Chronic Illness and Training
Chronic Illness Is a Killer – Literally.
Here is my short summary of chronic illness: The World Health Organization reports that non-communicable chronic conditions are the leading cause of death in the world (http://www.who.int/topics/chronic_diseases/en/). Chronic conditions are responsible for 63% of the deaths worldwide. On its chronic illness webpage, the WHO names the most widespread chronic illnesses: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, AIDS/HIV, and respiratory illnesses. However, this short list does not encapsulate the entire list of chronic illnesses. Off the top of my head, I can add to this list Gastroparesis (because I have it), IBS, Crohn’s, Fibromyalgia, MS, etc. For reference, chronic illness is defined as a disease that is long-lasting (3 months or longer) or recurrent.
Chronic Illness Is a Killer – Figuratively.
Chronic conditions are a death sentence in the very real sense, but they are also a killer of dreams, hopes, and work ethic. For many people (myself included), this aspect of chronic illness may be even more difficult to cope with than the physical ramifications of being ill. Many people suffering from a chronic illness can cope with the regimented diets, the seemingly endless pills, the all-too-often trips to the doctors. However, to have a physical, but invisible barrier to living the life you want to live, to living life freely and to the best of your ability…seems unfair (at best).
Now, I don’t want to claim to speak for all people suffering from chronic conditions, as each person is battling a very individualized war. However, I do know that while everyone has good days and bad days, people with chronic illnesses frequently have very, very bad days.
A Summary of My Story
Maybe, someday, I will go into great detail of my early days of living with GP, but for now, I will just give you the basic run-down. Before and for a while after my diagnosis, I was living in hell. I slept 15 hours a day, but was still exhausted (unable to walk to class, I was so exhausted). I had constant headaches, nausea, and heartburn. I lost 15 lbs from my 5’0” tall frame (it was actually my academic adviser telling me that I looked like “skin and bones” that made me pursue a diagnosis more seriously). I was afraid to eat because it was just too painful, but, as many know, severely undereating also has its own set of negative consequences. For a long while, I thought I was just being a pansy (especially, during the 6 months it took me to get a diagnosis), that I just needed to get “over it.” It wasn’t until I talked to someone else with GP that I realized how serious my illness actually is.
And once I realized I wasn’t being a pansy, I stepped into a new phase of my illness. A phase where, while my body was slowly, but surely recovering, my mind had entered a dark place (possibly influenced by the medication I was on – Reglan serves as a constant reminder to never just accept medication because your Doctor said so. Always, always do your own research!). As a person who prides herself on being hardworking, smart, efficient, and put-together in all aspects of her life, my illness crippled me. It took from me my work ethic and efficiency because I could not summon the energy. It took from me my logic and reasoning skills (really difficult for a person studying Physics in school) because malnourishment ravages one’s brain. And needless to say, I was no longer put-together because one simply does not feel like making an effort when your body has threatened to throw up all morning.
For me, it has been a long, arduous road when learning to cope with the side effects of having a chronic illness. A few years after I was diagnosed, I felt like I finally began to make progress with both sides of my illness – the physical and emotional. It was at this point, I said enough was enough and decided that instead of just surviving my illness, I wanted start living again. This is the point where I decided I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and decided to make lifestyle changes. And I did. First, I started eating better and not drinking so much. And then, I started exercising regularly (first, I ran and then I switched to lifting).
Now, I wish I could say that my story ends there. I started treating my body better and my illness was healed. But, it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, though. Treating my body better does mean that I have more good days than I did. However, I still have bad days and sometimes, those bad days are very, very bad days. Attempting to be an athlete and train while suffering from a chronic illness is a juggling act. But, I like to think that through all my experiments and experience (good and bad), I have learned a few things, especially when it comes to training for a sport, while battling a chronic condition.
This Is Your New Normal
I cannot tell you how much time I have wasted waiting and hoping to wake up one morning and feel better. However, I can tell you that it was a HUGE waste of time. Now, I am not saying that you should give up on hoping to one day to overcome your illness (whatever it may be), but, I am saying that your hoping should not keep you from doing. It is completely possible that you will never feel 100% ever again (or even 75%). Please stop putting your life on hold because you feel unwell. And please, do not let feeling unwell keep you from training.
Here’s the thing about chronic illnesses – they either break you or they make you stronger. If you are willing to fight to overcome your setbacks, you quickly become one tough cookie. That is the key, though – you have to fight and fight and fight and fight. And sometimes, fighting means simply putting on pants instead of spending the entire day in your underwear (because sometimes, on the very, very bad days, even putting on pants seems insurmountable).
