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The Upside of Adversity: 6 Lessons from Thriving with Chronic Illness

Happy Free Man

“If you’re not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you.” ~Unknown

I vividly remember the day that I realized something was seriously wrong inside my body.

It was a Friday night. I was out with some friends after work when I suddenly started slurring my speech.

I’d been drinking soda water all evening.

I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I remember trying to stem the rising feeling of panic, to convince myself that everything was okay.

As I stared at my reflection in the mirror, noticing a slight droop to my eyelids, I remember thinking, “I’m having a stroke.” It was an idea I quickly dismissed, stupidly believing such a thing wasn’t possible for someone so young.

It all went downhill from there.

To make a long story short, within three days I went from being a carefree twenty-four-year-old to a critically ill twenty-four-year-old.

Diagnosed with a life-threatening case of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune system disorder that attacks the peripheral nervous system, I was hooked up to machines in the hospital’s critical care unit, my body completely paralyzed and systematically shutting down.

That was ten years ago.

My life has been irrevocably changed… for the better.

From adversity and challenge comes inspiration and growth; there is always a silver lining if we are prepared to look for it.

Here’s what my experiences have taught me:

1. Nourish the relationships that matter.

Want to know who your true friends are? Get hit by one of life’s unwelcome curveballs and you will pretty quickly find out!

While many friends walked out, including people who I never thought would disappoint me, the most heart-warming thing has been seeing how many true friends have walked in.

Friends who don’t just contact me when they think my disability status can translate to some benefit for them (read: premium seating at an event).

Friends who genuinely care about how I am doing but do not define me by my illness..

Pause, listen and pay attention to who is there for you in your time of need. These are the relationships you want to prioritise and nourish! Be intentional, putting in at least as much as you get out, remembering that close relationships are nurtured by repeated contact over time, not by simply taking them granted.

Is it time to pick up the phone and call your bestie?

2. Challenges make us stronger.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

I had to relearn and relive baby’s first milestones (crawl, walk, talk, feed myself) all over again, only this time as a young adult.

I have been pushed to the brink of physical pain limits, day in and day out.

Wheelchairs, walking sticks, and physical therapy are my new reality.

These things could define me, even destroy me, but I choose to keep my head above water, moving forward in the best way I know how..

It’s a conscious mental shift: To accept everything that comes my way, good or bad, and to actively decide that my experiences will make me, not break me.

We all go through challenges and adversity in our lives. No one is ever singled out. We don’t always know why some things happen, they just do.

How can you learn from your experiences and get back on track? How can you channel your energy into positive and effective action? How can you change direction to help resolve an unhappy state?

Remember: It’s how we respond that builds character and resilience; what makes us stronger. Don’t give up!

3. Look through the cloud to find the silver lining.

When your world has been rocked—by illness, death, disaster, financial struggles, you name it—finding the silver lining can be extremely difficult.

It needs to be a conscious choice. Feelings of pain, sadness, and despair still need to be processed, it’s part of healing, but finding the silver lining can provide some much-needed perspective and balance.

Even though I can’t remember what it feels like to live without physical pain, fatigue, and numbness, I’ve learned to celebrate the amazing ability my body has to heal and forgive.

I’ve learned that illness may delay us in pursuing our dreams, but it doesn’t have to stop us from reaching them.

I’ve learned that the life lens may be different but I am still me. I have just crutched and wheeled a different path.

How can you leverage your experiences in a positive light?

You might learn something new about yourself and make change for the better. Maybe you use your experience, the lessons learned, to help others in a similar situation. Or perhaps you walk away with a renewed sense of purpose and buoyancy about life.

Seek and you will find.

4. Laugh hard and laugh often.

Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress and pain. It’s my coping mechanism; how I stay sane during the most difficult moments.

Even at my sickest in hospital, when the doctors’ (jokingly) told me, “Bree, if you were a horse we would have shot you by now!” I managed to painstakingly flip them my interpretation of the bird, causing everyone to laugh uproariously.

If I don’t laugh then I cry, and I don’t know about you, but I know which one I would rather do!

 5. Be your best advocate. If you don’t, who will?

I’ve never regretted using my voice, but I’ve certainly regretted not using it.

It’s vital to stand up for yourself, be your best advocate, and take charge of your own healing. Doctors aren’t infallible, and you know your body better than anyone else.

So when in doubt, check it out. Ask your questions. Listen to your gut instinct.

You. Are. Worth. It.

6. Life isn’t promised, so get busy living!

We all know that life can change in an instant, but how many of us really believe this to be true?

We rush through life, always thinking there will be tomorrow. The truth is, life doesn’t begin in the future and it can’t be relived in the past.

Don’t keep putting off the things that are important to you; whatever you need to do, or want to do, I urge you to seize the day and take action now!

Take that class you always wanted to take, contact that person you want to get closer to, let go of regrets and bitterness so they don’t weigh you down.

All we have is right now. Get out there and live it!

Happy free man image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Bree Hogan

About Bree Hogan

Bree Hogan is a certified holistic health coach and the founder of Starbrite Warrior, an online resource and support community for women living with invisible illness who want to do more than just simply cope. Visit Starbrite Warrior for updates, inspiration and a free eBook from Bree!

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  • Nicole Leith

    I’ve been suffering with Rheumatoid Arthritis for several years now and no medication was working for me. It was frustrating. I think all 6 of your points are fabulous and true, but #1 and #5 really stood out. Having to back out of activities and being indecisive about doing things really showed me which were my strongest relationships. I had to fight to get tested for Celiac disease – more than just the blood test even though I have a family history. My tests haven’t ruled out Celiac disease (which is pretty close to a Celiac diagnosis) and cutting gluten from my diet has seemed to eliminate most of my swelling. Celiac can cause rheumatic symptoms. Such a great post!

  • This is very inspirational writing. I think even if we’re not faced by downhills, we should do all of those things just to be happy with ourselves. Very motivational writing. 🙂

  • Hi. I just saw your comment and didn’t know whether to ask or not but here I am. I know someone who had rheumatic fever and now he has episodes of pain in his legs. Is this the same as yours? I read that there’s no treatment as such. And how are you now? Is the disease cured? (I’m sorry if I’m intruding.)

  • Wow! I love all of your philosophies on life. Such a good perspective.

  • Laurel Cutter

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time. I was diagnosed with GBS in 2014 and I’m still struggling with pain and fatigue. I have yet to see the upside of this adversity but you have given me hope. Thank you.

  • Thank you for your inspiration! This post reminds me to be grateful for everything I have and to live life to its fullest! I have health issues, but they are minor compared to many who struggle with worse.

  • Bree Hogan

    Thank you so much Kristin 🙂

  • Bree Hogan

    Hi Laurel, I’m sorry to hear that you are still struggling with pain and fatigue. Unfortunately this seems to be quite a common ongoing problem for many people who have been diagnosed with GBS, myself included. Nerve pain really sucks! I’m glad that my post has given you some hope. If you ever want to chat more please don’t hesitate to reach out via the links in my profile above. Xx

  • Bree Hogan

    Thank you so much Aishwarya. I agree, these are all things that anyone can do at any time, no need to wait for the Mack Truck to hit! Just takes some people – aka myself! – a little bit more of a life wake-up call to realise it…doh!

  • Bree Hogan

    Thank you so much Nicole. It certainly sounds like you have been hit with some health challenges. It sucks when we have to fight, fight, fight for a diagnosis or to be heard, but if we don’t do it then no one else will. I don’t have Celiac disease but am very allergic to gluten; I can relate to the swelling you refer to in your comment, urgh! I have my fingers crossed for you that by controlling the celiac disease you can get some relief with your rheumatic symptoms. Xx

  • Bree Hogan

    Thanks so much Willow 🙂 Our health is one of the most important things ever and when it’s out of kilter, regardless of the culprit, everything else seems to follow suit. Finding the positive, something to be grateful for, can be oh-so-hard at times, but I know myself that I feel better when I do. Even if it’s just for a minute, I’ll take it! Xx

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    This post came at a timely reminder for me as well — Got a neck spasm earlier in the week by a freaky coincidence & the past few days have been quite challenging… At the same time, its been a humbling experience & made me have a new admiration for ppl dealing with chronic neck &/or back problems!

    Your story is inspiring…something tells me; your optimism & resiliency will be helpful to a lot of people! Happy New Year…:-)

  • Denay DeGuzman

    You are an incredible warrior and an inspiration to everyone who lives with a chronic illness. My mother has MS which was first diagnosed when she was in her 60s. For her it’s been a long road riddled with challenges and bouts of depression. But lately I’ve noticed that she has searched within and learned so many positive things about herself and those around her, and many blessings that she might not have otherwise taken the time to discover.

  • This is such a great post! I couldn’t agree more, that challenges make us stronger and that through hard times we realize who our real friends are. I feel like I end up connecting most with people who have been through hard things because they seem to have more compassion and empathy as a result.

  • Belle Vie A Deux

    What a great and uplifting article! I need to be reminded of the positive side 🙂

  • Bree Hogan

    Thanks so much for your lovely kind words, Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt. I hope your neck spasm clears up quickly for you, they can be quite taxing!

    Thanks for asking about my health; it’s been 10 years since I was first diagnosed with GBS. I now live with the ongoing side affects of this condition, the main culprits for me being chronic nerve pain (big yuck!) and chronic fatigue. There are other weird neuropathic symptoms like intermittent numbness of the limbs which occur on a daily basis. Oh yeah, it’s cool to be me! *rolls eyes, giggles* Otherwise I’m pretty good – and I really mean that, I am happy and I am healthy 🙂

  • Bree Hogan

    Thank you so much Belle 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Bree Hogan

    Thank you Denay for your lovely kind words. Your Mum’s journey (and indeed your own given when a family member goes through illness it also becomes part of our journey, too) sounds like it has been pretty tough. But the fact that she has come to a place where she can find the light, the positive, is awesome; it’s certainly not an easy thing to do! I wish you both well (hugs), Bree xx

  • Bree Hogan

    Thank you Emily! I agree re: the friend connection, people who have been through a similar journey do tend to understand it a lot more and it can be easier to make a connection. Mind you, some of the best friendships I now have are with people who just got me (and I them), regardless of circumstances, challenges or backgrounds. My medical conditions have never been a barrier or an issue to our friendships. And I know how incredibly lucky I am to have these people in my life. *Blessed*