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Leading Others Along the Way

On Monday, I discussed how we inadvertently become leaders when we go public with our chronic illness diagnosis. We may not ask, nor want the responsibility, but it inevitably happens. Therefore, we face the questions: should I lead? Do I want to? and what example should I set?

Living with a chronic illness in the United States is becoming a more common occurrence. Because of this uptick, it is becoming more common to know someone affected with a chronic disease. Let’s reflect before your diagnosis for a moment: with your symptoms, did you go online and search for answers before visiting a doctor? If you knew someone with the disease in the results, did you approach them with questions?

So often, when I answer questions about my MS to those experiencing similar symptoms, do I hear how scared they are. There’s a desire for reassurance that they don’t have MS, or that it’s not a death sentence. People are seeking a connection with a person living with an illness that is not in search results. As someone who is out with my diagnosis, my role is to comfort and inform. 

I can, as can you, choose not to take on this role.  

We do not owe anyone answers about our illness. We can choose to refuse to answer, advocate, or inform about the disease. Yet, it is vital to be aware that when we go public with a chronic illness, we will continually field questions until others understand our stance on the matter.

If you choose to take on the role of “local” leader and “expert” on your disease, I wanted to write this post with you in mind. 

What are my Responsibilities?

If you’ve decided to be public with your illness and accepted a leadership role, there’s a set of unspoken responsibilities that come with it. I spoke briefly about this on Monday. I wasn’t aware of all of these responsibilities when I first started blogging about my MS.

As I went along in my journey, I saw good and bad examples of advocacy. As someone out with their disease, it’s imperative you set yourself apart from those who are out for the attention. You will find that there’s always someone out there who is a poor advocate for your illness. They post sensational images on social media, only focus on the negative aspects, and do not take the opportunity to inform others about the disease itself (just that they have it).

They might be considered inspiring by others, too, but look beyond the sensationalism and see the truth: they are attention-seeking and not informing. Be more responsible and educate others about your illness. The ones who are flashy and irresponsible make more work for the rest of us, so it’s important you help the cause rather than hinder it.

I want to share the responsibilities we undertake when we go public with our illness and become a token advocate for others. 

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Become a Leader

Are you a leader? Have you wanted to be one, but didn’t know how? Or does that thought terrify you?

For some people, the idea of being a leader is appealing. For others, it strikes to the core of deep anxiety. As Uncle Ben once said to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Leading is a source of power, and because of that, it cannot be tackled lightly. It is why, for some people, it creates anxiety, as they recognize this responsibility. 

But anyone can be a leader, and sometimes you become one without realizing it.

A leader does not need a large group of people, and in fact, they don’t need a group of people at all. You know the phrase “lead by example?” Sometimes living your life on your terms with your chronic illness is enough to become a leader.

I found in my chronic illness journey, even before I blogged about it, I answered questions. I set an example of living with a chronic illness. Looking back, I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I’ve hopefully improved.

Since starting my blog, it’s led to me answering more questions about MS and living with an autoimmune disease. I answer questions about my diagnosis as someone else struggles to figure out what’s going on with their health. 

Without intending to become one, I am a leader within my social groups. I don’t say this with expectation; it’s just a fact. People look to me to provide them with answers and recommendations. When I realized this happened, I recognized I needed to take the role seriously and understand all that goes along with leading. 

The key to effective and stress-free leadership is knowing when to lead and when to follow.

When to Lead

There are many situations where it’s appropriate to lead: healthcare, life, and social scenarios are a few. Besides your own life, in any form that may take due to your illness, the most crucial space you lead is with your healthcare. You cannot help others, nor can you help yourself if you are not a strong advocate for yourself.

You know your body better than any doctor. You know exactly how you are feeling, even if you do not have the words to describe it. I am not saying to reject what doctors have to say or ignore their training. But, if they dismiss you when you know something is wrong, you have to advocate for yourself.

You have to lead and assert your needs, wants, and concerns. If you anticipate resistance in the doctor’s office, find resources that can help you state your concerns so you feel heard. Be respectful to start, but increase your assertion if your healthcare professional brushes you aside.

Another space that calls for leadership, intended or not, is deciding what’s best for you and how you approach your illness. What this means is there will be times when you reject social get-togethers, leave early, or cut off relationships because you must care for your health first. Find ways to say “it’s okay if I put myself first,” as much as possible. 

People will understand that health must come first, and if they don’t, those are the first relationships you should examine.

Often, I find people respect it when I say to them that I must engage in self-care. I still struggle to pre-emptively articulate it to others. With a simple explanation, I can express why I am quiet or declining social events.

Taking a leadership attitude provides an example to others who may be struggling with their chronic illness. You may learn about their disease, and you may not, but people will see that you are taking control of your life. It may provide them with the strength they need to manage all that’s going on. 

When to Follow

You may prefer to follow, or at the very least, “not lead.”

But for some of us, myself included, the idea of following is like nails on a chalkboard. I’ve gotten better through experience to stand aside and let others guide. When it comes to my own life, I prefer to be the driving force

Of course, it should be this way. Still, there are times when I must take a backseat, even in my own life. 

I am about to contradict myself in the same post: we know what’s best, but sometimes we don’t. We may fundamentally understand what we need, but we refuse to follow it. There are times where we must listen to others to care for ourselves. We must follow their advice and suggestions because we aren’t honoring our needs. 

When we step aside and let others lead, it can be humbling. It can be humiliating. It can also give us a break from decision-making. Still, it’s vital to know how to balance leading and following. Don’t let someone take over all the decisions, especially if they are ill-equipped for the role. 

In a nutshell, know when to take control and when to accept help.

Leading and Responsibility

If you are a leader, whether you asked for it or not, you have a responsibility. While I will explore this concept in more depth on Wednesday, I wanted to take a moment to speak to it now.

The moment you reveal your diagnosis in a public manner, you become a leader and “go-to” advocate for your disease. Remember all the times you approached someone who had experience with something you were curious about? Unwittingly, you made that person your “go-to” resource for information. 

It is the same for you now. People will message you with questions, not necessarily to be nosy, but because they might be experiencing symptoms. Each time they search online, the sites point to your disease. You become the de facto expert.

Because of this, you have the following responsibilities. I will examine this list further on Wednesday.

  1. Clarify that you are not an expert and that you can only speak to your experience.
  2. Provide correct and objective information.
  3. Give an honest account of your experience. 
  4. Answer questions, no matter how poorly worded, with compassion. 
    1. To clarify: people may ask questions crudely and offend you with the wording or implications made. Assume it is unintentional (otherwise will stress you out). Re-frame your response to reflect an “askee” who is scared and does not understand how they are coming across.
  5. While you may be a perceived leader, you do not owe answers to anyone. Feel free to decline to answer invasive questions. 

Sometimes we intend to become leaders, and sometimes we stumble into it. Become a leader in your life with your chronic illness.


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