Learning to Live Well With Chronic Illness
When you get sick, your goal is to get well. But what if you have a chronic condition and full recovery isn't likely -- or possible?
"If you can't regain your health, you can still recover control of your life," says Susan Milstrey Wells, a writer in Waterford, N.Y., and author of A Delicate Balance: Living Successfully With Chronic Illness. "You not only can learn to live with the disease, you can learn to live well."
Wells offers the following suggestions about how to live with chronic illness.
Share with others
For many people with chronic conditions, participating in a support group helps them accept their conditions and move forward.
"Being in touch with others who speak the same language can help you identify these feelings and realize you're not alone," Wells says.
In addition, Wells suggests being alert to the mental depression that often accompanies chronic illness and seeking treatment.
Don't abuse prescription drugs or alcohol in an attempt to deal with your feeling about your chronic illness.
Work toward health
Your job can help you live successfully with chronic illness. "It's not just the income. Working also contributes greatly to your sense of identity and self-esteem," says Wells.
Work can also help you overcome the sense of isolation that often comes with chronic illness. Even when you can't maintain a full schedule or fulfill all of your former responsibilities, working makes you feel connected and productive. Talk with your supervisor if you need special equipment, a more flexible work schedule or other accommodations.
"Don't say, 'I can't do the job.' Instead, say, 'Here's how I can do the job better,'" says Wells.
If going to work is no longer possible, identify other ways to maintain personal growth and fulfillment, such as reading, home study and reaching out to others through the Internet.
More steps forward
These strategies will help you live successfully with chronic conditions:
Get an accurate diagnosis. Many conditions aren't readily apparent. This is frustrating and can delay treatment. "When you find out what's going on, you can start dealing with it and seeking appropriate treatment," says Wells.
Find a doctor to be a partner in your care. Look for someone who matches your personal style and has experience treating your condition.
Educate yourself. Learn all you can about your condition so you can be an active participant in your care. Make sure your sources are reliable, especially those you find on the Internet. The website at http://www.healthfinder.gov is a portal to hundreds of government and nonprofit resources.
Be skeptical. Frustration with chronic illness can make it easy to believe claims of a promising new "cure" even when there's no evidence to support it. Beware of drugs that supposedly cure multiple conditions and doctors who claim the medical establishment is against them. If a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Comply with your treatments. When you and your doctor agree on a course of treatment, stick with it. Many chronic conditions need constant management over time.
Connect with your family. Be honest about what you need and about how much you can do. It's also important for you to listen to your loved ones. "Your condition has changed their lives, too, and it's natural for them to grieve for the way things were, even though they still love you and support you," says Wells.
Seek support. Support groups that meet to discuss ways of coping with a chronic illness can be very helpful for some people. Other people will benefit more from a one-on-one relationship with a psychotherapist who can provide support.
Be grateful. "Life with a chronic illness is rarely the way it was before, but oftentimes, chronic illness gives you a gift," says Wells. "It makes you examine yourself and find out who you are and what's really important to you -- and that's something most people don't do unless life forces them into it."