What is Chronic Illness?

Chronic illness is not a cold that goes away with sleep, chicken noodle soup, and warm beverages after 2 days; it is not acute, but chronic, persistent, and lasting longer than 3 months. It affects your health and well-being – any part(s) of the body, ranging from your head down to your toes – and can change your life by affecting your ability to complete routine tasks and lead the life you hoped to live. While you may feel alone or fear that your loved one is feeling alone on their path to healing, know that you’re in good company.

Chronic conditions are far more common than most people expect, with more than 45% of Americans having at least one form of chronic condition or disability. Some of the most common chronic conditions are chronic pain, diabetes, morbid obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, cancer, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, gastrointestinal (GI) disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), dementia, and psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety.

According to the National Health Council,

  • 45% of Americans have some form of generally incurable and ongoing disease. That’s more than 141 million people just in the United States alone. More than half of those affected have two or more conditions.
  • 7 out of 10 deaths in the U.S. are due to chronic diseases, most commonly heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • People with chronic conditions receive only 56% of recommended preventative healthcare services. Many organizations, such as the World Health Organization, believe that a large percentage of chronic disorders could be eliminated by doing more preventative care rather than reactive.
  • “Chronic disease reaches into our homes, our hearts, and our wallets.” More than 75% of all healthcare costs are due to chronic conditions.
  • More than 8% of people under the age of 18 have something that prevents them from participating fully in daily activities.
  • Senior citizens (65+) carry the greatest disease burdens, but this is not to say that anyone of any age can acquire a chronic condition.

Chronic conditions may be visible or invisible to others. 96% of people with disabilities have “invisible” disabilities, meaning that they don’t use a wheelchair or other assistive devices and they may look perfectly healthy to the naked eye. Disabilities may be congenital or acquired later in life, expected or unexpected. They look and behave differently in everyone who lives with them, but they are consistent in their ability to change lives for the worse if not treated or coped with effectively. There are many things that stand in the way of getting great help, though. Especially for the “invisible illnesses” such as psychiatric disorders, chronic pain, and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders – things that often cannot be seen or felt directly by others – people sometimes encounter resistance and stigma when they seek help. Others may not believe their pain or its severity. They may not be able to empathize because they don’t experience that same feeling themselves. The people who live with these conditions may feel alone because others sometimes don’t know what to say, so they slink out the back door in the hopes of not having to say anything at all. These are fears completely understandable – it’s terrifying to hear that someone you love is in chronic pain or distress and you can’t do much about it – but these fears cannot stand in the way of someone’s ability to get help or receive love and compassion.

One metaphor that is often used to describe chronic illness is the Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandino. She came up with this while at a diner with her best friend in order to help her understand what it was like to live in her shoes.

“…The difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to. The healthy have the luxury of a life without choices, a gift most people take for granted. Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people… When you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of ‘spoons’…

When [you] are sick, you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many ‘spoons’ you are starting with… tasks of the day, including the most simple… each one [costs you] a spoon… You cannot simply throw clothes on when you are sick… [You] need to choose [how you spend your] day wisely, since when your ‘spoons’ are gone, they are gone. Sometimes you can borrow against tomorrow’s ‘spoons’, but just think about how hard tomorrow will be with less ‘spoons’… You do not want to run low on ‘spoons’, because you never know when you will truly need them.

Don’t worry. I see this as a blessing. I have been forced to think about everything I do. Do you know how many spoons people waste everyday? I don’t have room for wasted time, or wasted ‘spoons’ and I chose to spent this time with you.”

Chronic illnesses affect everyone either directly or indirectly. It’s time we do a better job of talking about them, preventing and treating them, and truly healing from them.