(Names and details have been changed to protect privacy)
Chronic illness can mean that we have to grow and change in ways we couldn’t have expected. In my experience, the ability to communicate effectively is fundamental to being able to thrive, not just survive, when living with illness.
One reason is that most symptoms from illness are invisible. Other people have no idea what you’re experiencing unless you tell them. And even when some effects are visible, others can’t understand how this impacts you unless you tell them. This means that the burden is on you to describe your subjective experience of debilitating symptoms that impact your life.
Jim lives with crohn’s disease. The disease has been getting worse over the past ten years and he’s working at an increasingly uneven pace. Although he has always done well at his job (a senior accountant in a Big 10 Firm), his colleagues and supervisor frequently express frustration about what’s not getting done or getting done late.
Jim hasn’t told anyone at work that he lives with this disease. He doesn’t see why he should have to since it’s nobody’s business. But he’s fed up that colleagues are annoyed by his absences or missed deadlines as he’s struggling to manage difficult and painful symptoms. He’s thought about leaving his job and taking advantage of his private disability policy but it won’t be enough for his family to live on. He also thinks he’d be bored and unhappy if he doesn’t work.
Jim describes himself as a private person who doesn’t talk easily about his feelings or his needs. “I’ve always been a man of few words and it’s never been a problem before,” he told me. Clearly this isn’t working for him now.
Jim realizes this. Chronic illness has created problems for him that require him to stretch his comfort zone and develop new skills. He sees that he has to start by developing his capacity to talk about his situation sufficiently so he can continue to work.
Living with chronic illness can mean that you have to grow and change in ways you wouldn’t have chosen.