The Big Lessons from the Big Sick

For almost all of my life I have been blessed with great health. It was easy to take for granted when you have never known anything else.

This run came to an abrupt end this past spring when I began to have digestive problems that over time escalated into a situation that couldn't be denied. A colonoscopy later I was given a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. A malady I had never even heard of.

A cousin of Crohn’s disease, UC (as we afflicted affectionately call it) causes recipients to have lovely symptoms like copious amounts of diarrhea, making living a normal life a bit...challenging.

Since that diagnosis I’ve been hospitalized four times - the latest in December, which was dramatically ushered in with an ambulance ride from Cape Cod Hospital to Boston Medical Center on Christmas Day. Needless to say it was not my best Christmas.

I won’t bore you with details of my illness. There’s nothing worse than listening someone prattle on about their malady. I’ll just say that post these hospitalizations it’s taken weeks for me to regain my strength and get back to my life of yoga, work, having a relationship not based on dealing with doctor’s appointments and helping me, and feeling happy and whole. It’s hard to feel happy when your body is rebelling.

Somewhere within all of this I did manage to begin to tap into the resilience that thankfully always eventually returns, and asked myself many times over these months - “What am I learning from this?”

Once I got past some expletive laced, angry thoughts on how I didn’t want this f***ing lesson, I began to see I was learning a lot. And they were lessons that you didn’t need to have an illness to appreciate. All of us face challenges and we all feel like we’ve had the stuffing knocked out of us from time to time. And it stinks. But at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, these times do equate to growth if we let them and don’t fall into a pit of despair. Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of despair is normal, I’d say even necessary, the trick is not to stay there because, well, that will just ruin your life, not to mention alienate everyone around you.

So what have I learned?  Let’s break it down into some very official looking bullet points.

  • We are all much stronger than we think we are. I won’t say that awful, “that which doesn’t kill you…” trope because, I don’t want you to punch me, and frankly, it makes me furious. That said, we are all much more capable than we realize. I never thought I could handle the tests, the pokes, the assaults to my peace of mind, but I have. Albeit with some tears, and railing to God, Universe, whoever I thought needed to take the blame. After you’ve cried and railed, you will come out on the other side and see that you survived. You. You did it. Don’t ever forget what a hero you are.

  • One of my my biggest lessons has been the hardest to get - learning to accept and ask for help. I find this is notoriously a hard one for women in particular. We’re used to taking care of everyone else, admitting we might need help is tough. But the thing is, we ALL need help sometimes, and allowing others to help us makes them feel good - as good as we do when we do for others.  I have stopped with the negative self-talk (that led to negative spouse talk) calling myself a “burden” and “useless.” Thankfully I have a spouse who won’t put up with me talking that way about myself, and made me see that needing help didn’t make me a failure.

  • Acceptance. This was another big lesson. As someone who’s been lucky enough to enjoy mostly good health throughout my life being diagnosed with a chronic illness felt unacceptable. How could this happen to ME?! I ate well, I did yoga several times a week, I thought I was bulletproof. Alas, I was not. None of us are. It’s taken a lot of work, some tears and anger as well, to get to the point where I (mostly) accept that this is what I have today. Who knows what miracles of either science or nature lie in the future, but for today I have UC, and have to either accept it, or wallow. I chose acceptance.

  • Self-care isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. My yoga and meditation practices have taken on a new meaning to me. They are now important wellness tools that I have in my toolbox along with the right medication, a diet that works for me, and working at reducing stress. These things are now a priority, not something I do when I can find time.

  • There are of course illnesses that one does not recover from. I realize I am lucky that as crappy as this has been I have been able to return to a healthy state (though I’ve had many setbacks.) We all have the capacity for resilience. It may take a while to kick in, but knowing your ability to recover to the best of your ability is there helps immensely. This last time I was sick I began to doubt it, and for the first time wondered if I’d ever feel well and happy again. But like a crocus pushing through the snow, it emerged, slowly at first, but once it started before I knew it I was back. It’s hard when you are down either physically and/or emotionally to remember that light at the end of the tunnel but it is there, just have some patience,

Life is hard. You might not have a chronic illness, but maybe you just lost your job, your relationship ended, or you are trying to figure it all out and nothing is working. All of these lessons are applicable.Really! Ask for help, know you can handle more than you think you can, accept your present circumstances knowing they won’t last forever, take good care of yourself and know that you are resilient and will rebound. You’re a survivor just like me. The journey may not always be pretty, but eventually you find your way back.