Lessons I’ve learned from chronic illness

I have been thinking for a while now about how long it’s been since I last blogged, and how I really should make the time to write something. So I log on to my blog and it tells me it’s been two months since I last posted. Streuth! This blogging business is high maintenance I tell you.

As way of a brief update: I went to Washington DC in May and am currently 6 weeks into treatment. It’s been a bumpy road so far, but I’ve been warned that this is a long treatment plan and to expect a marathon rather than a sprint (hurray, because I had so much fun that time I ran a half-marathon…). My physical health has been very variable, but I must confess that my mental health has been consistently struggling. There you go. I’ve broken the British we-don’t-talk-about-how-we-feel tradition and am laying my cards on the table. Although to be fair, I work in mental health research so if us folk can’t be honest about mental health, we’re all doomed.

I’m not sure why my mental health has taken a turn, but I’m trying not to fixate on it too much. Embracing my inner buddhist, I am reminding myself that a) life involves suffering, and b) our expectations, desires and aversions create a second layer of suffering over and above the initial suffering. In other words, shit happens. But, we add a heap-pile of shit on top of the initial little turd by the way we relate to, and think about, the turd. Sorry for the shit analogy, I didn’t mean for that to happen. The Buddha expresses it much more eloquently:

“When an untaught wordling is touched by a painful (bodily) feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feelings, a bodily and a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by an arrow and, following the first piercing, he is hit by a second arrow. So that person will experience feelings caused by two arrows.”

So with that in mind, I’ve upped my meditation practice and am focusing simply on trying not to exacerbate the suffering. Along this theme, I’ve found myself thinking a lot lately about all the things I have learned from chronic illness. So here are just a few…

1. Cherish the small things

When life is going well, I feel like we get a bit greedy. We take health, happiness, love etc, for granted. When it’s gone, your baseline level of expectation changes. And so, for example, when you’ve spent the last week in bed, stepping out of the front door and feeling a gentle breeze against your skin, makes you feel so alive. But isn’t it kind of sad that we don’t notice those things until we’re in a bad place? Over the last couple of years I’ve really started paying more attention to the little pleasures, and somehow even the darkest of days can feel a little brighter when you notice the sun shining or the sounds of birds or the kind person who held the door open for you. Cherish the small things, because when the big things aren’t going very well, they can be a surprising source of joy.

2. Keep hold of your real friends and let go of the rest

That old cliché is true, you really do find out who your real friends are in times of adversity. I have to admit that over the years, I have often been surprised by the level of support offered by people I would consider more acquaintances than friends, and the lack of support sometimes offered by those I thought were close friends. Of course, everyone has their own stuff going on and it’s unreasonable to expect any friend to be there for you 24/7, and I also recognise that being chronically ill can tip the balance of friendship somewhat. I, for example, cannot reliably offer any of my friends regular catch-ups over tea, because my ability to meet and do friend stuff relies on it being at least a sort-of-alright health day, and that is difficult to predict from one day to the next. But, my good friends, although I’m sure inconvenienced and perhaps a bit miffed that I can’t always be there, never make me feel guilty for that. They understand, they accept, and they are kind. My university friends, despite only managing to see them once or twice a year, will often send me a “how are you?” text or offer me a real listening ear on the rare occasions we get to meet up. Chronic illness is truly lonely and isolating at times, but having even a small handful of good friends makes everything feel a little less miserable.

3. You are the expert of you

I’m sure there are many medical professionals that would cringe reading this, but frankly I don’t care because it is one of the biggest lessons I have learned in my years of ill health. I don’t care what anyone says, you know when something is really not right in your body. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, maybe medicine has no explanation for it, maybe when you say it out loud you sound totally off your trolley. I don’t care, if it’s happening in your body then only you know what it feels like. There have been so many times over the years when I have tried to explain to a doctor a set of symptoms, or a feeling, or a pattern, and I have been told that what I’m describing is simply not possible, only to later discover through my own reading of the (scientific) literature, that it is, in fact, entirely possible. Doctors don’t know everything. Science doesn’t know everything. That’s what makes science so exciting, there are new things to learn all the time! I was told for years that it was impossible to have severe flu symptoms with every menstrual cycle. For about two years I had the exact same symptoms, at the exact same time, every single month. I knew, 100% without any question whatsoever, that this was linked to my periods one way or another. And the same GP told me month after month, “it is not possible”. Many years later I saw a gynaecologist who agreed it’s unusual but acknowledged, nonetheless, that there was no doubt it was happening. And I now know that menstrual flares are reported anecdotally by thousands of women with Lyme disease. Maybe you haven’t been to medical school, but you have lived with your body every day since you were born, and you know what is normal for you.

4. Be your own advocate

Related to number 3. This has been a hard lesson for me and one I am still working on, because being assertive does not come easily to me. I don’t want confrontation, I don’t want to have to argue my case, I just want to sit quietly in the corner and mind my own business. Working in academia has helped me massively with this, because you always have to justify yourself in science, and sadly, no-one will do the speaking for you. Only you can say what you need. If you’re not getting what you need, there’s no point sitting around being polite about it. The onus is on you, and only you, to create change.

5. Life isn’t a race

When I was younger I used to put so much pressure on myself to achieve, achieve, achieve. I, like many young people I’m sure, was convinced I’d be married with kids and a successful career by the time I was 30. Well I can tell you, 30 is creeping around the corner and I’m not married, am currently unable to have children and am going to be a full-time student until 2019. And I’m chronically ill; the limitations of which I could never have imagined as a child. But I am an infinitely better person now than I was then. I am more patient, more chilled out, more confident, more thankful, less pessimistic, less judgemental. I still have a way to go on all those things and more but that’s exactly the point – life is a journey, not a race to the end. There is no deadline for growth, for change, for learning. You haven’t suddenly made it the day you get married or have a kid or get a promotion or own a house. As soon as you reach one goal you will be thinking about the next in the hope that it will suddenly make things better; make you better. So what’s the point of racing so fast to the next goal that you don’t even stop to enjoy the scenery? Of all the things I have been forced to take note of in recent years, the thing that has changed me the most is simply learning to take it down a notch. As much as it pains me to admit it, I know that when I push too hard, my health suffers. That might be doing too much exercise, not getting enough sleep, having an argument, over-working, or just letting myself get stressed by day-to-day life. Chronic illness has forced me to pay more attention to the warning signs my body provides, and although the limitations of that can be very frustrating, it is also a relief to feel like I have permission not to constantly worry about expectations and achievements.

There are many more things that I have learned from chronic illness. Perhaps I will write a part 2 to this post at some point. When everything feels a bit overwhelming, it can be really helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. For anyone looking in from the outside, my life is far more flawed now than it was 10 years ago, but yet, on the inside, it is so much more fulfilling.

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