• Annie Henry

Don't Let Your Illness Define You, But Be Realistic About Its Limitations

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

We're told not to let life's hardships define us—that we are more than the negative things we experience. We're reminded by philosophers, motivational speakers, and inspirational anecdotes that the human mind is resilient and are encouraged to push past the struggles we endure—to find growth, maturity, and perspective from those struggles. But what if our hardships affect what feels like every single part of our lives? What if our struggles seem inescapable?

"Don't Let Your Illness Define You"

This inspirational tidbit floats around the chronic illness community: resurfacing on Facebook groups, Instagram feeds, and subreddits to remind us to not let our chronic illnesses take over our identity. For those living with a chronic illness, this is easier said than done. When so much of your life feels dictated by your illness's demands and limitations, it's difficult to prevent your health from defining—or at least shaping—your life's perceived meaning.

When your life is impacted so holistically, extensively, and extremely by your illness, it's natural for it to become intertwined with your personal identity. It's what much of your attention, worry, time, and effort are directed towards. Many moments of your day are consumed physically, emotionally, and mentally by your illness. Be it the many symptoms you experience throughout a given day, the medicine breaks and much-needed cat naps, or the random illness-related worries that pop into your brain—you are constantly getting reminders that you are sick. Because it demands such a large role in your day-to-day life, being chronically ill is an identity that's not easily shed or ignored.

Sometimes stumbling upon this quote can serve as an empowering reminder to take a step back and appreciate yourself for more than "someone with a chronic illness"—to remind yourself that your value and potential in life is not tied to the state of your health or your physical condition. It reinforces the belief that there is so much more to human existence than our physical experiences. Although we may feel hindered or tied down by our physical limitations, we can find extensive meaning and identity in our mental, emotional, and spiritual experiences.

...But Be Realistic About Its Limitations

Despite the empowering sentiment behind "Don't let your illness define you", part of me craves an addition to that sentence. The practical critic sitting on my shoulder is muttering: Yes, but don't underestimate your illness's influence on your life.

As much as you want to form and embrace an identity beyond your illness, it’s also important to be realistic about the limitations and demands your illness places on you.

Each chronic illness places certain limitations on a person's abilities, time, energy, physical and emotional bandwidth, and so on. A chronic illness demands certain care, attention, and preparation to stay in check. Whether you like it or not, those limitations and demands impact the reality of your life and may change how you go about executing your plans and ambitions. You likely can't go about some things with the same ease, pace, or mindlessness as a "healthy" version of yourself would be able to. Limitations on your time, energy, and bandwidth may require you to adjust your expectations and adapt the way you go about achieving your goals.

Coming to terms with this reality can be difficult and even discouraging—but ignoring it can be detrimental to your success, progress, and even health in the long run.

Story Time

I learned this lesson the hard way. Two and a half years into life with chronic illness, I decided to abandon the comfort of my home, travel 3,000 miles abroad, and live in a foreign country for four months. It had been a dream of mine since I was a youngin' to study abroad in college. When I fell ill during my freshman year, my plan to study abroad—along with many other plans and aspirations—hanged in the balance as I tried to get healthy as quickly as possible. When junior year came about and it was time for me to plan for a semester away, I was still sick. Granted, I had seen great improvements in my health, but I was nowhere near "back to good". As if surviving college with a chronic illness wasn't enough of a challenge, the ambitious dreamer I was decided to add study abroad to my list of things to do while chronically ill.

Despite having made progress in my health, I admit that I was probably not as healthy as I should have been to embark on such a strenuous, long-term adventure. What little health I had gained back was so fragile and delicate. I, unfortunately, discovered just how delicate it was; just a few weeks into my trip I suffered a significant flare up—caused by toxic mold exposure—that caused my physical, emotional, and mental health to spiral out of control. Not only did I proceed to spend the next two-thirds of my trip bedridden, scared, and depressed, but my physical health was set back leaps and bounds.

When recounting my time abroad, I can’t help but feel like a complete fool for embarking on that journey knowing my health was so fragile. Not to say travel and adventure are impossible undertakings for people living with a chronic illness, but I neglected to be fully realistic about the state of my health when deciding to go abroad. In hindsight, I think I was refusing to acknowledge just how sick I still was. I ignored and denied to what extent my illness still influenced my life, in part because I did not want to allow my illness to prevent me from "chasing after my dreams". My determination got the better of me—my stubborn desire to overcome the obstacles my illness posed clouded my ability to make an objective and realistic decision.

Being Realistic Doesn't Mean Giving Up

I am a firm believer that "everything happens for a reason"—or that, at the very least, value can be extracted from even the shittiest of situations. Despite the unfortunate outcome of my trip abroad, I learned some priceless life lessons during those months of struggle.

One of those brutal, yet important, lessons was to be realistic about the reality of my situation—to accept and respect the limitations my illness placed on me. I wanted to believe I was greater than my illness—that no matter what challenges my health threw my way, I would be able to persist and push forward with my plans, so long as I was courageous and determined enough. The reality is that some things in life are simply so significantly challenging, limiting, and/or beyond our control that no amount of perseverance or determination will enable us to "persist". Some things place limitations on us that we just can't avoid or remove.

Some may view this act of acceptance as giving up or giving in to those limitations. On the contrary—acceptance doesn't mean you must surrender to your illness or settle for an unfulfilling life because of it. It is through acceptance that you’re able to let go of the pressure these limitations place on you. Rather than fighting your limitations, this approach allows you to instead direct your energy and attention towards finding a way to thrive and flourish despite the obstacles you face.

I discovered that once I acknowledged and accepted the limitations in my life, I could then work to adapt and reconstruct my approach to achieving a certain goal. It's a way to strategically cope with illness. Strategy involves making plans and decisions not based on the "ideal" scenario, but the realistic one. Instead of trying to find a way to unrealistically change or control your limitations, find a way to adapt so that you can still excel despite those limitations.

Since learning this blunt lesson, I still approach my life with the same passion and determination that led me to go abroad in the first place, but I do so now with more intention and calculation. Some may say this is too cautious and pragmatic of a way to go about life—but it has become a mindset necessary for me to effectively manage both my expectations and my illness, all the while enthusiastically pursuing my goals. Ultimately, this entails finding a balance between the "don’t let your illness define you" mentality and recognizing and accepting the stark reality of living with a chronic illness.

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