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Learning to Accept a Lifelong Journey with Chronic Illness

Living with a chronic illness can be challenging and have a serious impact on your mental health. On top of managing physical symptoms, the emotional cost of living with a chronic condition can be overwhelming. The irregularity of symptoms, the need for ongoing treatment, and the possibility of complications cause you to feel helpless, hopeless, and lead to feelings of being stuck and not knowing how best to cope. Learning how to accept this lifelong journey with chronic illness is instrumental to improving your emotional health, which in turn, can improve your daily life.

What is Acceptance?

Acceptance involves acknowledging and embracing the challenging aspects of your chronic illness that are beyond your control, such as difficult thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. By accepting these realities, you create a space to focus on taking actions that improve your quality of life. I recognize that this is easier said than done.

The idea of acceptance can be a difficult pill to swallow

After all, shouldn’t we do everything in our power to rid ourselves of our chronic illness? Isn’t that a worthy goal? Or, you might be thinking, “I don’t want to surrender. I don’t want to give up and let my chronic illness win.” These were all the questions that came up for me when I learned about acceptance for my chronic pain condition. I wondered how accepting that I have no control over my health and energy could make me feel better.

Instead of answering these questions, I encourage you to consider a different set of questions: Is fighting your chronic illness improving your quality of life? Is your yearning to be rid of your chronic illness helping you live the life you want? What are you missing out on?

I like to use a metaphor to help explain chronic illness. Imagine you’re playing a card game, and the cards you are dealt are your chronic illness. You have no control over what cards you get, just like you have no control over your illness. But, you do have control over how you choose to play those cards. You can spend all your energy dwelling on the unfairness of the cards you were dealt, or trying to change the cards you have no control over. However, this is not productive. The only thing you can control is how you play your cards. This is where your power lies.

Navigating the grief process on the journey towards acceptance of chronic illness

The journey towards acceptance is not an easy one and, to be honest, it is a lifelong process. It involves a constant balancing act of acknowledging where you are, identifying what aspects of your situation you can control, and committing to action. One crucial component of acceptance is the grief process. I call it this because it entails mourning the things that you might have been able to do if you didn’t have a chronic illness. This is particularly important for those who are diagnosed later in life. It’s normal to experience feelings of anger, frustration, and defeat, and it’s crucial to allow them space and to soothe them. If we ignore these emotions and push through, they’ll slowly drain our energy. 

I find that metaphors can be a powerful tool for reflection. One of my favorite metaphors that illustrates the importance of acceptance is the “passengers on a bus” metaphor. I highly recommend watching the YouTube video that explains this metaphor and taking time to reflect on how it applies to your own journey with chronic illness. Take time to reflect on the following questions: 

  1. What passengers are sitting in your bus? Which one is the loudest?
  2. What are the unexplored avenues/roads that you want to discover but haven’t? Which passengers have convinced you to not explore these locations?
  3. What passengers (emotions, thoughts, feelings & sensations) would you have to accept and make space to be able to drive your bus in the direction that you like?
And remember, you are not alone!

It’s crucial to remember that you don’t have to go through the journey towards acceptance alone. Giving space and soothing uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and sensations can be a challenging and painful process. Seeking support from a counselor or therapist can be incredibly helpful in processing difficult emotions and creating a path forward towards a fulfilling life with chronic illness.

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Sara Ahmadian

Coming from an immigrant family background herself, Sara specializes in working with clients through issues around identity and belonging and immigrant/racial identity. Sara offers counselling in both English and Farsi. She is also passionate about working with clients with chronic pain/illness to help them improve their quality of life. In her downtime, you can find Sara playing video games (especially RPGs) to relax!

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Searchlight Counselling provides in-person and virtual therapy for individuals and couples in Burnaby, Vancouver, and across British Columbia. Specializing in BIPOC & 2SLGBTQIA+.