Editor's Note: This post responds to requests made by readers who asked me to write about accepting chronic illness like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue and facing cancer as well as other physical challenges.
Like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, my health unexpectedly took a plunge 10 years ago. Muscle, joint, and neurological pain, gut distress, sleepless nights, fatigue, and multiple intolerances became my new companions. At my low point, I weighed 84 pounds.
I wish I could say I embraced this change gracefully. But, actually I fought it. My Virgo disposition turned on my obsessive solution-seeker. I spent most of my time in my head pouring over information in order to “fix it” instead of being present with the new me. A tough nut, it took me considerable time - years - to accept the unacceptable. And, I can’t even say that I’ve fully accepted it now, but I feel more at peace with it.
There will come a time in your life when the unacceptable arrives, too. That’s just how life is. The unwanted might appear as a serious illness, cheating spouse, job termination, death of a loved one, or in one of countless other possible ways. As much as you might try - like me - you cannot escape undesirable changes. But, if you’re willing to work consciously with whatever comes, the pain will gradually soften and you can find great strength in your vulnerability.
Here are some of my hard-won insights from living with chronic illness, which may also be relevant to other types of unexpected change that occurs. Let me warn you, none of what I share will be easy. You’ll probably want to cling to the past or a better future. I fully understand. But, I have every confidence that with time you’ll embrace the journey - your journey - that has been placed in front of you.
1. Expect the Unexpected
It’s basic human nature to want to be happy and to avoid suffering. We almost can’t help but want a life that flows smoothly from one positive event to another though our own experience shows us otherwise.
This illusion of positive constancy dominates our expectations. Even when trouble besets us, we hold out for that happy ending as subtle as the wish might be. This view along with the belief we’re in control sets us up for a big fall because it’s a fabricated illusion not in line with reality as it is.
Is there another way to subvert this subtle resistance to the unwanted, which only adds more angst to an already messy lot? Pema Chodron suggests you can find healing when you step out of the illusion and make space for the ever-changing nature of life:
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
When we’re hit by illness, tragedy, or loss, a significant measure of our suffering comes from not wanting it to be so. Yet the suffering of old age, sickness, and death are an inescapable part of life.
Proactively coming to peace with impermanence can help you accept the unwanted with greater equanimity. An intellectual understanding of impermanence, however, is not enough. So, everyday, set aside quiet time to reflect upon the way everything is constantly changing: the flowers bloom and die, the seasons change, a new store opens where another has closed. Countless examples of impermanence surround us so just take a look at the world as it really is.
This might sound depressing at first, but impermanence actually makes everything possible. And, isn’t it better to acclimate ourselves in small doses to the way life really is rather than to be shattered when a big change comes to pass?
Appreciating impermanence may not fully take away the sting of tragedy or loss. But, it can soften it, provide perspective, open your heart (because you are never alone in your pain), and provide the resilience you need to carry on.
2. The 5 Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined five stages of grief that commonly occur when you are faced with an impending death or any type of catastrophic loss, including disease, chronic illness, divorce, job termination, and so on.
The fives stages of grief include:
The stages can occur in any order, you may move back and forth through the different stages, and not everyone will experience every stage. Elana Miller, MD describes the fluidity perfectly in relation to her own bout with cancer in her post called The Second Wave.
Knowing this framework allows you to see that you’re going through a normal human process of grief that itself will change and eventually lessen unless you get stuck in one of the stages or move back and forth between unresolved emotions. Therefore, you can be patient with wherever you are, knowing that change and the process of grief takes time.
Be sure to grieve what you have lost, whether it’s your good health or a loved one. Acknowledge each stage as it visits and use skillful means to work with it like journaling, art, dance, meditation, the support of a friend, group, or therapist. Instead of pushing the emotions away, be present with them and you'll find they gradually dissolve.
It’s not easy to come to acceptance. No wonder it’s the last stage in the Kubler-Ross’s model. At first, acceptance may feel impossible. So don’t expect yourself to prematurely leap right there.
You can find relief by simply accepting your non-acceptance for now. Make an aspiration to one day be able to accept your situation full stop. Aspiration is powerful. Keep repeating your wish without clinging to it too strongly and eventually it will even come to pass.
Seek professional help if you get stuck in one of the stages of grief and feel unable to move forward. You need not suffer endlessly.
3. Be Compassionate Towards Yourself
Undesired change can be painful and a spectrum of emotions will indeed arise - not just the primary ones outlined in the 5 Stages of Grief. You deserve compassion as much as anyone else in this world. And, you can give it to yourself.
