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Living With Chronic Illness

When living with chronic illness or chronic pain it is very easy to become completely focused on avoiding symptoms, consumed with symptoms or consumed with the daily challenges of survival and thus forget to focus on “Living.” It is also very easy to allow your symptoms or fear of symptoms to control your life completely.

This is very understandable. Illness and pain can be all consuming and very frightening, but continuing to live is exactly what you need to do. Finding a healthy balance between your limits and living is essential for your mental, physical and spiritual well-being.

You don’t want to let your illness/pain become your complete identity and control your life completely.This is very important so that you don’t lose other important parts of who you are that enhance your life and so you don’t drown in the negativity of illness. Yes, being ill is an important aspect of your identity and worthy of respect and recognition, but it is not all of who you are. It is a piece of who you are and your other pieces need to be respected and recognized as well. You are still a parent, a partner, an individual, a friend, etc.

Yes, in many cases illness/pain does often dictate our lives to sometimes an extreme degree, but there are areas where you can take control for a period of time. You can choose to participate in life and enjoy life in spite of your illness/pain. Do not cut yourself off from all life affirming activities or your life will be lacking in meaning, purpose and enjoyment.Find alternatives to your limits.

This does not mean you want to throw caution to the wind and be reckless with your health care, but rather you want to find some balance. You of course don’t want to do anything that will cause severe distress or exacerbate symptoms too much, but you can pick some activities that are life affirming that will have a minimal impact on your symptoms.

For example if eating out at a restaurant gives you a migraine or breathing difficulties, then having a nice dinner at home with loved ones or a picnic outside is a great alternative. If riding an exercise bike is too strenuous and causes symptoms then a nice stroll around the block or the park will be just as beneficial. If being in public places is problematic for you then maintaining relationships by phone or computer will sustain you.

Although we want to be respectful of our limits and learn to live within them, there may be times when we want to push ourselves beyond our limits just a little.

If I never did anything because I was in pain or having fear, then basically I would have no life at all. Much of my living takes place during great pain and suffering and fears. I don’t let it stop it me. Yes, there are days when I say, “I need to lay down and rest today,” or “the price to pay for this benefit is too high” but there are also days when I push forward even though I don’t feel like it and function within the discomfort.

For instance, a few weeks ago I had the makings of a minor migraine and for some reason, my writing “muse” came alive during the midst of this. All I wanted to do was lie down, but instead I took a hot shower, massaged my trigger points and then let my “muse’s” thoughts flow out on the paper and thus I creaated a new article for my site to edit and upload. Sometimes I can do some of my best work in the midst of great pain.

Once when visiting Arizona I was planning a trip to visit friends in California I hadn’t seen in years, but I was experiencing a lot of symptoms. I debated whether to go and decided this was just not something I could pass on regardless of how I felt. I developed half a migraine on the trip and the trip was very hard on me, but in the midst of this I visited my friends, had a nice meal and took a walk. The next day the headache was gone and I went to the ocean for the first time in my life and had a spectacular time. I had another wonderful day visiting my friends the following day and then went back to Arizona.

I was very happy I had pushed myself beyond my limits. If I had allowed my pain to control me I would have missed this incredible opportunity to spend time with friends, have a wonderful visit to California and enjoy the magic of the ocean.

Before going to Arizona I was full of fear of making this trip. I worried about what would I do if my car broke down on the way and I ended up in the middle of nowhere with no car and no safe place to live. I worried about all the millions of symptoms I would have on my way there. A friend said to me “Cyn, no matter what happens, you will survive.” I was not so sure that they were right, but I held on to that and pushed myself beyond my fears and went anyway. Yes, I had a million symptoms on my way there and endured a great deal of suffering, but I survived and when I arrived I had improvement in my health once I hit the dry air, made several wonderful new friends, enjoyed the most beautiful landscape and wildlife I have ever seen and found a lovely community I might like to live in some day. If I had allowed my fears to control me I would have never had this experience.

Sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised to find that the endorphins released when you become absorbed in a fulfilling experience can temporarily relieve your pain. If you can become completely absorbed in the happiness of the moment, you can transcend your symptoms for a period of time. Sometimes the benefit you will gain after the symptoms makes the price worthwhile. But then there are other times when the best thing you can do for yourself is to rest and pamper. The key here is balance so that you can continue to have a happy, enjoyable and fulfilling life.

Of course we want to be reasonable and not push ourselves too much, too frequently. We certainly would not want to push ourselves to attend a function in a building that has recently been fumigated with pesticides or newly remodeled, but we can possibly attend an outdoor function where we may have some slight itching or a mild headache. It can be very tricky to find a healthy balance. Weigh out the benefits versus the suffering and participate in those activities that have the most benefit and the least amount of suffering and the least amount of negative impact on your health.

My point here is that life is short. Don’t let your fear of your symptoms prevent you from living. Don’t let your pain control your life completely. Remember what’s most important in life (love, family, friends and spiritual fulfillment). Make love when you have a headache, read a book with your child when you are in great pain. Write that book even though you can barely stand up. Take a walk or go to the ocean even though you are aching tremendously. Take risks and allow yourself to live in spite of your limits while at the same time honoring your limits.

This page is excerpted in part from Cynthia’s book “Living Life to the Fullest: Creative Coping Strategies for Managing Chronic Illness, which is packed with helpful tips like these to help you live life more fully.

If you’d like a more personalized approach you may want to check out Cynthia’s holistic health counseling.

Being healthy does not necessarily mean being free of illness. It means being as complete as possible and living life as fully as possible within the limits that you are faced with.

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