Helpfulness and Hopefulness: A 21 Day Challenge

 

“The wish for healing has always been half of health.” Seneca

I was diagnosed at age 11 with Ulcerative Colitis and have been in pain, felt sick, and been in and out of hospitals ever since. For most of that time I’ve felt that I was the sole cause of how I felt. With UC and subsequently Psoriasis being both autoimmune diseases and having an immune system causing systemic inflammation,  I am in a sense truly the cause of my suffering. That is the conundrum I’ve faced all my life. My body attacks itself. No matter what I do consciously my immune system is out of control and causing me pain and causing me to feel terrible.

For the last thirty years I’ve been living in what I call the “Cycle of Suffering”. It is divided into three parts: The Lead-Up, The Crisis Event, The Recovery. The Lead-up is where my symptoms become worse and worse, its not a linear process, and there is moments when I feel better, but overall the arch is toward increasing pain, inflammation and fatigue. Then there is “The Crisis Event”. This is usually either a small bowel obstruction or a pancreatitis attack. I go to the hospital about once to twice a year for these but I have far more frequent crisis events throughout the year which cause me to be bedridden for weeks at home After The Crisis Event comes The Recovery Phase. This is where the pain begins to wane,  my mind is clearing and my body begins to get stronger again. I’ve repeated this cycle hundreds of times since the age of 11 with no sign that it will ever end.

That sounds pretty bleak. And it feels that way. But I’m done with dwelling on this thought. I can’t count how many times this type of thinking has caused me to stop an endeavor before I begin or to not finish what I start. I would always think “why does it matter?”. My reasoning was that eventually the lead-up phase will lead to a crisis phase and that will put a stop to what I’m doing anyway. This is what causes the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to flourish and cause me to ask myself:

Why should I make a new friend? Why should I try a new business idea? Why should I ask a girl out on a date? Sooner rather than later I’ll be so sick I won’t be able to be a good friend and they’ll end up abandoning me, I’ll not have the energy to run a business and I’ll run out of money and I’ll fail, and if a girl I like get’s to know me she’ll find out how miserable I am, how much of a failure I am and will never want to see me again.

I can tell that I’m in the recovery phase of the cycle now because I’m desiring to make changes because I’m realizing how much is missing in my life and what changes can I make to get them. I’ve been here hundreds of times during my hundreds of Cycles of Suffering and  his time I want the positive changes I make to stick even through the next lead-up phase and even carry through the crisis phase as well. For the next 21 days I am challenging myself to replace my negative thoughts  that create the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness for the next 21 day with thoughts that create feelings of helpfulness and hopefulness. I’m going to use ideas pulled from Stoicism, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, NeuroLinguistic Programming and other techniques that experts recommend for breaking the Learned Helplessness mindset.

Day 1 Practical Action:

Five minute walk – I will walk at least five minutes everyday during the 21 day challenge. This is a “proof” that I am helpful to myself and firmly believe that the feelings of hopefulness are strengthened by positive actions.

Day 1 Mental Action:

Thought Replacement 

This is the thought I’m getting rid of today.

“I am the cause of my suffering”

Even just reading what I wrote here caused me to feel a twinge of hopelessness and sadness. I’ve had this thought a million times.

This is the thought I am replacing it with:

“I take good care of myself”

I felt empowered when I wrote that. By going on the five minute walk today I do have evidence that this statement is true. All during the walk I also said my new replacement thought out loud. I did get a look from a passing neighbor but I just waved and kept talking to myself.

Walking is a powerful tool for mental and physical improvement. It helps to relax the mind, strengthens the body and creates  positive neurochemicals in the brain.  It’s a concrete way to help demonstrate positive self-care.

For those who haven’t had to deal with a life of suffering, these two steps might seem meaningless or not worth the effort because they aren’t “big” enough to create noticeable change. I’ve in fact I felt that as well. And I’ve used that as an excuse not to attempt to improve when I only had the capacity for limited actions due to pain and fatigue.  I’ve also used that same logic to justify making too many changes at once, which I couldn’t maintain for long. Both of these approaches have been ineffective for me. That’s why for 21 days I’m focused on making small changes that I can maintain and build upon.

I’m not sure if I can ever truly end my “Cycle of Suffering” but I can adapt and improve my life during the lead-up phase as well as the recovery period. And I’m hopeful I can even shorten the time I’m totally down when a crisis event occurs. I’ve done this type of self-improvement stuff hundreds of times before and each time I do, small amounts of what I learn stick. But the helpless and hopeless feelings are deeply engrained in my psyche and I’ve not been able to get rid of them yet. My hope is that by the end of 21 days I’ll have a better understanding of  how to erase the mental pathways that make it so easy for the feelings of helplessness and hopeless to overwhelm me. I am doing this with the full realization that the physical triggers that have caused them to occur in the past may very well still occur in the future when another “Cycle of Suffering” begins.

