For the past month, I've been struggling with a not-so-fun health issue. I've never in my life had any issues with my health (other than the average cold) so it's been an eye-opening experience to wake up day after day not feeling like myself and dealing with constant pain. And, to be completely honest, it's been very difficult to stay positive. Not feeling good sucks, and when it starts impacting your whole life — where you can go, what you can do, how much work you can accomplish in a day — it goes from unpleasant to frustrating to depressing real fast.
The best way to handle this unpleasantness would be to do my best to stay positive and present. The more I focus on how lucky I am (the issue I have, in the grand scheme of life, is relatively minor), the easier it becomes to cope with the situation. And the more I strive to stay in the moment (rather than dwelling on how long I've felt this way or wondering how much longer until I'm well again), the easier it becomes to avoid the downward spiral of self-pity.
Of course this is much easier said than done.
For the first couple of weeks, I was optimistic. "I can get through this!" I thought. "This really isn't that bad," I told myself. But as the days multiplied, it grew more and more difficult to be cheerful. Every day I woke with hope and every day I still wasn't better. I was frustrated, upset, and physically in pain. Online I read about others who recovered quickly and I envied them. "Why wasn't I better?" I wondered. "Why was it taking so long for me to feel well again?"
I got my answer last week when, at the doctor's office, it was discovered that my issue was actually something more serious. Minor surgery would be needed as soon as possible with a real surgery needed soon after. I scheduled the first surgery for the following morning. On one hand, I was relived that my pain had been validated. I wasn't being a complainer or a baby — this pain was legit. But, on the other hand, I was terrified. Even though the procedure was routine and, in the eyes of the medical world, probably nothing to even blink an eye at, I'd never before had any sort of medical procedure.
As I left the doctor's office blinking back tears and telling myself to be brave, I reminded myself that this was the perfect opportunity to practice what I preach. Here I was, coping with a difficult situation and faced with an upcoming procedure that made me feel downright terrified. If there were a time to be positively present, it was right now.
And so I sat down at my computer and asked myself, "What would I tell someone else in this situation? What advice would I offer to someone who has been struggling for awhile and now has to confront a scary situation? How would I suggest finding the sunshine when you're under the weather?" What I came up with was this...
1. PUT YOUR HEALTH FIRST.
When you're not used to worrying about your health, it can be difficult to make it a priority. For the weeks I was sick, I had to spend a lot of time taking care of myself and it was tough. I felt like my whole day revolved around doing all the things the doctor advised me to do, and that left little time for working — let alone socializing! But as the days passed, I quickly learned how important it is to put your health first. Whatever the doctor says, do it. And listening to your body is key, too. When I first started feeling bad, I tried to ignore it, pushing my body passed its limits. I don't know if this made things worse or not, but I do know that I felt a lot better on the days I put my health first. Yes, it was hard to cancel appointments and postpone deadlines (two things I try never to do at work), but I kept reminding myself, "This is the only body you have. You have to take care of it. It has to come first."
2. GIVE YOURSELF A LITTLE TREAT.
When you're feeling crappy (emotionally or physically or both), a little treat can go a long way. On the days I was feeling particularly bad, I tried to indulge a little in things that made me happy. Some of the things I treated myself to: I picked up my favorite dessert at the market. I spent a few hours watching a beloved Disney film. I happily obliged when my mom offered to treat me to some new books. I slept in on a weekday. I ordered in pizza instead of making it. I bought a fun new photo editing app to play with. Each of these acts was small, but they gave my mood a little boost when I was feeling low. Of course a lasting sense of happiness has to come from within, but when you're struggling to feel well, a little external mood-booster never hurts.
3. FIND A GOOD DISTRACTION.
When it comes to dealing with difficulty, I'm not a fan of sweeping things under the rug, but when you're having a tough time physically and you've done all you can to try to make yourself feel well but you still feel terrible, it can be helpful to find a good distraction. It could be anything — a new book, a favorite funny film, a friend stopping by — so long as it takes you away from your pain for a little bit and gives you a positive feeling. One of the best distractions I had when I wasn't feeling well was a friend coming over and listening to podcasts with me. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it made me forget about being in pain for awhile and inspired me to think and talk about things other than how bad I was feeling.
4. KEEP THINKING OPTIMISTICALLY.
Our thoughts are so powerful. As tempting as it was for me to think, "I'm never going to get better," every time I had a thought like this, I reminded myself just how powerful my thoughts were. Instead I told myself, "I will get better. Maybe not today, but soon I will be back to my old self." I'm not going to lie — at times it was frustrating to repeat this mantra and continually wake up feeling bad, but I do think there's something to be said about optimistic thinking when it comes to health. In fact, studies have shown that positive thinking can improve recovery times post-surgery, and some people even claim that thinking positively helped cure serious illnesses. Whether or not positive thinking actually does make you well or not, it certainly doesn't hurt and, at the very least, it improves your mental state!
5. COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS.
Yes, I felt terrible at times and my mental state was far from ideal, but when I started thinking about all of the other health conditions in the world (and all of the other places in the world where good medical treatment isn't available), I started to feel incredibly lucky. Here was, suffering from something relatively minor and with the means to have it taken care of by an award-winning doctor in one of the best surgery centers in the world. All things considered, I was pretty darn lucky. Focusing on this made it much easier to cope when I was feeling extra bad. Every time I was in pain or feeling frustrated by my situation, I reminded myself how lucky I was and my mood instantly brightened.
6. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN DO.
My condition made what I could do very limited, which was frustrating. I love being productive and laying on the couch all day (fun as that sounds!) gets really old, no matter how much you love reading or the Internet. I found myself wanting to cry sometimes in frustration because I didn't feel as if I could do much of anything for weeks and weeks and weeks. But at some point I realized I had to snap out of that mindset. Yes, I was limited in what I could do, but there were still things I could manage and it was time to take advantage of them. I could do lots of reading. I could still think of ideas and do some writing. I could research things on my phone while I was laying down. I could watch films I'd been wanting to catch up on. I couldn't do all the things I wanted to do, but focusing on what I could do make it easier to feel as if I was making progress (even while resting!).
7. SPEND TIME WITH OTHER PEOPLE.
When you're not feeling well, it's tempting to hole yourself up at home and stay there until you feel better. When you have a common cold, this works well (also, it's kind of necessary so you don't spread germs to others!), but when you're unwell for weeks at a time, this plan doesn't work so well. It only makes you feel more frustrated, lonely, and unhappy with your current state. If possible, get out of the house. (I forced myself to do this even when it was physically tough to do so.) If that's not an option, invite people over or chat with friends on the phone. As an introvert, social interaction isn't my go-to cure, but it really does help to spend time with others. It gets you out of your own head and provides a welcome distraction from focusing on physical pain.
After this experience, I've learned just how important health is, and I've also begun to feel a much deeper sense of compassion for people in general. Now that I've been out and about in the world while feeling miserable, I've become more aware of the fact that you just never know what someone else is going through. Now when I encounter people who are rude or in a rush, I have to wonder if they're in some sort of pain. You can't always see the pain others are experiencing and, now knowing what it's like to have to carry on day after day while not feeling well, my eyes are opened to the possibility that others might be struggling too.