Archive for April, 2009

The Positive Side of Having a Chronic Illness

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Many of my new clients are surprised by one of the items on the questionnaire I request that they fill out before our first session. I ask them to list at least three benefits they’ve experienced because of having their illness. Maybe it will suprise you to know that there was only one person who said she couldn’t think of any.

Even though it took place five years ago, I will always remember a conversation I had with a woman who was living in London. Before Zolisa immigrated there from Africa, she had been diagnosed with AIDS, which she had gotten from her ex-husband.

In her culture, woman were expected to acquiesce to their husband’s demands for sex, and as a result many women became infected. Instead of staying bitter or feeling victimized, what Zolisa decided to do was to make it her mission to empower other African women in London to stand up to their husbands, so that they wouldn’t become infected with AIDS.

I found Zolisa’s response to her illness very inspiring. But what made it unforgettable was when she told me that her mission and work were so satisfying to her that if it were possible for her to be cured of AIDS, she would decline. What she was doing meant more to her than becoming disease free.

Very few, if any, of us would turn down a cure for our illness. However, as I said above, I’ve only encountered one person who couldn’t think of any benefits from having an illness. Some of the more common ones were being more appreciative of Nature’s beauty and being more compassionate. And people listed many others.

What about you? What are some of the benefits you’ve experienced as a result of having your illness? I invite you to leave a comment to share them with others.

Finding a balance – with love, and seeing the Dalai Lama

Friday, April 24th, 2009

I recently coached a woman – I’ll call her Donna – who was doing pretty well managing her chronic illness. But she was having some troubling symptoms and was afraid they would get worse. At the same time, she was building a business, and like all of us, she needed to earn a living. She was torn between whether she should give her time, energy, and love to her health or to her business.

If you face a similar dilemma, you may want to consider what I said to Donna. I told her that I thought she should give her time, energy, and love to the part of herself that was torn and trying to decide what to give her time, energy, and love to. It was clear to me that that part of Donna had the biggest immediate need for those things, but was getting little if any of them. I knew that once she gave that part of herself the time, energy, and love it needed that she would be in a much better place to make decisions about finding the right balance in those other areas of her life.

On another note, today was a very special and memorable day because I got to see the Dalai Lama. Like many of you, I’ve admired him for a long time. So when tickets went on sale last December for a talk he was giving at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I immediately bought two. It was a good thing that I acted quickly, because they sold out in two hours.

The talk was at 9:30 this morning. We were supposed to be there two hours early, since everyone was going to be scanned before they were allowed into the arena. That meant getting up at 6:00 – a challenge for me, since I’m not an early riser. But it was definitely worth it. I really enjoyed hearing him talk. He spoke about the nature of the mind, a subject that I find fascinating. His wisdom, humor, and compassion were obvious, in spite of the fact that his English was sometimes hard to understand (he gave about half the talk in Tibetan, which an interpreter translated for us). As I said, it was a very special and memorable day.

How to Love Yourself When You Have a Chronic Illness – an Open Letter to Richard M. Cohen

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Richard Cohen is an author, a journalist, and a former senior producer for CBS and CNN. He has multiple sclerosis and has been diagnosed with and treated for colon cancer. I’ve been an admirer of his ever since I read his book “Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness” (you can read my review of the book  here.) But when I recently read an article he wrote that appeared in the October, 2008 issue of O – The Oprah Magazine, I felt compelled to write to him.

The theme of that issue was love, and Cohen’s article was titled “We Live In The Real World.” In it he wrote “I never will love myself. The idea of self-love seems mythical, and what I see in the mirror disturbs me.” While he goes on to say that he can still love his life and that “life is made precious by what we give to others,” I wanted to let him know that even though what he sees in the mirror disturbs him, he can give himself compassion, and compassion is a form of love. If what I said to Richard resonates with you, you can heed the suggestion I gave him. Here’s the letter I sent to him:

An Open Letter to Richard M. Cohen

Dear Richard,

I’m writing to you in response to an article you wrote for the October 2008 issue of O – The Oprah Magazine. Your article, titled “We Live In The Real World,” was one of twelve in that issue that explored the essence of love.

