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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

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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