When life throws you a curve: How to cope after a life-changing diagnosis

Life is unpredictable. It is filled with happiness and adventures, but it can also throw you a curve ball now and then.In 2006, I was a happy, busy mother, involved in my children's activities and working as a decorating consultant from home.

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  • Life is unpredictable. It is filled with happiness and adventures, but it can also throw you a curve ball now and then.

  • In 2006, I was a happy, busy mother, involved in my children's activities and working as a decorating consultant from home. Then in the fall, I started to feel run down. I began to experience headaches daily, including migraines that would last up to a week. I developed a sore throat that would not go away, and I felt achy all the time. I also had a hard time concentrating and became more and more forgetful.

  • When I blanked out for a moment while driving on the freeway, I knew it was time to see my doctor. It took a battery of tests and innumerable visits to various doctors, but I eventually received a diagnosis: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

  • By that time, my health had deteriorated so much that I found myself housebound and able to function at only 20 percent of my previous activity level. Needless to say, my lifestyle had changed dramatically. During that time, I learned a lot about coping with such a life-changing diagnosis.

  • Here are some suggestions that I've found helpful.

  • Gather information

  • Information is power. It can give you an idea what to expect from your illness and what treatments you might choose to pursue. Knowledge turns fear into determination.

  • Let yourself grieve

  • You are experiencing many losses that are similar to death: the death of your old life, the death of some friendships, the death of some of your dreams. It is important that you allow yourself to experience the myriad of emotions that naturally come up: anger, sadness, frustration, helplessness.

  • Build your support system

  • There's nothing like a health crisis to show you who your true friends are. Unfortunately, there are probably people in your social circle who enjoy your company on a superficial level, but are not emotionally equipped to deal with such a dramatic change. Forgive them and let them go. Strengthen your relationships with those who are willing to stand by you.

  • If you do not feel like you have a big enough support system, take a look online. My husband and children have always been supportive of me and my illness, but it is a mysterious disease and most of my friends and extended family didn't understand it. Through blogs and forums online, I was able to connect with others who have had CFS for a long time. They answered my questions and gave suggestions for coping with my illness. It helped to know that I wasn't alone.

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  • Ask for help

  • This can be particularly hard to do if you have always been the one to help others. It is extremely humbling to ask someone to do something for you that you used to do with ease. Allow your friend to bring dinner for your family, mop your floor, run errands for you or pick up something at the store. Don't worry about inconveniencing them; small acts of kindness bring happiness to both the giver and the receiver.

  • Cultivate a positive attitude

  • When you face a significant health challenge, you have two options: become increasingly bitter, or accept your situation and make the best of it. Karen Jean Gaskell, from LiveStrong.com has noted that studies show that an optimistic attitude has a positive impact on your health. It can help you strengthen your immune system, reduce stress, avoid depression, strengthen your heart, and help you live longer. All of these characteristics will help you to cope with your illness better.

  • Embrace the small joys of life

  • This goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude. Your mind may be weighed down with worry right now. It may be difficult to notice joy, but it is there if you look for it. Go outside to enjoy the sunshine. Take a walk and enjoy the flowers and trees. Listen to your favorite music or the giggles of your children. Watch a comedy with your spouse.

  • Rebuild your life around your limitations

  • There may be many activities from your pre-illness life that you are unable to do. This can leave a void in your life. Seize the opportunity to reinvent yourself. I had always wanted to be a writer, but I had been too busy to pursue it. CFS robbed me of the busyness of my life, but it gave me the opportunity to go after my dream. Take an inventory of your passions and let them guide you in creating a life that you love.

  • Nurture your faith

  • In the article, “Faith and Health,”Science Daily has noted that there is a link between religious involvement and better health. In particular, prayer, meditation and other religious activities may help you better cope with stressful events.

  • It is tempting to ask, “Why me?” It is easy to get angry with God and wonder why He would give you this trial. Do not think that He is punishing you. Nothing can be further from the truth. Suffering is a natural part of the human condition, and there are many things that can be learned from it. Strength, courage, humility and compassion are just a few qualities that we develop as we endure hardships. It helps me to picture God as an artist, and He is using this illness to etch beauty and grace into His masterpiece.

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  • A life-changing illness can be devastating, but you can create a life that you love from the ashes. Just remember to be gentle and patient with yourself through the process.

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Shelli Howells is a creative fiction writer, and a mother of six.

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