Chronic illness takes many different paths. For some people, their illness takes over their lives, rendering them immobilized from disability. For others, it registers as a minor inconvenience where they can lead relatively “normal” lives. And there’s a chunk of people who fall somewhere in the middle. As we near the end of the year, it’s an excellent opportunity to assess our chronic illness objectively. As we look towards the new year, it allows us to enter 2020 with a fresh perspective about ourselves and our disease(s).
Often, we think we know where we fall in our chronic illness scale. Sometimes, our emotional mindset distorts the actual reality. I make this point as someone who fell into a trap believing I was worse than I was. It took several self-reflection sessions to realize I was not looking at my MS realistically.
Because I was unrealistic about my MS, I was not approaching my management effectively. I thought I couldn’t exercise, I couldn’t hold down work, and struggled for a time over becoming a mother. My distorted view of my abilities limited me for several years from achieving my personal goals.
Now, this isn’t the case for everyone. You may find that you do have a realistic grasp of your disease, and that’s an ideal place to be. You know what you need to do to manage it. However, if you haven’t taken the time to assess your illness and abilities, you may have some positive news after your reflection. You may find that you are more capable than you expected.
Assessing Your Wellness
There are times where we are painfully aware of our abilities and limitations. If diagnosed with an extreme form of your chronic illness, like Primary-Progressive or Secondary-Progressive MS, then there is a physical limit to your abilities. There is a clear delineation between what can and cannot be done.
But the majority of the people diagnosed with MS are initially diagnosed with RRMS, around 85%, which is a “milder” form of the disease. There is a range between those who barely feel their MS to those who undiagnosed PPMS or SPMS. And because of this range, it’s hard to be sure of our capabilities. While it might be tempting to do, we should never compare ourselves to others as the manifestation of the disease changes from person-to-person.
Easy to say but hard to do when it’s in our nature to measure ourselves by others. When you have celebrities out there publicly displaying the most extreme aspects of their MS, without providing any context (if they have RRMS, PPMS, or SPMS), it’s hard not to wonder: will that be me someday? Will I need an extreme form of drug therapy? Will I have to shave my head? Will I lose my voice? Will I need an expensive mobility scooter?
How bad will my chronic illness get, and should I be more cautious in how I live to avoid progressing the disease along?
Chances are, you won’t follow the same path as these celebrities, at least not right away. But ask yourself this: is the mental image of my disease, in its current state, matching reality? Am I making decisions on my condition based on what I see others doing, and not what I am capable of doing? Have I removed myself from the equation altogether and not effectively treating my disease?
To restate: do we fall into the trap of pre-maturely disabling ourselves because we have a distorted view of our illness?
I did. For years after getting my diagnosis, I assumed I would be permanently disabled by the time I hit forty. I started to act like I was on the path of disability, discouraging myself from actively treating my disease beyond medication. I had the attitude of “why bother?” for a lot of things in my life. If I had eight more quality years, why commit to something that would take ten years?
It wasn’t until I committed to becoming a mother did I start to assess my abilities honestly. It took months after Jai’s birth for me to realize my perspective about my illness did not match reality. While I still deal with fatigue, I was not fast-tracked to immobility by forty as I thought. When I realized this was the case, I saw the limitations I kept experiencing surrounding my MS wasn’t from the disease but from me.
It was rather liberating when I came to this realization.
Going into the New Year with a Chronic Illness
Taking the time to assess your chronic illness provides you with the tools to decide how you want to approach the new year. If you’ve wanted to make some goals for yourself, but felt discouraged over whether you can do it or not, take time to assess and test yourself.
For example, you may accurately assess that you cannot walk very far due to mobility issues. But you’ve always had a goal to walk a mile a day and were reasonably concerned about achieving said goal. Be adaptive, set the goal, and safely work yourself up to walking a mile a day. There will be days where you can achieve your mini-goals and days where you should honor your limitations. It may take you all year to work up to that mile, but what will you learn about yourself in that time?
Two things you will hopefully learn in the year: one, that you aren’t as limited by your illness as you thought. Two, you are more resilient than you might previously give yourself credit. Goals, if they are worth it to you, take time. Try not to feel discouraged if you find it takes longer than expected to reach your goal.
If you assessed your abilities and found yourself more capable than previously thought, like me, then take time to set goals and find your true limitations (in a healthy manner). Honor what your medical professional says, follow their guidelines, and work to break free of any mental blocks you’ve placed on yourself.
You may find that you are better managing your illness because you are allowing yourself to be more aware of what you can and cannot do. The benefits of goal-setting and working towards those goals are numerous and worth doing.
The key is to take a chance and figure out where you stand in your illness and deciding if you are honest with yourself. Once you’ve done so, you never know what you can achieve in the new year.
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