Living in the Present When You Are Chronically Ill
By: Kristen Cosner
Companion Staff Writer
Do you live in the present?
You probably just looked at that question and thought, “of course I live in the present, how could I live anywhere else?” But here is the thing: sometimes it can be really hard to live in the present, especially when you are battling a chronic illness. Trauma and painful memories from the past and fear and uncertainty of the future can easily overwhelm the present. We often find ourselves physically living in the present, but mentally and emotionally living in the past and future.
We find ourselves counting down the days until our next appointment or anxiously awaiting the results of a blood test. We find ourselves reliving painful or scary memories over and over in our heads or grieving the loss of who we once were before our illnesses. It is important to remember that these emotions are both normal and completely OK. Chronic illnesses are often life-changing in ways that many people cannot even imagine. Weight loss, weight gain, hair loss, surgeries, infusions, medicines, muscle loss- it is easy to get lost in the whirlwind of changes that chronic illnesses bring.
When I was first diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis, I remember constantly living in the future. I would dread my Remicade infusions or the appointment I had that was weeks away. I would constantly worry about whether I was getting dehydrated or losing too much blood. I worried about my body and the long-term effects of the medications on it. I was not only living with my symptoms every single day, but I was living with the fear of things that had not even come yet. I was living two lives: one in the present and one in the future. Even now, almost two years and four surgeries later, I find myself reliving painful moments from the past like my time in the hospital or the emotions I felt when I began losing my hair. I also find myself worrying about the future like my CT scan coming up in a couple of months or my appointment with a new GI doctor soon.
It is completely OK to feel this way and you should never deny yourself the emotions you are feeling. It is equally important, however, to not let yourself get stuck in the past and the future because it will rob you of the precious moments in the present and when you are chronically ill, it is so important to cherish those little moments.
So, what does it mean to truly live in the present?
Living in the present means that you fully engulf yourself in what is happening at that very second or minute. To live in the present is to live in the moment. Acknowledge your emotions at the present moment only. Are you happy? Sad? Frustrated? Now look around- do not just glance around, though. Really look around at your surroundings. Take in the colors, the textures, the temperature. Focus in on the tiny details that you normally would overlook.
Throughout my illness, one of my favorite ways to bring myself back to the present when I am consumed with emotions from the past and worry about the future is to go outdoors. When it is warm, I will go outside, leaving my phone, laptop, headphones, and anything else that could distract me inside. I sit in the grass and stretch out my legs and wiggle my toes and just listen and look. I acknowledge the warm sun on my face and the prickly grass beneath my legs. I feel the gentle breeze moving my hair and note the earthy smell that it has. I run my fingers through the grass and feel the cool soil underneath of it. I listen to the faint chirping of a group of birds in the distance and the hum of the traffic on the main road across the river. Suddenly, I am living in the present. My fear and worries from several minutes ago are now distant in my mind as I sit, focused on taking in the beauty of the present moment. The emotions that I was feeling may come back later on, but for the time that I am sitting there in the grass truly living in the present, they are absent from my mind. Their absence lifts a weight off my shoulders and calms my mind.
Not able go outside to practice living in the moment? No worries! You can practice living in the moment anywhere. Just start with a little at a time and soon the concept of living in the moment will become easier to do and you may even find yourself living less in the past and future.
The next time you are at an appointment, take a few moments to really focus in on the present moment. Listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear? Look around you. What do you see? Note the architecture of the building or the patterns on the floor. Feel the chair you are sitting on. Is it stiff? Uncomfortable? Try to take your mind off of the anticipation of being called back to a room for just a couple of minutes while you wait.
Life with a chronic illness is challenging, to say the least. It will test every ounce of strength that you have and try to consume you with fear. That is all the more reason to strive to truly live in the present as much as possible. Your illness may consume many of your moments with appointments and procedures and hospital stays and surgeries, but it does not consume your whole life. Admire the sunrise or marvel at moon. Savor the meal you were able to tolerate and cherish your moments with family. Enjoy your time outside, even if it is brief.
Life may throw us unexpected challenges, but it is beautiful. Our battles, failures, and successes all help to mold us into the people we were meant to be. We may not understand our struggles right now, but someday it will all be clear. Someday we will look back at the little moments in the present that we stopped to feel and smile.
“If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present. . . Gratefully.” – Mary Angelou