Chronic Illness Articles

May 13, 2010

Chronic Illness and the Hurtful Things People Say

by Lisa Copen

We may find ourselves surprised to discover just how much we are the on the minds of loved ones who are around us. They may actually be concerned about us more than we admit in regard to our illness. So when they comment about our illness in a way that stings we are left wondering about their intentions.

We can try our hardest to not let the hurt feelings we experience bother us. We see that we need to acknowledge their heart’s concern.

There are moments, the “wounds from a friend can be trusted”, as it says in Proverbs 27:6. This is because the comments are completely communicated out of ignorance. The people we are counting on to be understanding are struggling to say whatever it is that can communicate their care. Their comments, however, just come out in a way that at times results in being interpreted all wrong.

It was 1993 when I received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis my life changed rapidly. Those individuals at my church body and people at work felt no reluctance in telling me their their thoughts about my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis –which I was without a doubt not old enough to have–in their ‘expert’ opinion.

As a 24-year-old young woman, living over a thousand miles away from the place I grew up, the decisions I was forced into making about the treatment choices felt serious and overwhelming. I meticulously poured through brochures and paperwork researching medications, therapies and alternative treatments.

I went out of my way to see specialized doctors, for example rheumatologists. I compared different drugs and their instant side effects, with the long-term results of choosing not to use certain medication.

The mixed up advice from people who had never even heard of my chronic condition felt like a personal attack on my level of common sense. I know that may sound as though I was too sensitive, however. . . that is how it felt. My emotional side thought “The nerve!’

I must admit, of those who casually shared ignorant statements, it is those that had their opinions about my genuineness of my faith that hurt the most.

Have you experienced what Proverbs 18:2 says is a friend that “finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions”?

When I was first diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, seeking examples from others who had traveled this unexpected road, I researched the inspiring autobiographies of Christians who who had endured physically suffering, Joni Eareckson Tada and Dave Dravecky.

They have, and continue to hear, the same sort of comments and even insults, that I was told. I gripped onto the oath that the Lord was the only one who really saw my heart.

If strangers were able to share these heroes in the ministry of suffering regarding how they didn’t have enough faith to be totally be given the gift of healing, what made me believe that I was exempt from similar criticisms and skepticism? If you find yourself wondering if something is not right with you due to the fact that people tell you don’t have enough faith to be healed, guess what? You are not alone.

In addition, I’ve heard some rather derogatory comments, and it’s always a struggle to simply smile and say, “I appreciate your concern, but I don’t necessarily agree.”

Many times it feels as though everyone who is well, desires me to have a ministry for those who are healed or a ministry that tries to “get people healed” by demanding a certain formula that they think God uses.

Personally, I just don’t have a passion for a ministry that focuses solely on healing. Many of those already are available. And I would be thrilled to wake up tomorrow and find I was healed, but the zeal that God has called my heart to is a ministry where people are today– usually, still sick. I want to meet each individual wherever they are before they have experienced a healing. I want to be a part of in the ministry that stands by them if healing doesn’t comes on this side of heaven.

Through the organization I began in 1996, Rest Ministries, for the chronically ill I have been honored to have the chance to speak and exhibit to many audiences, including pastors and chaplains, as well as those coping with invisible disabilities. Always, however, I am vulnerable to being told, “If you had more faith you would get healed.”

Frequently people glance over the table of our resources and books and then say, “This is wonderful, but you should try ‘fill-in-the-blank-alternative-treatment-here,’ and then you would be healed, and then that could be your more helpful ministry!”

In some strange way, though I still to get upset with the limitations and a generation of my disease, I am just beginning to understand the Bible verse 1 Peter 4:13. It speaks of considering it “pure joy to suffer for Christ.” If this means that I will have to “walk the walk” (or someday wheel?), then I will do so.

And I am not alone in this regard. You may find many people with chronic visible and invisible disabilities confess that though they are not especially “joyful” about their circumstances they have discovered that life is more meaningful, even though bittersweet, due to the suffering they have experienced.

Yes. . . I hate pain! And I get tired of it. God does give us grace and endurance to get through another 24 hours. He also provided the Israelites manna so they could live one more day, solely depending on Him. I confess, like the Israelites, I have my moments I want to complain, “L-o-o-r-d, I’m tired of the manna!”

One will find, however, that as he grows closer to God the remarks people say will become much less important and they will slide off of us much easier than we ever imagine. Although there are days where it feels like people are purposely trying to say things that will bring us emotional pain, most often the pain they cause is not even known to them. Grow close to the Father and your faith in man will grow less and the emotions will not be so painful.

Does it feel like no one understands what you are going through? Author, Lisa Copen shares in her book “Why Can’t I Make People Understand?” more ways to get past the need for friends to empathize. Discover it today so your life can be overflow with joy, not frustration.

