It’s hard to think of two more obvious extremes: the chronically ill versus Olympic athletes.
They find themselves at the opposite ends of the health spectrum: one struggling to do the simplest everyday activities, whereas the other is the embodiment of strength and fitness. But if you look closer, you’ll find that spoonies and Olympic athletes have some surprising things in common.
1. Body Awareness
Most healthy people go about their business without paying much attention to their body, unless they get hungry, thirsty or need the bathroom.
But spoonies and Olympics athletes are all too aware of their bodily sensations – because it determines the outcome of their entire day.
How they feel physically and mentally affects their abilities and performance much more clearly than it does the average person. Having sore muscles or a mild headache is annoying when you have a desk job, but it can mean the difference between a podium position or finishing fourth when you’re competing at the highest level. For chronically ill people, having a good or bad day symptom-wise matters just as much.“Will I feel good enough to make it to work/the supermarket/my best friends dinner party today?”
Because of this, both spoonies and sportsmen have a strong body awareness. They sense when they should push their limits and when to rest; when to hold back and when to go full out. Because so much depends on what you can or cannot do.
2. Eyes on the Prize
“Taking part is more important than winning” may be the slogan of the founding father of the modern Olympics, but every competing athlete only has one goal in mind: taking home that medal. It’s what they’ve trained for their whole lives, and nothing will stop them from giving it all they’ve got.
For spoonies there are different kind of prizes at stake. Our metaphorical golden medal is getting better, feeling healthy again. But we’ll happily settle for bronze or silver – less pain and restful sleep, being able to work part-time, finish our studies or dance at our own wedding. It’s what motivates us every day to put our blood, sweat and tears into our recovery (in the broadest sense of the word). We will never get a shiny badge of honour for competing against ourselves day in and day out, but just like the Olympic sportsmen, we can’t help but try.
3. Making Sacrifices
Playing sports at the highest level comes at a price. It takes years and years of deliberate practice to become a professional athlete, and there are only so many hours in a day. Training for major sporting events like the Olympics means time away from family, missing out on friends’ milestone celebrations and having little room for other, ‘distracting’ pursuits in life.
Missing your family and friends is not easy, but at least it is a choice. People with chronic illness have to make many sacrifices as well, but they have little say in which parts of their lives they have to give up. Your job, social life, physical and mental abilities, they can all be stripped away from you when you become seriously ill.
And unfortunately, unlike triumphing at the Olympic Games, the pay-offs of spoonies’ sacrifices are also virtually non-existent.
4. Mastering the Art of Taper
Recently, I saw a humorous piece on how Dutch elite swimmer Sebastiaan Verschuren prepares for the Olympics with ‘taper time’. And I laughingly thought: “Now that’s a sports element I’m good at!”
Officially taper refers to the time when athletes let their bodies fully recover from all the hard training to be optimally prepared for the upcoming race. In practice – or at least in the TV clip – this basically comes down to lying on the couch and doing as little as you possibly can.
Train and taper is like the Olympic version of the push-and-crash cycle spoonies are all too familiar with.
The painful difference is, for sportsmen and women, taper time follows long periods of heavy workouts, not mundane activities like vacuuming the house or attending class. And what’s more, for Olympic athletes rest equals recovery, whereas people with chronic illness can sometimes sleep and relax all they want, but it doesn’t make them feel any better.
But hey, at least now, when you’re crashing after doing one too many activities, you can say: “Oh I’m not ‘chilling’ on my bed, I’m tapering.”
5. Living with Disappointment and Setbacks
Dealing with defeat and disappointment is an inevitable part of a professional athlete’s life. Basketball legend Michael Jordan famously said:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost over 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
When you’re living with chronic illness, you also face your fair share of disappointments: a body that lets you down, daily limitations, a real case of FOMO, friends that don’t understand you.
Bouncing back from these setbacks, whether it’s a lost race or a faltering body, requires resilience. It’s a trait both spoonies and sportsmen have to develop to make it through.
6. Superhuman Achievements
It’s the reason why people have always loved watching top-level sportsmen and women: Every world record and every medal won is a celebration of the human body and spirit.
Everyone watching understands the extraordinary efforts (and talent) it takes to sprint like Usain Bolt or swim like Michael Phelps. But people often don’t realize that spoonies also have to climb their proverbial mountains every day.
Going on an outing may not be as grandiose as running the 100m under 10 seconds, but it sure is an accomplishment if you suffer from POTS or a neurological condition. Getting your driver’s license, finishing your studies or becoming pregnant may be pretty standard milestones in a person’s life, but for someone with chronic illness, these goals may be their personal Mount Everest.
In the end, I think what we share most is that we all have to fight for what we want to achieve, whether that’s a first place or getting healthier. We all hope of getting our one moment in time.
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