The Wisdom of Your Body: Living Your Best Life With Chronic Illness
Prior to a fibromyalgia diagnosis in my early 30s, I buried fear under layers of busy-ness. Continually moving kept my mind busy and soul silent. I never said no to a request for help. I often ran errands for others, added kids to carpool duty, or spent hours putting together activities for my daughter’s class only to crash after.
I once had surgery four days before Thanksgiving and still cooked a full spread. A week after that surgery, I was on a 10-foot ladder trimming a tree so my husband wouldn’t have to when he returned home. Without a college degree or ability to make a substantial income, I believed this was my part. I had a husband that traveled every week and three kids—my family needed me.
The physical pain was like nothing I had experienced. An unexplained fever began and stayed with me for over five years. One rheumatologist prescribed a pill for pain with the instruction to take it daily, assuring me it was non-habit forming. I was young and trusted the white coat. I didn’t research everything to the degree I do now and was unaware it was a narcotic.
Not only was this magic pill habit-forming, but it also dispensed a boost of energy, enabling me to do everything for everyone while ignoring my own needs. The pill kept me going constantly and numb to any emotional upheaval that threatened to overtake. I could be supermom extraordinaire and took pride in my ability to do it all.
Pride can be a kicker if you’re not careful. It was a major stumbling block then and still can be at times. I took pride in how much I could get done in a day or how together I was–at least on the surface. The reality was my body and soul screaming to stop, to say no and take care of myself.
This was before I understood that self-care, when caring for myself, was something that I made happen after I finished doing for everyone else. I feared to appear selfish and wanted others to know me as generous and giving–willing to help everyone.
Health Care & Self Care
Helping and doing for others is a wonderful thing, but we must keep ourselves a priority in our lives. Self-care is not selfish—a lesson I’m still learning. I struggled with asking for help (still do, just ask my family) but I’ve learned we rob others of the gift of giving and service when we choose to always go it alone.
Pride kept me from fully stepping into my own power, or even realizing I had any. My anxiety ran high as I went through my days ignoring my body. I was existing, not living. I was all grown up and still trying to prove I had value. I could’ve paid someone to do yard work or accepted offers for help, but I was unable to give that gift to myself.
It’s easy to get stuck in a negative mindset when living with a chronic illness. Each day brings a choice of how we want to show up—living from fear or love. Most fear isn’t rational, but fear of falling down a negative spiral is very real. It’s hard to have self-compassion while trying to change unhealthy patterns you’ve continued for years.
I pushed too hard, often not giving myself space to breathe or relax. My mind never stilled, always jumping to the next thing. Being in the present moment allowed feelings and emotions to bubble up—sometimes painful ones I didn’t want to feel. My guard stayed up and kept me from trusting others to love me for who I was when I was unable to constantly do for them, or trusting myself to emerge whole and healthy.
But I’m a perpetual optimist–always looking for the silver lining or lesson learned. I’ve learned to be grateful even on the days when pain slows me down. Daily, physical pain can be a struggle, but I see the good that’s come from it. In slowing down, I’ve learned lessons my body’s trying to teach me. It’s showing me what I’ve been missing all along.
One lesson I’ve learned is how to deal with “shoulds disease”—those moments when your body’s sending neon warning signs to pause, rest, or reach for help–and you ignore it because you “should” be able to continue doing.
Remember: should is “could” with “shame” attached. And shame’s a disease in and of itself. It’s okay to allow time to rest and heal. You may have to lighten your schedule and make space in your day or find practices to bring relief such as yoga or meditation. Find what works and continue them. This is why they’re called practices—they keep us on course, even when we feel lousy.
Listen to Your Body
Another lesson is don’t allow your tools to become rules. Self-care practices are beneficial, but some days are just plain hard. You may not feel like running through a complete self-care routine and that’s okay.
Instead of a full yoga workout, maybe do some light stretching. Instead of a long meditation session, try five minutes in bed—just enough to shift your mindset. It’s okay to have days when the self-care routine doesn’t get done. Sometimes the best self-care’s letting go of all the shoulds (even the self-care ones) and rest.
Lastly, learn to trust the wisdom of your body in everything, but especially when it comes to medical care. Living with chronic illness can lead to anxiety and/or depression. I experienced depression in the past but wasn’t prepared for what came with the chronic pain.
I took an antidepressant for a little over a year as I navigated between running my home, doctor visits, and volunteering in my daughter’s kindergarten class. The time came when I knew I needed to stop the medication, but my doctor disagreed and refused to wean me off. I did my research and sought advice from other medical professionals to find the healthiest way to wean myself off. This was a huge step in learning to trust the wisdom of my body.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when facing a chronic illness. Sometimes it seems simpler to just “trust the white coat.” Doctors are a great help most of the time, but we have to trust that we know our bodies better than anyone else and are the best equipped to make the necessary choices. By all means, seek advice. Get second and third opinions. Gather all the knowledge you can. Knowledge empowers you to make the best choices for your health and your life.
Above all, give yourself grace when you need it. Release the urge to compare your current performance to what you’ve done in the past and recognize pride for the fear it is. When chronic illness enters your life, release judgment of what you’re not doing or being. Love yourself for where you are right now, reach for help when you need it, and celebrate the little wins each day.
You deserve it.