Chronic Illness, Uncategorized, Writing

Welcoming the unsolicited life lessons of chronic illness

dog frisbee fail
What hard lessons can feel like.

Most of us have had a person or experience in our life that made us acutely aware of our own weaknesses. Maybe it was a harsh teacher in school, or job that challenged us, or a family member or friend who brought out our worst traits.

For me, it has been several years dealing with chronic illness. It feels like every aspect of this illness is specially designed to find my deepest-rooted weakness, yank them out and stick them in my face.

“You try to do too much all at once.”

“You’re impatient. You’re too eager to see results too soon.”

“Your mind wanders. You jump to the worst conclusions!”

And when I try to ignore this cruel messenger, I am punished 10-fold for my failings.

That’s one way to look at it.

What am I learning from this?

I could also look at it with my positivity hat on (*sigh* – can you sense my semi-reluctance?). Some people believe that everything happens for a reason and that our lives are predetermined and all part of some grand cosmic plan. I’m not one of those people, but I have tried to cultivate a similar mindset: everything that happens can teach you something.

I didn’t always think like that, and it’s still a very effortful way of being for me. It seems like some folks were just born that way, and boy, do I envy them.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, who coincidentally also suffered from a chronic illness (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) wrote:

“…nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us…”

(When Things Fall Apart)

Now, if I take this quote literally and apply it to my illness, I could work myself into quite an indignant little knot. Yeah…so if I learn these lessons, my illness will go away? But I don’t think Pema is saying that all difficult things will actually physically go away once we learn what they have to teach us.

What I get from this quote is a sense that I cannot ignore what my illness is trying to teach me. The illness and its symptoms may or may not persist for the long run, but I have the ability to change some of my approaches to life, my habits, and my decisions in order to relieve some of my overall suffering.

Being kind to yourself while learning new (or old) lessons

It seems easy, right? Hear lesson, learn lesson, make change…

Well, it’s not so easy. Especially when major life lessons are being hurled at you like baseballs and sometimes they hurt and you can’t quite catch them all at once. It’s overwhelming. Maybe you’ve been there, too, at different times, for different reasons. Maybe you’re there now.


You can’t choose the lessons, but you can be a good teacher to yourself

The good news is, there are ways to make this never-ending learning experience a little easier. We can start to become aware of the harsh critical voice we may hear in our heads when we realize that the “lessons” haven’t sunk in yet.

I’m talking about those little mental self-punishments we inflict on ourselves when we’ve made “that mistake” again, whatever it is. For those of us with chronic illness, that voice can be especially harsh, especially if some of our old, problematic habits cause flare-ups in our symptoms:

“I shouldn’t have eaten that chocolate before bed…I’ll be up for hours. That was stupid.”

“I can’t believe I forgot to send that email…I’m always forgetting things.”

“This is the 100th time I’ve overdone it on the weekend and made myself feel sick. I can’t learn how to change.”

Sound familiar? See if you can become a little more aware of those thoughts popping up in your head. You don’t necessarily need to counter them with anything. It’s okay that they happen – they’re thoughts. Treat them as such. They’re not concrete truths about your life.

And, when you’re feeling miserable or overwhelmed or your brain is out lunch, give yourself a break. Sometimes the time is right for a “teachable moment,” and sometimes the time is right for a nap.

Having a chronic illness and going through difficult times in my life has sometimes felt like getting the most rigorous doctorate degree imaginable. No, I didn’t choose to enroll in this program, but I can at least be a good teacher to myself.

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