When a Health Crisis Engulfs You
“I felt as if I had been hit with a sledgehammer.”—John, after learning that he had an impairing illness.
“I was scared.”—Beth, after realizing the seriousness of her health crisis.
LEARNING that you have a chronic and disabling ailment or that injuries from an accident will leave you permanently impaired is one of life’s most painful experiences. Whether you hear the news of your illness in a quiet doctor’s office or are brought face-to-face with your impaired condition in a hectic emergency room, you likely find yourself in a state of disbelief. Little in life prepares you to cope with the powerful emotions that engulf you when you are rocked by a devastating health crisis.
To gather information that might be helpful for those whose health has recently suffered a severe setback, Awake! spoke to a number of individuals in different countries who have successfully coped with chronic disabling illness for many years. They were asked to give their observations on such questions as: What emotions did you experience? What helped you to weather the crisis and find your balance again? What steps did you take to regain some control over your life? The firsthand knowledge gleaned from these interviews as well as some findings of researchers who are studying the effects of long-term ailments is presented for the benefit of those facing a health crisis right now.*
While this cover series is especially addressed to those who are ill or disabled, the series “Chronic Illness—Coping as a Family” (Awake! of May 22, 2000) contained information particularly directed to those who are caring for the ill.
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.* 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.
Of course, many experience these varying emotions to differing degrees and in a different order.
[Blurb on page 5]
‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ you may ask yourself
Living Successfully With Your Ailment—How?
BE ASSURED that the rush of feelings you are probably experiencing is valid. Although your illness or impairment may be a physical fact, your mind resists the changes that the illness has forced on you. It may seem as though you and your illness are engaged in a tug-of-war, a contest between who you once were and what you might become. And right now it may seem that your illness has the upper hand. Yet, you can turn the tables. How?
“When there is a loss through illness,” notes Dr. Kitty Stein, “it feels a lot like a death.” Thus, when you have lost something as dear to you as your health, it is only normal to allow yourself time to mourn and weep, much as you would if a loved one died. In fact, your loss may involve more than your health. As one woman explains, “I had to give up my job. . . . I had to give up the independence that I had always enjoyed.” Even so, keep your losses in perspective. “You’ve got to mourn what’s lost,” adds Dr. Stein, who herself has multiple sclerosis, “but you also need to understand what’s still there.” Indeed, once you have struggled through the initial tears, you will see that you have important resources still intact. For one thing, you have the ability to adjust.
A sailor cannot control a storm, but he can weather one by adjusting his boat’s sails. Similarly, you may not be able to control the illness that has stormed into your life, but you can cope with it by adjusting your “sails,” that is, your physical, mental, and emotional resources. What has helped other chronically ill ones to do that?
Learn About Your Illness
After absorbing the initial impact of the diagnosis, many come to feel that knowing the painful truth is better than facing a vague fear. While fear may immobilize you, knowing what is happening to you may help you to consider what you can do—and that in itself often has a positive effect. “Notice how much better you feel about anything that worries you when you come up with a plan for dealing with it,” notes Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University. “Long before you have actually done something, you reduce your sense of discomfort by planning what to do.”
You may feel the need to learn more about your condition. As a Bible proverb says, “a man of knowledge is reinforcing power.” (Proverbs 24:5) “Get books from the library. Learn as much as you can about your illness,” advises a bedridden man. As you learn about available treatments and coping techniques, you may find that your condition is perhaps not as bad as you had feared. You may even find some reasons for optimism.
Understanding your illness rationally, though, is not your final goal. Explains Dr. Spiegel: “This information gathering is part of an important process of coming to terms with the illness, of making sense of it, of putting it into perspective.” Accepting that your life has been changed but that it is not over is a delicate and often slow process. But this step forward—from understanding your illness rationally to accepting it emotionally—is one you can take. How?
Finding a Delicate Balance
You may need to adjust your view of what it means to accept your illness. After all, accepting that you are ill is no sign of failure, just as it is no sign of failure on the part of a sailor to accept the fact that he is in a storm. Instead, being realistic about the storm prompts him to act. Likewise, accepting your illness is no failure, but it means “advancing in a new direction,” as a chronically ill woman observed.