Do not fight against pain; do not fight against irritation or jealousy. Embrace them with great tenderness, as though you were embracing a little baby. Your anger is yourself, and you should not be violent toward it. The same thing goes for all your emotions.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Whatever emotions arise, send some loving kindness to then, to yourself. Loving kindness is extremely important because it is the antidote to fear and anger, can transform other challenging emotions, and can have a powerful impact on your relationship to yourself and others.
Change is yet another opportunity to learn to work effectively with your emotions so they no longer overwhelm you with agonizing suffering or a subtle, but constant sense of dissatisfaction.
These articles will help you learn how to embrace yourself in the cocoon of loving kindness you so deserve and need.
Understandably, the process of loving kindness will bring up uncomfortable feelings itself. More beautiful grist for the mill.
4. Discover What You Can Do
Life is different now. In the case of debilitating illness, we often try to keep living the same life or close to it. Usually, that means staying busy, which keeps you from feeling your feelings, too. But, that won’t be realistic with a chronic illness or taxing treatment regime. You’ll just exhaust yourself and may exacerbate your condition.
Indeed, your illness may be calling you to examine your life to date. Has it really been a good fit for you? Have you been working like a fanatic? This the time to pause and look at what may have needed to change.
- What do you need to scale back?
- Would simplifying your life help?
- What can you do?
- What can’t you do?
- Is there something different you can do?
Instead of boxing yourself in due to new limitations, try to think outside the box.
- Tammy Strobel gradually healed her grief after the death of her step-father by taking pictures of her morning view, which she recently published in her book: My Morning View: An iPhone Photography Project about Gratitude, Grief, and Good Coffee. (affiliate link)
- Although Laren Hillebrand struggles with debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she wrote the award-winning book turned moved, Sea Biscuit: An American Legend. Mostly housebound, she said she lived vicariously through recording this true story. (affiliate link)
- In Buddhist lore, the nun Palmo contracted leprosy, but she was able to devote herself to the practice of Avolokitesvara, the buddha of compassion and attain supreme accomplishment.
At the same time, your worth doesn’t depend on being materially productive. More important than anything practical you can do in this world, what will really matter when you die is whether you've cultivated a positive mind and expressed kindness to anyone you meet.
Even though Sara from Gitzen Girl experienced constant pain and discomfort due to severe Ankylosing Spondilities, she made a conscious decision to choose joy, gratitude, and happiness.
Of course, it's not easy to choose joy when you're in pain. But it becomes easier through dedicated practice. Sara's joy was contagious. It transformed her own experience and made a remarkable difference in other peoples' lives. Although she's passed on now, her legacy of joy continues to touch lives.
5. This Is Your Journey, This Is Your Life
Difficult times have helped me to understand better than before how infinitely rich and beautiful life is in every way, and that so many things that one goes worrying about are of no importance whatsoever.” – Isak Dinesen
Whatever is happening right now is your opportunity for deep healing so please don’t step away from it. Look directly and ask, “What can I learn here? Life doesn’t necessarily turn out how we expect, but it gives us what we need to grow.
There were so many things that I needed to learn. My illness brought them all to the forefront, one by one, pushing me to keep growing. I learned:
- To stop projecting my anger outwardly.
- Difficult people can be my opportunity to practice compassion.
- It doesn’t matter what other people think about me and it certainly isn’t worth getting mad at them about it.
- To find my own answers.
- To relax more.
- It's essential to take responsibility for my stress level.
This may not be the life you expected, but it's yours now so use it as your path of transformation and become the best possible you.
There are no easy answers to facing chronic illness or other undesirable changes. There’s just you and the willingness to look within, work with your own mind, and transform your emotions.
I'm now a healthy weight and no longer have chronic pain unless I overstep my dietary restrictions.
Recently, I learned one part of my physical challenges have resulted from active genetic polymorphisms on the methylation cycle. These types of mutations are not uncommon in fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, neuro-immune disease, and cardiovascular disorders. I'm learning how to by-pass the mutations to some degree using diet and a carefully tuned supplement regime.
I haven't had a miracle healing. My life is limited, you won't see me hopping on a plane, but I feel better and can do more than I could 10 years ago. I also know that however I'm feeling in this moment is impermanent, and I won't expect it to stay the same.
What have your learned from the challenges in your life? How do you feel about unexpected change?
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra