treating-chronic-illness-with-self-compassion

Treating Chronic Illness with Self-Compassion

This post will be discussing some pretty heavy topics that may be bothersome to some readers. Discussion of self-hatred and self-harm are within this post. Please read responsibly and remember that you are not alone in your journey.


Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve discussed using self-compassion as a means of dealing with a chronic illness, but I haven’t gone into much detail over how and why that will be helpful. A lot of things happen when dealing with a chronic illness or a disease that severely impacts your life. You go through various stages of grief, wishing your life would be normal, and you hopefully get to a point where you accept that “normal” isn’t going to look like everyone else’s.

What happens is a lot of feelings of personal frustration towards the illness and yourself. When this happens, it’s important to treat yourself with a loving acceptance so you can begin to heal emotionally.

Body & Mind Betrayal

The biggest stumbling block is the betrayal of mind and body (dependant on the illness). Our mind doesn’t understand why our body no longer responds in the way it once did. If we were able to go an entire day without needing a break, our mind struggles to accept needing a nap mid-morning otherwise we’d collapse. Often questions such as these come up:

  • Why is my body like this?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • How/did I cause this?
  • Why did it have to be me?
  • Will I ever be healthy or whole again?
  • Why can’t I be like everyone else?

The answer to these questions, if there even is an answer, varies from person-to-person. Some illnesses just need an appropriate medication regimen to return a person to normal, and for others, we will have to adapt to the new normal. When we are able to compare our life now to what our life once was, feeling frustrated, angry, and betrayed by our body is normal.

Normalizing Self-Hatred

I already dealt with self-hatred before I was diagnosed with MS. When I received my diagnosis there was a time where I thought that I deserved it. I was a bad person and bad things like this happen to people like me.

Because I reached to self-hatred as a coping mechanism, I normalized my self-hatred even further.

If you never dealt with self-hatred prior to your diagnosis, you may not have an issue with it now, but there’s a possibility you start feeling hatred for you body post-diagnosis.

That self-hatred may be beyond your control. Some illnesses can change brain chemistry to make you feel and think things that aren’t normal for you. The very act of getting the illness could bring about feelings you’ve never experienced before in your life. I am not saying that everyone will hate themselves, but if you’ve noticed it happening more in your life, it may be because your chronic illness.

It’s important to recognize this happening and finding a way to healthfully manage it.

Working with your body even when it won’t work with you

With some chronic illnesses making meaningful physical and emotional changes can be difficult. Especially if you want to jump from zero to sixty within the next year or so. I am the kind of person who wants to jump fully into a new endeavor without considering logistics or consequences.

Exercise, both mental and physical, is extremely important in managing chronic illness symptoms. It can reduce stress, minimize symptoms, and help your overall perspective – moving you away from feelings of self-loathing. This won’t be a cure-all, but it is a great way to complement the care you are giving yourself as you manage your illness.

Because you know your body better than anyone, even a healthcare provider at times, you know what you are capable of and able to push yourself to do.

That said, sit down with a professional in whichever arena you want to start working on to help guide you through the process:

  • Emotional changes: ask your neurologist or healthcare specialist for a therapist/psychiatrist/psychologist recommendation. Chances are they know someone who specializes in your illness so you won’t be playing catch-up with the nuances. If they don’t have one, insurance portals can have a list of recommended professionals.
    • Go in with a plan of what you want to work on. This might be feelings of doubt, depression, self-hatred, frustration, or learning to cope with your new normal. A plan does not need to be strictly followed, but it will give you some direction to get started.
    • Don’t just settle on the first therapist/psychiatrist/psychologist you try out. If you don’t feel comfortable with them or that they aren’t listening to your needs/concerns – move on. You want someone who works with you, not against you. Especially with the mental and emotional work.
  • Physical changes: speak with your healthcare professional for some ideas on an exercise program or prescription for physical therapy. If they aren’t able to provide a cheap/free program recommendation for your situation, get their honest opinion of what you are capable of doing, especially on your own. Use that information in your research.
    • Look at the main awareness website for your chronic illness. Many of them have articles written on exercise recommendations for people in your situation. It’s a great starting point.
    • Look at a local pool for swim classes to get you started. If you have mobility or inflammation issues, the water can help alleviate stress on your body while helping to keep you stable.