Even if your physical abilities have diminished, you may need to remind yourself that your mental, emotional, and spiritual qualities do not necessarily need to be affected. For instance, do you still have your intelligence and the capacity to organize and reason? Perhaps you still have your warm smile, your sense of caring for others, and your ability to be a good listener and a true friend. And most important, you still have your faith in God.
In addition, keep in mind that although you cannot change all your circumstances, you can still determine how to react to them. Irene Pollin of the National Cancer Institute states: “You are in charge of your responses to your disease. You have this power no matter what your disease dictates.” Helen, a 70-year-old woman with advanced multiple sclerosis, confirms: “It’s not so much your illness but your reaction to your illness that determines whether you find your balance again.” A man who has coped with a disability for a number of years says: “A positive attitude is the keel that keeps the boat upright.” Indeed, Proverbs 18:14 states: “The spirit of a man can put up with his malady; but as for a stricken spirit, who can bear it?”
As your emotional balance returns, questions such as ‘Why did this happen to me?’ may yield to ‘Since this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?’ At this point you might choose to take additional steps to move beyond your current situation. Let us consider a few.
Evaluate your condition, think of what you need to alter, and then seek to change what is changeable. “Your illness is an occasion to reevaluate life—a wake-up call, not a death knell,” states Dr. Spiegel. Ask yourself, ‘What was important to me prior to my illness? How has this changed?’ Ask such questions, not to find out what you can no longer do, but to determine what is still possible, perhaps by doing things differently. Take, for example, Helen, mentioned earlier.
For the past 25 years, multiple sclerosis has weakened her muscles. First, she used a walker to keep going. Afterward, when she lost control of her right hand, she switched to using her left one. Next, her left hand gave out. Then, some eight years ago, she could no longer walk. Now she needs to be washed, fed, and dressed by others. This saddens her, but even so, she says: “My motto remains, ‘Think of what you can do and not of what you used to do.’” And with the help of her husband and her visiting nurses as well as some creative thinking of her own, she manages to continue some of the activities she has always enjoyed. For instance, sharing the Bible’s promise of a coming peaceful new world has been a valued part of her life since she was 11 years old, and today she still does this every week. (Matthew 28:19, 20) Helen explains how:
“I ask a visiting nurse to hold the newspaper for me. Together we read the obituaries and select some. Then I tell the nurse what thoughts I would like to include in a letter to the relatives of the one who died, and the nurse types the letter. With the letter, I send the brochure When Someone You Love Dies,* which explains the Bible’s comforting hope of the resurrection. I do this every Sunday afternoon. It makes me happy that I can still share the good news of God’s Kingdom with others.”
Set reasonable and reachable goals. One reason why Helen tries to change the changeable is that it enables her to set and reach goals. This is important for you too. Why? Because setting goals directs your mind to the future, and reaching goals gives you a sense of accomplishment. It may also restore some of your self-confidence. Make sure, though, that the goal you set is specific. For example, you might resolve: ‘I’m going to read one chapter of the Bible today.’ Also set goals that are realistic for you. Since your physical and emotional makeup is different from that of other individuals with long-term illnesses, you may not be able to reach the same goals that they can.—Galatians 6:4.
“No matter how small a goal may seem, reaching it motivates you to do more,” says Lex, living in the Netherlands. More than 20 years ago, at the age of 23, he was in an accident that left him paralyzed. During the numerous physical therapy sessions that followed, he was urged to set goals, like washing his face with a washcloth. It was tiresome to do, but he succeeded. When he realized that he had managed to reach that goal, he set another one—opening and closing a toothpaste tube by himself. Again, he succeeded. “Although it was not easy,” says Lex, “I discovered that I could do more than I thought was possible.”
Indeed, with the support of his wife, Tineke, Lex reached greater goals. For instance, accompanied by Tineke, he now makes house-to-house calls in a wheelchair to share Bible knowledge with others. He also makes weekly visits to encourage a severely disabled man with whom he studies the Bible. “Helping others,” says Lex, “gives me much satisfaction.” As the Bible confirms, “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”—Acts 20:35.
Can you too set goals to help others? Being ill or impaired may help you to be an especially skillful comforter because your problems make you more sensitive to the pain of others.