I would love to hear from anyone who has been locked into a “Cycle of Suffering” and what they’ve done to adapt to it or even end it. And if you are following along with this challenge please leave a comment below and share what thought you are replacing today and what action you’re taking to rid yourself of the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Living better today one thought at a time.

Brad Miller

 

 

Philosophy And Chronic Illness

“Sometimes even to live is an act of Courage.” Seneca

I’ve wanted to give up countless times over the past thirty years. I’ve wanted the pain and loneliness to be over. I wanted to be done with the hospitals, the doctors, wearing a bag, getting stuck, taking pills. Even though I’ve wanted to quit many times it was never for very long. I’ve always gotten back up. I credit this to my family and the ideas from the authors I’ve read during my illness. Over these last thirty years I’ve read up a lot on philosophy, self-help and neuroscience.What I’ve concluded after all this reading is that my personal philosophy affects my health more than anything else I can do or others can do for me.

I hate being sick. I hate hurting. There is no philosophy that I’ve found that explains with any logic or merit why I’m sick or what purpose it serves. I used to believe in god but that ended when I was in my twenties. My personal philosophy doesn’t seek to understand or justify or explain why I’m sick or in horrific pain. What I’ve sought out is a practical system of thinking to help me live my best life today, enjoy life more and help others around me enjoy more of life as well. I see a personal philosophy as series of ideas that inform my choices, help me set priorities, and endure in the face of overwhelming sickness and pain.

When I ran my first marathon I came across the concept of having an Internal Locus of Control which I added as a key tenet of my personal philosophy. I decided to complete a marathon after almost dying from complications from a surgery. The recovery was horrifically painful. But I decided when I was in the hospital I would compete a marathon. My intention was to reestablish the paradigm that my mind controlled my body and not the other way around. I started walking around the hospital, then when I got home I started walking around the pool and then into the neighborhood.

I had purchased the book “Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer” years before I started the training. So after the surgery I started reading it. Immediately I knew this would be one of the books that changed my life forever. It introduced me to the concept of having an Internal Locus of Control. This means that my actions determine my fate. The opposite is having an External Locus of Control meaning that external events and other people determine the course and outcome of my life. At the time my doctors and family all thought I was nuts to complete the training let alone complete a marathon. I highly recommend the book even if you never plan on completing a marathon.

https://www.amazon.com/Non-Runners-Marathon-Trainer-David-Whitsett/dp/1570281823

Seven months after almost dying I completed my first marathon, it took me five and a half hours but I finished. Those seven months of training were more about training me how to think rather than how to run. Later on in the training schedule I would use the techniques in the book to breeze through an 8 mile run after work. Look back on that now seems impossible. But at the time it was just what I did. One of the techniques I really liked was the concept of typing out on an imaginary computer positive sentences while I was running. I would imagine my fingers hitting each letter on a keyboard then it would display upon on the computer screen in my mind. I would spell out “I am strong”, “I can run all day” and “I enjoy running”. These ideas became true. Now its been almost 9 years since I completed the marathon and I haven’t ran much recently. But I have begun using this technique again to help me get my chronic pancreatitis under control.

Having a personal philosophy is vitally important to everyone but especially for those who have a chronic illness. For those who are suffering it can feel like your body, your doctors, the insurance companies and the government are in control of your life, instead of you. But that is merely a choice of how to think. Once you decide that a key part of your personal philosophy is having an Internal Locus of Control new cognitive and physical doors will begin to open. Your body responds to your thoughts I’ve not personally been able to heal myself through thinking. I know it’s not a quick fix but I do believe my thoughts have an extremely important part in healing and helping me to make choices that will lead to a fuller more fulfilling life.

A key part of my personal philosophy is that I do have an Internal Locus of Control. I have the ability to find a solution to every health issue I have and to create the life I want to live. Even if its not a full solution or so called “cure” and even if it takes years to figure it out. I will never stop improving myself and seeking to feel better. I do have the ability to finding ways to live better each day. It’s not always easy to feel like and I have my doubts somedays especially on those days when I don’t even want to get out of bed. But the underlying idea of having an Internal Locus of Control that helps me to keep getting back up after I get knocked back down, whether it’s by a bowel obstruction or a severe pancreatitis attack. I want to live. I want to experience all that life has to offer. I want to fall in love. I want to feel good. I want to feel pleasure not merely be pain free. And that desire plus the belief that my actions can change my fate are what keep me going.

My next two posts will be on the ways Stoicism and the Paleo lifestyle have shaped my personal philosophy and my relationship to my chronic pain and autoimmune diseases.

Keep taking those small steps – they add up

Brad Miller

 

Please leave a comment if you’ve found philosophy helpful in dealing with chronic illness or chronic pain.