as well as physically – and that can be there for you when you need it. If you already have friends and family to lean on, then do it, but remember that many people, despite how well meaning they may be, might not offer good support. There is such a thing as toxic positivity, where someone always tells you to look on the bright side or that it could be worse or to just keep your chin up; those such admonitions show a lack of understanding and offer little support.
If need be, go outside your current friend and family network (or be selective within it) and look for a therapist, a support group, a spiritual leader, or others who can meet you where you are, emotionally speaking, and help you work toward greater positivity.