A Brand New You: Rebuilding a Meaningful Life with Chronic Illness

By Mary J. Yerkes, NABBW’s Living With Chronic Illness Expert

A diagnosis of chronic illness can bring with it feelings of denial, anger and grief. But, at some point, the emotions subside and you are faced with a harsh reality—you are no longer the person you once were. Chronic illness has robbed you from your sense of identity and purpose. Do you even stand a chance of rebuilding a meaningful life?

According to Judy Gann—a breast cancer survivor who suffers from fibromyalgia and other autoimmune disorders—you can. She took her experiences of living with chronic illness and her desire to comfort others and wrote a book, The God of all Comfort: Devotions of Hope for Those Who Chronically Suffer.

Mari Eronen discovered her “creative side,” after reducing her work hours due to complications from Type 1 Diabetes. “The part-time work hours may be a drain on finances, but they are definitely enriching my quality of life!”

Judy and Mari have rediscovered joy and purpose in their lives, and they are not alone. Many with chronic illness have rebuilt their lives and have gone on to launch new careers, friendships, non-profit organizations, and more. Others have developed gifts and talents they never knew they had.

Making this life transition yourself can be easier if you know how other sufferers of a chronic illness dealt with it. The key is to keep it in perspective.

“Rebuilding or redefining normal is a long process,” explains Georgia Shaffer, a psychologist, professional speaker, and life coach. “It can take years.”

Given just a 2 percent chance to live in 1989 after a recurrence of breast cancer, Georgia lost her job because she was too weak to work, and her husband walked out on her. After piecing her shattered life back together, she wrote A Gift of Mourning Glories—Restoring Your Life After Loss, to serve as a guidebook to help others rebuild their lives.

Here are a few of her suggestions:

  • Move from “success” to “significance.” Finding meaning and purpose in your life is critical for not only your physical healthy but your spiritual and emotional health, as well. Invite others\’ input and don\’t be afraid to step out and try new things. Have you always wanted to take an art class? Write a book? Now might be the perfect time to start.
  • Ask important questions like, “What am I passionate about?” “What in my life can I share with others?” We sometimes abandon our “passions” for adult responsibilities. Think back to your youth and what you enjoyed doing. Rediscover your gifts and talents. Although your chronic illness may keep you from coaching your son\’s soccer team, maybe you can use your photography skills to capture those winning moments. Be creative.
  • Take calculated risks. Rebuilding your life requires that you explore uncharted territory. Sure, it might be scary to head back to college at age 50, but why not give it a shot? While you may not succeed at everything you try, the experiences will enrich your life and give you something to talk about besides your illness.
  • Eliminate toxic relationships from your life. Few things are more draining than dysfunctional relationships. People who consistently blame you for their problems, criticize your choices and discount your feelings are toxic. If being in someone\’s company continually drains you, it might be a sign of an unhealthy relationship. Learn to establish healthy boundaries.
  • Forgive those who fail you. Over time, your friends, co-workers, and family members will all fail you. Forgive them and move on.
  • Learn to choose between “best” and “good.” Your physical and emotional resources will limit your choices. Determine who and what adds meaning to your life and invest in those relationships and activities. Not sure? Ask a friend. A fresh perspective may be just what you need.
  • Share your gifts and talents. Those who suffer have a lot to contribute. It is critical to look for ways to share your gifts and talents with others in your church and the community. Volunteering builds self-esteem, contributes to feelings of value and worth, helps overcome social isolation and gives you a sense of belonging.

Rebuilding a meaningful life with chronic illness might seem like a daunting task. But with a little creativity, knowledge, and inspiration, you just might find that your best years are yet to come.

Mary J. Yerkes is a professional life coach who provides transformational coaching to the chronically ill, women in leadership, and new and aspiring non-fiction writers. She helps motivated individuals, groups, and organizations find their purpose and live their passion. With more than 25 years\’ experience in the corporate world and church leadership, Mary launched her writing, speaking, and coaching career after being diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, including rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. She is passionate about helping others from all walks of life live life to the full. She is currently working on a book, When Life Hurts: Ten Transforming Choices Every Woman Can Make. Mary is a member of the Christian Coaches Network, the International Coach Federation, and the International Association of Business Communicators, as well as other professional networks. You can visit Mary online at www.newlifechristiancoaching.com and www.maryyerkes.com.