In order to successfully manage a long-term illness, I had to learn to Put Myself First. This was hard for me, and I think it may be hard for many women, as we are often brought up to be pleasers and caretakers. It required a new level of honesty about my illness, but as I made this change, I found friends and family appreciated my candor and were willing to work with me. Over time, I realized that communicating my needs and limitations was far easier than making myself sick trying to please others, or pretending to be was someone I was not. By respecting my limits, my friends and family were able to take a positive role in helping me out and maintaining our relationship in spite of illness. Here are a few things I learned to do that really helped.
1. Avoid unnecessary time commitments.
I live in a friendly neighborhood and many of the women make walking dates so they get to visit and get in their exercise at the same time. I learned that I should exercise when I felt up to it, not on a pre-determined schedule, and that adding talking to exercise was too tiring. I told my friends this, and added that my solitary exercise time was also important to me for sorting out my day and my thoughts.
2. Let friends know about your quiet time.
I rest from 3-5 each afternoon, as regularly as I can. I learned that I needed to let my friends know this schedule, so they wouldn’t call or interrupt this time. They have been very respectful and, I think, appreciative that I’ve offered them this way to support our friendship. Now many of my friends start a phone conversation by asking, “Are you resting right now?”
3. Let friends know your boundaries of activity.
Similar to the above, when we have occasion to travel with friends we let them know that while we enjoy going out to see the sites with them, I need to rest in the afternoon, otherwise I won’t be able to enjoy our evening together. What usually happens is our friends decide they want a rest period, too!
4. Clarify your limits before agreeing to a new task.
I volunteer for our local professional theatre and have enjoyed many leadership roles over the years, but before I agree to chair a committee or lead a project, I always make sure others involved know I have a chronic illness and it limits my energy and sometimes my reliability. I’ve learned to pace myself, but having this out in the open takes a lot of pressure off of me.
5. If you are having a bad day, say so.
When I’m having a flare, I generally get very quiet. People may think I’m mad or sulking if I don’t let them know I’m coping with symptoms and distracted by pain or fatigue. After a while, the people close to me learned to ‘see’ the flare and often brought it up themselves.
As I learned to Put Myself First, the task of telling people who I am and how I need to live became practical and factual, rather than embarrassing and emotional. I wasn’t whining or complaining, just being real, and people took it that way. It got to be no different than sharing any other unique character trait that may limit or order a person’s life. One of my unique traits just happens to be that I live with illness.