I can consider myself a graduate in the lesson of living life with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia/chronic illness. I don’t consider myself an esteemed alumnus yet. I will leave that to those of you five or more years ahead of me in this chronic illness journey. Because of my work as an advocate for arthritis and fibromyalgia, people have this notion that I am somewhat of an expert on living life with RA and fibromyalgia. While I am honored that people see me that way, I only see myself as a learner among learners. Sometimes, I see myself as a teacher and I am far cry from being an expert.
Having a vast knowledge about my conditions and living with chronic illness and pain altogether, people often ask me to answer one very important question for them: Does it get easier? The fact is this question hits an emotional nerve for me. Not an angry nerve- just one that hits me like a dart in my heart. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t. I am not saying that nothing about living with chronic illness gets easier. What I am saying is that it is learning process that is ongoing. Just because you pass one test doesn’t mean the course is over. It just means that one particular lesson is over.
Chronic illness is a lifelong battle and generally that battle includes chronic pain. As more time passes, you learn to better deal with it but one flare-up can send you in the same place you were when you were first diagnosed. Often times, your inability to be strong has to do with other things happening in your life. If you are unusually stressed, for example, you may not handle a flare-up in the best way possible or the same applies if you are going through something life changing. You just learn to make the best of a bad situation.
I think that a lot of us don’t realize the road that lies ahead whether that be in the beginning, after a setback or after a long period of remission. It takes a lot of a lot of time to understand the extent of the affect that chronic illness has on your life and just when you think you have figured it out, you are thrown a curveball. Setbacks leave you to believe that it does not get easier.
I always say that being chronically ill is like being on a rollercoaster. You can be full of life one moment and the next, you are drained emotionally and physically. Your illness will take turns that are both unpredictable and unexpected and that in itself is scary and exhausting. There is so much that you are accountable for when you are chronically ill – things such as finding a treatment plan, maintaining open and direct communication with your medical providers, just trying to live your life and working to maintain relationships (both personal and professional).
As you know, being sick is demanding. It also shows how brave a person is and can be. Living with chronic illness allows you to be the best you that you can possibly be. You are brave because you surpass your limitations and the things that you have no control of that have become a daily part of your life. The decisions you make are how you prove your bravery. You have learned daily to meet the challenges that life has thrown at you and perhaps that is the only answer to the question of whether it gets easier.
We do not necessarily look at ourselves as brave or even confident but there is a lot we gained since being diagnosed. We learned a lot about ourselves in term of our competencies and our abilities. Often times, without chronic illness being a factor, we would not have found out these things about ourselves. We have learned kindness and empathy, we have learned strength and determination, and we have learned what it truly means to overcome.
So, does it get easier? In a way, it does. No one knows the journey that you are on better than you. No one knows the challenges you have been dealt and how you have overcome. No one knows this better than you do. Recognizing and celebrating your strength and bravery makes living with chronic illness so much easier. Even when there are setbacks, you will know that they are only temporary and with each experience, it does in fact get easier.