Chronic illnesses bring with them a slew of disappointments, big and small. While it seems against the whole “stay positive” theme to admit that, ignoring disappointment under the guise of “positivity” is a bit like hiding an infected wound under a bandage — it may look clean and tidy on the outside, but it’s still festering inside. Therefore, we all need tactics to deal with those disappointments — actually treat that infected wound with antimicrobials — and do it with a positive attitude!
This past week, my physical state has led to some definite disappointments. I was down with a fibromyalgia flare and recurrent migraines for the entire week. It was one of those weeks where I was barely up from one assault before the next one knocked me back down. Each time I was expecting to feel better, and each time I was disappointed.
First came the piercing pain, the nausea, the occipital and trigeminal neuralgia, over several days. As the migraine abortives dulled those, other symptoms asserted in its place: a worsening of the gnawing pain in my legs, neck and back spasms, shooting pains along my spine, burning pains all across my back and arms. For a day or two, it was hard to even dress myself or comb my hair. Then when time and tramadol dulled those a bit, I realized I was in the grip of complete and utter fatigue. I was exhausted to where I was dizzy and eating, at times, was a difficult endeavor. Only by the end of the week did I see a pattern, and realize that I was in for an all-around fibromyalgia flare.
The result was that I missed all week’s worth of pool exercise classes (though I stayed continually optimistic about being able to go). I also missed the once-a-year outdoor art market that was held yesterday. I have no energy to get up to do anything at all, not even a bath. Needless to say I was fairly disappointed. Disappointed that I “wasted” a week in bed, disappointed that I have no energy to pursue my painting aspirations, disappointed to have missed the art market that I was looking forward to for months!
Unfortunately, weeks like this are not uncommon for me. They have caused me much agony in the past. At first, I would push through regardless. Then later, as that stopped being an option, I would be reduced to tears, wondering if my life will now forever be at the mercy of my condition. Then one day I realized that while many things may indeed now be affected by fibromyalgia, one thing I do have some control over is how I react to it. Having sparred with the “dark side” before, I knew I had the power to “unsink” myself. Therefore, in order to keep my chin up while dealing with such disappointments as my own body has proven to be, I developed a few practical tools.
The three main tools in my “coping with disappointment” toolkit are:
1. Finding an alternative that’s equally appealing
One of the most disappointing things about being down with a chronic illness is thinking of all the things you missed. Chief among those last week was the art market I really wanted to go to but really didn’t feel up to. I have also been hoping to start painting more since last weekend, which has not yet happened. So instead, I decided to engage in other painting-related activities that I could do from bed:
- I worked on my new Etsy shop, listing new paintings on there regularly.
- I tried creating fancy displays for my paintings with a new app I downloaded, and have been sharing them on my Facebook and Instagram art pages.
- And last but not the least, I am sharing my artwork through the blog posts I am writing!
There have been other “alternatives” in my toolkit too, like writing/blogging, reading* and marathoning through Stranger Things and Anne with an E.
The result was a week where I was in pain and discomfort (I won’t sugar-coat it), but I kept myself “active” from bed, engaging in things that made me happy! The week was not what I wanted it to be, but it was enjoyable in its own right, making it hard to be too disappointed by it.
2. Listing the recent good times
When dearly-held plans get trashed, when life disappoints you, it is easy to feel like your whole world is nothing but a dark dreary mess. I can’t definitively prove it, but I have it on good authority that time moves slower when you are in pain! So it is no surprise that it feels like the low point lasts forever. But the objective truth is that the sun has not been and will not be behind the clouds forever. It was out once before, and it will be again. And even while it’s hidden, there are some silver linings!
One of the ways I remind myself of this is by listing the good times I have had recently:
- Mini art vacation last month
- Haunted house on Halloween
- Steampunk festival
- Shopping (for office-wear for my new job)
- That’s right, I got a new full-time job! It is with the state as an environmental health scientist.
When you list all your fun times like this (even if you were in pain during some those times, or crashed afterwards — which I did), you realize that all is not dark and gloomy with your world. Life is not all that disappointing as it might seem right now.
3. Showing yourself some self-compassion
Whether or not anything in the toolkit helps you feel better, it’s always good to show yourself a bit of compassion regardless. The idea of self-compassion is to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend. Be kind to yourself as you would to a friend.
This one in particular is a work in progress for me. When I feel like I am “wasting” my time in bed, I try to remind myself that resting when I feel down and out is hardly “wasting” time! In fact, it is the only thing to do! I am being more efficient with my time by recharging when needed; if I kept pushing through, I would only prolong the flare and be less productive for longer.
So don’t berate yourself for the rest you need. Try not to begrudge a bit of comfort eating, or the pleasures of binge-watching Netflix shows. Or give yourself time to weep, if you so feel; allow yourself the space to be unhappy. Disappointments lose a lot of their edge after you have just allowed the wave to wash over you like a tide. Every tide eventually ebbs.
Though I placed a lot of the examples of my tools in context of this past week, all of these work for much bigger disappointments as well — such as the mega-disappointment of dealing with a chronic illness in the first place.
For example, my new job as an environmental health scientist with the state government is one of those “equally exciting alternatives” to my plans in academia! And if I think back to all the years that I was in high school and college, the years I spent doing the science I loved, the time I spent in the company of colleagues and friends I loved, those are some very good times indeed! My life has been worthwhile through storms I have weathered before I developed fibromyalgia, and will continue to be so as I weather this one as well. And as for self-compassion, that’s a worthy attainment regardless of whether you are ill, but especially if you are chronically and invisibly ill. When the world misunderstands and mistreats you, you may be the only one showing yourself some much-needed kindness.
I hope that my toolkit give you ideas to develop your own tools to fight the disappointments that a chronic illness might bestow upon you. And if you’re a veteran chronic illness warrior with some tools of your own, I invite you to share them below so others reaching this blog may benefit from your experiences as well!
*If you’re curious regarding what I am reading at the moment, it is Martha Mason’s autobiography “Breath,” where she talks about how she lived a fulfilling life of over 70 years, ~60 of which were spent in an iron lung following a childhood bout of polio. In fact, the idea for this topic on how I deal with (far lesser) disappointments came from my musings of this book!
Each painting has a story, one that I strive to tell here. Since many of them have to do with my journey with fibromyalgia, 20% of all yearly sales income from my paintings will go to the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), who fund research into this poorly understood condition. If the paintings and/or the cause touch your heart, as they do mine, please feel free to contact me through my Facebook page for more information. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!