Stay in touch with others. Medical studies show that having social contacts is good for your health. But the reverse is also true. “The relationship between social isolation and mortality is as . . . strong as the relationship between smoking . . . and mortality,” states one researcher. He adds: “It may be as important to your health to improve your social relationships as it is to stop smoking.” No wonder he concludes that our skills at keeping social relationships “have survival value”!—Proverbs 18:1.
However, as noted in the preceding article, the problem may be that some of your friends have stopped visiting you. For your own good, you need to stem the rising tide of isolation. But how? You might start by inviting your friends to visit you.
Make visiting you a pleasant experience.* You can do so by limiting your discussions about your illness so that your visitors do not grow weary of hearing about it. One chronically ill woman solved this problem by imposing a time limit on conversations with her husband about her illness. “We simply had to contain this,” she says. Indeed, your illness does not need to smother everything else you can share. One visitor, after talking with his bedridden friend about art, history, and his reasons for faith in Jehovah God, said: “He’s much more than his illness. It was great talking with him.”
Maintaining a good sense of humor will also make it pleasant for your friends to stop by. Besides, laughter benefits you personally. “Humor helps you to cope in many situations and with many situations,” says a man with Parkinson’s disease. Indeed, laughter can be good medicine. Notes Proverbs 17:22: “A heart that is joyful does good as a curer.” Even a few minutes of laughter will do you good. Moreover, “unlike some of the other remedies we try, laughter is completely safe, nontoxic, and fun,” notes author Susan Milstrey Wells, who is chronically ill herself. “All we have to lose is a bad mood.”
Find ways to reduce stress. Studies confirm that stress may worsen the physical symptoms of a disease, while stress reduction helps to make them more tolerable. Hence, give yourself a break from time to time. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4) Do not eat, sleep, and breathe your illness. If you are homebound, you may try to lower the pressures of your emotions by listening to quiet music, reading a book, taking a long bath, writing letters or poetry, painting a picture, playing a musical instrument, talking to a trusted friend, or becoming involved in similar activities. Doing so will not provide a permanent solution to your problem, but it may bring you temporary respite.
If you are mobile, take a walk, go shopping, do gardening, take a drive or, if possible, go on vacation. Admittedly, taking a trip may be more complicated because of your illness, but with advance preparation and some improvising, hurdles can be overcome. For instance, Lex and Tineke, mentioned earlier, managed to travel abroad. “At first it was a bit tense,” says Lex, “but we had a great vacation!” Indeed, your illness may be part of your life, but it does not have to take over your life.
Derive strength from faith. True Christians who have successfully coped with serious impairment state that their faith in Jehovah God and also their association with the Christian congregation are sources of constant comfort and strength.* Here are some of their comments about the value of praying, studying the Bible, meditating on the future, and attending Christian meetings at the Kingdom Hall.
● “Encouraging association with congregation members warms my heart.”—Acts 28:15.
The Bible assures us: “Jehovah is good, a stronghold in the day of distress. And he is cognizant of those seeking refuge in him.” (Nahum 1:7) Having a close bond with Jehovah God and associating with the Christian congregation are sources of comfort and strength.—Romans 1:11, 12; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 4:7.
Give Yourself Time
Living successfully with your grave illness or disability is a process that “occurs over time and not overnight,” observes a social worker who helps people to deal with the effects of long-term illness. Give yourself time, advises another expert, for you are learning “an entirely new skill: dealing with a grave illness.” Realize that even with a positive attitude, you may have bad days or weeks when the effects of your illness wear you down. In time, however, you may see progress. That was the case with one woman, who said: “I was so excited when I realized that I had gone an entire day without even thinking of cancer. . . . A while ago, I would never have thought that possible.”
Indeed, once you have lived through your initial fears and have set new goals, you may be surprised at how well you will be able to cope—as the following article illustrates.
Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
The suggestions on how to treat visitors apply, of course, even more so to how you treat your mate, your children, or your caregiver.
Interestingly, numerous medical studies have stated that faith enhances health and well-being. According to Professor Dale Matthews of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, “the faith factor has been demonstrated to have value.”
[Picture on page 7]
Learning about your illness can help you come to terms with it
[Picture on page 8]
With the help of others, Helen prepares encouraging letters
[Picture on page 8]
“It makes me happy to share the good news of God’s Kingdom”
[Pictures on page 9]
“I discovered that although paralyzed, I could do more than I thought possible.”—Lex