Medical Issues, Toolkit

Chronic Pain and Illness in Your Twenties and Thirties

I’ve written a few times here about the experience of having multiple sclerosis. Truth be told, as a woman over the age of 50, when getting together with friends in my age range we’ve all got some condition or other. Fibromyalgia, bad knees, arthritis, diabetes. Decades ago we met for coffee to talk about our love lives, careers, college, and next weekend’s ski trip. Nowadays, the topics have shifted to gluten-free diets, Neurontin versus Elavil for chronic pain, and sharing the name of our great new internist. I’m in good company, and even though we are all active, busy, happy professionals with families and friends, physical and emotional challenges creeping into our conversations have certainly become the norm.

If I were in my twenties or even thirties, talking about neuropathic pain or the effects of hormones on moods would be virtually unheard of. Those are the years young adults are generally focused on the building blocks of their lives, present and future – embarking on a career path, marrying, starting a family, buying a home, traveling, and maybe a pub crawl or two, make up the concerns of most people in their early thirties or younger. Add a chronic physical or mental illness into the mix and you may wonder where you fit with your peers.

“I met someone new and she seems great. I am not sure when or how to tell her I have Lupus. I don’t want to scare her away.”
“Everyone’s going skiing. I’m scheduled for chemo that week.”
“My friends all had tequila shots on my birthday. I couldn’t because alcohol won’t mix with my meds.”
“I don’t look sick. I wonder if people think I am faking. I’m tired of explaining it.”
“Will I be able to get married and have kids?”
“No one in my group understands what it is like to be bipolar. Sometimes I can’t pull myself out of bed to hang out with everyone.”

These are just a few genuine scenarios experienced by those I spoke with. They worry about what the future holds, their friends can’t relate, and they may experience sadness when considering possible limitations, especially compared to their friends and family. It’s not pleasant to feel like you are complaining all the time, or saying “no” to plans, or to feel like you have to explain your reality to those who, while they may care deeply, can’t really relate.

Some ways of coping include:

  • Take inventory of what you can do. What are your unique talents, skills, and abilities? It is so easy to focus on deficits, and it may take a little practice to see the ways in which you are doing well.
  • Remember that you are a person, not a condition. A diagnosis is something you have, not something you are, even though there are days it can feel all-encompassing. You may find that others see you differently when they learn of your diagnosis. “Ugh, that’s awful!” and “Oh my gosh, you are so brave!!” are a couple of common reactions and both come from a lack of understanding. What matters most of all is how you see yourself.
  • Find an outlet for your thoughts and feelings. Talk to a trusted friend, keep a journal, write a blog, or talk to a counselor who specializes in chronic conditions and life transitions. Holding it in generally never works, and often makes problems feel bigger than they are. Talk it out to be able to free your energy from the weight of stress and worry. Some normal feelings are fear, sadness, and anger. It’s okay to feel and express your feelings.
  • Take care of yourself. This may sound painfully obvious, but eating right, getting adequate sleep, staying as active (mentally and physically) as you can, and following your doctor’s advice are all ways you can feel better. Among my clients who have a chronic diagnosis of some sort, compliance with the health care plan can feel oppressive and tiresome, but it can help you function at your best level.

We expect to have a few aches and pains when we are over 50. At 25, not so much. If you are a young adult facing the challenges that come with a physical or mental health diagnosis, you still have possibilities for a full life with love, joy, and success. Define yourself outside of your illness, and the rest will follow.

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