Today’s topic 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 there is a horizon, much less find a way to something as lofty as fulfillment. As with all fleeting things, fulfillment is temporary – but it’s so worth noticing when it’s present. I liken it to the metaphor of a dog on a yoga ball, scrambling all around 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 five 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 it a habit. Start or end each day by listing some things you’re grateful for. For me, I decided 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 do indeed have blessings. This practice has had a potent impact on my spirit.
- Connection with myself. This connection is present in the deep love and friendship I’ve cultivated with myself. But 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. I do this by closing my eyes, tuning into myself and doing a sweep of myself head to toe to see how I am, what hurts, what feels alright and what I need in that moment. I am so much more in touch with my own experience after this. When I was diagnosed, I was very out of touch with my body and had strong tendencies to write off my own experiences. 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.
- 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 do. To counteract 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. It should be somewhere you see it often so can remember the things that can comfort you when you are feeling sad or hopeless. On my list are things like 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 moments is important. So is making time each day to find joy and meaning. You are worth making the time to do something each day that lifts your spirit.
- Connection with others. I am at home and there have been times in the last few years my diseases have meant forced solitude when I haven’t been out of bed for months on end which can make this 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 whatever works for you, matters a lot. In the long-term, it has become very important for me to clearly communicate reasonable expectations to my friends and family. They aren’t in this body; they don’t know what my experience is like unless I tell them – so much of what we’re going through is invisible. I let them know things like that I’ll need to take a nap every day 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 fear of missing out (FOMO) has been critical for my spirit. I do this by limiting my time on social media or coming to terms with the way others’ lives sometimes move on without me.
- 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 things like prayer and meditation impact pain and disease. If you’re interested in some of the books/resources I’ve read on this topic, you can email me for a list of my favorites. I find I have a busy mind and aside from the health and pain benefits, developing a contemplative practice has helped me quiet some of the less-than-helpful messages my mind tries to sell me. 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 or meditate while I’m knitting or walking. I also practice by watching yoga videos and breathing along or 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 five ways to access fulfillment, I’m struck by the fact that each of these are a practice. They are not things you have or achieve, but things you must do, must work at and 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 our chronic illness. What do you do to find it? Let me know. Comment what habits or activities you’ve tried or what works for you to keep you content and fulfilled. In the meantime, thanks for reading and be well.
This story was originally published on Annette Leonard’s blog.