Caught in a Swirl of Emotions
“AFTER being told that I had a life-threatening disease,” recalls an elderly man, “I tried to put my fears aside, but feelings of uncertainty wore me down.” His words highlight the fact that after an illness has delivered a physical blow, it lands an emotional one as well. Even so, there are people who are successfully coping with such blows. Many of them would like to assure you that there are ways to deal successfully with a chronic illness. But before we discuss what you can do, let us first take a closer look at some of the emotions that you may face early on.
Disbelief, Denial, Dysphoria
The emotions that you feel may differ considerably from those of others. Nevertheless, health experts and ailing individuals note that people struck by a health crisis often experience a number of common emotions. Initial feelings of shock and disbelief may be followed by feelings of denial: ‘It can’t be true.’ ‘There must be some mistake.’ ‘Maybe they mixed up the lab tests.’ In describing her reaction to learning that she had cancer, one woman said: “You feel like pulling the covers over your head, and you hope that when you look out again it will all be gone.”
However, as reality begins to sink in, denial may give way to dysphoria, a feeling of unhappiness that hangs over you like a cloud of impending doom. ‘How long will I live?’ ‘Am I doomed to spend the rest of my life in pain?’ and similar questions may assault you. You may wish you could go back in time, before the diagnosis, but you cannot. Soon you may find yourself engulfed in a tide of other painful and powerful emotions. What are some of them?
Uncertainty, Anxiety, Fear
A grave illness thrusts severe uncertainty and anxieties into your life. “The unpredictability of my situation makes life very frustrating at times,” says a man with Parkinson’s disease. “Each day, I have to wait and see what it will bring.” Your illness may also frighten you. If it struck without warning, you may feel a crushing fear. However, if the diagnosis of your illness has come after you have spent long years fretting about symptoms that were misdiagnosed, the fear may be more insidious. At first, you may even feel a sense of relief that people will finally believe that you are really ill and are not making everything up. Before long, though, relief may be followed by a fearful realization of what the diagnosis entails.
Fear of losing control may also worry you. Especially if you value a measure of independence, you may cringe at the thought of becoming more and more dependent on others. You may worry that your illness is beginning to dominate your life and dictate your every move.
Anger, Shame, Loneliness
Sensing a growing loss of control may also trigger feelings of anger. ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ you may ask yourself. This blow to your health seems unfair and senseless. Shame and despair may also overtake you. One paralytic recalls: “I felt so ashamed that all of this had happened to me because of a stupid accident!”
Isolation may also close in on you. Physical isolation easily leads to social isolation. If your illness confines you to your home, you may no longer be able to socialize with old friends. Yet, more than ever, you long for human contact. After an initial burst of visits and phone calls, fewer and fewer may stop by or call you.
Since it hurts to watch friends pull away, you may have reacted to this painful experience by withdrawing into yourself. Of course, it is understandable that you may need some time before you face others again. But if at this point you allow yourself to withdraw ever further from others, you may sink from social isolation (when others do not come to see you) into emotional isolation (when you do not want to see others). Either way, you may be struggling with intense feelings of loneliness.a At times, you may even wonder if you can make it through another day.
Learning From Others
There is hope, however. If you have recently been engulfed by a health crisis, there are practical steps you can take that will help you to regain a measure of control.
Granted, this series of articles will not resolve your chronic health problem, whatever it is. Yet, the information presented may help you to see ways to come to terms with it. A woman with cancer summed up her mental journey: “After the denial came much anger and then the search for my resources.” You too can make that search, by turning to people who have traveled the same road before you and learning from them how you can tap into the resources that are within your reach.
a Of course, many experience these varying emotions to differing degrees and in a different order.
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‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ you may ask yourself