Something that’s really been on my heart lately is the desire to encourage “my people.” More specifically, I want to speak to my ladies who live with invisible illness, chronic pain, and chronic health issues—you are my people. And for those of you who are caregivers of someone facing these challenges, I’m also talking to you. This is a difficult journey for you, too, and we’re so thankful for your willingness to walk it with us.
Living with chronic pain and health issues is hard!
It’s not just the actual physical illness or pain that makes it difficult. There might be days when you don’t feel that bad, and you can get up and do all the things, which feels amazing.
But then there are days when it’s all you can do to get from the bed to the couch, or from the bed to the bathroom and back. This inconsistency and lack of predictability can make it really hard to know who you are outside of that daily struggle.
Who are you as a person?
What is your purpose if you can’t always know that you will be useful, functional, or even pleasant?
Before we get too deep into all of this, I want you to know that this is a story I’m intimately familiar with. I’ve spoken with countless others in our community who live this life, and I know many of you listening right now can relate. This is my story, too, and I want to share some of it with you today.
My Journey of Resilience
My crazy health journey started in 2007 when I went to a rheumatologist for the very first time and got ALL the tests. I had been experiencing a lot of pain, and I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, general autoimmune tendencies, and degenerative disc disease in my neck.
This basically meant I was dealing with chronic pain, my body was attacking itself for no apparent reason, and my neck was slowly deteriorating. The diagnosis left me with more questions than answers and no true relief from the pain I was experiencing.
As I moved into 2008, I found myself facing neck surgery while five months pregnant. The pain had become unbearable, and I was losing my ability to grip things with my hands, including the steering wheel while driving.
The choice was difficult: wait until after my baby was born and not be able to hold or care for her for six weeks, or have surgery during my second trimester and heal in time to hold my newborn. The neurosurgeon didn’t really leave me feeling like I had much of a choice, so I had the surgery.
More Pain, More Health Issues
Fast forward to 2011: I had my second baby in January, and then life took another unexpected turn in October when I broke my arm while attempting to kill a bug. (No, you did not misread that.)
We initially thought the continual pain in my arm was related to my previous neck surgery and degenerative discs, so the doctors never scanned my arm.
Apparently, there was a bone tumor in my right humerus – hence the broken bone while attempting to smash a bug.
Unfortunately, the bone was too thin to stabilize during the surgery to remove the tumor, so it re-fractured during recovery and kept me in a sling for months.
Have you ever tried to care for a 10-month-old baby and a 3-year-old with one functional arm while hopped up on Percocet? Zero out of five stars. Do not recommend.
Chronic Pain Continues to Affect my Life
By 2016, I suddenly began losing the ability to walk. My legs would suddenly give out, and I soon found myself teaching my third-grade class from a walker or wheelchair, depending on the day. As the end of the school year approached, it became clear that this situation wasn’t sustainable. I was misdiagnosed and treated for myasthenia gravis (a neurological autoimmune disease) for over a year before we decided to seek out a second opinion.
In the summer of 2018, a new neck specialist discovered that my neck had never fully healed or consolidated from that first surgery in 2008, causing my mobility issues. So in December 2018, I had a second neck surgery. I spent the next year in physical therapy rebuilding the muscles in my legs to regain the ability to walk.
Unfortunately, my shoulder pain came back. In December of 2019, I had a second shoulder surgery to repair a labral tear and clear out a ton of scar tissue.
I was still in my 30s at this point, and my body had already been through a lot. I was still living in chronic pain and still seeing specialists. Actually, as I share this, I’m getting ready to see a new rheumatologist because I’m dealing with new autoimmune symptoms.
Needless to say, it’s been one train wreck after another, but God has done amazing things through it all. It has taken me years to realize the importance of identity and purpose while dealing with chronic pain and illness, and I don’t want it to take you that long!
Finding Strength in Daily Triumphs
Living with chronic pain and illness requires an immense amount of strength and resilience. You, my amazing warrior, must take a moment to recognize your daily achievements, no matter how small they may seem.
Celebrate your ability to keep going despite all of the challenges you face. Nothing is insignificant – if you woke up today and got out of bed, way to go!
I recently created a journal for this very purpose. Instead of worrying about your to-do list, this journal is filled with “Ta Da” list pages to help you identify and appreciate your daily accomplishments.
These lists can include even the most basic daily activities like texting a friend or taking your meds – every accomplishment counts!
Self-Compassion: A Necessity, Not a Luxury
It’s easy to forget to show ourselves compassion, but it’s especially important for women with chronic pain and illness. Negative soundtracks can take over when you’re battling your own body every day. It feels so overwhelming!
Treat yourself with the same love and compassion that you show to other people.
Please remember how important it is to give yourself grace and to keep going.
Self-care is not selfish; it’s necessary for your well-being and empowers you to better care for others.
Exploring Passions: Reconnecting with Yourself
When living with chronic pain and debilitating health issues, it is so easy to become consumed by your physical limitations and the demands of your body.
But I cannot stress enough how important it is to take time to explore your passions, interests, and values! I didn’t realize how much of this I had lost until I was literally forced to sit still for a few years.
That’s when I finally started realizing I needed to find the answers to a few key questions:
What am I even doing?
What is my purpose?
Who am I?
What brings me joy?
Answering these questions will help you reconnect with aspects of yourself that go beyond your health challenges.
You can reclaim your sense of self and find joy in activities you love. Taking time to explore your own passions and interests and values will have such a positive impact on your mental and emotional well-being.
Finding what brings you joy can help distract from pain, reduce stress, and boost your mood. If you need a little more guidance on this, we covered hobbies in Podcast episodes 8 and 9, including a conversation with bestselling author Holley Gerth.
Rediscovering Yourself in the Midst of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain and illness can sometimes make us question our identity and purpose, but you have to remember that your condition does not define you. You are more than your pain or illness. You have the strength and resilience needed to keep going, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Be kind to yourself, extending the same compassion to yourself that you would to anyone else living in your same circumstances. Take the time to explore your passions, interests, and values. Discover what truly brings you joy and fulfillment.
If you are part of a group that would benefit from this message or one like it, I would love to share it with them.
Speaking to groups of women and building relationships is one of my favorite things to do! If you’d like to have me come and speak, send the information to me over at racheldbaker.com/speaking.
No one has to walk this difficult path alone, sis.
We’re on this journey together.
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