Coping with Chronic Illness
I have had a personal and professional relationship with chronic illness for a long time. I will share that when I was a teenager, I began to experience chronic back pain that I have dealt with my entire life. I have had many back surgeries and countless treatments for the pain. I understand and empathize with the frustration of dealing with retractable pain. I have used imagery and hypnotherapy to help cope with that pain.
In my 20’s during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I had the honor and privilege of working for one of Broward County’s hospital as one of the first AIDS specific social workers. Sadly, many of the patients we helped died. This was before the HIV cocktails we have today. Some of those patients are alive today because they had the fortitude to say no to the medical team that said they were going to die. From Broward General, I went to work for Health Crisis Network. Miami- Dade county’s HIV/AIDS social service agency. HCN worked to educate the public about HIV/AIDS. We provided individual and group counseling to people and their families struggling with HIV and AIDS. And sadly many died. Families learned how to cope with their loved one’s illness and their deaths.
In my 30’s and beyond, I had the privilege of working with older Holocaust survivors. Not only were they dealing with the trauma of the early life but they were dealing with heart disease and cancer. As a clinical case manager, I helped them deal their illnesses. But the saddest were the survivors who had dementia. Dementia came in the form of Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, lewy-body dementia. For some survivors, they were able to forget their past Holocaust experiences. For other survivors, they were perpetually locked in the trauma of concentration camps and Nazi guards. Loved ones that were trying to care for them were someone to be feared. I was able to be an emotional outlet for those caregivers needing someone to witness what they were going through.
In my 40’s, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a long battle. Some months and years, she did well and was able to function and have a wonderful life. She met her grandchildren and watched them grow up. She and my father were able to travel and socialize with friends. But other months and years, the cancer came back. She was perpetually exhausted and worn down by the cancer. A new drug was tried and she was able to return to her life. But then there weren’t any more drugs to be used. It didn’t take very long before the cancer had spread to her major organs. I was with her in the end. I empathize with the long sleepless nights and the worry. She slipped away and took her last breath. I learned how to live without her physical presence.
In my 50’s, I found myself being my father’s caregiver. My dad was not an easy man to deal with. The Ten Commandments say honor your mother and father. How do you do that when your parent makes it difficult to respect him or even to like him. But I found a way because he was my dad. He had his own demons and I had to find empathy for him.
Now we have COVID. Another epidemic. It seems that during this time, I have learned how to just be with someone affected by covid. I am about to start my training for chaplaincy again. I will walk through Jackson. I will do my best to be there for those patients because that’s why I have been put on the earth to do. I am a healer- that is my life’s purpose.
During the AIDS crisis, I learned that those people with a spiritual practice fared better than those without. Sometimes the only thing a caregiver can do is be with their loved one during this time and know they aren’t alone as they walk this journey. If I can help you navigate this journey, please contact me chayalernerlcsw.com