In the article you wrote, “I never will love myself. The idea of self-love seems mythical, and what I see in the mirror disturbs me.” For many years–actually, it was for many decades, I think I was at as disturbed as you were by what I saw in the mirror. I didn’t like what I saw and I didn’t like many of the things I knew about the person I saw.

My feelings about what I saw and what I knew about that person underwent a major shift about three years ago. In a big “aha” moment, I realized two things: 1) that the things about me I found disturbing were the result of either illness-related or emotional wounds, and 2) that the wounded person in the mirror was as deserving of the compassion I instinctively feel for those who have been wounded as was anyone else.

Since compassion is a form of love, that realization was the beginning of loving myself in a way I never had before. That love kept growing and growing, and I now have more love for myself than I’ve ever had. I also have much more love for others. On top of that, my emotional wounds have healed more than I imagined was possible, and my illness symptoms (I have Crohn’s disease) have lessened dramatically.

In closing, I’m going to give you the same suggestion I give to many of my clients. I know it’s unsolicited, but I hope you’ll consider following it. It’s this: give yourself the same compassion you would give to a loved one, such as your wife or one of your children, if they were suffering from multiple sclerosis, colon cancer, and the symptoms and wounds that go with them.


Tom Robinson

PS This email not withstanding, I really liked the article, and I’ve been an admirer of yours ever since I read Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness.

Acknowledging That Things Suck Can be a Good Thing

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

A while back, I had a session with a woman–I’ll call her Susan–who was dealing with some extremely hard challenges. To begin with, she’d had arthritis her whole adult life, and had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia (a painful and often debilitating chronic illness) six years earlier. On top of that, her marriage was rocky, money was tight, and her relationship with the owner of the small company she worked for was very strained. She said she was depressed and exhausted.

When Susan told me her story, it sounded to me like she was fighting a war. I didn’t try to minimize the difficulties she faced. I told her that I completely understood why she felt depressed and exhausted.

You might think that telling her how bad her life was would make her even more depressed. It didn’t. Instead it did the opposite. When she fully let in the circumstances of her life, she stopped feeling bad about feeling bad – and a space opened up to look at steps she could start taking to make her life better. By the end of our call, Susan told me she couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so hopeful. Susan wasn’t able to afford my coaching. But she did take steps to improve her life. Acknowledging that things suck really can be a good thing.

A Different Way to Start Healing

Monday, April 13th, 2009

My girlfriend broke up with my in January, but that’s not what this post is about. I was on an emotional roller coaster for many weeks afterward, so I joined a support group on Yahoo for people like me who had gone through a breakup. One woman in the group – I’ll call her Ann – described going through a breakup that was a lot more painful than mine. I wanted to help her, so what I suggested was that she read what she had written as if someone else had written it. I thought doing that would help her to see in a different way how much pain the writer of the post (who of course was Ann herself) was in, and as a result, give herself a lot more compassion. Ann did what I suggested and wrote to say that she did start giving herself more compassion after reading what she wrote in the way I suggested.

From years of my own experience and observing others, I’ve known for a long time that compassion promotes physical and emotional healing, so I was very glad that Ann had followed my suggestion. You too can do what Ann did. Write down your illness story. You don’t need to post it here, but you can as a comment here if you want to. Wait a day, and then read it while imagining that someone else wrote it. Let yourself feel the same compassion you would for that other person, then give all that compassion to yourself.

First post!

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Welcome to my Living Your Best Possible Life When You Have a Chronic Illness blog. Thank you for visiting.

My purpose is to share with you the strategies I’ve learned for living your best possible life when you have a chronic illness, and to – I hope – learn what strategies have worked well for you.

I’ve learned quite a lot in my own 12 year struggle with a chronic illness (Crohn’s disease), but I’ve learned even more about what works and what doesn’t in my six  years of coaching people on how to live well with their chronic illnesses.

I’m looking forward to sharing that knowledge with you, answering your questions, and getting your feedback and ideas.