What a strange and amazing question that might be to some. What’s more amazing is how many answers I have to that question! There have been so many, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. The crazy-beauty of tremendous hardship is that as life deals us difficult blows it simultaneously hands us these radical blessings. Yes, I must avail myself to them and be willing to clear the debris from my heart in order to see them, but there they are – shining like jewels, mine for the taking. Nothing wasted, no mistakes. If I rise to the challenge I am rewarded with undeniable gifts. That is not to say that there aren’t days when chronic illness isn’t summarily kicking my ass, illness: 1, Annette: 0. Yes, that happens, frequently. But when viewed with a wide-angle lens I can see the gifts I have been offered, tangible and intangible, in the midst of this storm I’m in. They are there, I can accept them or not. The choice is mine. Here are some I’ve found:
The gift of knowing who’s with me. This one often hurts before it feels good. It is the culling of relationships that coincides with long-term illness. Whether it’s the fact that I’m no longer working and, those relationships which were loosely bound aren’t being maintained, or friendships that cannot be sustained in the face of current circumstances, or other friends who opt out as my illnesses have continued or progressed, things change. It can be painful to lose friends. However, this one counts as a gift for me because as time has gone by, I am so clear about the friends who have remained. The process now feels like a refinement. Those who have stayed are here not because I was a people-pleaser and had something to offer them, but because I am loved, and our relationship matters to them. I have richness in the quality, not quantity of friends.
Another blessing in the mess and madness has been that of allowing myself permission to trust myself and my body. As I’ve mentioned, people-pleasing and saying “yes” to things was my habit pre-illness. Getting sick gave me permission to say “no” to things, citing my illness as the reason (because I always needed a reason). However, since getting in touch with myself, my body, my feelings, I now understand and can do a better job being responsive to invitations or when I’m out and short on energy – without justification. I can just say “no,” or “sorry, I can’t make that,” or “I thought I could be here, but I need to go now.” I don’t need excuses, permission, or to feel bad. Self-care, attending to my needs, and allowing myself permission is the best gift I can give myself. I remember an episode of Friends when Ross asked Phoebe to help him move. She said, “Oh, I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” What a master! I strive for that kind of clarity – knowing myself and sampling stating truth, without reservation, about my needs and desires. I don’t want to rely on my illnesses as my “crutch,” or justification. I am plenty reason enough. I can just say what I’m up for, or not up for and leave it at that. This has been a major shift in how I value and prioritize myself.
Following along with this last gift is learning how to meet my needs. Once we know what our needs are (this is no simple matter for most of us) comes the big step of asking for what we need or seeking out and meeting our own needs. Many of us are not good at asking for help/asking for what we need. This can be for many reasons, but it can be difficult to rely on others, admit that we need others, or trust that others will be there for us when we need them. However, if you have a chronic illness and you have people in your life who love you, I would strongly encourage you to take a hard look at this habit and whether or not it is serving you. Asking for help is a necessity – for all of us. If we don’t ask for what we need, there is very little chance people will have the opportunity to meet those needs. Our loved ones surely love us but that doesn’t make them mind readers. It is my job to help people know how to help me. I do this by telling them what I need and allow them the chance to let me know whether they can help or not. Because I have learned (am learning) to say “no,” I must trust that others will do the same for themselves. Perhaps I send a email with the dates of upcoming appointments asking friends for help with rides, or a calendar of nights my wife is gone when I could use a meal dropped off, I also try to send out a text when I’m having a hard time asking for extra support. I’ve learned some of these behaviors by watching others (friends, family, people in TV and movies) to see how they ask for help and I copy them. If this is new for you, tell your support network that this is a muscle you’re trying to develop and then put it into practice with something low stakes and take it from there.
Like flowers blooming in Death Valley after an infrequent bit of rain, these are some of the gifts that have blossomed in the wasteland that has been long-term illness. There have been others, and I expect I’ll see more. Like desert blooms they are delicate, fragile, and developed in an inhospitable ecosystem, so I must nurture them with tender care. Also, like plants they require regular attention and maintenance. Friendships, boundaries, trusting myself, trusting others, these are all things that take practice and require upkeep. While chronic illness is unpredictable, these gifts have been hard-won and are worth the attention and time it takes to ensure their continued existence.