Forget Picture Perfect: How Photography is Teaching Me Perspective on Grief, Stress & Illness

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been coping with some health issues that, well, I’m not ready put pen to paper and write about yet. It’s reminded me that grief over illness loss comes in waves, and isn’t limited to the onset of a condition. Body breakdowns fluctuate over the course of an illness. And limitations affect you differently at different stages of your life. In my 20s it was career and in my 30s it’s been more about family.

I’ve been trying to find those small, good moments and really appreciating them, whether they’re beautiful, or joyful, or hilarious, or super interesting. Not perfect moments. Waiting for those would be like waiting for pigs to fly. I’ve noticed that when something good is happening, I worry that it will be hijacked by…pain, fatigue, stress, GI issues (etc.,etc.,etc.) I’m constantly vigilant, waiting for another flare-up to make me cancel my plans or a painsomnia night to make me scrap my daily to-dos. Those may not sound like very serious problems to someone without a chronic illness. But never being able to accomplish anything makes you doubt your self-worth, especially in our productivity oriented culture. Disappointing the people you care about most threatens your greatest vulnerability, which is losing your community– losing love.

But hyper-focusing on what is bad won’t protect me from a flare or another illness-related loss. But it might prevent me from truly enjoying what is good, like getting a big hug from my husband when he comes home from work, or seeing a butterfly landing on a purple coneflower inches away from me.

I was missing out on those things because my mind was always probing each situation for how it could go wrong. Of course my brain was only trying to protect me, but it wasn’t making me any happier…or safer. I started photographing flowers on my daily walks as a way to stay mindfully present in the moment. (A very literal interpretation of the proverb to ‘stop and smell the roses’! Sorry, couldn’t resist). Each blossom feels like one counter-weight against whatever is bad or negative that day.

Once I started really looking I saw an abundance of opportunities to appreciate simple pleasures. And trust me, I’m still hurting over my losses. This is not me preaching that ‘thinking positive’ will make life all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, I started seeing a therapist earlier in the summer because I wasn’t coping well with recent losses. It felt like my illness were determined to take away every dream I’d ever had for myself. Not just ‘felt like’- my illnesses have taken away the possibility of fulfilling my old dreams. That is still heartbreaking.

But it doesn’t mean that nature isn’t still beautiful. It is. Sharing love still feels so good. Eating a great meal or laughing till I cry still makes my day. And discounting those moments because they aren’t perfect or are side by side with sad or difficult moments just gives more power to my illness, and just allows it to rob me of more of my life. But I won’t let that happen anymore.

Meditation has taught me how to concentrate on one thing, like breathing, while distractions go on around me, like sounds or random thoughts arising. Learning how to gain control over what I pay attention to has been life changing. Like a spotlight, I’m gradually getting better at focusing on good moments and putting them center-stage, while leaving the bad, like pain or worry, in the wings. It’s a skill, not a a one-time epiphany.

Photographing flowers has helped me keep perspective on my illness-related, by keeping the good as well as the bad in the frame. My therapist explained that being on a hair-trigger, ready to activate the fight-or-flight stress response adrenaline rush, or alternately, shut-down and numb-out (to horribly butcher several metaphors), is the natural byproduct of trauma. Chronic illness is traumatic. So finding ways of lowering the threshold for activating the stress response is really important for managing the mental health side of illness.

Natural beauty is a powerful healing force for me. I hope these pictures offered a moment to smile about today for you, too.

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Acceptance, Grief & Chronic Illness: The Top 4 Ways I Learned to Cope After my Diagnosis

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness:THE TOP 4 WAYS I LEARNED TO COPE AFTER MY DIAGNOSISYou probably vividly remember that moment when you sat in a doctor’s office and were told that the explanation for all your confusing symptoms was summed up in a word: fibromyalgia. For some of you, this diagnosis was the first chronic condition you were diagnosed with. For others, it was the second. And for those who had already been diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, this one was just another to add to the collection. The reality is that fibromyalgia is one of ten conditions the National Institutes of Health recently labelled Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions (COPCs ).[1] These include chronic migraine and headache, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, IBS, low back pain, endometriosis, TMJ disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome,  In addition, fibromyalgia is commonly diagnosed alongside autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.[2]  Finally, anxiety and depression are much more likely to be co-morbid (found simultaneously) in people living with fibromyalgia.[3]  Many fibromyalgia patients will have the déjà-vu experience of sitting in a doctor’s office and being diagnosed with yet another chronic illness.

I recently relived that experience myself. I sat in my OB-GYN’s office and was told that a recent laparoscopy confirmed that I have endometriosis alongside my fibromyalgia. I told myself that after years of dealing with chronic pain, this was no big deal – same problem, different location. All I needed to do was learn what my treatment options were and then go home and use the self-care skills I have developed over the years to manage my pain. A few days later, while I was examining my incision scars, I broke down in tears. “Get a grip,” I told myself, “this is nothing new“. But as the pelvic pain returned, despite the laparoscopy, and I confronted the reality of dealing with another hard-to-manage chronic illness,  I had to acknowledge my feelings of anger and sadness over this new diagnosis. Intellectually I know that being diagnosed with endometriosis will not change my life as dramatically as my fibromyalgia diagnosis did. I’ve already had to leave my career because of my disabling fibro symptoms. Instead, I stay at home pursuing hobbies, like writing and calligraphy, while I look after my health.

