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10 Things Chronic Illness Taught Me About Myself

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1. I am stronger than I think

The old saying is that you never know how strong you are until you are put to the test and it rings true.  Since being diagnosed with a chronic illness, I have learned that I have more fortitude than I have ever given myself credit for before.  I have realized that I can push through a zillion times farther past the point I thought I could.  I have learned that I can handle the physical, mental, and emotional upheaval and strain of an invisible illness with a grace and strength I did not see in myself before I was forced to look.  That doesn’t mean that I am never weak, it simply means that in my weakness I have found a quiet inner strength.  Most people never get to embrace their weaknesses the way that people with chronic illnesses learn to.  Dealing with clear weaknesses and realizing that you are still able to live, is something that liberates a stalwartness within us we could not have imagined before.  You face some of your greatest fears and keep on going.  Nothing makes me learn that I am stronger than I thought than realizing that I did something I didn’t think I could and there is no better example of that than chronic illness.

2.  I deserve to be taken care of

I love to take care of people.  I genuinely love taking care of Mr. Autoimmune Mess and our kids.  My maternal nature is all consuming and it is one of the best parts of who I am.  What I am not good at is being taken care of.  I have always felt that having to be taken care of was some sort of deficiency on my part.  I felt that if I had to be cared for then I wasn’t caring for others.  Enter in the harsh realities of flare ups.  When I refuse to take care of myself or be taken care of, my symptoms flare up and put me in a position where I can’t take care of my loved ones.  After many, many instances of refusing to learn this lesson I finally got it.  I deserve to be taken care of because when I am, I can offer up the best of myself which is a blessing to those around me.  When I take on the silly notion that I shouldn’t be taken care of because it is in the best interest of others, I rob them from my care by slamming into my limitations physically.  I deserve to be taken care of not only because I am worthy of it as a human being, but because I good things in me that the world needs me to be able to give.

By the way, thank you Mr. Autoimmune Mess for the many hot baths you have drawn, the cups of coffee you have delivered, and the insistence that I sit down and rest over the years.

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3. What my priorities are

It is easy to rattle off the top five priorities in your life but if that list were made by how you spend your time and resources it might look different than what you said your priorities were.  When chronic illness limits the amount of energy you have to give to those priorities, you suddenly need to take a much closer look at where you are spending it.  It is a reality check to acknowledge where you are wasting needless energy on things that aren’t priorities.  For example, I use to spend time aimlessly wandering through stores and then have to come home and crash from the exerted effort of walking for a few hours.  Now, I skip the stores and spend my time doing some silly craft or game with my family.  Then afterward I have enough energy to snuggle up on the couch during a good movie.  Preferably one where I can sing along about the desire to build a snowman and my need to let it go.  My boys love that.  (Note: that last line was accompanied by expert eye rolling and emphatic groans on their part.)

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4. I can recognize and appreciate the good moments in my life

It is so easy to rush right past all of the little moments that make life really special.  Take for instance when my oldest son, who is quickly transforming into a giant nearly my size, throws his arms around me and wraps me in an unexpected bear hug.  While his hugs have always been special, my new ability to see my priorities clearly has helped me learn not to take advantage of those sweet moments by not being fully present in them.  I am more conscious of my intentional presence in those precious moments so I can be sure to take full advantage of them in my heart.

5. I can admit when I’m not okay

We live in a world where everyone is trying to prove they have it all together and are living the good life.  The facade begins to crumble a bit though when your body is causing you to obviously not have it all together. I tried to hide limps from arthritic hip pain, cover up butterfly rashes with make-up, and plaster on a smile over the painful days but it only pushed my body and spirit further past its limits.  I had to learn to admit it when I’m not okay.  I had to learn that it is not a point of pride to have it all together, it is a point of pride to refuse to admit that we don’t.  I am okay with not being okay at times.

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6. I need community

I am what is described as an ambivert.  An ambivert is someone who falls smack dab in the middle of an introverted and extroverted personality. For me this means that while I do enjoy periods of meaningful conversation in intimate groups, I totally thrive and recharge in solitude.  For a long time I handled my chronic illness in the same way.  Sometimes I shared my struggles and the emotional fall out from it with a close friend but I generally handled it all on my own.  That can be a lonely and hard road since there are so few that have the ability to relate to the unique struggles that come with facing a life of pain.  Thankfully, in many ways chronic illnesses forces us to learn how to reach out to others.  I am always amazed at the wonderful spoonie community and how they support, advocate, and relate to one another.  I need that community and those things it offers to help me on my autoimmune journey.  Looking for community too?  Check out the awesome Autoimmune Mess community on Twitter.

7. Who my friends are

You never really know who your friends are until you’ve been through something big enough to push the impostors away.  When you can no longer do the things that make you a handy companion the truth comes out of who loves you for you and who loves you for what you give them. Chronic illness forces people around you to reveal whether they are a giver or taker in your life. That doesn’t mean that people who love you and are committed to supporting you won’t make mistakes that hurt you sometimes.  Some of my biggest supporters have said some of the most hurtful things out of ignorance at times.  What makes them different is that they listen and learn how to better support me when they need to.

8. How to support others.

Nothing teaches you empathy like learning what it actually feels like.  I have no problem imagining and feeling what it must be like for others in their weakness because I have been closely associated with my own weakness.  It is by no means a far stretch of the imagination to guess what it must be like for another.  Chronic illness taught me how to support others by truly empathizing with them.  It taught me to think carefully about what it means to show my support because I had to think carefully about what I needed to feel support in my life.  It made me a better friend, less judgmental and more considerate.  It grew my levels of mercy by leaps and bounds because suddenly, I was quite aware of just how much I actually needed.

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9. I can say no, and mean it, without feeling guilty.

I have often suffered from people pleaser syndrome.  It is an emotionally fatal disease that can be extremely hard to cure.  Even when I knew that saying yes would absolutely push me over my limit I still struggled to form the word no.  It took a lot of learning the hard way before I understood that saying no does not mean I am letting anyone down.  When I run myself out of spoons and become a pathetic shell of myself I let people down.  Then I can’t be the woman I am made to be and bring the goodness that is Nikole into their lives.  When I say no, it is because there is a better yes.  I have learned how to say that dreaded two letter word and feel like I am doing a good thing for people, and myself!

10. I am more vain than I thought.

I have never considered myself to be a vain person.  I am comfortable in my own skin and while I like to get all dolled up I also like to camp and hike.  Imagine my surprise at how much it bothered me when my invisible illness began to manifest itself physically in ways that forced my vanity to the surface.  For starters, the clumps of hair I continually lose began to make me a little self conscious of the white patches of scalp I began to need to hide.  Then I began to grow worried about the pink rash across my nose and cheeks and piled on a bit more make-up.  My weight fluctuates quite often depending on my meds and overall wellness and I was suddenly over-aware of the moments when I didn’t feel as attractive because of that muffin top I just couldn’t help or the saggy skin from its quick reversal.  I realized that how I look affects me much deeper than I had ever cared to admit.  I also learned that beauty is fleeting and what matters is the beauty that comes from within that doesn’t have to fade when my body fails.

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There is no doubt that I have grown as a person through the unique journey that chronic illness puts us on.  I don’t think one can travel on such a harsh path and not awaken to new realizations.  What has your journey through chronic illness taught you?

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