One of my favorite children’s books is What Do You Do with a Problem, by Kobi Yamada. In it, the author introduces us to the main character, who has a problem. He paints a picture of what it feels like to have a problem. The fear, the overwhelm, wanting to run and hide, and the desire to ignore it. The problem seems to grow until the main character discovers that his problem, in reality, holds something beautiful inside. An opportunity. I loved the book even more after my autoimmune disease diagnosis. I often like to stop and ask myself, “What do you do with an autoimmune disease?”
During my years of health struggles, I felt fear and overwhelm. I spent years running and hiding from my unexplainable symptoms. I tried to ignore my gradual physical decline, until I no longer could. I hit rock bottom, and found myself in a place where I could not function normally any longer. After my diagnosis of autoimmune disease, I began to discover my “problem” actually held something beautiful inside. Not just one opportunity, but many. I began to understand what to do with an autoimmune disease.
Discovering the Opportunities
I imagine every autoimmune disease holds both similar opportunities and diverse opportunities. Just as no two autoimmune diseases manifest themselves exactly the same way, I imagine that the corresponding opportunities also manifest themselves in different ways.
One mental exercise I like to do to discover what to do with an autoimmune disease is this. Sit back and think of my situation from an outside perspective. If I am an outsider, looking in on my circumstances, what do I see?
What physical struggles do I see?
Observing the physical struggles that come with living with autoimmune disease. For me, the first part of discovering what opportunities autoimmune disease holds was acknowledging and observing what my struggles were. The struggles I experienced when I was first diagnosed, differ from the struggles I experience now, a year after diagnosis. The struggles I experience now are different than the struggles I will experience five years from now. And so on.
Some of the trials I struggled with upon diagnosis include:
- Getting out of bed in the morning
- Sleeping through the night
- Physical symptoms: daily fevers, muscle pain, joint pain, brain fog, fatigue, cold intolerance, and more.
- Physically taking care of myself and my family.
- Overseeing the homeschooling of my kids.
- Finding the time and energy to do my accounting work.
- Learning how to cook cleanly
- Learning how to eat cleanly
- Battling sugar addiction and emotional eating
What emotional struggles do I see?
Likewise, I observed the emotional struggles that come with living with autoimmune disease. Again, the struggles I experienced after diagnosis are different from the struggles I experience now.
Some of the emotional trials I struggled with upon diagnosis include:
What opportunities are there?
Recognizing and understanding the physical and emotional struggles I see, I can now start to identify opportunities. After all, every “problem” holds something beautiful, an “opportunity.” I can go down my list of physical and emotional struggles and start to identify opportunities.
For example, one of my physical trials was sugar addiction and emotional eating. The corresponding opportunity? To overcome my sugar addiction and learn to eat for nutrition and healing, rather than using it as an emotional crutch. Pretty amazing opportunity!
What can I learn?
After recognizing a struggle, then identifying a corresponding solution, I then would take action. An opportunity is simply an opportunity. I had to put on my overalls and do the hard work.
In the example I used above, one of my opportunities was to overcome sugar addiction and learn to eat for nutrition rather than as an emotional bandage. How did I do that? First, I stopped eating sugar. It was difficult. When I started wondering, “how can I live like this,” I learned about autoimmune disease and why I feel better when I do not eat sugar. I learned the science behind sugar consumption and why I felt like I needed it every day. I learned taste buds can change if I allow them time to. Armed with this knowledge, I was able to overcome sugar.
I have not eaten sugar filled desserts for almost a year with the exception of natural sugars found in fruit and limited honey and coconut sugar occasionally. I feel happier than ever, fulfilled, and do not miss it at all.
How can I grow?
Next, what opportunities are there for growth? Also in the example I used above, one of my opportunities was to learn to eat for nutrition rather than as an emotional bandage. In other words, the way I ate was tied to my emotional state.
Stressed? I overate foods that hurt my health. Sad? I ate my favorite junk foods to help me feel better. Celebrating? I ate unhealthy foods as a reward. Happy? I ate unhealthy food to make me happier. There was a pattern that usually included me eating foods that hurt my health, that I was an expert justifying based on any emotion I was feeling.
So, huge opportunity for growth here! I knew if I could grow, and heal emotionally, I could overcome my emotional eating. This was a growing process that I had started prior to my diagnosis, that I was able to put the finishing touches on.
The process for me included allowing myself to feel negative emotions, acknowledging them, and working through them. Not as easy as it may sound. The “working through them” included me overcoming fear, and working with a professional to address past emotional trauma. I have to say it was 100% worth it!
How can I use my autoimmune disease to make me a better person?
Still looking from an outside perspective, I determine if it is possible to allow my autoimmune disease to make me into a better version of myself. The answer? A resounding YES!
I then committed to the process. I choose to continue working through my list of struggles, and taking advantage of the corresponding opportunities. I take my time, and take breaks as needed.
I reassess my struggles, the corresponding opportunities, and my victories regularly. I understand the importance of diligence, learning, hard work, grace, forgiveness, and love.
Allowing for Grace
The process of learning and growth is not all rainbows and butterflies. Failure is part of the process. I’ve learned that offering myself grace and forgiveness is an essential part of this journey.
In the example I gave of cutting out sugar, it took time. I had been trying and failing for years. I felt ashamed of my weakness for years. I kept trying though, and eventually I overcame it! Not only is my physical health better for it, my emotional health is too.
So please don’t read this and think, “she must have some super power for working through these things. Great for her, but I can’t do it.” Rubbish! The only super power I used is sacrifice and hard work. The good news is both are available to everyone!
What emotion am I inspired to feel?
Still looking from the outside in on my life with autoimmune disease, what emotions am I inspired to feel? What emotions do I want to be inspired to feel?
I am writing my own story, but I am doing it every day, and my children have a front row seat. What kind of example do I want to set for them? What do I want to show them they can do in spite of challenges? What do I want them to feel?
I want to set an example of self-love, perseverance, resilience, hope, and faith. I want to show my children through my example that they can find opportunities amidst heart break and broken dreams. I want to show them they can find new dreams. I want them to feel inspired, hopeful, motivated, and courageous. I want to show them they are not victims to their biggest trials. I want them to know that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.
As I continue to learn to live with autoimmune disease, I find and overcome new struggles. With each new struggle, comes both heavy emotion and something beautiful – a new opportunity. I allow myself to feel the heavy emotion, then I choose to release it and make way for the beautiful opportunity.
I am sending you love and support as you face the daily realities of living with autoimmune disease. You are not alone. I would love to hear what struggles and opportunities you encounter with your autoimmune disease. I welcome comments here, and love to connect with my readers on social media. You can find me on Instagram almost daily @wellnessunraveled.