Three Ways to Thrive Through Chronic Illness
I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. And I also believe that everything that happens to me is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to better myself. I had to learn these truths quickly once my health started on a rapid down spiral. I was being hit with one trauma, injury or illness after another. I sometimes felt like I wasn’t even being given time to catch my breath before the next challenge overwhelmed me.
There was a lot of opportunity for me to grow bitter. In fact, I spent a good year and a half depressed, angry and bitter. I had experienced a lot of loss, a lot of trauma, a lot of change. My life as I knew it had changed drastically and I longed for what it used to be, unwilling to grab hold of what I had been given and to make it worthwhile.
In March of 2014, I herniated a disc in my lower back by blow drying my hair. Try figuring that one out…
What followed is a story too long for a simple blog post. You can read more about it over on my website: http://www.fortheburds.com under “The Story of Us, Part 4: To Infinity and Beyond.”
In short, I went in for back surgery and came out pregnant. And that pregnancy ended in a traumatic ectopic pregnancy, which is where the baby grows anywhere else but the uterus, usually in the fallopian tubes. I was given medicine to “dissolve the mass” (or as I heard, kill my baby), but also to save my life. But the medicine didn’t work and I ended up in emergency surgery a few days later with an obliterated fallopian tube, massive blood loss and a was left with a 12-inch incision across my abdomen.
After I recovered from that surgery, I had my back surgery, but I had also experienced a bad case of constipation due to eating a full meal the night of my emergency surgery and then basically living off IV morphine and dilaudid for a week. Once the constipation had passed, I started experiencing some concerning symptoms like the passing of blood, mucus and undigested food.
I ignored the symptoms for close to a year before I sought out help. By the time I found a doctor willing to listen to me, I was terrified of what the diagnosis would be. Strangely, I was relieved when my gastroenterologist told me after a colonoscopy that I had classic signs of ulcerative colitis. I started on drug therapy, but even then, it was close to two years before I found relief and experienced remission. In the midst of all the UC testing and diagnosis, I also underwent fertility testing and discovered my left fallopian tube was the one good one and the loss of it left me infertile. And just a year ago, I was diagnosed with arthritis after weaning off prednisone and experience debilitating joint pain.
Then this past summer, I was rushed to the ER once again with incredible stomach pains and a high fever. After a few different hospital stays and multiple doctors visits and tests, they found an abscess in my pelvis that was formed through a fistula from my colon. My GI said it had likely been forming for a long time. I had a drain inserted into my gut and was on daily IV infusions of high doses of antibiotics for several months. I was a week away from surgery when the abscess cleared up and I was released from medical care.
Through all of these traumas, illnesses, loss, and diagnoses, I have fought to maintain control of my life. And you know what? That only resulted in anger and bitterness. I was so, so angry at God for allowing all of this to happen. I was angry that I couldn’t leave my house, and when I did, I had to wear diapers because I could poop my pants with little-to-no notice. I was angry that my young, healthy, fit husband was strapped to a sick, embittered woman who could barely function enough to keep the house clean.
But when my illness peaked this summer, I learned something. I learned that I had no control and that it was okay. I learned that God wasn’t doing this to punish me, but to refine me. He wasn’t a vindictive or angry God. Jesus’s work on the cross makes it impossible for God to feel those things towards me. No, God was allowing all of this to happen so that I could be more like Him. And isn’t that the end goal of every Christian’s life? To be image bearers of God? It is!
Once I got that lesson through my thick skull, I basically threw my hands up in the air and was like, “Alright God, bring it on!”
I want to share with you some lessons I’ve learned in my years of battling illness. I want to be able to help you see past your anger and bitterness. I want to be able to give you some goals to work towards, to focus on, when you’re in the midst of a flare up or stuck in an infusion or hooked up to IVs and stuck to a hospital bed.
Here are three ways to thrive through chronic illness:
Learn to Laugh
My husband and I have always held laughter in high regard in our marriage. I am the only one who gets to see his ridiculously silly side and he delights in displaying that to garner some of my world-renown (seriously!) laughs.
In my early years after the surgeries and grieving the loss of our baby, I lost my laughter. I lost the smile that reached into my eyes. Instead, frown lines formed around my mouth and tears took up permanent residence in my eyes. But as the grief became more manageable and as the husband and I started making new, exciting plans for our life, the laughter came back. God started healing me and part of that healing was bringing my laugh back. And it has been great medicine!
I don’t want you to remember just to laugh, but to laugh at the hard things. Laughing at the hard things takes away their power. Laughing also fires up so many good hormones in your body and brain, that after a good fit of laughter, life seems to be so much easier to handle. For me, laughing at the fact that sometimes I poop my pants has been the best medicine. I could be ashamed. I could be mortally embarrassed. I choose to laugh instead. I text my husband whenever it happens and he responds with something to make me laugh and inevitably includes the poop emoji.
Learn to Rely on Others
This was a HARD lesson for me to learn. I was single and self-sufficient for a long time before the husband and I got married. I was strong. I was able bodied. I didn’t rely on anyone for much of anything.
And then I got sick.
After my first surgery, I couldn’t bear to dry off my incision after a shower. So the husband would come in and gently dab it dry. And this summer, when I had a drain in my belly and would have to occasionally change the dressings on it, he was right there handing me gauze and medical tape. And when I’m stuck on the toilet in the morning, he doesn’t make fun of me for being in there so long. Instead, he works around me and even insists on kissing me on my throne before he leaves for work. I told him he didn’t have to do that and he simply stated, “If I didn’t kiss you when you were on the toilet, I’d never get to kiss you.” I laughed out loud and then thought how absolutely true that statement was!
Also, when I had an unexpected hospital stay this summer, we had to rely on a ton of people as we were in the middle of moving and have two dogs to take care of in the midst of it all. So we relied on family members to paint our new apartment, friends to pack up our old apartment and even more friends to come over and walk and feed our pups so that the husband could spend the evenings at the hospital with me.
It’s okay to ask for help! In fact, if you’re chronically ill, I’d say it’s a requirement for survival! We as humans were created to exist and thrive in community. We have friends and families for such times.
Learn that You are Strong
When I first started getting sick, I was frustrated because there was so much I couldn’t do. And when I was unable to walk or move, I was angry because I was trying to lose weight and care for my body. I was sad that my husband had to work full time and then come home to care for the house because I simply didn’t have it in me.
What I didn’t realize was just how strong I was.
I have survived multiple surgeries and traumas. I am thriving in the depths of two chronic illnesses that incapacitate me. I am networking and building new relationships with people in similar situations, bringing laughter and hope into their darkness. I have been able to see how being weak is actually making me stronger than I ever have been before. It’s giving me a platform to speak from and reach others who are drowning in the darkness of chronic illness.
Life is hard. It’s ugly. It seems hopeless at times. But you can sit in the puddles of the hard, ugly and hopelessness, or you can get up and jump in them, dissipating them with you joy. It’s up to you.
Caitlin is a blogger, crafter, dog mom who loves chocolate, the Golden Girls and all things dinosaurs, robots, hobbits, and potty-humor. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Chicago.