It usually seems to be the case that having a chronic illness diminishes our lives. From traveling to eating to working and playing, we feel limited by how much and for how long we can do the things we want to do. However, it is very possible – and it can be incredibly satisfying – to use our illnesses as a way to add to our lives, by making them more meaningful. In working with people with chronic illnesses for many years, I have observed that many of them already do that, and I’ve had the rewarding privilege of helping others do the same. In this article, I’m going to share with you some ways people with chronic illnesses have found to have more meaningful lives because of – rather than in spite of – having a chronic illness, and I’m also going to share my thoughts and suggestions for how you can do the same.
A couple of things many of my clients did that made their lives more meaningful were to be much more appreciative and grateful for their friends and family than they were before they became ill, and to take advantage of their illness-caused slower walking and moving through life speed to really appreciate the natural beauty around them – beauty they often hadn’t noticed before. If you are doing either or both of these, great! If not, what would your life be like if you did?
A simple but effective way to use your chronic illness to have a meaningful life is to just live the best you can. I don’t think most of us are aware of how much we can and do inspire others when we do that. Maybe it’s really hard for us to get out of bed and do all the things we need to do to take care of ourselves, our families, and get through each day, but we do so as well as we can without thinking that it’s anything special. But those who know how hard we struggle will often see what we do as an inspiring demonstration of courage and fortitude.
I’ve seen this in my brother’s marriage. His wife has multiple sclerosis and is in pain a lot of the time. It’s a major effort for her to get out of bed every day, but in spite of that she almost always has a cheerful disposition and a positive outlook on life – and because of that my brother refers to her as his heroine.
I also saw this kind of demonstration of courage and fortitude in a client I had several years ago, although at first he didn’t see it. He was worried that, because of his illness related limitations, he was being a poor father figure role model for his two young sons. He wanted to show them that a father is the breadwinner, that he helps around the house, and that he spends a lot of quality time playing and doing other things with his sons. But because of his illness, he couldn’t work and couldn’t spend much playtime or other time with his sons. There’s no question that his sons missed out on some quality father son time with their dad. But that fact notwithstanding, they saw their seriously ill father doing his best to be the best father he could be and living his life as well as he possibly could. By doing that, he was an excellent role model for them and I’m sure had a very positive impact on them as well.
My next suggestion for having a meaningful life when you have a chronic illness is to find ways to help others who also have chronic illnesses. One way to do that is to go to chronic illness support groups. Obviously the vast majority of people who go to support groups, both the live and online ones, do so to receive support. But you can go to them for a different reason: to share what you’ve learned about how to live the best life you can with others who want and need that knowledge. The people you help will almost always be very grateful and you will feel good for the difference you make in their lives.
Before I invite you to decide on how you will use your illness to bring more meaning into your life, I want to tell you about Zolisa, a woman who called me from London several years ago and told me her story. Zolisa, who acquired AIDS from her ex-husband, was an immigrant from South Africa. In her culture, women were expected to acquiesce to their husbands’ demands for sex, even if doing so put their own health and lives at risk. Zolisa knew that she was not alone; she knew that other women who were also immigrants from South Africa were still following the established custom of acquiescing to their husbands. She decided that she had to do something to stop these women from becoming infected with AIDS, so she made it her mission to empower them to stand up to and say no to their husbands. She told me that doing that was very meaningful for her. In fact, it became so meaningful that she told me that even if it were possible for her to turn back the clock and to have never gotten AIDS in the first place, she would not do that.
Now it’s your turn. I invite you now to think about what you’ve learned from having your illness, what aspects of life are important to you, and with those in mind, decide on the best way for you to use your illness to bring more meaning into your life.