By Lana Barhum, Columnist
In September 2008, I was 32 years old, married, with a newborn and a nine year old, when I learned I had fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic pain and illness suddenly dominated my world.
That was almost nine years ago and I have learned a lot from this often unfair experience. It seems chronic pain and illness have much to teach us. Here are 9 lessons I’ve learned:
1) I am Stronger than I Ever Imagined
There was a time when I didn’t think I could ever meet the challenges imposed by pain and illness. But you don’t know how strong you are until your world comes crashing down and you are left to deal with the aftermath.
The human spirit and body have a high tolerance for pain. Just when you think you cannot possibly live with it, you find you can. I have had some pretty painful experiences – some so bad I wished for death.
But I am still here – alive and well. Because no matter what, I am stronger than this. And guess what? So are you.
2) Acceptance is Vital
I spent the first few years of being sick and in pain living in denial. That choice took its toll on my physical and emotional health. It was not until I truly accepted my health challenges that I was able to move past them and focus on having a somewhat normal life.
Acceptance also means you are an active participant in your health. Take your medications and your doctor's advice, keep moving, and focus on bettering your mental and physical health.
I still have days where acceptance is a struggle, but I choose to remind myself what I am feeling isn't permanent.
3) Don't Take Life So Seriously
As it turns out, there is more to life than being healthy. You can still have a good, happy life even though you hurt and feel awful.
There will be good days, bad ones, and even downright ugly ones. But you can still experience moments of happiness, enjoy life, and have meaningful relationships. Illness and pain don’t define you or dictate your life.
Even at my sickest, I managed fill my life and my children's lives with joy and laughter. Focusing on the good stuff, not taking life so seriously, and letting go of what you cannot control keeps you from shedding unnecessary tears.
4) Give Grief a Limit
The grief we often feel from chronic illness comes and goes. Like many of you, I have endured plenty of grief-filled moments. I have been angry, sad, and even clinically depressed.
Grief is normal and natural, especially when your life is continually dominated by pain, sickness, and losses. Give yourself permission to be angry about your pain, but don’t let those emotions take on a life of their own.
5) Life Can Be Unfair – Let Go
I know all too well that chronic illness and pain are unfair. If I could I have protected my health, I would have, but I couldn't. And I couldn’t control the snowball effect that continued for several years after my diagnosis. All of it just simply goes back to life being unfair. It has nothing to do with health challenges.
I am learning to let go of what I wanted my life to be and to just focus on what it is now. Things just happen – like a permanent injury or a chronic disease – that don’t have an explanation. You can either focus your energy on dwelling on the unfairness or you can move on, let go and learn.
6) People Sometimes Let Us Down
I used to think chronic pain and illness were the worst things that happened to me, but it turns out they weren't. Finding out that people don’t stick around when the going gets tough is far worse.
Some of my friends walked away. My family didn’t understand. And my marriage ended. Before I got sick, I loved sharing my life with others. But now that I am not sick and in pain daily, I don’t. People don’t always get that. That makes maintaining relationships harder.
These days, I place my focus on creating a positive family life for my children and giving us the best life possible. I don’t have a lot of time and energy to worry about others who don’t understand. After all, this is MY life – pain, sickness and all - and I get to decide who is in it and who isn't.
7) This is Your Journey – No One Else's
After nine years, I am finally confident in my ability to manage this roller coaster ride alone. Yes, I can sometimes rely on others to help and provide support, but at the end of the day, I decide the kind of person this life with pain and illness makes of me.
You may have all the support in the world, but you are the only one who can decide the direction this journey goes. Chronic pain can take so much if you let it.
Choose to make the best experience of this journey even when it hurts, and even it feels like you have got nothing left in you. Trust me when I say, “You have got this.”
8) Let Go of Your Fears
I was once afraid of what my life would become, but here I am nine years later and my fears were nothing but wasted time. Interestingly, my health challenges took my life in directions I never anticipated and most of them have been good.
Don't miss out on the blessings of the present and future because you are dwelling on the past. Stop being afraid because you can still have a bright future.
9) Never Give Up on Your Health and Happiness
My life changed the day my doctor said, "You have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia." I went from being a healthy young mother to someone with an uncertain future. I don’t take anything in my life for granted anymore and I treasure each day as the gift it truly is.
And the things that I thought I had to give up on – my dreams, watching my children succeed and grow into amazing human beings, and even finding love again – I was so wrong about. All these things were possible despite chronic pain and illness. And they continue to be.
Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.
To learn more about Lana, visit her website.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.