Don’t Be Defined by Your Illness
Depression, anxiety, personality disorders--for many women, we manage our symptoms while we manage a busy family life. Feeling bad (and “bad” can come in a number of flavors, from bone-crushing sadness to fingernails-on-a-chalkboard irritability) and yet continuing to push ourselves to function as wife, mother, employee and any number of other roles we might play is an all too familiar part of many of our lives. Dealing with being ill—the symptoms of your illness, the doctor visits, the medication issues, the time spent on psychotherapy, etc.—can be a time-consuming chore.
But in my years as a therapist, as well as my own struggles with mental and physical ailments, I’ve seen many women become consumed with their illness and the search for feeling better, to the point of obsession. For some women, this takes the form of endless visits to doctors and trial after trial of medication, switching therapists every six months or so, and pursuing test upon test for every related or unrelated medical condition that may impact mood and anxiety level. For others, this takes the form of dieting, and careful elimination of a number of foods believed to be toxic. Still others haunt the health food stores, trying homeopathy, aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, nutritional supplements and so on. For some, the quest for healing takes the path of bodywork: regular chiropractic adjustments, massages, shiatsu, Rolfing and Thai yoga massage become part of the exploration of healing. There are as many ways to become consumed with the quest for healing as there are individuals, and none of them are, in and of themselves, right or wrong.
This is a complex process, because while taking an active role in trying to do all you can to feel as well as possible is not only a great way to approach any illness, it is probably the most helpful intervention you can use against mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Any therapist will tell you so: take an active role in your treatment, and do what you can to facilitate feeling better.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
But can you have too much of a good thing? When it comes to seeking health, how could you possibly seek too much? This is where things get a bit complicated. Yes, striving to be as healthy as possible is important. But if that striving becomes your hobby, then it may have crossed the line. What are some of the problems involved?
- Letting your sense of self become all bound up in being sick. If your identity has become intertwined with your disease, such that seeking health defines you, it might be time to ease off the gas on this quest and take a different approach.
- Spending money you don’t have on “cures.” Many of the alternative treatments, supplements, or processes you can undergo are not covered by insurance. The out-of-pocket expenses can be staggering.
- Spending all your free time focused on your disease and addressing it.
- Choosing to use a supplement or bodywork approach that does not have objective evidence it is effective. You probably wouldn’t take a traditional medication if your doctor admitted that there was no hard evidence it worked. If you have stopped being rational about what you use or do to get healthy, you might want to ask yourself why.
So how do you avoid getting caught up in the cycle of hope and disappointment and avoid making your quest for healing into a full-time job? How can you stop exploring every possible cure and yet still be a responsible patient who is actively seeking to make her life better? The answer is paradoxical: you practice acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that you stop trying to get better and just shrug your shoulders. Acceptance isn’t giving up. Acceptance is having a mature attitude about what is and isn’t possible and then finding peace, and even joy, within that. Some spiritual practices suggest this type of approach, and some meditation traditions come from this perspective. The central idea that helps you let go of searching, questing, and striving to improve health is that everything is OK as it is right now. Despite depression or a terrible history of trauma or stomach-churning anxiety, there is a part of you that knows that everything is OK. The OK part exists alongside the scared, suffering part—you don’t have to be one or the other. You can be both. The more you acknowledge that there is a part of you that is OK, the more you can feel OK and just relax. You’ll probably still have some symptoms of your illness, but you might not mind as much.
Sounds a little crazy? It might be, but working on being OK with who and what you are right here and right now might be a quicker path to truly feeling better than any other intervention, traditional and medical or “new age” and alternative.