Real Stories

What My Chronic Illness Taught Me About Self-Care

What is self-care? When we hear that phrase we often think of a bubble bath or bingeing Netflix while eating Ben & Jerry’s. True, that’s one form of self-care, and a valid one: treating yourself because you deserve it. Sometimes, however, self-care is harder. Sometimes it involves doing things not because you want to, but because if you don’t they will never get done. Sometimes it involves a lot of soul-searching.

In June 2019, after months of unexplained symptoms, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Symptoms of Crohn’s include chronic diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, the kind of fatigue no amount of sleep can solve, and inflammation of the skin, joints, and eyes. In short, it’s horrible; and the worst part is, it’s incurable. It can however, be managed with a combination of medicine, lifestyle choices, and in some cases, surgery. These changes can turn a patient’s life around completely.

I had always been relatively healthy, until I wasn’t; so living with a new disease was a bit of an adjustment. I had to reboot my perspective and become accustomed to a new normal, and in the process I learned a lot about what self-care is.

Self-care is not being so hard on yourself.

I have always been a go-getter who pushed herself, but what I considered a normal and productive day before Crohn’s became a great day after Crohn’s. At first I beat myself up a lot for not being as productive as I used to be, but I have different limitations than I used to, and those limitations change by the day. If I wasn’t as productive on a given day, it wasn’t because I was lazy; it was because I was sick. Whether you’re sick or not, it’s important to remember that sometimes your best isn’t as good as you’d like it to be.

Self-care is celebrating victories, big and small.

Despite suffering the debilitating symptoms of Crohn’s Disease, I managed to finish a rather large writing project one day before my self-imposed deadline. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and for a while I feared I wouldn’t be able to, but by the power of stubbornness I managed. Not all of my victories were that big, but they were victories nonetheless. When I regained my appetite after losing it for weeks, I celebrated. When I felt just a bit less tired than the day before, I celebrated. When I started going to the bathroom five times a day or less, I celebrated. Even things that seem mundane can be victories when life is uncertain, so don’t be afraid to find joy in them.

Self-care is paying attention to your help.

The biggest change I made after being diagnosed with Crohn’s was learning to conserve my energy and not push myself beyond my altered limits. One common symptom is fatigue, and even when I’m between flare-ups I find myself getting tired more easily. When I do, I take naps to conserve my energy instead of forcing myself to work through it. I rarely napped before Crohn’s. I’m still a go-getter, but I have to be mindful of pushing myself too hard now and paying for it later. Another result of Crohn’s is nutrient deficiency; so I try eat healthier to get the nutrients I need. The changes I made are small, like swapping my morning iced coffee for V8 juice and snacking on fruits and nuts more often. Not only are they healthier, but they feel good, and I didn’t have to deprive myself of other foods or change my entire diet. Everybody needs sleep and nutrients, and taking care of yourself means making sure your body gets what it needs to function properly.

Self-care is having boundaries and managing stress.

Crohn’s is triggered by stress. Crohn’s also causes stress. Stress can never be eliminated, but it can be managed and sometimes even avoided. Face masks and Netflix binges are wonderful ways to unwind after a stressful week, but they don’t get to the heart of the problem. Figure out what stresses you out and what you can do about it. Put up boundaries where you need to and stick to them. It’s easier said than done, but it can make a world of difference.

Self-care is facing your fears.

Even before I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I liked to avoid my problems whenever I could. If you ignore the problem, it’ll go away, right? Real life doesn’t usually work like that. Chronic illnesses definitely don’t work like that. Facing problems head-on may be scary, but it also increases the likelihood that you can solve or at least manage them.

And yes, self-care is pampering yourself.

Sometimes the best thing to do is relax and conserve energy. Life is hard. Ice cream, face masks, and cat videos help.


If you liked this piece, be sure to check out In Sickness and in Health

by Caroline Beckman

I am a writer, animal lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. In addition to articles, I write novels and screenplays. I am 24 years old, was recently diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, and am trying to adjust to my new reality while finding my place in the world. I enjoy candles, food, travel, history, fashion, animals, and the whimsy of the world.

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