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When Health Challenges Happen to You

As someone who has faced health challenges and worked with hundreds of clients who have had their own, I have a felt sense of what a unique, frustrating and scary experience it is.

What a profound experience of knowing how fragile our bodies can be, and how mortal we truly are. The experience of having health challenges is a brutal and daily reminder of how little we have control over.

That’s the not-so-great news. Here’s some of the good news: Our bodies are amazingly strong, and resilient, and inherently know how to heal. Our bodies are MUCH smarter than we are. After all, if we were in charge of even healing a cut on our finger, wouldn’t we bungle up the job, really? We’d forget to do the thing every so many hours or we’d apply to much of the salve we were supposed to use and it’d smear everywhere and miss the area anyway or we’d just simply forget to do what needed doing and it wouldn’t heal. But in real life, the body is mostly in charge of healing and guess what? It automatically heals. (With significant help from professionals sometimes, but still.) The body knows what to do.

More good news: We need support and love from other people all the time, and having health challenges can force us to accept those things from others. It can also force us to SLOW DOWN (something many of us struggle with). The body doesn’t heal without rest. The brain does not heal without relationships. So guess what? Health challenges make you do stuff like take time off from work and make play dates with your favorite people. That is actually a very good thing.

Now, I want to address the shadow side of health challenges, of which there are many. It can be demoralizing. Depressing. Anxiety-producing(!). Lonely. Annoying. Infuriating.

I have some suggestions:

Prioritize your own care first, above all.

Say No to everything extra (especially if you are in the thick of having symptoms). It can either wait or it wasn’t that important anyway. On the board of some organization? Resign. Responsible for that weekly task at the office that someone else could easily do? Pass it. Are you the person who everyone else relies on to get things done? Re-brand that identity you have created. Do YOU first.

Ask for help.

I know, it’s really hard to ask for help. ASK FOR HELP. You are going to have to re-train your brain to think before doing something – “is this something I could get someone to help me with?” Things like, mowing your own lawn. Driving yourself to doctor’s appointments that are scary or at least could be scary (if you’re getting test results, for instance! Bring someone with you, always!). Cooking all of your own food. Cleaning your own bathroom. Ask for help. The people who love you WANT to help. Offer them that opportunity.

Keep your morale up, anyway you can.

If that means you need to spend some money to treat yo’self, DO IT (within reason! Don’t buy a boat on credit, please!). Hang out with people who make you laugh. Watch only fun, sweet, upbeat movies and shows on Netflix, etc.

Let yourself cry, feel angry, rage and have any other “negative” emotions that may come.

Try not to skip them. It’s tempting to push those feelings down, and frankly, we live in a culture that encourages it. “Keep calm and carry on,” “Attitude is everything,” “Every day is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.” Okay, yes, sure, these things can be true BUT not exclusively. Feelings are a rich tapestry and that tapestry is made up of ALL feelings, not just happiness, joy and contentment. Anyone who tells you different is full of it. Not only that, but in order to feel happiness, joy and contentment, we HAVE to feel all the other feelings too. It’s just how it works. You tamp down some feelings, you are tamping down all of them. So let yourself feel what you need to feel, when you are feeling it. Sadness, grief, rage, frustration, anger. Let them wash over you like a huge wave that knocks you down. That wave will recede and you will get back up.

Tend to your anxiety.

Because it’s a <bleeeeeeeeep> anyway, and when you’re having health challenges, especially so. The last thing you need on top of whatever symptoms you may be having is anxiety symptoms. If you don’t know much about how to take care of anxiety, may I recommend contacting a therapist? Find one who you feel comfortable with (#1) and who you feel you can be honest with, warts and all, about how you’re really doing (#2). Medication may also be needed, in which case you’d want to make an appointment with a prescriber (I recommend either a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner (PMHNP)) who can talk to you about options. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about psychotropic medication, including that it’s addictive, will change your personality, etc. Bullshit. For some people it’s a life-saver. If you’re one of those people, take the life-saver if you need it.

Same goes for depression (see above).

Find others who get it.

Even if you have the rarest form of the rarest disease, there are others out there that are at least struggling with some of the same symptoms you are. Find those people. Not sure how? Well, the internet is a great place to start. I’d also recommend calling local hospitals to see if they know of any support groups for ________. Not support-group-friendly? Try it anyway. If you hate the support group, I promise you can get up and leave and no one is going to tackle you and sit on you to stay. What is more likely to happen is that you will show up terrified, sit down, listen to others and realize that you are not alone, which is a HUGE and important thing for you to feel right now, because having health challenges can be extremely lonely. From there, get a couple of numbers, start texting with the people who were friendly and/or compassionate, and maybe set up some coffee dates. Please don’t underestimate how important it is to be with others who get it. Yes, your partner or best friend or friend group folks are wonderful and they really care, but they aren’t going to totally get it, and that’s okay. You also need at least one person who gets it.

My hope for you is that you get the care, support and love that you need to help you endure this time, however long it lasts. And that you find joy in the moments you can, and that you laugh and get to forget sometimes that you even have these health challenges. They are part of life, but not all of it.

And lastly, I would be remiss if I did not recommend my friend and colleague Lauren Selfridge’s amazing podcast to you, “This is Not What I Ordered,” about living with chronic illness and other health challenges. It is a delight, and definitely worth a listen.

Take care.



August 30, 2018