You also have to change your mindset and reset your paradigm. You no longer have the luxury of saving your sick days for days when you have a head cold or a headache. Going to work or class or the gym when you are feeling unwell…well, that is your new normal. Acing tests, making presentations, and setting PRs while holding back vomit…that is your new normal. Writing that last sentence, even to me, feels cold and cruel and militant. But it is the truth. I have learned that if I want to live my life the way I want; if I want to achieve what I want; if I want to succeed, I need to stop hoping and acting like I can, one day, go back to the old normal. THIS is my new normal.
I am not saying that if you feel completely AWFUL that you should go out and push yourself to the max. No, you have to determine, for you and only you, what your new normal is. What is your new paradigm? For you, what does a good day look like? What does a very, very bad day look like? What is does the middle ground look like? Once you have determined your own paradigm, you can take advantage of the good days, fight through the “meh” days, and rest on the very, very bad days.
My symptoms are always the same. The difference between a good day, a meh day, and a very, very bad day are not different symptoms, but the magnitude of the same symptoms. And because my symptoms are predictable, I am always prepared, and thus, I do not allow my typical symptoms to become excuses that keep my from training. Below, I have listed some of my most common symptoms and how I circumvent them. What I do may not work for you, but the idea still stands: Figure out what you need to do to mitigate the symptom and do it, before it becomes an issue.
“I am tired.” Note: this is the kind of tired that isn’t impacted by how much you sleep – you never feel rested; A tired that starts deep within your core and impacts your entire cognitive and physical being. This is not simply, “I didn’t get enough sleep.” This is a different kind of tired (and I guarantee that most people with chronic illnesses know what I am talking about.) So, how do I prevent this from keeping me from the gym? Coffee, coffee, coffee! Followed by some Monster. I have had plenty of negative comments on the amount of caffeine I consume, however, I have done the research and for me, any consequences of drinking as much caffeine as I do are completely offset by how much better I feel after consuming a large amount of cofee, as well as how much more I am able to accomplish. These days, I don’t even wait to see how tired I am that day. It isn’t worth possibly letting the exhaustion sink it. I get up and I guzzle. (both water and coffee! Hydration is important!)
“I am in pain.” Pain differs for everyone, but I think it is important to not only figure out what triggers pain for you, but also, what mitigates pain for you. For me, certain stretches and massaging my abdominal region lessens my pain. It might not cure it entirely, but it certainly makes it feel better. Figure out what works for you.
“I didn’t eat enough to train.” Undereating is a major symptom of my illness and as any athlete knows, undernourishing your body while training is just digging yourself a grave. To prevent this excuse, I keep a lot of easily digested, but highly caloric food on hand. Some people shake their head at the fact that I eat candy and poptarts every day, but they are an easy way to increase my caloric intake. Many chronic conditions impact a person’s appetite. If you suffer from decreased appetite or have symptoms caused by eating, it is important to determine the foods that you can always eat, no matter what. When it comes to making sure you eat enough to train, I say screw the normal standards of “nutrition” and eat what you can. Now, this is not a “screw nutrition at all times” view. This is understanding that while proper nutrition is important, it is important to eat enough to support your movement and sometimes, eating enough takes precedence over eating a balanced meal.
All-in-all, preparing to battle any symptoms before they become issues will make you a great planner, as well as make Mary Poppins envy your purse. Now, a lot of this involves knowing what triggers your illness or symptoms and how to stop it. Some of you may have found great doctors that can guide you through this process. However, many of you probably have or had a similar relationships with your doctor as I did with mine. I was given some tests and then received a packet in the mail. I did not have a lot of knowledge of my illness, nor did I have anyone to ask questions of, and it took quite a bit of experimentation to figure some basics out (for example: other people with GP can drink smoothies. I cannot drink smoothies). It was not fun, but it was worth it.
Most Importantly: Listen to Your Body
When you have a chronic illness, it can be really easy to do one of two things:
Always use your illness as an excuse.
Never use your illness as an excuse.
It is important to never fall into either of these mindsets. Finding the middle ground is key, here. Overdoing it is a very real danger when you suffer from a chronic condition. So, be smart. Don’t let your illness hold you back, but know your limits. With a chronic condition, it is still important to better yourself – set goals, work for goals, and achieve goals. However, when you have an illness, your goals may take a little longer than you would have liked/hoped. You will face setbacks. It is important to not always jump full hog into any activity, but instead, give yourself more time to adjust and more time to rest. I cannot even count the number of times I have gone absolutely crazy about a goal, and instead of taking one step closer to my goal, I ended with a huge setback because I overdid and landed myself on the couch for a few weeks. Remember: one baby step forward is significantly better than a huge leap back.
No matter where you are on your journey with a chronic illness or your training, your best friends will be your own mental toughness, fortitude, and willpower. Unfortunately, many chronic illness do not have cures (and many don’t even have effective medications). However, I fully believe that if you have goals, wishes, and wants, nothing should stop you from achieving them – not even your own body.