Guest Columnists

Chronic Illness: A New And Meaningful Life

by Deacon Richard Cheu

Living Well with Chronic Illness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide (Dog Ear Publishing, 2012, pp. 240) is written to help chronically ill patients take charge of their health care with the assistance of healthcare providers, caretakers and family members.

In this book, readers learn how to: respond to chronic illness in a positive way; take control of shock, stress and grief; recognize that life is change; let go of negative emotions; overcome loneliness; be inspired by others who overcame adversity; and improve their mental, physical and spiritual health.

I once watched two nuns being interviewed on television about their social work in the poorest county in the U.S. The reporter asked, “How do you manage to keep working with people under such terrible conditions?” One of the nuns said, “We have two options: get mad or do something about it. We choose to do something about it.”

Negativity Immobilizes Patients

The same options occur in chronic illness. When a patient receives a chronic illness diagnosis, it unleashes a flood of negative emotions, such as fear, despair, anger, anxiety, shame and guilt, which often lead to a loss of faith. Any one of these emotions can do great damage to your confidence and view of the future. Each one, by itself, can “freeze” a patient into not making any effort to get better even when offered proven interventions. Together, they can lock a patient into an emotional prison and throw away the key.

If not resolved, these dark feelings can make the patient’s medical condition even worse by triggering high levels of stress.

By controlling negative emotions, chronically ill patients may achieve great things, such as coming out of the darkness of negativity and seeing the world as it is; becoming more mentally agile; having the capacity to accept new experiences; achieving greater self-esteem; and using spirituality to progress to a level where patients can see the opportunities that await them.

As a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and the Visiting Nurse Service inpatient hospice at Bellevue, I provide pastoral counseling to hundreds of patients each year. Some patients are able to control their negative emotions, and others are not.

What is the difference between those who improve and those who remain mired in the depths of despair? Those who move forward are able to accept a drastic change in their life that they did not ask for. After overcoming the initial flood of negative emotions, they learn to see that change is an inevitable part of one’s journey through life and that change is good. Instead of looking backward, they look forward, opening their minds and eyes to the enormous life potential they have not yet tapped.

When patients are told they can achieve better mental, physical and spiritual health, many say it is too much to do alone. Taking responsibility does not mean doing everything alone. It means participating in the discussions and decisions that guide the patient’s healthcare team, which can include doctors, nurses, therapists, caregivers, advisors, family and friends.

My goal in writing this book is to help chronically ill patients live a spiritual life that results in a calm mind and a peaceful heart regardless of the condition of their illness. This is a three-step process. The patient’s first task is to control negative emotions. The second step is to learn about the chronic illness and what may be done to increase health and minimize the symptoms. The suggestions and guidelines in the book can help the reader complete the first two steps.

The third step is to adopt qualities associated with living a spiritual life, including:

• Committing to live a spiritual life

• Accepting yourself and others

• Reflecting frequently on one’s spiritual journey

• Being grateful

Living a spiritual life is not a do-it-yourself project. It is a journey through life in the company of others who will share their experiences and support with you.[hr] Deacon Richard Cheu, a hospital chaplain in the Archdiocese of New York, is an author, stress-management consultant and caregiver. He provides pastoral counseling at Bellevue Hospital and the Visiting Nurse Service inpatient hospice. Formerly, he was a neurophysiologist and emergency medical technician.