Living with the unwanted houseguest

When we talk about a medical diagnosis, we often refer to it terms of war: the beast, the enemy.  We refer to treatment as a battle.  We refer to ourselves as fighters, struggling to maintain and survive in the face of this tremendous threat. 


This is not to say that there isn’t a battle going on, or that a chronic condition is your friend.  Of course it isn’t.  Chronic conditions require that you be empowered, that you do everything possible to protect yourself in any way you can from the progression of your condition. 


However, there is a flip side.  Living with the mindset that life is an ongoing battle is exhausting. It keeps you in fight or flight reaction, and turns on all of those unhealthy stress hormones that accompany it.  The resistance kicks in and you question why you have to be compliant with treatment and self-care, maybe you feel frustrated that you can’t seem to get it under optimal control, or want to give up some days.  Basically, the constant battle mindset can cause you to focus your energy on how you hate, hate what the enemy is doing to you.  Living with all of that resistance is a hard way to live. 


Here is another way to look at your chronic condition:  


Chronic conditions are like an unwanted houseguest who has taken up residence on your living room couch, who makes demands, interferes with routines, complicates your relationships, costs you money, does scary things at times… and won’t move out.  You’ve tried everything, you’ve tried to ignore him, you’ve had arguments, you’ve threatened, you’ve begged and pleaded.  But he’s still there, blasting the TV and demanding breakfast in bed. 


So at some point, you decide that since he doesn’t seem to be going away, you may as well join the resistance – stop fighting and learn to live with him.  You decide to understand him and therefore understand what you can to keep him in his place, but not to go through each day with your fists clenched and ready to swing.  In other words: moving from “You’ve ruined my life forever” toward “How would you like those eggs cooked?” 


This is living life on life’s terms, recognizing that a medical diagnosis will mean making changes, and working with your condition rather than against it.  This attitude begins with making a slight tweak in the question that is most likely on your mind.


 “What am I going to do about…?” becomes “What am I going to do with…?” 


“With” means co-existing with your chronic condition, living life on life’s terms. Taking a more balanced – and peaceful – approach to the struggle. 


Instead of baring your teeth and putting your fists up, swinging wildly in every direction, calmly face your opponent and coordinate your movements with his, as if you were looking at each other in a mirror.  If you have ever watched a group practicing tai chi, a form of martial arts, then you know what I mean here.  This begins by paying attention to him so that you can learn how he moves, know his rhythms, where he seems to be strongest, and where he might be vulnerable. Coexisting, but cautiously. 


Here are some ideas to keep in mind to help you to maintain a peaceful, balanced approach to managing – by coexisting – with your chronic condition: 


Know when to retreat.  Rest when you need to rest.  Cut back on activities when your body isn’t up to the challenge.  Set priorities, so that you don’t end up being your own opponent.  You’re not giving in, you’re not giving up.  You are honoring your own needs.  After all, nobody’s awarding any Purple Hearts here.    


Make adjustments in your expectations for yourself.  Decide that your house doesn’t have to be spotless, that you don’t have to be the superstar at the holidays.  You decide between what’s essential, what’s not, and where your ego has been driving you like a taskmaster. Stop beating up on yourself.   


Don’t fight with your own feelings.  Let yourself feel how you feel.  Don’t force yourself to smile and pretend everything is fine when you aren’t feeling well, physically or emotionally.  You have enough on your plate without reporting yourself to the positive thinking police.  You can be optimistic but still have days when life just isn’t what you wish it would be. 


Recognize stress and address it.  You can accomplish a lot more for yourself by imagining a sandy beach than imagining a boxing ring.  Learn some ways to relax and stay calm. 


Stay educated.  Working with your opponent means knowing as you can about him. 


Get emotional and spiritual support.  Be ready to call in the troops for backup when the battle fatigue sets in. 


The unwanted houseguest can be kept in his place.  Face your chronic condition from a position of competence, calmness, and strength.  Stay focused on what can do to take the best possible care of yourself, day by day.  Do something with your chronic condition, not about it. 


Balance is power!