11 Truths Only People With Chronic Illness Understand

Photo: Paff

Here’s an eye-opener: as of this year, nearly half of of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with some form of a chronic illness. That’s 177 million people! Maybe you're one of them—I am. Many of us are navigating through a life of new challenges and circumstances that few of us were prepared for. Life can really throw curveballs, which certainly can bring us to our knees sometimes. And I can attest—the learning curve can be pretty steep.

When you feel sick, you have to readjust every aspect of your life. Suddenly you’re having to rebalance everything—diet, schedule, physical activity, work, play—around your new no. 1 priority, which is healing and feeling well again. I know firsthand it can be scary, isolating, and just plain exhausting. My own health journey involves some pretty harrowing twists and turns (pain from a young age, a thyroid condition, colon disorder, even a parasite infection tossed into the mix). The struggle is real; I know your pain because I lived it.

Dealing with chronic health issues at a young age can certainly make you feel sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. But after many years of trials and tribulations, I decided I had to start taking matters into my own hands, and committed to thriving through the difficult experience that was being handed to me.

If I can do it, you can too! As a health and wellness coach with tons of personal experience in this arena, I’m on a mission: to dispel the myths, support the cause, and prove that there’s a silver lining to be found when you reframe a health crisis into a healing opportunity. Stay with me! It’s a wild ride—but it’s one that may transform your life.

1. You’re still you.

There are a million individual facets that come together to make you, well…you. You are a person with a chronic illness, not a “chronically ill person.” Defining yourself as chronically ill way means you’ll be sick for the rest of your life. Realize that you are not your illness—you’re so much more.

2. You are being given a chance to press restart.

Yes, chronic illness does shake things up. In fact, it shows you exactly where your foundations were not healthy or sustainable. Eighty-hour work week? Living on coffee and doughnuts? Not anymore! Now it’s time to get serious about what you and your body really need. You’re rebuilding your life on a foundation of solid rock now with habits that serve your highest well-being.

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3. You will wake up to what’s really important to you.

So many people live in a manic state of unfocused busyness—I know because I was one of them! Chronic conditions are a direct wake-up call from your body: Hey, stop for a moment and pay attention to me! I need you! It becomes much easier to get a clear picture of how you want to live your life and how you want to restructure your time, energy, and dreams to fit that picture. Chronic illness tells you: Time is of the essence. Start living now.

4. You will become an expert at radical self care.

Photo: Hillary Fox

By now, the “food is medicine” concept is catching on. But how many people actually live like they believe it? I practically grew up on processed food! Had I not gotten so sick, I would have never learned the deeply empowering act of nourishing my body and truly listening to what it needed. Restful sleep. Nutritious food. Healthy movement. The human body is an incredible machine—it wants to work for you when you give it the opportunity to. Chronic symptoms can be like a “user’s manual" of what to do (and not do) to keep it running smoothly.

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5. You will become a Zen master in the art of saying no.

Chronic illness sometimes means that you only have so much energy to send out in any given day. Be prepared to get really good at declining unreasonable requests, invitations, occasions, and commitments, without the tinge of guilt. “Past You” might have felt pressured to say yes to everything, from working overtime at the office to helping your flaky friend clean out her garage. Thanks but no thanks! “Present You” makes time for things that speak directly to your heart.

6. Your relationships will evolve and deepen.

For lots of people a chronic condition feels like a social stigma. Maybe you don’t go out for drinks after work as often or engage with your crew like you used to. Superficial friends may get distant or weird with you. You have nothing to hide or feel guilty about. Speak your truth, ask for what you need, stay open and compassionate—there is great beauty in being vulnerable. You will relearn the meaning of friendship from people who show up for you with love and support. Show up for them too.

7. You will learn to celebrate and appreciate little things.

It seems oxymoronic, but it’s true: When little things become harder, you develop a deep sense of gratitude for them. Everyday occurrences become victories to celebrate! Something as simple as the smell of fresh-cut grass on a walk through the park, especially if you’ve been under the weather, can be so rejuvenating. It was during my sickest moments, when my body was seriously failing, that I realized how truly precious everything was to me. My passions and love of life became crystal clear.

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8. You will be incredibly proud of how far you have come.

Photo: Simone Becchetti

When the diagnosis of a chronic illness feels like a low point in your life, the only way out is up. As you make the changes you need to make, you will move forward—and progress feels good. You will look back on your challenges with a sense of pride. You persevered.

9. You will develop the most important relationship in your life.

I can honestly say that I didn’t truly know myself before chronic illness. It has taught me so much about what’s inside me, what I’m capable of, and who I can be. Chronic illness made me more patient, compassionate, tenacious, and forgiving. Only started developing this relationship—one of self-respect, love, and kindness—when my body was desperately calling for my attention.

10. You will become an advocate for yourself.

I was a sick chick until I became an advocate for myself—someone who rises above adversity to champion the good life that is yours to live and live fully. The difficulties I have faced through chronic illness—ones we all face in this fight—have transformed me! And they’re transforming you too, whether you realize it or not.

11. Remember this: Adversity enables transformation to take place.

Challenges help us adapt and grow. And there’s nothing like a health issue to refocus our sights on what is most important. It makes us revisit our priorities and rebuild a stronger foundation of habits and values. Chronic conditions don’t define you, you define them. And when you’re ready and willing to do it in a way that puts you back in the driver’s seat, your chronic condition can open doors you never imagined. I’m with you all the way!

Whether you have chronic illness or not, this checklist for the ultimate mental-health day will have you feeling better in no time. Plus, here are 10 things you should know about chronic illness.

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