So I wondered, why is this second diagnosis affecting me so much?  To answer this question, I needed to remember what I experienced after my first diagnosis.  As anyone who has had a significant diagnosis knows, you go through a period of grieving afterwards. Grief is the “primary emotional process of reacting to… loss” (Absenger, 2015).[4]  The stages of grief after a diagnosis include: numbness-disbelief, separation distress, depression-mourning, and recovery.[5] While there are similarities to the stages of grief that people generally experience after any loss, the grieving process for people diagnosed with a chronic illness has unique characteristics.  In an article for social workers helping clients with chronic illness, Kate Jackson (2014) explains the difference:

Most often, grief is a reaction to a single, time-limited event… Grief associated with chronic illness, however, is more complex for many individuals.  For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses.

The scope of losses due to chronic illness are broad and complex, and they can change during the course of an illness.  The loss of health and ability can, in turn, cause losses in a person’s career, social life, sexual function, body image, relationships, parenting ability  and daily functioning, among other areas.  Most fundamentally, these secondary losses caused by chronic illness can fracture self-identity and diminish self-esteem.  The fact that many people with chronic illness feel that their experiences are invalidated by stigma and disbelief can further their sense of isolation.

The concept of infinite losses helped me to understand why a second diagnosis brought up so many difficult emotions. I have had to acknowledge that the grieving process over one, or multiple, illnesses is not a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. Grief comes in waves. If your illness changes, or you develop a new illness, your emotional response will also change because, correspondingly, the losses you experience are new and different. Prior to the pelvic pain that led to my laparoscopy, my fibromyalgia symptoms had stabilized and I had reached a state of acceptance about my illness. I wanted to believe this was a permanent state. I resisted the idea that a new condition would cause me to grieve again (because who wants to go through that once more?). However, I have come to recognize that the losses caused by endometriosis in my life are significantly different than those caused by fibromyalgia.  For me, endometriosis is entangled with my desire to start a family and be a mother, my body image and my sense of femininity. In contrast, fibromyalgia has primarily affected my career aspirations and the part of my identity that was defined by my professional accomplishments.

Once I acknowledged that I was grieving over my second diagnosis, I felt a greater sense of peace.  Resisting these feelings consumed a lot of my energy and effort. Jackson (2014) explains that “people with unresolved grief may experience more profound and difficult-to-treat depression and anxiety”.  Furthermore, the symptoms of a chronic illness can be worsened by unacknowledged grief, including pain, fatigue and cognition.  As people living with chronic illness, I think it’s important that we be on the lookout for experiencing grief when we develop a new illness, or a change in a current illness.  Understanding that grief and acceptance are fluid states can help us be more open to acknowledging grief.  It’s important to seek out support and help once you recognize these feelings. Here are a few tools and resources for coping with grief about your chronic illness, based on what has helped me:

  • Mindfulness meditation: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia.[6] You can find an MBSR program in your community, or there is a free version online http://palousemindfulness.com/. Alternatively, you can learn meditation using a free app on your phone. Two of my favourites include the Insight Timer and The Meaning of Life Experiment. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, body scans, mindful eating, or mindful movement like yoga or Tai Chi.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Studies have found that participating in CBT can help reduce pain, depressive thoughts, and improve quality of life for people with chronic pain.[7] One of the core parts of the program is learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves” (Grohol, 2016).[8] These programs also focus on helpful behaviour changes like learning deep relaxation as well as pacing activities. CBT programs are run in most communities and your doctor should be able to refer you to one.
  • Find a support group, whether in person or online. It can be incredibly powerful to know that you are not alone in facing the challenges caused by your chronic illness. There are private facebook groups for every condition, where you can find support and people with shared experiences. The #spoonie hashtag can help you find other people with chronic illness on twitter. If you are able to, an in-person support group can be an important source of connection if you are struggling. No matter how much support your family and friends can provide, it can help to talk with people who have the same condition(s) you do.
  • Talk with a professional therapist: Unresolved grief is a difficult issue to work through. Many people benefit from talking with an experienced therapist, one-on-one. My advice is to find a counsellor with experience in working with clients who have chronic illness- your specialist may be able to refer you. It’s critical that you ascertain that the therapist validates the existence of your chronic illness and does not tell clients that the illness ‘is all in their head’. Think of the first appointment as an interview, where you see if you are compatible and ask about their professional experience. You may wish to learn more about the therapeutic approaches used by different therapists prior to choosing one. For example, I found that the empathetic, strengths-based counselling provided by a social worker fit much better with my personality than the objective, analytical technique used by a psychiatrist.

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness

[1]http://www.overlappingconditions.org/About_COPCs

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025619615002438

[3] https://www.verywell.com/fibromyalgia-comorbid-overlapping-conditions-716184

[4] Absenger, W. (2015). Mindfulness and the Stages of Grief in Chronic Disease. ACEF. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://amacf.org/mindfulness-stages-of-grief-in-chronic-disease/

[5] National Cancer Institute. (2014, October 8). PDQ® grief, bereavement, and coping with loss. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/bereavement/patient

[6] Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233

[7] Holmes, A., Christelis, N., and Arnold, C. (2012). Depression and chronic pain. MJA Open Suppl (4):17-20.

[8] Grohol, J. (2016). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/