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.
The house I grew up in will be sold in a few days time. As I go through boxes of childhood memories stashed away in the attic and wander the half-empty rooms I spend such a big part of my life in, I can’t help but think how much of our identity is tied to our circumstances.
The places we live in, the people we surround ourselves with, the roles we play and the things we do, they all become a part of who we are. We literally define ourselves by our profession and habits. One of the first questions we ask strangers is: “So what do you do?” And yet, we usually don’t answer with a list of our activities, but with statements like: “I am an administrative assistant/nurse/graphic designer.”
But when you become severely ill and lose the ability to work, socialize or do the things you love, how we label ourselves and interact with the world changes.There’s an erosion of self where everything you used to think about yourself is challenged by the new limitations of your body. Would you still describe yourself an outdoorsy, fun-loving teacher if you’ve been too sick to be in a classroom of nature for months? But if not, then who are you now that chronic illness chips away at the things that defined you for so long?
It’s supposed to be an empowering phrase, meant to encourage you to take good care of your body and mind. And yet, there’s a kind of accusation hidden in there that so many chronically ill people face: have you done enough to stop this from happening to you?
Over the last decade or two, the way our society thinks about health and happiness has changed a lot. Thanks to a growing body of research on how our lifestyle affects our health – in good and in bad ways – and the widespread availability of information via the Internet, our mindset has gone from trying to control (chronic) disease with medication to actively preventing illness through healthy nutrition, exercise, stress management and positive thinking.
And that’s a good thing: with all the present-day knowledge, why wouldn’t we avoid serious risk factors and learn about how we can feel as fit, strong and upbeat as possible?
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