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Loving Your Chronically Ill Body

me and my body on a walk

I am sick and I will always be sick. That’s what it means to have a chronic illness. My body doesn’t respond well to certain foods, I have less energy than a healthy person, I am in pain most days, and that will be true for the rest of my life. Yet, as contrary as it sounds, this illness helped me love my body in a way I’m not sure I could have without it.

Please remember that this is my experience only, and I would never tell someone else how to respond to their illness. I would be lying if I said there weren’t days when I cursed my body, clenched my fists and told it to act like a normal body, closed my eyes and felt weighed down by limitations. Those have become fewer and farther between. Now I have more days when I feel honestly and deeply thankful for the capabilities my body does have, for its function, and for its ability to take me through the world.

When the symptoms of my chronic illness began to get to the point where they couldn’t be ignored, when they started to interfere with my everyday life, the conversations I had about my body- with myself and with others- started to change. Like most people, I spent the majority of my life focused on my body’s appearance. I confess to engaging in fat talk. I bought creams and washes to change the look of my skin, I bought weights to change the look of my muscles, I bought clothes to change the look of my shape. At the height of my illness, I wasn’t talking about how my legs looked in shorts. I was talking about whether or not they hurt too much to go to the store. When I ate, I didn’t worry if food would make me gain weight, I wondered if it would cause pain that would stop me in my tracks and make it difficult to breathe. How my body felt and what it could do became my primary focus- and I don’t think anything could have better helped me into a positive relationship with my body.

Fighting my illness, being at odds with my body, did not help me get better. An important part of living with chronic illness, for me, has been acceptance. This has meant accepting my limitations realistically by listening to my body and its needs and learning to stand up for those needs. I am now well practiced in saying no. But that doesn’t mean I never challenge myself- how do you know your limits unless you push to find your boundaries?

Redefining the way I thought and talked about my body created so much positive change in my life. I’ve worked, am still working, to silence my criticisms of my body and instead to focus on helping it feel good and thanking it for what it can do. This weekend, I walked miles through a sunny park. That meant I had to sit on a bench (sitting just so, to minimize the pain) when we got to the museum that was our final destination, but I sat there in awe that my body, which once struggled to stand out of bed and go down stairs, now carried me through a beautiful, sunny day so that I could smell the green grass, watch the sun sparkle off the water, chat with my friends and laugh at animals we saw along the way. That was a good day for me. Sometimes the triumphs are smaller- sometimes they are carrying groceries in and out of the car. Sometimes they are pushing my daughter on the swings for 30 minutes (that kid would swing forever if you let her!). Every day, my body gives me something. Being ill has also reminded me that my body can’t give me these lovely gifts unless I nurture it. I drink plenty of water and eat foods that give me nutrients, energy, or maybe just pleasure. My thought process around caring for myself has changed. I know that to get those thankful moments I need to rest when I am tired, eat when I am hungry, stop when I am full.

Transformation is painful and, for me, that meant physical pain. But I wouldn’t change my experience for anything- while, at the same time, I wouldn’t wish chronic illness on anyone. Losing the health of my body forced me to focus on myself, take care of myself, create health where and when I could. Acknowledging the limitations of my capabilities helped me be grateful for those that I do have. Sometimes I take a moment to close my eyes, feel oxygen enter my lungs, feel my blood rushing from my heart, and thank my body for keeping me alive.

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