As we reflect on the year that’s passing, it’s not unusual to formulate wishes and resolutions for the new year. I’m not much for resolutions anymore, but I do have hopes and wishes for me and for my readers.
Of course, my first wish is that those of you who suffer from chronic illness — including chronic pain — have your health restored. I know that, for some, this is a realistic possibility, but for others, only a distant dream. It’s a challenge to walk that middle path between being proactive about our health—always trying to improve it—but at the same time, accepting the way we are so that we can make the best of each day.
So, with “restored health” as my #1 wish, here are my other New Year’s wishes for the chronically ill.
May your family and friends realize how important it is for you to feel listened to and believed when you talk about your illness, your limitations, and your disappointments.
In my own life, I don’t care if family and friends use the perfect words in response to my sharing. I just hope for something like, “I’m so sorry,” or “It must be hard.” Then I know I’ve been heard and believed, and that goes a long way toward making me feel okay about this unexpected turn my life has taken.
At the same time that I wish for family and friends to listen and to believe you.
May you accept with grace that some family and friends may never understand what you’re going through.
When people didn’t keep in touch, I used to think it was all about me. Now I know that they’re often facing their own demons. Some people can’t handle being around the chronically ill because it triggers their own fears about illness and mortality. I’ve worked hard not to take it personally when family and friends “go missing,” because it only makes me feel worse physically and mentally. With as much grace and courage as I can muster, I let those people slip out of my life. I’ve done this with a couple of close relatives. It was hard at the time but, in the long run, it’s better for me to work on being content with my life as it is than to be around people who are uncomfortable or in denial about my illness.
May you find a doctor who will work with you as a partner in your health care — especially one who isn’t intimidated if you’re more of an expert on some aspects of your illness than he or she is.
In this Internet age, it’s not unusual for people with chronic pain and illness to be the experts on their condition. I, for one, certainly have plenty of time to study my illness online! I’m fortunate that my GP welcomes learning from me and is open to experimenting with treatments. So long as what I suggest doesn’t run the risk of making me worse, he’s generally willing to try it.
No matter how hard a day is for you, may you keep your heart open for a ray of sunshine — the sight of a beautiful picture on the wall, the sound of a songbird, the feel of warm water on your skin, something funny on TV.
I like to look at my hound dog, Rusty, and say to myself: “He doesn’t know I’m sick!” For some reason, knowing that Rusty thinks I’m fine makes me feel a bit better no matter how unpleasant my symptoms are at the moment. It also inspires me to look around to see what the world might have to offer this “fine person.” Some days all I can find is a distracting movie on TV, but that’s okay. Sometimes a good distraction has to serve as that ray of sunshine.
May you find a measure of peace and contentment despite your health challenges.
This is a hard wish for me to fulfill at times. Some days, things just fall apart. I cry out that all I want is my health restored, and I’m simply not able to see past that burning desire. The good news is that we can start over each time this happens. We can have our little pity party (they can be so cleansing) and then say: “Okay, this is my life; let me see what I can make of it despite my limitations.”
Sometimes I forget that even those in good health face tough times and have their share of difficulties and limitations. They may be under stress at work, or bogged down by familial responsibilities, or worried about a relationship. Each person’s life is a unique mix of what I refer to in How to Wake Up as the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows that make up this human existence.
I point this out because I think it’s valuable to keep in mind that we, the chronically ill, don’t have a monopoly on suffering. The key to finding a measure and peace and contentment in life is to understand that it’s inevitable that things will be unpleasant at times — even overwhelming — and not to identify with those tough times as a permanent part of who you are. In other words, you can have a good cry… and then start the day anew.
May you learn to treat yourself with compassion, beginning by recognizing that being sick or in pain is not your fault.
When you wrap yourself in a protective cloak of compassion, your loyalty to yourself becomes unconditional. It takes practice, beginning with putting aside self-blame. We’re in bodies and they get sick and injured and old. It happens differently for everyone, but it happens. No blame!
I include many self-compassion exercises in my books because they’re my personal “go to” practices when I get stuck: I may be struggling to accept my life as it is, or it may be too hard to “start the day anew,” as I referred to above. When this happens, I often speak silently to myself, using whatever compassionate words fit the moment: “It’s so hard to be in pain”; “I’m doing the best I can to cope with feeling sick all the time”; “My sweet body, working so hard to support me.” As I say these words, I often stroke my arm or my cheek. It never fails to ease my suffering.
Lastly, I wish this for all of you in the New Year:
May your suffering ease.
May you find joy amidst your sorrows.
May you be at peace.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers and How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.