They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so recently I decided to draw my own illness picture.
My first thought after I viewed my completed picture? How I love Kerri from the blog Six Until Me when she says, "Diabetes doesn't define me, but it helps to explain me."
I am not my chronic illnesses. They are not who I am. But I can see the influence they have had on my life for the last 23 years, from my college major, career choice, work history and periods of disability to how I view the world, roll with the punches and want to help other people living with chronic illness too.
My second thought was another quote: she who has all the toys wins. Only it was a more dark version, something along the lines of: she who has all the chronic illnesses... I got stuck trying to figure out what the ... should be, since so far my chronic illnesses haven't killed me, just caused me a lot of problems.
Although if I let myself wax philosophical for a moment, I could probably come up with a bunch of ways chronic illness has spurred my personal growth.
But that got cut short when the real emotional impact of my picture started to hit me.
First I connected with sadness, grief and loss that hangs on the borders, out of view, around my picture. Then I felt a sense of amazement when I considered all the things I have been able to accomplish in spite of all these illnesses on my plate. Finally, as I started cataloging in my mind all the things my health care team and I are doing to manage many of the illnesses that make up my picture, I felt a renewed sense of hope that maybe, one day, some could be erased or shrunk to a more manageable size.
After all, I beat the blood cancer leukemia 23 years ago despite only having a 33% chance of survival after my diagnosis.
With so many illnesses to deal with, there has to be some smart researcher or healthcare provider out there who is going to discover a life-changing treatment for at least one of my chronic conditions.
Then I thought about all my chronic friends, the ones that I have made because our chronic illnesses have brought us together. Like me, many of them deal with multiple health challenges too. Now I am sure some of them will look at my picture and say to themselves, "Boy, am I glad I'm not her!" while others will say, "Heck, that's nothing compared to what I'm dealing with."
Whatever your reaction to my picture, that's okay with me because it isn't about comparing myself to others. It's about a new way of telling my story that I am exploring. Overall, I am both surprised and humbled by the impact my illness picture is having on me. I also feel strongly that it is something I need to share with my healthcare providers, to help them see my illnesses and the connections between them in a whole new way. That said, there are probably more lines that need to be drawn between the different illnesses, but if I included all of those lines I'm afraid my picture would become a huge, jumbled mess!
I also wonder if sharing this picture with my family and friends would help them gain a new perspective and a new understanding about my health and resulting "chronic" lifestyle.
I think in many ways I have only begun to scratch the surface. I think this picture may hold more insights and lessons for me. So I am affixing it to the back of the door to my armoire--all I have to do is open the door whenever I want to view it and ponder it some more.
If you are inspired by my example, let me suggest that you undertake this project only when you feel you are in a good place with your chronic illnesses. I admit I underestimated the impact viewing my picture would have on me. I think that if I had been in a place where I was struggling with my illness self-management I've might not have been able to manage the strong feelings evoked by this activity.
The immediate benefit to completing my picture has been feeling stronger and more confident about my ability to take on my chronic illnesses, manage their symptoms and not let them define who I am. I mean, look at my plate! I am dealing with all these health issues and living my best life despite them.
Like all my chronic friends, I am quite an extraordinary person.
Can you imagine what I would be able to do if I could cross a few of these challenges off my list?