Illness is an existential threat that is always present but not always a significant portion of people’s lives. This pandemic has certainly heightened that awareness and increased the number of people who are now impacted by the anxiety of sudden illness. It has also increased the number of people who are now living with chronic health concerns as the result of surviving COVID-19 and also increased the worries of those with pre-existing chronic health conditions.
It can be easy to think of only medical concerns as chronic illness but it relates to medical and mental health concerns. Both are unified by the need of ongoing care and/or consistent impact on functioning. Getting a diagnosis for a chronic illness can be a difficult experience and there is no one right way of dealing with it. Here I share some reflections on things to consider if you are living with a chronic illness.
1.) Take time to grieve. This is a big one. A chronic illness can often challenge many parts of our functioning that we relied on which can lead to changes in how we perceive ourselves and our efficacy. Additionally, we are a culture that is grief avoidant and you may feel the need to continue doing everything at the same caliber as you were before. Let yourself feel the emotions and acknowledge them as they arise.
2.) Challenge internalized ableist narratives. This is related to the first point, but there can often be a pressure to not let your illness define you. Although your identity is much more than an illness, the reality is that there will be time frames where your illness does overpower you.
3.) If your illness was a person, what is your relationship like? Take this as a starting point to
reflect on where you are with your illness. Living with a chronic illness often means there is no
cure or it will require managed care for an extended period of time. So the goal is to move
forward WITH the illness, not without. So how are you relating to it? Do you take care of it? Do you communicate with it? Are both your needs being met? Are you angry towards it? Do you neglect it? Do you pretend it doesn’t exist?
4.) Celebrate. Whether it is related to your illness or not, make sure to take time to celebrate
milestones and the positive aspects of life. This can also mean being intentional about planning things that bring you joy.
5.) Evaluate boundaries within your various relationships. Do you find yourself wanting to show up in relationships the same way you were before you were ill? Changes in health may mean you cannot show up in the same ways and may need support that looks different. Take time to be honest about your limits and seek support as needed.
6.) Find a community. Whether this is a support group, online forum, or within a therapeutic
context, find places where you can give voice to your experiences.
7.) Self-care. I am sure this one may warrant an eye-roll but having a routine with your body and mind is a significant step in managing the illness and living with it. Whether this is related to dietary commitments, medication, sleep hygiene, showing up for medical appointments, or other lifestyle practices - be mindful and intentional, especially when you don’t want to.
8.) How do you make meaning out of existential threats? An illness or threat to our life can bring up a myriad of reactions. How do you make meaning of it? How do you conceptualize meaning and purpose? How do you understand death? This doesn’t have to be rooted in a religious context, but having a belief system can often be helpful to make meaning out of experiences.