When it comes to pain or illness, after the phrase “life-threatening,” the term “chronic” is often the most feared. It means that things will never be the same.
Relationships change when an illness or pain is chronic. Some people leave. Some people shift in the way they relate to you or to in their role in your life.
A child might become a care-giver, a lover may become a plutonic friend, a stranger may be helping you with the most intimate activities of your daily life. For many, who suffer, the fear of abandonment might wrestle with the fear of being a burden and keep the sufferer in isolation, compounding their pain.
Melanie Thernstrom, author of The Pain Chronicles * speaks about the end of her marriage after dealing with chronic pain. She notes that there was no room in her life for anyone or anything other than the pain and that it was easier to be alone that to try and maintain her relationship.
When someone first becomes ill, if they have any kind of community around them, friends, family or co-workers, there is often an initial outpouring of sympathy and offers for practical support. When illness is chronic, that sympathy and support often peters off as people return to their busy daily lives. Many may struggle to understand how the illness or pain can continue without solution or ending and jump into problem solving mode, hoping to fix the situation.
It is difficult to watch the suffering of others and some of this ‘problem solving’ ‘advice giving’ activity exists, in part, due to their others discomfort with discomfort.
Not trying to fix the situation can force others to face their own feelings of inadequacy or guilt at not doing enough.
In a previous post 5 Ways We Respond to Other People’s Tragedies, I spoke about how some experience blame and shame from those who care about their misfortunes. This may be a somewhat unconscious attempt to safeguard against the misfortune of others. For example, if I believe that a chronic illness or pain is something that a person is exaggerating in order to avoid taking responsibility for their own life, I can feel justified and less guilty about my own inability to help or fix things. If I believe that someones chronic illness or pain is due to their own bad choices, I can comfort myself in believing that I’m immune, due to my own good choices. If I believe that someone’s chronic pain or illness is because they have not followed through with whatever diet plan, exercise regiment, homeopathy or psychotherapy, that I think they need, then I can feel justified in leaving them to their own pain and illness knowing that it is up to them to choose, at any moment, to get better.
For those who are suffering from chronic pain or illness, these shifts, judgements and changes in relationships can be distressing and only add to the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that so often accompany chronic pain and illness.
Many who suffer become depressed and may have difficulty doing the very things that will help them to manage their pain or illness.
In these cases, the task is to find things that improve life in even the smallest ways, and implement them into daily life. This is no small feat when hopelessness takes away motivation. It means finding these things despite hopelessness and in spite of the lack of motivation.
The first thing we tend to do when feeling ill or in pain is turn to the things that used to help us to feel better.
If these no longer work or have become impossible, despair can set in and it becomes tempting to find ways to disassociate with the life that feels unbearable.
There is often a grieving process that occurs at this time. See Grief Without Death for more on this process.
We tend to look for ways to distract ourselves when faced with pain of any kind. We use sleep, alcohol, drugs or medication or lose ourselves in tv or movies. Depending on the chosen distraction, for example, using alcohol to cope with grief, the outcome may compound the problem as alcohol is a depressant. Choosing a distraction with low negative impact or minimizing the distractions with negative impacts can be helpful. Distraction can be a very useful tool in a variety of situations such as:
- When all other attempts to alleviate physical pain have been utilized, to no avail, it can be a way to manage, over time, when things become more manageable, you may find more and more productive distractions that can add meaning to life.
- When you are awaiting more support, tools, treatment or information and just need to survive until then, distraction can keep you going.
Ideally, discovering new coping strategies that actually add positivity and wellbeing to life is preferable to merely diverting your focus. Sometimes both are needed.
Here are some ways to uncover new coping and thriving strategies for yourself:
I. When remembering things you used to enjoy, brainstorm what things share the same essence and could potentially give you a similar feeling.
Get help with this. Track down your most optimistic and/or innovative friend for this task. Get ready to experiment.
II. You may need to take a fresh new assessment of what feels good these days…
by using tools such as How to Make a First Aid Kit for Your Emotions – Part I. and Your Emotional First Aid Kit- Part II. It may also require charting these things into categories of easy, moderate and challenging based on your current situation so that you can always find something to do no matter what your condition.
III. Also, take stock of your current needs,
they have likely changed since prior to your illness or condition… See What do You Really Need? – A 6 Step Complete Self-Care Assessment Guide for a deeper investigation into what you need to address in your life at this time. Consider emotional wellbeing and connection to others, intellectual stimulation and physical relief, strengthening and care. Don’t assume you need to ‘go it alone.’
IV. Use all of your problem solving skills:
1. Seek social support from those who love you, from others with the same condition and from professionals. Don’t make decisions about other people’s ability or willingness to support you at this time. Let others decide for themselves what they can or will give by asking directly and clearly in order to give them an opportunity to respond.
2. Get more information from the internet, the library, professionals and others with similar experiences.
3. Act on the problem by implementing the things that work on a physical, emotional and intellectual level.
When you become aware of what can help and begin to implement these things into your life, you may find that things become more manageable. When you are finding things feeling more manageable, you will still have bad days, but remind yourself that these low points don’t last forever.
V. Begin to practice positive psychology,
Keep an eye out for things that interest you, surprise you or cause you to feel grateful. Write them down, and/or tell them to someone else. Slowly, you will begin to find meaning in your life again.
Don’t discount the good stuff and don’t minimize your accomplishments. Be generous with the celebration of these things. But most of all, be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself the way you would your child or a friend or family member who was facing the same illness/pain. Talk to yourself the way you would to those you care deeply about