Additionally, stick with whatever medication regimen recommended by your healthcare professional. If it’s not working for you or you are having really bad side-effects, bring this information to your doctor. Self-care begins by following peer-reviewed and tested medical practices. It won’t be one-size-fits-all, so you’ll have to make adjustments, but make those adjustments under the guidance of a professional.

The goal in taking these steps is regaining a sense of control over your mind and body. This will help you when you need to engage with self-compassion when you need it.

Treating Chronic Illness with Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is about giving yourself permission to feel bad and have bad days. It’s about being gentle with yourself when getting out of bed is the last thing you can think about. It’s also about pushing yourself a little harder because you know you are capable of completing a task.

Self-compassion is giving ourselves the advice we’d give friends in similar situations. With a chronic illness we’re stuck in our own perspective and sometimes unable to see that we need the love we’d give our friends (and our friends might be giving us).

Creating a mantra, an exercise we practiced in a recent newsletter, to help respond to any doubts or feelings you frequently have will help get you started on your path of self-compassion.

A good starting point is to answer those questions we asked ourselves earlier:

  • Why is my body like this? This is my body with my illness and while I may not have an answer to the “why,” it still takes care of me by functioning.
  • What could I have done differently? Unfortunately, chances are there was nothing I could have done differently. These things happen and it wasn’t my fault.
  • How/did I cause this? (If my illness is based on behavior or exposure from my past, I played a role, but that is in the past.) Chances are, nothing I did caused this, therefore blaming myself is unproductive. My present is now and I will move forward by loving what I am in this moment.
  • Why did it have to be me? Nothing out of our control happens to us to single us out. It happened and the only thing I can do is move forward and take control over my life in whatever way is possible.
  • Will I ever be healthy or whole again? I may never return to what I once was, but I can be healthy and whole in a new capacity. Having a chronic illness does not have to impact my outlook or ability to make changes.
  • Why can’t I be like everyone else? Sameness is overrated. This illness might bring out a part of me I never explored otherwise and I should take advantage and love that about myself.

Self-compassion will not cure your illness, but it can make it easier if you treat yourself kindly as you work through it. I have found that with self-compassion I am able to make more rational decisions about my health and stay motivated when I create a personal goal for myself.

It is important to see ourselves as worthy of our own love, illness and all, because we have so much we can contribute to all around us.

If you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you’ve already seen some of the content and suggestions I’ve been making for readers. If you aren’t, it’s never too late to sign up and join the challenge.


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Featured photo credit:  Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

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Illness as a Positive

For the month of November, I am taking each day to highlight some element in my life that I want to express my gratitude about. This could be something deeply personal or just a passing appreciation for something more superficial. 


Having a chronic illness is no fun.

I know that’s a bit of a shocker for anyone reading this, especially if you have a chronic illness/disability. That said, having a chronic illness did bring about a positive change in my life: I think it forced me to rethink my life and my health and make important changes.

I am not about to turn this post into inspiration porn (don’t worry, that link is safe for work), but I do want to express gratitude for the wake-up call my MS gave me. I call it my “rock bottom” because it forced me to make some decisions about the direction I wanted to take physically, mentally, and emotionally. I do, however, wish it hadn’t taken a chronic illness diagnosis to make these changes

I would be more than happy to give back my illness and keep all the healthy changes if given a chance. 

Prior to the Diagnosis

To understand why I am grateful for my current health, it’s best to compare it to where I was physically prior to my diagnosis.

I’ve hinted at my state in previous posts throughout the blog, but I never fully discussed my mental and physical state. Partially because it was never necessary to the post, but mostly because I was ashamed of where I was at in life.

I was delusional about my physical health. It’s easy to see that on the other side, but living in the middle of it I thought I was healthy. I would eat vegan, run, do yoga, try to meditate when the time would allow, but essentially go through the motions of what I thought was healthy living.

And then I would wonder why I wasn’t losing weight. I justified it by saying this to myself repeatedly:

Ah, that’s just muscle being put on. Muscle weighs more than fat.

I am just stressed out right now, so once I get beyond this period, I will be fine. I need to eat like this because it’s how I am coping with my stress.

