Here’s a little secret for healthy readers: Living with a chronic illness can feel a lot like starring in your own action hero movie.
Just like the on-screen stars, you’re faced with seemingly impossible challenges when you have serious health problems. Everyday living can seem like a quest, demanding extraordinary willpower to complete simple tasks and to achieve your goals.
Unfortunately, unlike our movie heroes, in real life you don’t always get inspirational speeches during those moments you’re struggling to hang on. So in my battle with chronic illness, I’ve often turned to action thrillers and epic adventures to fuel my motivation. Now I love all kinds of films, but the movies with a female protagonist literally kicking ass hold a special place in my heart.
Stories about a young blonde girl fighting (her) demons and struggling with the loneliness of being ‘different’? You don’t have to be Freud to understand why I could relate to heroines like Buffy when I first became ill as a teenager.
After countless hours of watching, here are the 5 most important lessons that my favourite fictional heroines have taught me about battling with chronic illness:
1. Always keep in mind why you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for.
Most heroines didn’t set out to fight for their cause – and their lives. They were called to action when something (life-changing) happened that they just couldn’t ignore. Think of Katniss Everdeen, who would never would have volunteered for The Hunger Games if it wasn’t to save her sister’s life. And Sydney Bristow only became determined to take down an international terrorist organisation after they killed her fiancé.
It’s this strong motivation that helps our heroines to push through when they’re beyond tired of fighting.
During your toughest moments, when you feel like your struggle to get healthier or to achieve an important goal never ends and you just want to give up, remember why you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for.
Let’s say you’re trying to lead a healthier lifestyle so you can improve your current condition. Doing this just to “get better” usually isn’t a strong enough motivation to resist the temptation of lying on the coach with a bag of chips when you’ve had a really tiring day.
But maybe you badly want to have more energy so you can travel to your dream destination. Or maybe you wish you’d physically be able to spend more quality time with your family. Whatever drives you to achieve your goal, remind yourself regularly of your deepest reason. You can do this by creating a mood board, keeping a journal or by finding a motivational quote to serve as your mantra.
2. Turn your weakness into your strength.
During the final battle in “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”, a disguised Eowyn confronts the undefeatable Witch – King, Lord of the Nazgûl:
Witch – King: “You fool. No man can kill me. Die now.”
Eowyn, as she takes off her mask and lets her long hair fall out: “I am no man.”
As a woman, Eowyn wasn’t allowed to fight alongside of the men to defend her people. But when she bravely defied the rules, her perceived weakness became her strength, as she did what no man had been able to do – to kill the Witch – King.
When you’re living with chronic illness, you’re often confronted with your limitations. But what if you would stop to see these limitations purely as a constraint, and start to think of them as unique aspects of yourself, with both negative and positive sides?
For example, having very limited energy for many years means that I have missed out on a lot of experiences. But this also forced me to prioritise and live with purpose. So I spend my time mostly with kind-hearted people and working on projects that matter, instead of getting involved with energy vampires, pointless drama and superficialities.
There are many ways that you can turn your ‘weakness’ into your strength. Let your own experiences with pain make you care more about others who are hurting. Share your best tips about living with your specific health problem with fellow sufferers. Or find inspiration in Paralympic athletes who embraced their handicaps and thrive inspite/because of it.
3. Never ever give up.
From G.I. Jane:
“ Pain is your friend, your ally. It will tell you when you are seriously hurt, it will keep you awake and angry, and remind you to finish the job and get the hell home. But you know the best thing about pain? It let’s you know you’re not dead yet.”
Heroines struggle against incredible odds. From the gruelling training program and sexism that Jordan O’Neill faces as she fights to be the first woman to join the Navy SEALS, to the abuses of Lisbeth Salander by her guardian(s) and a flawed system – our leading ladies are put through difficult trials.
And even heroines can get exhausted from the constant fighting.
But what makes these women heroines is that they persevere despite the obstacles in their way. No matter how challenging their journey, heroines never ever give up – and neither should you.
When you feel overwhelmed by the health challenges you’re confronted with, make a plan of attack. Think up unconventional ways to achieve your goals. Ask for practical help or emotional support. Take extra good care of your body and mind when you’re going through a tough time. Sprinkle small pleasures throughout your day and make a list of songs, writing and movies that always cheer you up.
4. How to rise again after you’ve reached your breaking point.
“I’m beyond tired. I’m beyond scared. I’m standing on the mouth of hell, and it’s going to swallow me whole. And it’ll choke on me. We’re not ready? They’re not ready. They think we’re gonna wait for the end to come, like we always do. I’m done waiting. They want an apocalypse? Oh, we’ll give ’em one. Anyone else who wants to run… do it now.
Because we just became an army. We just declared war. From now on we won’t just face our worst fears, we will seek them out. We will find them and cut out their hearts one by one until the First shows itself for what it really is. And I’ll kill it myself. There’s only one thing on this earth more powerful than evil. And that’s us. Any questions?”
There may be times when you feel like you can’t take any more pain and you just want to give up. Please don’t. Instead, ease up on yourself. Take a break, retreat from the world for a little while and if necessary, cry your eyes out.
It’s ok to admit you feel miserable.
When you’re all cried out, let a ray of hope back into your heart. Trust that you won’t feel like this forever. You will smile again.
Put on your favourite up-beat song and sing along loudly. Or watch a motivational movie scene with one of our heroines. Remember why you’re fighting and what you’re fighting for. Never ever give up.
5. In the end, you are the only one who can save you.
In “Becoming, Part Two”, a soulless Angel corners Buffy and taunts:
“ No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?
In every story, there’s a defining moment when it all comes down to our heroines. Even though friends and allies have helped the leading ladies get this far, the fate of the future now lies in their hands.
The same is true for real-life heroes and heroines battling with serious health problems. No matter how much your loving family and friends support you, no one can go through this fight in your place.
You are the one that has to cope with your health problems. And – although it would be the invention of the century if someone else could do your health habits for you – you alone can put healthy food into your mouth, be physically active and think positively.
You have to choose how you want to live your life in spite of your illness.
Be the heroine or hero of your own story.
“ A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles“
– Christopher Reeve
Which fictional characters or real-life heroes inspire you in your battle with (chronic) illness?
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