Throughout my life, I always remember struggling to keep up with those around me. As a teenager, I recall constantly feeling fatigued and tired, even as I was performing in highly competitive athletics. I always felt like something wasn’t right, but I could never pinpoint exactly what was going on with me. When I was twenty-three, I was diagnosed with Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Upon my diagnosis, I remember feeling relief. Finally, there was proof that I wasn’t just imagining my symptoms. I felt like I was losing my mind or simply ‘weak’ because I was struggling so much just to simply function day by day. With the help of my doctors and the right medicine, I have been able to keep my symptoms pretty well under control. However, I also learned to set boundaries and guidelines for myself in order to truly stay healthy. If there is anything I have learned throughout this process, it would be the following:
Know your limits
One of the most significant ways I manage having a chronic illness is that I plan out my week in advance. That way, I know exactly what I have going on in the upcoming week. If I know that a certain day is going to be particularly long and draining, I try to incorporate rest periods in the evening or the following day. I have learned that my body only has so much energy to give. I must prioritize scheduling to make sure I have enough energy to do what is necessary first and foremost (i.e. work, taking care of kids, etc.). If I know the limitations within my schedule, then I am not ‘stretching myself out too thin’ and then paying for it later with exhaustion or a flare-up.
Learn that it is okay to say NO
This builds on knowing your limits. Many times throughout my past, I would commit to something, ‘overdo it’ beforehand and then have to cancel on people last minute. I have learned that one, there is nothing wrong with saying “no,” and two, it is best for me to tell people I will try to make it rather than completely commit. Bailing at the last minute made me seem unreliable and untrustworthy. People were much more understanding when I was open and honest upfront. It allowed me the freedom to not have to push myself into doing something I know I should not physically do.
Eat healthily and exercise
This is absolutely my biggest challenge when dealing with a chronic illness. How are you supposed to exercise when you are constantly tired? Also, when I don’t exercise, I find it more challenging to ‘eat right.’ The two things that have helped me improve my diet and exercise most are consistency and setting realistic limits.
Growing up, I was a highly competitive athlete. I could go out and run 4-5 miles at a time without thinking twice. Things really began to change once I entered college and quit doing sports. My health began to decline. Running just one mile became challenging. It was frustrating because I couldn’t understand why I could no longer do what was once so easy. I learned that I have to change my expectations for myself.
If I plan to work out, I typically set a 20 minute time frame because I know this is all my body can handle – sometimes less depending on my fatigue level. I have found that consistency works best for me. To truly feel good, I have to work out at least three to four times a week, even if it is just for 10 to 15 minutes. The more consistently I workout, the more conscious I am of what I am putting in my body. When I lay around all the time because I am tired, I begin to have cravings and am much more likely to give into them. The more active I am, the less time I spend thinking about food, and the easier it is for me to eat healthier options.
Make time for you
Lastly, I recommend listening to your body and getting enough rest. Scheduling some much needed “me time” is crucial when dealing with a chronic illness. Read a book, get a massage, or take a little nap. Do things that give you a break and help rejuvenate you for the week. By taking some time for yourself, you will have more energy to be of service to others.
I have learned that I cannot compare myself to others. I have to accept that I have an illness that makes it difficult for me to do the same amount of things that other people my age are able to do, and that is okay. If I take care of myself properly, and be kind and encouraging towards my body, then I am able to be the best version of me I possibly can be.