How do you Find Fulfillment with Chronic Illness?

Jul 09, 2019

Today’s topic for your moment for chronic wellness – it’s a good one: how do you find fulfillment with chronic illness?  Whew!  Well, of course, some days you don’t.  Some days you’re fully immersed in the slog of it all and can barely pull your head up to see that there is a horizon, much less, find a way to something as lofty as fulfillment.  As with all fleeting things, fulfillment is temporary – but so worth noticing when it’s present.  I liken it to the metaphor of a dog on a yoga ball, scrambling like mad for that moment of balance, and then, almost as soon as it’s found, it’s gone again.  So, noticing it when it’s occurring, breathing it in and appreciating the times when I’m experiencing contentment, happiness, or joy is all the more significant.  Being sure to appreciate it when I have it.  Here are four ways I find fulfillment in the midst of this journey with chronic illness.

I have a gratitude practice.  I think some people write this off as trivial or hokey, but using gratitude as something to count or take stock of each day has compounding benefits – over time, this one really pays off.  I recommend starting with an actual place where you document what you’re grateful for each day.  This can be a journal, on your calendar, electronically on your phone or tablet, wherever it’s easy for you to access and make a habit.  Start or end each day by listing some things you’re grateful for.  For me I decided that five was my minimum and if I could think of more than five, great!  No harm in having more things to be thankful for.  The process of counting my blessings has helped me know with certainty and remember, even in the midst of pain and difficulty, that I have them.  This practice has had a potent impact on my spirit.

Connection with myself is the next facet of fulfillment.  This connection is present in the deep love and friendship that I’ve cultivated with myself and, like any relationship, it needs tending.  I tend to this connection by tending to my needs – body, mind, and spirit.  One of the basic ways I do this is by doing body scans as often as I can remember.  By closing my eyes, tuning in to myself, and doing a sweep of myself head to toe to see how I am, what hurts, what feels alright, what I need in that moment, I am more in touch with my own experience.  I came to illness being very out of touch with my body and with strong tendencies to write off my own experience.  Doing regular body scans is one of the ways I am transforming old habits that no longer serve me.  When I ask myself what I need, I listen deeply for the answer, and then attempt to satisfy that need.  It’s amazing how something so seemingly basic can be so hard to remember and put into practice.

Another way I connect with myself is that I’ve developed a list of things that bring me joy.  As most of us with chronic illness know, there are many things from our life prior to being sick that are no longer accessible.  It’s depressing to think about all the things I’m no longer able to do or wish I still could.  To counter act this and help me remember what I can do when I’m feeling low, I’ve made a list of things that bring me joy.  Make it as long as you can and add to it when you think of new things.  Turn it into a collage!  Put it where you can see it regularly – on the ceiling above your bed, inside your closet door, a cupboard, or medicine cabinet.  This should be somewhere you see and remember the things that can comfort you when you are feeling sad or hopeless.  On my list is everything from songs that make me happy, painting, writing a letter, reading, some of my favorite podcasts, being on my swing, watching puppy videos, and more.  Knowing what to do or where to turn at our lowest moment is important.  So is making time each day to carve out time to find joy and meaning.  You are worth making the time to do something each day that lifts your spirit.

I am at home and there have been times in the last few years that my diseases have meant forced solitude when I haven’t been out of bed for months on end making the next facet particularly difficult.  Regardless, connection with others is a key component of fulfillment.  Even if your crew is just a couple of people, maintaining connections with them is terribly significant.  Finding ways to reach out, with calls, texts, visits or what works for you, matters a lot.  Over the long term, it has become very important for me to clearly communicate reasonable expectations for my friends and family.  They aren’t in this body; they don’t know what my experience is unless I tell them – so much of what we’re going through is invisible.  I let them know things like I’ll need to nap everyday while they’re here visiting, that I often don’t respond to texts immediately, that I might cancel our plans up to the last minute, or need to go home before the event is over, etc.  On my end, managing my own FOMO has been critical for my spirit through limiting my time on social media, or coming to terms with the way others’ lives move on without me. 

Finally, developing a contemplative practice has made a huge difference in my mental and physical health.  There are lots of resources out there about the mind body connection and studies about the ways that things like prayer and meditation have impacts on pain and disease.  If you’re interested in some of the books/resources I’ve read on this topic, message me and I’ll give you a list of my favorites.  I find that I have a busy mind, and that, aside from the health and pain benefits, developing a contemplative practice, has helped me quiet some of the less-than-helpful messages that my mind was trying to sell me on.  For me, my practice is meditation.  I began with listening to a guided meditation each day.  This is still my preferred method, but I also practice silent meditation, meditate while I’m knitting, and walking.  I have a practice, too, of watching yoga videos and breathing along and mentally doing the stretching.  Whether it is prayer, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, or something else, cultivating a contemplative practice has the power to transform you and your experience.

Looking at each of these four ways to access fulfillment, I’m struck by the fact that each of these are a practice.  Not something you have or achieve, but something that you must do, must work at, must be active in trying to maintain.  The more effort I put into these and other wellness activities, the more I get out of them – the greater the investment, the greater the returns.  We’re worth it!  We’re worth putting in the time, energy, and effort to find meaning and fulfillment in chronic illness.  What do you do to find it?  Let me know.  Tell me what habits or activities you’ve tried or that work for you to keep you content and fulfilled.  In the meantime, thanks for reading and be well.

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