Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.
One of the biggest mental traps I fell into after being diagnosed with chronic illness was I thought that life as I knew it was over. There was some truth to this. I was diagnosed with chronic illness about 20 years ago and my life has never been the same. But that doesn't mean I've let go of my hopes and dreams.
Life changes with chronic illness, sometimes drastically. There are new medications to take and treatments to undergo, an endless array of doctor appointments, too many sick days to count, changes in relationships with family and friends, managing your work or family life, and inevitably the circling cloud of depression. It can be a lot to handle for anyone. It was for me.
However, you don't have to allow chronic illness to steal your dreams, your aspirations, or prevent you from conquering the seemingly impossible. It's what Henry David Thoreau meant when he sought to "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life". It's the stuff that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. Without dreams, without goals, without desire, life becomes empty and meaningless. It isn't a glass half empty, it's just empty.
Self pity can be relentless. I've had more than my share of pity parties. It's okay to feel sorry for yourself and I believe that it's healthy and important to mourn your old self. The danger is if you wallow in it too long, it can steal your hopes and dreams, your reasons for living. It can make you feel helpless, as if nothing you do matters or will make a difference. This is a lie! Although your goals may change, you still have the ability to reach for your dreams. You are strong enough to cope with and overcome challenges that come your way. You still have the breath and gift of life. You can embrace the journey and the hand you've been dealt and live a happy and fulfilled life.
A few years ago, I wrote about how I set a goal to run a 5k race. After many years of struggling with the symptoms of Fibromyalgia, Crohn's Disease, and peripheral neuralgia, I thought this was impossible. There were many days during my training where I felt sick, defeated, inadequate, and incapable. It would've been easy to give up and absolutely no one would've blamed me for it. It wasn't that I had dreams of becoming an Olympic runner. I just wanted to run. I wanted permission to dream. For too long I'd fallen for the belief that my dreams were over, that I couldn't aspire for anything, that I couldn't live the full life I desired.
Finally one day I allowed myself to dream. I set my goal, trained every day, and ran the 5k. It was one of the most rewarding moments and lessons of my life. I learned that I could reach for the sky. I learned that despite chronic illness, life was beautiful. I learned that my ability to set and reach my goals was entirely up to me. No one could do it for me. I also learned how to calm my mind and empower it to control my body, instead of allowing my body to dictate my thoughts. I learned how to be mindful. I learned that goodness is everywhere in this world, you just have to look for it. I learned that Mother Nature is a powerful healer. I learned that you and I deserve to be happy, despite our circumstances.
Life hasn't been perfect since that race day. Every day is a challenge and I'm still reminded regularly of my limitations. But I don't let chronic illness keep me from reaching for my dreams and setting new goals. I'm not saying if you have chronic illness, you should run. Far from it. That's my dream. What's your dream? What do you want to achieve in life? Set goals for things that you want in life. Whether it's physical, financial, emotional, or mental, you can do it!
My next goal is to run a half marathon this August. To be honest it scares me to death! Even if I were completely "healthy", it would scare me. Training so far hasn't been easy, far from it, and I don't expect it to get easier. But running has also been a blessing. It gives me something to focus on besides my illness. It allows my mind to escape the negative voices and just be free. My dream gives me hope!
Update: I ran my first half marathon in August 2015 in 2 hours and 59 minutes at age 50. It was an experience I will never forget. I've since been diagnosed with Sjogren's Syndrome, Hashimoto's and Meniere's Disease.