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April 14, 2010

5 Priorities After a New Illness Diagnosis

by Lisa Copen

I remember the day my life shifted dramatically. I had had weeks of symptoms of swollen joints and inflammation beyond anything I’d ever experienced or even knew existed. My doctor called my place of work and said the rheumatoid factor was positive, which meant that at the age of 24, I most likely had an illness called rheumatoid arthritis. I bravely asked her “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being normal, what will my life be like?” She avoided the question, not wanting to give me a specific number. But I like to know what I’m up against and so when I asked her again she reluctantly responded “If you are lucky, perhaps a six.”

Now I knew: at the age of 24, my life would perhaps never return to where it was “before illness.” The word “normal” would be redefined. Simple activities like staying out late with friends, driving my car, sitting on the sand at the beach, or carrying a cup of coffee, would become an event and sometimes one I would be unable to complete. The carefree attitude and lifestyle that I had lived would always be overshadowed within the fog of chronic disease.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a woman who I went to small high school with of about 300 students–over 25 years ago. She had recently been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and while surfing the Internet to find information and encouragement, she stumbled upon Rest Ministries website and discovered that I was the founder.

We exchanged e-mails a few times and it is my hope that she found them encouraging. When I reflect on what I would’ve liked to have heard from someone who has lived with a chronic illness for years, upon my new diagnosis, these are the five things I find of most value to pass along.

[1] Contact the national organization or foundation that supports people who live with your chronic condition and explain to them that you have recently been diagnosed and would like their most basic information for someone with your illness. They may send you something in the mail, or direct you to your website. The important thing is to sign up for a membership to be on their mailing list.

Although you might feel as though you have not yet accepted the fact that this illness may be a long-term part of your life, it is important to go ahead and sign up for a membership to be on their mailing list. You can always toss the information or save it for later when you are ready to emotionally process it. But you will find that they will have the most current and objective information regarding scientific research and treatment options. As your doctor suggests medications for you to take, and you are reading the long list of side effects–and maybe questioning their judgment–these organizations will be your best source of information.

[2] Read about your disease, but know when to stop. Unless you have some rare disorder, you will find there is no shortage of information about your illness through millions of books, websites, podcasts, magazines, and more. It’s wise to glance over health and illness organization websites so that you have a good selection of credible resources to go to when you are reading for additional information.

You will want to know what some of the symptoms of your disease are so that if they do occur you will be aware that it is part of your chronic illness and not a separate chronic condition. However, don’t be tempted to try to read everything you can get your hands on, as it will simply depress you! Many of the symptoms that people describe may not actually be a part of your illness experience. You don’t want to get too depressed or discouraged over things you may not ever have to deal with!

[3] Don’t lose hope. As with my illness, rheumatoid arthritis, and most others, there are daily scientific discoveries that can change the of the disease. I have lived with rheumatoid arthritis for 16 years and just recently had four joints replaced in my left hand. My medical team, which includes a hand surgeon, rheumatologist, and physical therapist, all have commented that they rarely see these kinds of surgeries anymore due to the new family of drugs in the last 10 years that has slowed down the progressiveness and destruction of the disease.

Even if there is not an immediate cure, as we scientifically grow closer to being able to know our exact DNA, we will be able to pinpoint which medication will best treat our disease, without having to jump from one medication to another, losing months and years sometimes of our health, in order to find which one works best. Hope and a positive outlook will have a profound effect on your disease and your life. So don’t give up and assume that your illness will be disabling.

[4] Think about who you would like in your life to be able to talk to about what you are emotionally and spiritually experiencing due to the recent diagnosis. The person may be someone you meet in an online forum for your disease, it could be a pastor, mentor, counselor, or even a good friend who is able to listen without trying to fix it. The most important thing is that you have an oasis where you can share what you are experiencing without feeling like you may be judged or where you will receive ignorant comments such as “no pain, no gain.” Check out your local support groups for your illness, or other support environments such as HopeKeepers, which is a unique small group Christian support environment for those who live with illness or pain.

Also, consider your personality and how you are best encouraged. Would you feel most refreshed by sharing what you are going through with just a friend, one-on-one, at a coffeehouse? Or are you homebound, and signing onto a website every day to receive encouragement and prayer would be beneficial? Remember, whatever works best for you at this time, may not best meet your needs in six months, so do not feel like you are stuck with a particular group or mention. Be willing to try new forms of support to find which best works for you.

[5] Ask yourself “What foundation do I have in my life that will help me through the difficulties that I will be facing?” Even if your illness does not progress rapidly, the daily aches and pains, as well as the emotional roller coaster and spiritual “why?” questions you will have, will leave you searching for a deeper meaning in life than simply solving your problem with a cup of hot tea. As a Christian myself, I honestly do not know how people live each day with a chronic exasperating illness who do not know the Lord.

