How Chronic Illness Taught Me to Better Care for Myself
Before my diagnosis of bronchiectasis in May 2017, I had been teaching yoga in English and Spanish in my hometown, but was planning to return to Granada in southern Spain to teach English and yoga. I also had plans to collaborate on a yoga retreat with friends in Costa Rica. Yet, all I heard after the consultant told me ‘it wasn’t terminal’ was that I would have to stay in the UK for two years and that I wouldn’t be able to travel to developing countries. As someone who loves traveling and who has lived and worked abroad, it felt like having my wings clipped. I did not realize at the time that this would be the least of my worries, and that I am incredibly lucky to live in a country with high quality free healthcare. I would like to share my story of dealing with a chronic illness and how it taught me to look after myself in the hope that it may help others.
My Story with Chronic Illness
My condition is supposed to be mild, though it felt anything but, as in the first year of having this chronic lung condition, I had a chest infection once a month, in addition to having pneumonia. The two week courses of antibiotics left me feeling physically and emotionally depleted. I also remember feeling scared, angry and totally lost as well as pretty low. Retrospectively, I can see that it is normal to feel all of these feelings when you are ill, let alone trying to live with a chronic illness.
Getting on the mat and doing the physical asanas had always helped me stay grounded and to get out of my head and without it, I didn’t know what to do. Although I kept to my daily meditation practice, I did what I had always done; kept doing to avoid feeling the pain.
By September 2018, I had been given a treatment plan which involved breathing exercises twice a day and eating three meals with protein in order to stay strong and to heal. In November, I caught a serious bug that only responds to intravenous antibiotics so I was admitted to hospital. I actually took my yoga mat, which shows how deluded I was about how severely ill I was – my sister loves to jibe me about this!
I was absolutely petrified- partly because I hate needles, but the nurses were fantastic and I was given a pic line for blood to be taken and antibiotics to be given. I found that guided meditations on fear and pain helped me feel the reality of my experience and calmed me. After that, I had managed to stay fairly well with just one chest infection and was back to full fitness when I contracted pneumonia and was admitted to hospital again. This time, I had to have oxygen, reacted badly to the drugs and was confined to my bed but I somehow dealt with it thanks to my meditation practice, books and podcasts to nourish and ground me.
Shifting Expectations of Yoga Practice
As an EFL Teacher, I had often wished for a summer off, but hadn’t quite expected it to be this way. This summer, I have had time to slowly heal and to gradually build up my strength. Getting on the mat each day taught me to accept the limitations of my body and to surrender to each day. Initially, I was too weak to sit up, so I would lie on my mat and listen to a yoga video, breathing and imagining myself doing the poses. Each week, I was able to do a bit more and I would use the videos as a basis, adapting the poses as necessary. I did the poses in a seated position until I was strong enough to try standing poses. Some days, I focused on pranayama to strengthen my lungs and on days when I was tired, I listened to a Yoga Nidra video or stayed in child’s pose. The important thing was the showing up on my mat.
It has been over two years since my diagnosis, and I’m happy to report that my consultant says that if I wanted to move to Spain I could, and my ‘travel ban’ has been lifted as long as I have my emergency antibiotics. Somehow, none of that is important any more. This extremely difficult time taught me about letting go of control and allowing life to be on its terms. Having to be on my own with my thoughts and pain also helped me to learn to accept myself.
In my path towards better coping of my chronic illness, I discovered may things that helped me, and maybe they’ll help you, too.
1) Sharing feelings with a support group, therapist or trusted friend.
2) Journaling- this practice gets me out of my head and is a record of how things change day-to-day.
3) Allowing myself to rest.
4) Keeping a gratitude list – writing down 10 things I am grateful for each day reminds me that even on the darkest days I can find positive elements.
5) Having a list of things to do that nurture me when I need to take care of myself.
6) Recognizing that it is normal to feel angry, sad and low with chronic illness. Allowing myself to sit with the feelings and then doing something nurturing has helped me immensely.
7) Eating a balanced diet.
8) Reading novels or uplifting non-fiction books eased the loneliness.
9) Listening to a podcast, audiobook or the radio for similar reasons.
10) Having a routine – my morning one includes meditation, yoga then reading something positive with my coffee and gets me off to a positive start.
11) Watching comedy.
12) Doing something creative somehow helps me transgress the condition whether it’s doing a collage, cooking or writing a story.
13) Lavender oil is effective for pain relief and insomnia.
14) Remembering the phrase ‘this too will pass,’ and taking things hour by hour when life is really hard.
15) Above all, remembering that yoga is more than a physical practice – pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Yin Yoga can all support the body as it heals. It is counterproductive to workout when sick.