Adjusting to Life With Chronic Illness
Chronic illness experts, professional grief counselors, and mental health specialists offer practical tips, helpful resources and general principles to help navigate life with chronic illness.
Adjust to life with chronic illness?
It 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 spiritual, relational and emotional growth. Many have gone on to launch new ministries, careers, and friendships.
"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're not just dealing with your physical well-being; instead, you're learning to cast your relationships, emotional and spiritual health and physical health in a different light.
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 that "everything will turn out fine."
It may not.
"Don't make promises you can't keep," she says. "I've talked to so many children during the years who have gotten so angry with God because they think He fell down on the job. Be honest without being graphic."
Family relationships are not the only ones to suffer. Friends, co-workers, neighbors—even people from church, may not know how to respond to the "new" you. Some may reject you because they're uncomfortable with your physical or emotional pain.
Copen also advises relying on a confidant who understands what you're going through.
"If you're 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 Joni and Friends* and Dave Dravecky's Endurance* offer tools and practical resources to guide you."
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 has taught them compassion and sensitivity for those who are hurting; it has had positive affects on her marriage.
"As hard as it has been, my illness has brought me and my husband closer," she says.
Trish and Linda still struggle with physical pain. Still, they live rich and meaningful lives. And so can you.
It can be difficult to see God's hand in our pain. But we can be confident that, in Christ, there is always hope for your future.
Copyright © 2007 Mary J. Yerkes. Used with permission. All rights reserved.