Apparently, my 5’3″ body is meant to be 160 pounds. Since I can’t lose the weight, that must be my natural set point.

I also didn’t feel better, I was just grumpier for waking up earlier and sweating a bunch with little to no payoff.

Let me be clear and say that weight is not the absolute indicator of health: athletes can be considered overweight and be at peak physical fitness. A person can be a normal weight and be coping with an illness of sorts. Weight can be a symptom of a bigger problem and it can also cause other issues, but looking at weight for whether a person is healthy or not shouldn’t be the only factor. It is just one of the factors.

Through most of my adult life, I was carrying around an additional 20-30 pounds. This extra weight played a negative role in my overall activity level, my mood, my energy levels, and my depression. I firmly believe that these factors exacerbated my MS symptoms. There were days where I would come home after teaching and fall asleep for hours until Ash got home, wherein he’d have to make or order us dinner.

It was always a slog to get any important work done for school and professionally speaking.

Prior to my diagnosis, I had very little motivation to make any positive changes in my life. I would do it in spurts, but those would fade out when I didn’t see immediate results. I had nothing truly motivating me beyond “this is what our culture tells me to do.” It wasn’t enough and therefore I couldn’t stay motivated to continue.

I figured I could never get into peak physical and emotional condition because I just couldn’t. No other reason other than that: I just was not able to be healthy.

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Personal Growth (after having a child)

Today is Jai’s 2nd birthday.

I wanted to spend the post reflecting on how much my life changed for the better since his arrival two years ago.  It’s going to be a post about me, but hopefully not too sappy when I talk about Jai and his impact on my life.

Life before a Toddler

To be cliche, life before a child is relatively uncomplicated. Any complications I had to deal with were of my own making. I was in graduate school, dealing with interpersonal drama, and trying to manage my MS. Granted, at the time, I didn’t see how I affected everything around me and how I could untangle myself from my complications, but I wasn’t ready to receive the wisdom that life experience gives to tell me that.

To be fair, life with a child isn’t any more complicated than without – it’s just what becomes complicated shifts and you are now responsible for another human being. Life is complicated in a different way.

Before Jai, my life was completely unfocused. I had to figure out how to handle my diagnosis, I needed to re-prioritize my life, and I needed to figure out what direction I wanted to go in for the long-term. Many moments were spent just allowing myself to be distracted from figuring out what I wanted to do and allowing myself to remain in a rut.

This would include binge-watching TV, comfort eating, playing games, teaching without forward momentum, and finding other means to avoid dealing with what kept me from finding focus.

I thought when I re-prioritized my life after accepting my MS that I was done, but I still engaged in avoidant behavior when it came to making major life decisions. I needed to drop toxic people from my life (and be okay when they left), make serious professional decisions, and do a better job managing my health.

I think in some part having a child was another means of distracting me from making those decisions. I had a biological desire to have a child, but I also wanted to push decision-making down the road for a couple more years. Not a good reason to have a child, by the way. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to the parents.

Changing for the Better

It wasn’t an instantaneous change when Jai was born. I had to recover, readjust, and reprioritize my life with a new family member. A newborn provides a great distraction for those looking to be distracted. But after my MRI in July 2017, coupled with Jai’s increasing solid food diet, I realized that I needed to make some serious life changes.

On the days I drove to work I saw a sign that said: “be the person your dog believes you to be.” I always thought it was a silly sign mainly because I am a cat person and I never gave it much thought to the philosophy behind it. Once I had Jai I reflected on what the sign truly meant (but switched out “a dog” for “a child”): a child views a parent as a protector, educator, and comfort. I realized that I needed to become the person Jai thought I was to the best of my ability.

That’s when I decided to begin my journey towards healthier living, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Jai didn’t make me change, that wasn’t and never will be his responsibility. I was changing for Jai and mostly for myself. I realized that I was extremely unhappy with where I was in life and that unhappiness was going to impact Jai.

But it would be dishonest to say that I would have made these changes with or without a child. I would like to think that I had enough self-awareness to make the changes eventually, that I would get tired of my status quo, but I don’t think I would have gone in a positive direction. I suspect I would have given up on a lot of things and just existed, waiting for my MS to progress to the point of no return.

