Coping With the Losses of Chronic Illness
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The CDC reports that in 2005, half of all American adults have a chronic illness. These illnesses range from heart disease and diabetes to asthma and migraines. In any case, they often require an adjustment in our lives to deal with the symptoms of the disease and any treatments that may arise.
It is normal to have feelings of loss in response to a new diagnosis, but it may also be that initially there is no sense of negative emotions around the new condition. Some might even feel relief that there is a treatment for what they have been experiencing.
Still, when negative emotions do appear, it can be hard to cope with them. It may, also, be difficult to understand your own actions in response to living with your new condition. But it is important to recognize what is happening so that you can make clearer choices about how you would like to proceed with being as healthy as you can be.
It is important to recognize that the loss of "health" is something to grieve. As a medical social worker, I have seen many patients who "take care of themselves" not know how to accept and take care of themselves with a chronic condition. They feel betrayed, both by their bodies and by the notion that they followed the rules and are not getting to reap the rewards.
They have lost an identity as a well person, and there may be other very real losses alongside this. Some people have loss of energy or appetite. Some people can no longer think clearly or lose coordination. There can be further losses that compound the illness: loss of job and loss of physical functioning, are just two examples. Some of these losses are not immediately obvious to families and friends and so they may lose the understanding of those people who cannot understand how the illness is truly affecting them.
It can be very difficult to share these feelings of loss, anger and fear. They can come up intensely over and over, but unlike other experiences of grieving, you may feel alone with them or a burden for sharing them with others.
So what can be done to work through these feelings, and get to a place of acceptance that will allow you to manage your chronic condition with more clarity? First, be gentle with yourself. It is normal to have these feelings and they can be overwhelming. Second, know that you are not alone. There are often others with the same condition that can support you. And, often, we underestimate the support and concern of our friends, family, colleagues and faith communities. People often like to help, they just need to be asked.
Ask for help. Be willing to hear a no, if it comes, and accept a yes, when it comes. It does not make you weak to ask for what you need … that's just leveraging your resources.
Learn about your new condition and become aware of what your limitations will be. Someone with asthma may never get to run a marathon, or may find that with the right training and care of their condition they can. Set realistic goals.
Know that if it is hard to shake the feelings of anger and sometimes despair about your health that there are real options for help. Beyond casual support, there are organized support groups for many conditions or you can seek the help of a therapist or other counselor to help with the adjustment. Even when there is a reason for depression and anxiety, it does not mean you need to condemn yourself to that experience by doing nothing about it … and sometimes you need the boost of working with a professional or starting medication to get your brain back to a more positive outlook.
Chronic conditions can be difficult to live with, but they are not the end of your life. And while you are here, it is important to get to a place of being able to live as fully as you can every day.