Three Things Having a Chronic Illness Teaches You

I think many of us today live with chronic illnesses.  Even among younger populations, chronic illnesses impact the way we think, the way we behave, and our overall life decisions.  I’ve recently connected with my grandmother in China who I have been unable to visit since 2019.  It’s been three years since I have seen her, and she lives with a debilitating condition: chronic kidney disease.  As someone in the healthcare space, I can attest to the multi-faceted way this disease impacts us.  She recently started on dialysis, a process to filter your body of toxins when your kidneys fail to work.  Research confirms that 1 in 3 people on dialysis have depression.  Her lifestyle is affected by the number of times a week she must visit a hospital.  She spends about 12 hours of her week in the hospital hooked up to a dialysis machine.

Since grandma has never disappointed in the life advice I’ve gotten from her, I asked her a few things about what having a chronic illness and what important insights she’s gained.  The chances are that a majority of people today will have a chronic illness at some point in their lives.

Here’s what she learned:

  1. You are the only one who can control how you react

Every day, there’s a lot of negativity that might come our way.  It might be in the form of a spat with a coworker, a friend that disappointed us or even the weather might feel “against us”.  However, these are only external forces, and while that may impact how we feel, we ourselves are responsible for our outlook on the situation.  For some with chronic illnesses, they might feel as if the “world is against them” or “why me”.  It’s a difficult pill to swallow since chronic illnesses are life changing.  However, we can choose to view them in a different light.  Choose to focus on what you can control instead of those parts you can’t.  It’s about shifting the locus of control to yourself rather than others or the larger environment.  My grandma says she chooses to go to dialysis because it means she might be able to see her grandchildren after China opens up for travel again.

  1. Having a full wardrobe didn’t make me happier. I realized that it was quite meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

    Materialism doesn’t help you live a day longer

Last time, I wrote an article on materialism and how to embrace our lives more fully without it.  Having a chronic illness makes many people realize that an extra lipstick or extra dress doesn’t help them live a better life.  My grandma believed in Buddhist philosophy, where wealth should be used for the betterment of one’s self and others.  We can’t take our items with us when we go so why become so attached to them?

  1. Do what makes you happy

Life is short so go and do what makes you happy.  Ask yourself what would you regret not trying on your deathbed?  It is certainly a morbid topic but it make you realize you can, in fact, have that experience and conquer your fears.  For some of my patients it meant skydiving or going to a Michelin star restaurant.  For my grandma it meant visiting a foreign country.

Spending time with family is what my grandma taught me was most important and prioritizing your time and energy with loved ones should be on my agenda. This is the whole family congregating before Covid-19 pandemic to make homemade dumplings.