Wednesday, May 15, 2013

5 Steps to Happiness after Receiving a Diagnosis of Chronic Illness

I have always had Chiari symptoms for as long as I can remember; but, before my diagnosis I had this wonderful, blessed sense of naivety.  Maybe it was a sense of invincibility or simply oblivion.  The best way I can explain it is that life seemed limitless. I believed my future could be anything I wanted it to be.  Then I received a diagnosis of a lifelong, chronic illness that changed my perspective.  Suddenly, my 'bucket list' had been cut in half and I struggled with the meaning of life. Not all life. Just my life. Could a life with such limitations still be as great?  The only way to find out was to open myself up to the lessons that only chronic illness can teach.  First, I had to understand my condition and establish a relationship with it as a key player in my life.  Then, I had to realize that while it changed my expectations of life, it didn't have to change the level of joy in my life. Now, I would like to share the beauty of these lessons with you.
1. Reimagine Happiness - Chronic illness stripped the freedom from my life in an instant.  The entire globe was mine to conquer.  I had a passport, an unquenchable sense of adventure and a burning desire to see it all. My path to happiness was simple and clear, to crisscross the globe and bask in its wonders.  Then one simple MRI brought my lifelong adventure to a complete standstill.  I may never cruise the Yangtze, journey to the Western Wall, or visit Red Square; but, my life is richer than I ever dreamed.  Once I quit taking tally of what I couldn't do and started envisioning what I could, life opened up and became more beautiful than I ever imagined.  My relationships are more meaningful, my heart is bigger, my love is richer and my life is deeper than I knew was humanly possible.


 2. Reestablish Goals - We often define success as a culmination of our dreams coming to fruition.  I ask you to reexamine your goals.  After 16 years, I had built a very successful and much loved career managing travel agencies on military installations.  None of my goals included brain surgery or a full time career as my own personal health care specialist.  My condition forced me to give up my career and the ideals that I wrongly assumed was my path to happiness.  After a civil war of ideals within myself, I established new goals, redefined success and adjusted my expectations.  I adjusted  my dream of touching the native soil of all seven continents and replaced it with a new dream of touching the innermost souls of those around me.  I choose to see beauty everywhere rather than being myopically determined to measure success by such narrow standards.

3. Adopt Compassion - I easily found compassion for my Mom when she recovering from two open heart surgeries after a tough battle with breast cancer.  She showed me the artistry of listening to the demands of her body in order to aid healing.  I marveled at her will and lack of self pity when it came to getting enough rest to combat lethargy.  Yet, I discovered that I applied a different set of standards to my own illness.  I scolded myself for needing to spend one day a week in bed.  I felt like a worthless burden for needing more rest than others. Luckily, my Mom's wisdom eventually found its way back to me.  My worth does not diminish based on the demands of my illness.  Instead, I have found creative ways to feel productive on my down days, I blog!

4. Redefine Ordinary - Let's be honest, ordinary is subjective. When Boyet and I visit family in the Philippines, it's ordinary to have rice for breakfast.  Whereas eggs are ordinary in America.  It doesn't mean that either is right or wrong, it's just different.  For my husband, pain and fatigue could be indicators that he's coming down with something.  For me, they are indicators that I am still alive and well.  Once I admitted that my life will always include pain and fatigue, I began to realize that I could selectively choose which symptoms I want to treat or medicate.  This realization ended the power struggle between Chiari and myself.  I no longer feel that every day is a losing battle, it's a choice. It's my choice to select which treatments I will utilize to keep my life moving forward at steady, albeit slightly slower than average, pace.

5. Reexamine Blessings - We all have this mental list of what blessings are. This list would include such things as a healthy new baby, being declared cancer free after treatment, having a great friend to rely on in our time of need, escaping an unexpected tragedy or many other things.  I now see being diagnosed with Chiari as one of the great blessings in my life.  It was difficult for me to change this from a curse to blessing; but my Chiari is a blessing!  I have learned so much more about myself as a result of my diagnosis.  I know what it means to be strong.  I can now give unconditionally because I have learned to receive graciously.  I now understand the truest meaning of  Psalm 46:10 "Be still and know that I am God." I have found that I can communicate more clearly with God when I am quiet than when I am busy in prayer. Without my diagnosis I would still be running 90 miles an hour and wouldn't know who I truly am.

These lessons were extremely hard to learn and even harder to implement; but, they have made such a difference in my life.  I am happier than I have ever been, I have found the love of my life, I have deeper relationships with my family and I have fewer worries. Yes, I live my life with limitations, I always will; truthfully, everyone does to some extent.  I just no longer choose to let those limitations limit my happiness.  I no longer live in fear that others will perceive me as damaged or fragile.  I speak openly and unapologetically about Chiari; it is simply a reality in my life.  This is my life.  It is a great life. I am proud to call it mine.