By Linda G. Ritchie, Ph.D.
The human lifespan has increased enormously over the past century. Many of us will live into our seventies, eighties, nineties, or longer. The rise in expected longevity brings with it the increased probability that we will suffer from one or more physical diseases during our lifetime. Even without the health we may have formerly enjoyed our lives can continue to be rich and full – although perhaps different.
A chronic illness is one that persists over time without an easily definable beginning, middle and end. While the suffering that accompanies a chronic illness can usually be alleviated to some extent, the illness itself is usually not curable. Chronic illnesses are conditions that we have to learn to live with.
One of the primary experiences of those with chronic illness is the challenge of realizing that their lives have changed, often permanently. Not only do they have to deal with the many changes that the illness will bring to their lifestyle and future plans, but they have to deal with the difficulty the illness presents to their loved ones, friends, and work associates. Other people fail to understand the disease and suddenly treat the sufferer in a different way – often through avoidance or superficial and uncomfortable support. The person with a chronic illness is sometimes seen as failing to contribute his or her fair share in a work setting. The disruption to families can cause severe conflict because it upsets the normal balance in family dynamics.
The task of adapting to a chronic illness can be a major challenge. Typically people diagnosed with a chronic illness will go through several different phases.
Crisis Phase: The most immediate response is to seek physical relief through medical intervention. It will bring up feelings of anxiety about the future and the impact the illness will have on you from now on. Your physical crisis needs to be stabilized and for this you need the help of health care professionals, both for your physical and your emotional needs.
Stabilization Phase: During tis phase you learn to live with the symptoms. You learn to adapt and to focus on restructuring your life. You learn more clearly what your physical abilities are and make the best use of them. You learn to express your needs to those who are there for you.
Reconstruction Phase: This phase involves finally coming to terms with the permanence of your illness. It brings about a heightened sense of self-control and heightened self-esteem. You begin to understand that your illness is not the focus of everything in your life.
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