I was diagnosed with a chronic illness when I was a teenager. Being on medication, having surgery, learning new ways of interacting with food, digestion and pain all shaped my early relationship with myself and the world. My mother has the same chronic illness that I do, and prior to learning my body in the midst of illness I had already spent my entire life learning wellbeing from the perspective of watching my primary parent navigate her own surgeries and struggles with pain.
Those who are living with chronic illness don’t all handle the repercussions in the same way, and as a mental health professional, I don’t believe there is one correct way to handle those repercussions. The way that I experienced my mother’s relationship to illness was observing a combination of optimism, dissociation, anger and self-sufficiency. These are qualities that I believe can be quite helpful in managing chronic pain. Optimism, because to live a life of pining after something different than the circumstances that exist is to never be present and to believe yourself inferior. Dissociation, because pain and disappointment and the unknown can’t be lived with full time. Sometimes you need to step away from the illness, from yourself, from even taking care of yourself to pass through whatever is to get to what will be when it’s just a little bit better, a little less intense. Anger, because it isn’t fair to be in pain, to be “limited,” to be looked at with pity/disdain/confusion. Also anger because anger can be a powerful assist, can bring you back to yourself when you’ve dissociated for a while. Self-sufficiency, because while we all need each other and all need help, human beings crave the sensation of being able to do it ourselves, managing something, even if what we manage is a trip to the bathroom, or silently handling a spike of discomfort while doing our jobs.
What I’ve learned about chronic illness while practicing as a psychotherapist has expanded my understanding of what I observed growing up with my mother. Wellness is not always about physical health, not always about happiness or contentment. Wellness can be noticing what’s going on, allowing it to exist, knowing yourself enough to know when to take a break, when to cancel your day, how to be all right with that. Wellness is having a sense of humor about chronic illness, allowing yourself to be imperfect in your handling of social niceties, not taking your illness so seriously that it becomes your identity. It is structuring your life so that you aren’t trapped when surprised by pain, being loose with your life so that you don’t live for the pain, sharing your pain and not becoming competitive about whose pain is worse.