I think that having something outside of me and dependant upon me, beyond a cat, was my “rock bottom.” Having Jai was both the highlight of my life up to that point, but the wake-up call I needed to have to make necessary changes. Again, not his responsibility, but for me was the kick in the pants I needed to make improvements.

There are plenty of days where I wish I made these changes before having Jai, but I don’t believe in indulging too much in regret, so here I am.

Moving Forward

I am hoping that I will continue to grow and change in positive ways for Jai. I want to be the person he believes I am: confident, caring, kind, strong, and comfort. It’s important that I model positive behaviors for him so he can become the person I know he can be.

I just find it so hard to believe that another person can make someone want to change for the better. I wanted to be a better person for Ash when we first met, but I moved at a glacier’s pace for him. With Jai, when I made the decision to change it was much faster and more persistent.

I think the best birthday present I could give Jai is my commitment to him and continuing to be the best, yet acceptable imperfect, parent he needs in his life.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton


Celebrating Motherhood: Month’s End

We’re at the end of Motherhood month and I am grateful for all the wonderful mothers who participated in my posts about getting pregnant, pregnancy, newborns, and toddlers. Reading their responses made me realized I know a lot of wonderful, strong, and amazing mothers. A lot of role models for me to look up to and ask questions from as I raise Jai.

I was also surprised at the emotional impact, for myself, in writing about my struggle to get pregnantJai’s birth story and my decision to extend Jai’s breastfeeding. I realized I have some unresolved concerns about the healthcare I received postpartum and I want to make other mothers-to-be aware of possible concerns or risks. Western care still has a long way to go in how it treats mothers.

Most importantly, this month reaffirmed for me the diversity in parenting styles. Everyone parents their little one differently and as long as the little one is safe, it doesn’t matter how different from my style of parenting it may be. I believe in being non-judgmental to other mothers’ approach because there may be something in their style that I hadn’t considered adding to my own.

I think it’s important to embrace other parents and listen to what lessons they might share rather than criticize what they do differently. I want to maintain this attitude and roll it over to all aspects of my life (and hopefully pass acceptance on to Jai).

I hope you all enjoyed reading these posts as much as I did writing them and that they were helpful or brought comfort in a time of need.

Happy June, everyone!


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Featured image credit: Arlene Farms Art 

 


I Wish I Knew: Toddlers

This is the final part in my series  “I Wish I Knew.” Read about what I wish I knew relating to pregnancy, birth, and babies in parts onetwo, and threeThis post contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy for more information.

Culturally speaking, toddlerhood is equal to teenage years when it comes to least favorite times to be a parent. Toddlers throw tantrums without regard to location or convenience, refuse to move, refuse to eat, and are all around terrors. Add a hundred more pounds and you’ve got a teenager.

The narrative is this: when someone asks how old your little one is and you answer somewhere between 1.5 and 3 years old, you get that look of “may God have mercy on your soul,” and the question of “so how bad are they? they must be going through their terrible twos?”

I had a neighbor make a comment about Jai’s age yesterday when he was mad I wouldn’t let him put all his sidewalk chalk in water. He whined a little, but soon got distracted by the neighborhood cat who came to visit.

What I Wish I Knew

I am at the very beginning of the “terrible twos” stage so I still have a lot of naiveté when it comes to how Jai is handling the whole situation. But something I wish someone had told me?

It’s really not that bad. It’s not easy, definitely not saying that it is easy, but it isn’t as bad as I’ve been lead to believe.

My mother told me that parenting is only as hard as you make it out to be, so if you don’t take the necessary steps to help foster certain behaviors you want and help them manage the behaviors you don’t, then there’s a chance you will end up with an unmanageable child. There are other factors at play in this scenario: means, temperament, and patience.

Lots and lots of patience.

There were things I wish my parents did or did not do when I was growing up, so I am making adjustments to my parenting to reflect what I think might have made a positive difference in my life and therefore in Jai’s life. I am hoping to remain flexible enough that when I see something isn’t working I can adjust it.

Because I am currently involved with this developmental stage, I wanted to offer my thoughts on the questions I asked other mothers as well.

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