When you are first diagnosed with a chronic illness it seems as though you are constantly having to give things up. Good things. Fun things. Chronic illnesses don’t tend to be a death sentence but they often appear to be a boredom sentence. It can take years of living with the disease to work out that you don’t need to live like a monk after all and I have often wished that doctors would try harder to get this message across.
For instance, when I was at university I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (the first of my chronic ailments). My GP told me to give up alcohol (as a hard partying, hard drinking student, that was bad enough), plus coffee, spicy food, tomato skin and dairy. Just like that. He did say there might be other irritants but didn’t advise how to identify them. Now maybe I was just unlucky. I’m sure other doctors out there have the sense to advise a detox diet followed by reintroducing possible irritants one at a time. I worked it out for myself, but with no advice to follow I did rather a bad job of it. I didn’t keep a food diary, didn’t try to add small amounts of foods and then larger amounts. I just cut things out and then started eating them again and guessed at whether my IBS pains were being caused by a food item or the stress of university.
After many years of trial and error I have now worked out that I didn’t need to cut anything out entirely, I just need to limit my intake of certain things, particularly stress. And the most effective change to my life that reduced stress? Being diagnosed with lupus. Odd how life works, huh?
Of course, lupus brought its own limitations on fun. Never having any energy means rarely doing anything on a week night. Near-constant headaches, joint pains and brain fog mean I often feel antisocial and struggle to make conversation with people I don’t know very well. Avoiding the sun in summer puts me in the opposite mindset of everyone else. I often have to cancel plans, which close friends and family accept (and I love them for that) but it makes it hard to go to gigs or the theatre, stuff that needs to be booked months in advance.
So when I was first ill with lupus, I stopped doing everything, near enough. I became good friends with the TV and the DVD collection. I took everything more slowly, moving house so that I could walk to work and the doctor and the train station. I was bored a lot of the time, but I wasn’t stressed.
Until, that is, I got fed up with being bored. I hadn’t expected to ever be one of those people whose life is work, TV, bed, but that’s who I’d become. I didn’t go out like I’d used to, didn’t take any of the evening classes I’d planned to, even gave up writing, my favourite hobby since I was six years old. Something had to give.
My first saving grace was photography, as I’ve talked about here before. I’d had a camera almost my whole life but it wasn’t until Tim bought us a good digital camera that I really discovered the creative possibilities and found that I wanted to learn all about F numbers and exposure settings and all sorts of things. Here was a hobby that I could do as much or as little of as my diseases allowed me to. It got me out of the house and going for walks. It gave me something to talk to new people about, when the brain fog allowed.
My second saviour? Really good food. I have always loved my food, even if as a vegetarian with IBS I seem like a horribly picky eater. But I discovered that I didn’t mind cutting back on foods that I love, like cheese and ice cream, if I found the absolute best form of that food. I mean, no-one gorges themselves on white truffles or caviar; you’re meant to have very small amounts of it and savour it for days afterwards. That’s how I treat coffee, or chocolate, or alcohol (most of the time). I spread these pleasures out over my week, so it doesn’t feel as though I’m missing out at all.
I’m sure there are people who would look at my life and call it dull. I don’t get drunk (often), or stay up late, or join the latest extracurricular fad. And I do get frustrated with it all sometimes, but I have learned to take life slowly and appreciate the small things and I suspect that makes me happier with my lot than many a “healthy” person out there.