The Irony...Healthier Living with a Chronic Illness

What does being healthy mean? Can one live with a chronic physical illness and be healthy despite the illness? Is one healthy during periods of remission? Does living with a chronic physical illness mean that one cannot be healthy?

The question of health is a complicated one and is a question that many people who live with chronic physical illness face on a regular basis. At times, people living with chronic physical illness may want to forget that they have health related issues to deal with that other folks in their lives do not. In fact some people with chronic illness do forget about their health concerns until something happens to remind them. There could be days or weeks, months or years of remission when a person with chronic physical illness experiences him or her self as illness-free and completely healthy. But what happens when people who are living with an illness experience a day of suffering, when symptoms are rampant? A day like this can happen on a regular work day, in a moment riddled with responsibilities, and can be a forceful reminder that the illness is there. Days like this can really make some people confront what is truly important in their lives. It can make one question, "life is short so, do I have to have this particular job" or "if I am suffering, shouldn't I really enjoy my responsibilities rather than suffer through something I don't even care about?" Many questions may come up about how one is living his or her life. Some people may even think about the future generation. For example, a woman who wants to be a mother, living with an illness that makes it likely that pregnancy will be a high risk, may question how well she is preparing her body for a baby. Her future desire for wanting to be a mother may be so much more important to her than her immediate responsibilities, that she may choose to rearrange her life in the present in hopes of making the future outcome that she longs for more likely.

Some may question what all these examples have to do with health. For thousands of years humans have defined health in a myriad of ways. The ancient Greeks believed that health was achieved when there was a balance of four bodily fluids. There are certain African tribes that currently believe that health is a balance between the physical and spiritual, including making peace with spirits of dead ancestors. It is only the recent Western definition of health, which limits the understanding of health as being equivalent to the absence of illness. According to this modern and medicalized understanding of health, those living with a chronic physical illness are technically not 100% healthy. However, thinking about health in a broader light makes it possible to see that actually being diagnosed with a chronic physical illness may serve as a catalyst for a certain level of health that would never otherwise have been achieved. The presence of physical suffering is a reminder that our bodies cannot sustain life forever, that we have a limited amount of time on this earth, and this can serve as the strongest motivator for choosing to live the rest of your life making the right decisions--the healthiest decisions. Some may realize that they neglected their innate passions and talents to work a job that pays the bills but brings no satisfaction. Others may realize that the stress of professional success may put such a strain on their bodies that pregnancy will be extremely difficult. There could be people who realized that they have spent too much energy caring about what other people think about their lives rather than taking the time to decide for themselves what is important to them for their lives. Yes having a non-ill physical body means being healthy. However, health is also recognizing what you love, what will make you happy, and how you really want to spend the short time that you have on this planet. Health is being able to walk away from something that you do not particularly care about so that you can move towards what really matters to you. Health is about not caring about what others will think and having faith that those who truly matter will support you in your decisions. Health is being able to come to peace with the limitations that your illness has imposed onto to your life and using these limitations to really hone in on what matters most. If you can only do a few out of the many things that you had intended for, figure out which you really want to do...and go for it! That is health! Steve Jobs had pancreatic cancer and a liver transplant, and died too young; however, he was probably one of the healthiest men of the century.

"Almost everything--all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure--these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." (Steve Jobs)