The Healing Power of Gratitude
By Joan Buchman
Note: Joan Buchman is a fibromyalgia patient from California, and a long-time moderator in the Self-Help Program.
I struggled with fibromyalgia for eight years before achieving stability. Little did I suspect in my eighth year with FMS that a crisis was coming that would upset that stability or that help would come from a simple daily exercise.
Adapting to Fibromyalgia
My fibromyalgia began when I developed muscle pain in my upper body. Then I started having problems with my sleep, waking up several times during the night and feeling totally exhausted in the morning.
After months of visits to a number of doctors, I was finally diagnosed with FMS. I was relieved to find a name to go with my symptoms, but after that initial euphoria, was left with the task of learning how to live with this debilitating and chronic illness.
I spent the next few years experiencing the stages of grieving and over time came a long way toward acceptance of my condition, creating a life within the limits of this illness. My regimen included reading all I could about my illness, resting, and learning what kinds of exercise I could do without exacerbating my condition.
I also joined a local FMS support group, became good friends with other FMS patients and re-evaluated which activities and relationships were causing me stress, making some changes.
I gradually improved to where most days, physically, I was between 40% and 60% of my functioning before FMS. Physically, mentally and emotionally, I had crafted a life that worked for me and my illness; I was feeling the best I had in many years.
Family Crisis Upsets a Delicate Balance
Then a family crisis arose that upset the delicate balance I had so carefully created. Suddenly, a previously slow-growing thyroid cancer that my husband's sister, Janette, had been living with for over 20 years, became active and very fast moving. After unsuccessful chemotherapy, the cancer had spread to her liver and she was going downhill quickly.
My husband and I asked her to come live with us, which she accepted. For the next 5-1/2 months, until her death, we lived together, sharing the ups and downs, the laughter and tears, the hope and the fear.
As Janette's primary caregiver, I was unable to continue with my daily routine of exercise, regular resting and social activities. The high stress and the loss of my routine led to some increase in pain and fatigue.
The stress of caregiving for those months affected me emotionally more than anything. Seeing someone I loved fading before my eyes was very difficult. During this crisis, the emotional support I needed came from an unexpected source.
Help from a Simple Exercise
A few months before Janette came to live with us, I was browsing in a local bookstore while doing Christmas shopping. I spotted a book titled The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude. I recognized Sarah Ban Breathnach as the author of Simple Abundance. Most of the book consisted of a page for each day of the year, followed by five blank lines.
I was intrigued by her idea that there could be powerful effects from writing each day five things you were grateful for. I bought the book as a gift to myself, little knowing what a significant role that small book would play in helping me survive one of the most stressful periods of my life.
For a month and a half before Janette came, I wrote in my Gratitude Journal every day. It was the last thing I did at night before going to sleep. Sometimes I struggled to find 5 things for which I was grateful; occasionally, one of those was, "I'm grateful this day has ended." But I stuck with it.
During the months Janette was with us, I felt it was very important to keep up with the Gratitude Journal and I focused on aspects of this situation from which I could pull out something to be thankful for. Often, it was something Janette was doing to find peace with her life and death. She reached out to just about everyone who had ever been in her life.
In return, she experienced an outpouring of love like I had never seen. She received many letters, phone calls, even visits from old friends who traveled cross-country to see her. At times, this outpouring was overwhelming to her.
But, at the same time, she was so nurtured by it, it helped give her strength to go on. Janette was a constant inspiration, for in her final months, besides reaching out to others, she took time to appreciate her surroundings and the pleasures of everyday life.
We took her to the California coast one weekend and she was inspired by the nature that was there. She stared at the ocean and the contentment on her face was amazing. Paul took her to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and she loved it. She was reaching out to grasp everything around her, even though she knew she didn't have long to live.
Learning the Power of Gratitude
Janette taught me to treasure what I have right now. Gratitude means appreciating what you have and making the most from that. So I began to express in my journal appreciation for people in my life and my life as it was. That led to feelings of gratitude for the lessons I had been learning about myself because of my illness.
I had learned that moving as fast as I could, doing as much as possible, was not making me happy. I was not taking any time to nurture my physical, mental or emotional needs. I believe that my body was shouting at me to slow down and savor life.
I think I would have learned about gratitude on my own by writing the Gratitude Journal for that entire year. But Janette, as a shining example of experiencing gratitude during a crisis, gave me a crash course in finding gratitude in my life.
From Janette's model of living her last days with grace and appreciation of everything she had right then, I learned that I can live a happy and peaceful life with my chronic illness.
In fact, I would even say I am grateful for FMS, for without it, I would not have been forced to take a close look at how I was living. My life today is not the life I had imagined, but, looking back, I realize that I was not on a track for happiness and peace. Because of FMS, I have had the opportunity to find out what is really important for me to live a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Gratitude is not about "looking at the bright side" or denying the realities of life. Gratitude goes much deeper than that. It's about learning from a situation, taking the good to help deal with other challenges in the future.
It's about finding out that you have more power over your life than you previously imagined. You can stop being a victim of your circumstances and reach out to the joy in living. If you open your heart to the good in your life, gratitude becomes as much a part of your life as breathing.
So I continue to write in my Gratitude Journal. Only now, I do it in my head, every minute of every day. I do not limit myself to five lines.
The gift I gave myself that Christmas of the Gratitude Journal changed my life. After struggling with FMS for years, searching for answers and cures, I was finally able to reach a level of acceptance that has dramatically improved my quality of life.
I am better at pacing my activities, listening to my body and have more patience with myself and others. I have found joy at every turn, from appreciating the beauty of nature to improved relationships with family and friends.
I still have muscle pain and fatigue. Those symptom levels remain fairly constant. But that journal opened the door to unconditional happiness with the hand I was dealt. I can look beyond the pain and fatigue and look forward to each day and the joy it will bring. And it all started with a book I saw at a bookstore amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping.