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Chronic Illness and Exhaustion

I’ve been thinking about a question my friend Emily Mitchel, the Ritual Coach, posed the other day:

Friends with chronic illness, how do you handle the exhaustion that comes with losing so much?

I thought I’d share my response here in case it can be helpful to anyone else seeking to live a joy and magic-filled life while living with chronic illness.

First and foremost, you’ve got to allow yourself to grieve for what you’ve lost.

I believe that a large amount of exhaustion comes from the emotional aspect of having to learn how to live in a new although not better/stronger/healthier body. There’s so much toxic crap in our culture telling us we have to ‘be positive’ to have a good and happy life – this is a simple lie. Humans are built to experience a wide range of emotions – all of them valid and healthy at different times.

It’s normal to grieve losing the vitality you once had (or even the vitality you dreamed of and are realizing you’ll never have).

Remember that grieving is a spiral process.

That means that you’ll feel like you’re doing great mentally/emotionally/spiritually with your new normal and then something will happen and BAM, the grief comes back. For me it’s often when I have to say no to something I really, really want to do.

These returning to grief times are also normal, try not to fear or ignore them. Try instead to simply allow them to be, offering yourself complete compassion and trusting you are strong enough to feel these feelings.

Another thing that helps with exhaustion is building up your levels of resilience.

You have two choices when your health becomes chronically challenged: moan and be a victim forever OR grieve and adapt. I vote for grieving and adapting.

Adapting will mean different things depending on how chronic illness has changed your life.

The key with adaption is continually staying open to new ways of living.

You may find yourself altering your schedule or workload as needed. You may need to learn a deeper level of discernment about what your values and purpose are — and how to say no when a request doesn’t align with those. And for those requests which are in alignment with your values and purpose? You may need to learn a still deeper level of discernment to enable you to recognize which requests will take too much out of you and how to say no to those things you really want to do.

A lot of the exhaustion that comes with living in a chronically ill body is from our resistance to what our reality currently is.

Fighting against reality is utterly exhausting.

Fighting can present itself in different ways. Here are some ways we fight against our chronic illnesses:

• Resenting and harboring ill will against yourself and your illness for having to say no.

• Saying yes when you need (or want) to say no and then pushing yourself too far and paying for it later.

• Also, the resentment and disappointment/anger you can experience when you say yes at those moments no needs to be your answer – especially if we aren’t connecting and accepting our feelings about it.

• Times when you discern a need to say no, and then find yourselff getting caught up in fighting or second guessing that decision.

• Letting other people’s wants come before your actual needs.

• Resenting people for wanting things (time/attention/help) that are too much for you – say no and move on, you can only be accountable for your own actions and beliefs.

• Spending too much time searching for a cure long after you’ve done all the research, seen all the doctors – this is a form of denial and is utterly exhausting.

Living with chronic illness begs of us to take exquisite care of ourselves because we have less ability to rebound and recover. Our emotional and mental resilience muscles must be built up to compensate for our weaker physical resilience. This is a key component to living well while living chronically ill.

At least, this is what I’ve come to understand to be true.

You may have found a different truth.

This, also, is normal.

However, if your truth requires you to come last, or to feel ‘less than’ because of your illness, or to continually find yourself stuck in anger/resentment/fear, I ask you to consider adopting kinder, gentler, more grace-filled beliefs that nurture instead of harm you.

If you have chronic illness, I’m curious to hear other ways you have developed to manage the exhaustion that comes along with living in a perpetually unwell body. Please share in the comments below.


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