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Imagine receiving a surprise invite to an amazing dinner at the most exclusive restaurant in your city. You know, one of those invite only establishments. The dinner is for the “who’s who” of the world…but somehow you received an invite. Excited about this unbelievable opportunity, you arrive to the dinner early and wearing your best attire. When you walk up to the registration table to find out your seat assignment, you are given an empty name tag. You quickly try to give your hostess your name, but she replies “oh no, names don’t matter here.” Baffled, you scowl and wonder what type of place doesn’t take names. The hostess notices your confused scowl and says “once you put the name tag on, it will display the current state of your mind; and that’s your seat assignment.”
If you had to wear the current state of your mind like a badge, what would it display? Would your badge read “depressed” or “anxious” or “elated” or something similar? Sadly, most people have never thought about this question, so the answer is likely “I have no idea.” We have all been taught the importance of physical health, but we rarely hear about the importance of mental health. It’s almost as if we have somehow forgotten that the brain is also apart of the same body we strive to keep healthy. Now listen, I use “we” to admit that I too am guilty of this. Depending upon which point in my life you asked me this question, my badge could read “I just came for the snacks” or “sooooooooo, you don’t have bacon”.
Ever since I was a little kid, I have always paid very close attention to my body…I had to. But, being so in tune with the rest of my body, somehow made me overlook my mind. See, while striving to keep my body healthy, I never stopped to assess how my mind was handling the highs and lows that the rest of my body experienced. Friends, I have come a long way.
This morning I woke up to the sound of the rain hitting the skylight in my bathroom. Normally the sound of rain invokes intense fear or dread, and serves as a warning that I will have a painful day. I would then cringe with each individual drop, and worry what my body had in store. But today, the sound solicited nothing more from me than a mere “hmmmm”. Confused by my calmness, I wondered what about me has changed. The answer? Somewhere along this journey with chronic illness, I realized that my mind needs the same attention and care as the rest of my body. That realization, helped me make the following life changes:
1. I made the unknown, known. They say knowledge is power, and I can confirm this is true. Before my diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease in 2011, I had no idea why my body did the things it did. I was afraid to plan my life, attend events, or do anything really, because my body routinely disrupted everything. After my diagnosis, I expected to finally start living life…but I didn’t. While I received the medical reason for why my body did what it did, that was all I received. It quickly became clear that fear of the unknown, even after diagnosis, made me stop living. So, I researched every diagnosis I received and learned as much as I could. I also researched each medication I was given, and additional treatment options in the U.S. and Europe. I then joined organizations that support or raise money for the conditions I have. Doing these simple things took away the stronghold that fear had on my life.
2. I allowed myself to grieve. For some awful reason our society teaches that compassion means throwing ready-made-responses at people when they receive horrible news. If a person gets sick they get “well it could be worse.” If a person loses a loved one, they get “well, at least they are in a better place.” If a woman survives breast cancer but loses one breast, she gets “well the blessing is that you are alive and you have one breast left.” American culture has created ready-made-responses for everything, and its sickening because they’re not compassionate at all.
If you are a person that loves to give these out, PLEASE STOP. Also, if you are a recipient of these ready-made-responses and allow them to minimize your feelings, PLEASE STOP. Psychology says there are five stages of grief: (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; and (5) acceptance. I can say from personal experience that receiving a diagnosis of a life long condition, was the equivalent of receiving a phone call that a close family member suddenly died. I can also say that receiving these ready-made-responses made acceptance of the news so much more difficult, and kept me in denial land for a long time. When I finally reached wits end, I wrote a letter to God and expressed my anger and disappointment. I said everything I wanted to say, exactly how I wanted to say it. When I was done I burned the letter…closure. If you battle with chronic pain or illness, allow yourself to grieve. Maybe you hate writing, so talk, or scream, or cry. Allow yourself to feel every emotion that comes, without judgment or shame. If you have a loved one or friend that battles with chronic pain or illness, allow them to grieve without judgment, and with everything in you refrain from giving a ready-made-response.
3. I started talking. I have said this before, but I will say it again. If you battle with chronic pain or illness, a support team is critical. That team may consist of you and one other person…but you need a support team. That support team can be family or friends, clergy, or advocates found through associations that provide resources to people with your condition. But, that support team should also include trained professionals that specialize in mental health. Dealing with chronic illness and pain can and will be overwhelming at times, so it is very important to have a trained professional helping you keep your mind healthy. If therapy is not your thing, try a support group.
4. I learned to clear my mind. I am probably the walking embodiment of the dictionary definition of Type A and control freak. Those were once titles I wore proudly because they bring great success. But, being wound that tight and going 100 miles a minute wears on the body, including the mind. Given the wear, it is important to clear your mind. Some people write, while others exercise. For me, yoga and meditation were exactly what I needed. Research and try out several things to find the one what works for you.
If you haven’t already, assess the health of your mind. Act as if you have to wear the state of it on your chest proudly like a badge. If the thought of that causes immediate panic, it is time to make a change. An unhealthy mind is an unhealthy body…because they are one in the same.