How to Retain Your Identity When You’re Disabled
Written by: M&M
When you’re going to the doctor every three or four months and getting lab work done each time to check your progress or when you’re taking all your pills every day or giving yourself your shot so you can manage the day’s “to-do” list, it’s not surprising if you start to feel like you’re defined by your illness. In many ways, you have to build your life around your disabilities. Each day must be carefully planned, each activity metered out to conserve your precious energy and stay within your body’s limits. Under those circumstances, it’s easy to start feeling more like a patient or a disabled person than just a person, and you can start to feel like the list of what you aren’t is longer than the list of what you are. How do patients combat that feeling? What are some concrete things you can do to retain the “in control” feeling you had before you became ill? How can you still feel like yourself? This is a topic that always gets my heart pumping. It’s close to my heart, and if you’re disabled like me, it’s close to yours too.
Take Back Control
Every body has limits. I try to remember that even healthy people have limitations with their bodies—you’re not the only one who can’t do everything you want. Granted, the list of what a disabled person can accomplish likely is shorter than the list of what a healthy person can accomplish. Just try to remember that, as a disabled person, it’s wise to remain reasonable.
When your list of limitations keeps growing, it’s easy to feel like you no longer have control over your life. But you can combat that feeling! The first step to taking back control is to truly believe that you can do it. You have to tell yourself you aren’t just patients, and you have to believe it.
One way to take back control is to set realistic goals each day. You may have a long to-do list, but need to realistically pick out which activities are true necessities for that day. For example, I keep Degus (rodents from South America). Some days my to-do list includes cleaning the Degu cage and vacuuming the carpet. I choose to prioritize cleaning the Degu cage over vacuuming; it’s more important to me that the Degus have a clean house (to promote good health) than for the dog hair to be off my carpet. If I have the energy left, I’ll vacuum or work my way down my to-do list, but if I’m exhausted, I’ll leave it for tomorrow. I can still come away with a feeling of accomplishment because I got the true necessity taken care of, and that makes me feel good. I know my Degus are happy and healthy, and that’s important to me.
You may have other choices to make, such as cooking dinner or emptying the dishwasher. You decide which one of those is optional, and save that for the next day. You still end the day feeling good, because you got your family fed—the dishwasher can wait. Setting priorities is an important step toward feeling more in control of your life and your activities, but some people still feel frustrated when they haven’t accomplished all their tasks. That leads me to another important step.
Give Yourself a Break
Let’s face it: sometimes you just have to give yourself a break! You’re only human and you can’t do it all. I would equate living with a disability to being a scuba diver. Humans cannot breathe underwater. Scuba divers accept this limitation, and willingly strap on tanks to survive while diving. But what happens if one diver in the party runs out of air, but the other members of the diving party still have air in their tanks? Should the diver with no air stubbornly say, “The other divers still have air, so I’m staying down as long as they do”? Of course not. That would be suicide.
A situation like this is easy to understand and accept, but living with a disability in a world with healthy people is exactly the same situation. Be gentle with yourself, and realize that differing limitations do not classify you as any less able than others. Your tank may run out of air faster, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re just different, and even healthy people are different from each other.
Try to be content, even when you accomplish just a little during the day, and give yourself the credit you deserve for accomplishing an important goal, whatever it may be. Avoid comparing yourself with healthy people, and even with other disabled people. We are all individuals, and that’s a wonderful, beautiful truth. So accept yourself, imperfections, limitations, and all, and give yourself a break.
Focus on the Positive
Finally, it is important to focus on all the good things you can still do, rather than focusing on all the things you can’t do. Find something in your life that you’re passionate about, something you enjoy and can “lose yourself” in.
If you enjoy photography, save up some energy all week, or all month, and splurge on a day spent taking photographs. If you are creative, you can often create beautifully artistic shots in your own yard or in your own house. Even if you have some things on your to-do list that need to get done, sometimes you have to take a day (or two!) for yourself.
Having a day, or even just an afternoon, to spend on a hobby goes a long way to making you feel like a person again. That’s why it’s important to find a hobby you can do despite being disabled; something that doesn’t take a lot of energy—and doesn’t require too much from you. Maybe you can become a movie buff. Watching movies is a great way to get in a good, long rest for your body—especially good movies. Maybe you want to do crossword puzzles, or like to play games on the computer. Maybe you can start digital photo editing, or even something as simple as coloring a picture.
Engaging in activities like these, activities you used to engage in regularly when healthy, can help you remember the life outside your illness. They can be moments of real refreshment, and sometimes, if you really work hard at it, you can forget about your disability, just for a little while. You can’t spend all your time having fun, but you should allow yourself regular moments of fun and frivolity. Being disabled doesn’t need to suck the fun out of life, nor does it need to prevent you from doing many of the things you enjoy doing.
Let yourself get lost in those fun moments—watch your children play and laugh, listen to the birds outside your window, hear your favorite song on the radio and sing along with all your heart. Be sure to schedule in that time for “normal” activities. It’s good medicine.