I’ve recently had an increase of clients and loved ones in my life with autoimmune conditions, like Fybromyalgia, Hashimoto’s disease (which causes hypothyroid), or other chronic pain conditions like migraine. These are all individuals who are young, mostly in their 30s, and in the prime of their lives.
Emotionally, these individuals are finding it difficult to witness the loss of control of their body and their health. Taking care of these conditions often requires a change in diet, increased rest, and reduced ability to engage in social activities. Even with a dedication to self-care, there is still a struggle with energy levels, weight control, and sometimes pain. Friends and family often don’t get it and sometimes it’s hard to find a knowledgable doctor, too.
It’s difficult to face health issues at any age, but when you are young, it can really feel like something you were supposed to have is being stolen from you. You expect to be thriving in your 30s, working hard, achieving goals, having fun, finding or enjoying a partner or family--not managing an illness. Before developing the disorder, if you got sick or gained a few pounds, it was nothing to get back on track with a little self-nurturing and healthy eating. Now, you can do everything “right,” make healthy, balanced choices, and still find your body resisting and rebelling.
Losing control of something we previously had control over or coming to a realization that we can’t control everything, that we won’t always be able to prevent painful things from happening to us, even when we do everything “right” is one of the hardest things to face as humans. Watching our health suffer and, for the first time, being unable to fix it easily with a few good nights of sleep is discouraging and emotionally painful. You might even feel like you don’t recognize yourself. You may have always thought of yourself as energetic, social, and hard-working but now find yourself unable to accomplish all that you used to.
When there is loss like this, it is real. Letting yourself grieve is important, so that you can eventually rise out of it into acceptance and a new kind of strength. Finding people who get it and who can be present with your pain and loss is so important.
Having people around who know and believe in the strong person that you are behind the illness is also important.
Often, friends and family try to give unsolicited advice on how to solve your problem, but this can be so exhausting. You probably already know more about your experience and condition than most people around you. As a society, we often don’t recognize the value of just sitting with someone in the pain they are experiencing and not leaving them alone there. We need our pain to be seen by those we love.
I find that these kinds of conditions force us to challenge cultural values around weight, appearance, independence, accomplishment, and being a go-getter. To find some kind of peace with our new reality, we have to start to believe that we are more than our bodies, more than our appearance, more than all the things we can do. If we don’t, the battle with our bodies and minds will be much more difficult.
From a spiritual perspective, I think this gives us an opportunity to connect more deeply with ourselves and others, to enter into real relationships in which our imperfections are welcome—and we are loved for who we are.
If you are experiencing an autoimmune disease or a chronic pain condition, a support group can be tremendously helpful. I recommend searching meetup.com for autoimmune or the specific name of your condition. If you want more professional support and structure, therapy groups of all types can be a great resource. You can find many on Psychology Today by searching your zip code or town. I facilitate one for women here in Murray Hill (Manhattan) on Monday nights.
The important thing is to connect with others and to know you can count on regular support.
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About Melissa King
I am a licensed mental health counselor in New York City with a psychotherapy office in the neighborhood of Murray Hill in Manhattan. Find out more about me here. I'd love to hear from you. Email me if there's a topic you'd like to read about here.