chronic illness

Chronic Illness and Opportunity

Last night I finished a book and started a new one: The Obstacle Is the Way. My brother got this book for me when I moved to Grand Rapids back in December and left it for me to discover after he and my parents were gone. He’s sweet like that. (Back when I was little, he used his reward from a school fundraiser to get me a stuffed puppy he thought I’d like. This guy is the bomb.) I’ve had the book sitting out on the shelf of my end table because I really did want to read it sometime soon. So after I finished Still Writing, I decided it was time to jump in.

Disclaimer: I am only 18 pages into this book. I do not know what it is all about, and I could not give you a summary of its contents. I am only sharing my thoughts at this point in the reading.

The author has spent a lot of space so far talking about how certain people in history have had the ability to see their obstacles, challenges, struggles, etc. as opportunities. He claims to be capable of explaining how to achieve this mindset. The jury is still out on that claim as 18 pages has not taught me how to overcome years of being an internal Debbie Downer about certain things.

But as I finished reading last night, I did ask myself what my current struggles are. If I’m supposed to see them as opportunities by the end of this book, I should probably figure out what they are.

I’ve mentioned numerous times before that I’m in a weird season of life. I’ve used the word “lost” frequently, but I think another great descriptor would be “stuck.” I’m not lost or stuck in any really devastating way. I’m not here to get your sympathy or to try to make my life look so hard. But feeling directionless in a new city isn’t super fun. It’s also weird to know that a big life change is coming up in November (only 163 more days!) but that it’s still a while off (still 163 more days…). Basically, it’s a time in between, and I’m trying to accept that. Still, some days just feel pretty useless, even if I know that some day it’ll all make sense looking back.

So I tried to figure out what my specific obstacles are in this season of life. I guess one of them is not knowing what I want to do, what kind of things I’m going to fill the coming years with. Even I’m capable of seeing the opportunity in that: I’m in a time where I can experiment and try to find something that really excites and inspires me.

But something else came to mind, something that isn’t necessarily tied to just this current season of life. The author of The Obstacle Is the Way talked about physical obstacles, cards we are dealt that make life a little more difficult than it would be with a perfect bill of health, things like my diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Don’t get me wrong. These diseases are manageable and there are much worse things out there. (Side note: please please please don’t try to comfort someone who suffering with words like that. It’s okay for us to say. It’s not okay for you to say to us. But more on that another time…) But being my own pancreas for over 19 years hasn’t been the most convenient thing. And getting low blood sugar in the middle of a math test or a tennis match was never phenomenal. Not being able to bend my right wrist more than slightly for the last few months has been annoying, especially when trying to do New Things like yoga or even watercolors. Back in college, right around the time when I was diagnosed, it wasn’t great to have to have my roommate help me put my backpack on in the morning or zip my pants. (Wasn’t probably great for her either.) So I get the idea of physical obstacles. They’ve been with me for basically my entire life. So what’s the opportunity?

Well, I’m sure there might be other things I’ll think of later, and this might not even be the best of them, but it came to mind and I thought I’d share: physical issues like chronic disease and pain are opportunities to know yourself.

Let’s see if I can explain this. When your body breaks down on you, when it malfunctions, when it stops doing some of the things a body is supposed to do, it sucks. It sucks A LOT. When you’re first adjusting to something like that, you have to think about everything. I didn’t experience the brunt of this with my diabetes since I was just a kindergarten-age punk back then, but I’m sure both of my parents could tell you about worrying about every little thing while they adjusted to having a kid with type one diabetes. Heck, it didn’t even really end after we adjusted. Every time there would be a change or something new, we’d have to do it all over again. New school year, new teacher? Gotta explain everything to them, show them the ropes, worry that they didn’t get it or won’t respond correctly in a crisis. Amy wants to play volleyball? Shoot, how do we manage blood sugar for that? What do we do with her insulin pump? Amy’s in high school now? Going off to college? Going overseas? And so on and so on. For almost my entire childhood, my mom would get up at least once in the night to test my blood sugar just to make sure I was okay.

With RA, it was a little different. The pain snuck up on me and BOO! it was there before I knew what it was. But after diagnosis, I know that I had to be careful of how I used my joints, especially my hands and wrists. I had to stop doing certain everyday things when it started causing problems or when I was having a flare up. I would reach out to open a door and get tears in my eyes over how much it hurt. Someone would come up and try to greet me with a handshake where I’d either avoid it and have to explain or suck it up and deal with the throbbing for fifteen minutes afterward.

When the body breaks down, you’re constantly thinking about all these things that you took for granted before: how to open doors, what you’re eating, if you can even play a certain sport or do that exercise. But this constant awareness does have a perk, I realized as I thought about it last night: you become highly sensitive to your limits.

I’ve always been spunky. My grandfather on my dad’s side has always loved this about me. Pretty much whenever he calls, he asks if I’m “keeping everybody in line” or if I’m “running the place yet.” It’s sweet. No matter how crummy I’m doing or how much I feel like life is pulling me under, Grandpa is out there thinking that I’m running the world. But I think this quality about me could have easily gotten out of hand. I could have become a total control freak. I could have pushed myself and others to the limit all the time, always demanding perfection, never taking into account other people’s feelings or limitations. But I have become so intimately acquainted with my own that I can not only more easily understand the limitations of others, I can see my own coming from a mile away.

I still push it sometimes. I try to lift something that’s too heavy for my damaged wrist to support. I try to get the meal finished before I stop to test my blood sugar and drink some juice. I’m not perfect. But I’m aware. I always know I’m doing it. And I always think to myself, Well, there’s that lesson learned again. That’ll stick for a while.

We all know that, due to my perfectionism, I ran myself into the ground in grad school. But how much sooner might this have happened had I not been so keenly aware of my limitations? Undergrad? High school? Grade school? Being limited has made me learn and accept my limitations.

I let my fiancé carry the heavy grocery bags. I take a break during a game of tennis if I think I’m getting low. When I wake up in the morning and feel like crap, I [try to] let myself have the day off. I know I’m not capable of everything. I know I’m not gonna be able to run the world. I know who and what I am never going to be. I know better who I am.

Struggles and obstacles suck. I don’t think we should ever lose sight of that for ourselves or for others. But I think they do hold opportunities for us, if we have the eyes to see them. So let’s be on the lookout.


One thought on “Chronic Illness and Opportunity

  1. Yay! Glad it’s sounds like you’re enjoying “Obstacle” so far!

    Reading this post, I’m reminded of two things.

    First, one of your comments (I believe about knowing yourself), reminded me of a quote from the book:

    “Certain things in life will cut you open like a knife. When that happens—at that exposing moment—the world gets a glimpse of what’s truly inside you. So what will be revealed when you’re sliced open by tension and pressure? Iron? Or air? Or bullshit?”

    – Ryan Holiday (in “The Obstacle Is The Way”)

    This quote hit me pretty hard, and I know what I want my answer to be.

    And second, this line of yours:

    “[…] even if I know that some day it’ll all make sense looking back.”

    Reminded me of the message of this 2005 Standford commencement speech by Steve Jobs:

    Which is very much worth watching, and will serve to reaffirm your point.


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