During those times this is what holds me together: knowing that my pain is never wasted; that God is ultimately in control and none of my circumstances surprise Him; and that He has a plan for my life despite the limitations I face and the goals I have that I may never meet. If you are not a spiritual person, when you are facing those middle-of-the-night-blues I encourage you to look up any Bible websites like Bible Gateway and read the Psalms. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that most people who live during biblical times face hardships, depression, doubts, and yes, illnesses.

Feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood? Don’t miss Lisa Copen’s book, Why Cant I Make People Understand? Order at WhyCantIMakePeopleUnderstand.com and learn why you feel the way you do and what you can do about it to make living with a chronic illness easier.

So to summarize, choose your information wisely, set personal boundaries for how much information you will read, keep hope, find a support system, and then search for that which will get you through the darkest of times when the information and people you have relied on disappoint you. You must discover a purpose in the pain that is greater than that which our world will tell you. Don’t ever put life on hold. As the late John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood? Don’t miss Lisa Copen’s book, Why Cant I Make People Understand? Order at WhyCantIMakePeopleUnderstand.com and learn why you feel the way you do and what you can do about it to make living with a chronic illness easier.

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July 16, 2009

You are Too Young to Be That Sick!

Typisches Röntgenbild einer Rheumatoiden Arthr...
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At the age of twenty-four, a thousand miles away from my family, living in a new city, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Over a period of four weeks and about eight doctor’s visits, I finally found a physician who listened to me explain my symptoms and in less than two days I had a diagnosis.

Despite the terms “chronic” and “forever” I felt relieved to know the label that described my chronic pain. Few of my friends, however, shared my enthusiasm for a diagnosis. The managers at my office were more concerned about the fact that I wasn’t wearing heels to work anymore, making me look less professional.

They quickly threw comments about such as “You’re too young to feel this bad!” Most people were confused about the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and typical degenerative arthritis that our grandparents may suffer from. They ignorantly said things like, “There is no way that you can have arthritis yet.” Those that did try to offer sympathy compared my fatigued and pain to their sports injuries. “Yeah, I have some arthritis in my knee from football. You just have to keep pushing through the pain.” It wasn’t unusual to see their comments accompanied by the wave of their hand or their rolling eyes.

When you are faced with a chronic illness in your twenties, all of the typical decisions you should be making are quickly put on hold. Up until now, you were considering what kind of education to pursue, your career aspirations, relationships, and even where you will live. All these are put aside, however, as you are forced to make immediate decisions that impact the rest of your life. Things like how well you accept (or do not) accept the diagnosis of your condition, which medications to try, when side effects are worth the risk and when they are not, and how to find the right physician. While friends are deciding which party to go to we’re at home trying to make sense out of our latest lab test results, weighing our options for alternative treatments, and deciding to have a good cry or just go to bed and hold back the tears one more night.

I did my best to make well thought out decisions, each of them based on thorough research, some instinct, and of course, “worse case scenario” situations. So when I heard someone flippantly tell me, “You’re too young to be diagnosed with that illness” it felt like a slap to my intelligence. I recognized it as a passing ignorant comment, but it it my heart deep anyway. Did they assume that I was ignorant or that I too easily accepted the doctor’s diagnosis? They comments implied that I wasn’t being assertive enough and that I needed to go back to the doctor to get the “real” diagnosis (of an illness that could be cured in a few weeks with just a pill.) I couldn’t really be that sick, after all, because I “looked so good.”

Laurie Edwards, a woman who grew up with a chronic illness as a child is the author of ‘Life Disrupted: Getting Real About Chronic Illness in Your Twenties and Thirties,’ In her book she explains, “However infuriating and irrational such comments are, they only have the power to define or validate our conditions if we allow that to happen. There are all sorts of reasons why people find it easy to scorn or deny illness, especially in younger people who ‘should’ look and act healthy – fear, ignorance, intolerance, to name some.”

The saturation of advertisements on television and in magazine for prescription medications has helped legitimize some illness, such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. There are downsides, however. For example, everyone considers her self an expert on the, plus they make their assumptions about how well the drugs work based on the ads. The advertisements show people with debilitating illnesses (healthy models, actually) who are astonishingly now able to water ski or join their kids on 300-foot water slides. While a certain percentage of people may experience remission, the majority of us are happy to be able to get up out of bed without assistance, get dressed, and drive to the grocery store. Ads and commercials fail to alert people that though an illness may be temporarily controlled, they are usually associated with immense daily chronic pain.

With any chronic illness, most of which are invisible illnesses, there will be people who will be skeptical about how much your life is impacted by your condition. When you cope with an illness while in your twenties or thirties, and you “look healthy” they will have even more hurdles to jump over to get the fact that for you to feel better requires more than an attitude adjustment or a daily walking regimen.

Instant download of 200 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend from “Beyond Casseroles” by Lisa Copen when you signup for HopeNotes invisible illness ezine at Rest Ministries. Lisa is the coordinator of Invisible Illness Awareness

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