Chronic Pain and Illness in Your 20s and 30s

Tired looking manI’ve written a few times about the experience of having multiple sclerosis. Truth be told—as a woman older than 50—when getting together with friends in my age range, we’ve all got some condition or other: fibromyalgia, bad knees, arthritis, diabetes, etc.

Decades ago, we met for coffee to talk about our love lives, careers, college, and next weekend’s ski trip. Nowadays, the topics have shifted to gluten-free diets, Neurontin versus Elavil for chronic pain, and sharing the name of our great new internist.

I’m in good company. Even though we are all active, busy, happy professionals with families and friends, it has become normal for physical and emotional challenges to creep into our conversations. If I were in my twenties or thirties, talking about neuropathic pain or the effects of hormones on moods would be virtually unheard of.

Those are the years young adults are generally focused on the building blocks of their lives, present and future—embarking on a career path, marrying, starting a family, buying a home, traveling, and maybe a pub crawl or two. All of these events usually make up the important concerns of most people in their early thirties or younger. Add a chronic illness into the mix, and you may wonder where you fit in with your peers.

“I met someone new, and she seems great. I’m not sure when or how to tell her I have Lupus. I don’t want to scare her away.”
“Everyone’s going skiing. I’m scheduled for chemo that week.”
“My friends all had tequila shots on my birthday. I couldn’t because alcohol won’t mix well with my meds.”
“I don’t look sick. I wonder if people think I’m faking. I’m tired of explaining it.”
“Will I be able to get married and have kids?”
“No one in my group understands what it’s like to be bipolar. Sometimes I can’t pull myself out of bed to hang out with everyone.”

These are just a few genuine scenarios experienced by those I spoke with. They worry about what the future holds, their friends can’t relate, and they may experience sadness when considering possible limitations—especially compared to their friends and family. It’s not pleasant to feel like you are complaining all the time, turning down fun plans, or feeling like you have to explain your reality to the people around you. While they may care deeply, they can’t really relate.

Some ways of coping can include:

  • Take inventory of what you can do. What are your unique talents, skills, and abilities? It is so easy to focus on deficits, and it may take a little practice to see the ways in which you are doing well.
  • Remember that you are a person, not a condition. A diagnosis is something you have, not something you are, even though there are days it can feel all-encompassing. You may find that others see you differently when they learn of your diagnosis. “Ugh, that’s awful!” and “Oh my gosh, you are so brave!” are a couple of common reactions. Both come from a lack of understanding. What matters most is how you see yourself.
  • Find an outlet for your thoughts and feelings. Talk to a trusted friend, keep a journal, write a blog, or talk to a therapist who specializes in chronic conditions and life transitions. Holding it in generally never works and often makes problems feel bigger than they are. Talk it out to be able to free your energy from the weight of stress and worry. Some normal feelings are fear, sadness, and anger. It’s okay to feel and express your feelings.
  • Take care of yourself. This may sound painfully obvious, but eating right, getting adequate sleep, staying as active (mentally and physically) as you can, and following your doctor’s advice are all ways you can feel better. Compliance with the health care plan can feel oppressive and tiresome, but it can help you function at your best level.

If you are a young adult facing the challenges that come with a physical or mental health diagnosis, you still have possibilities for a full life with love, joy, and success. Define yourself outside of your illness, and the rest may follow.

© Copyright 2011 by Tammy Fletcher, M.A., therapist in San Diego, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • AB

    AB

    June 22nd, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    I’m 21 yo and have this terrible back ache that stings me every now and then. It happens often when I’m out for too long or am moving around a lot. It’s been around for like2-3 years now and I have consulted many doctors and none could find any issue. My mom thinks it’s all in my mind. But why would I want to subject myself to pain?! It’s there I know I can’t even prove it though.

  • Cameron Dunn

    Cameron Dunn

    June 22nd, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    “A diagnosis is something you have, not something you are, even though there are days it can feel all-encompassing.” Exactly. My friend suffers from bipolar disorder and she refuses to allow her whole life to revolve around it.

    She has a great attitude, and doesn’t want to be seen as the bipolar girl first and Gail second (I’m not going to use her real name). You are not your condition.

  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    June 22nd, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    Before something like this hits you never think that it could happen to you. And then it does and you wonder how you will survive. But you know what? You do. You find the strength inside that you never knoew that you had. You discover that your friends are a whole lot more caring and thoughtful than you ever thought. And you learn that even though this may not be the life that you envisioned for yourself, it is the only one that you have been handed and you have to make the most of it.

  • Tammy Fletcher

    Tammy Fletcher

    June 22nd, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    Thank you all so much for your thoughts – keep them coming! So often we can feel we are the only ones experiencing challenges like this, and knowing others understand is a great help.

  • StacyL

    StacyL

    June 23rd, 2011 at 4:31 AM

    I have a friend, a ballet dancer none the less,who was struck in the evry prime of her life with MS. No real warning signs, just one day she could not get up out of bed. And now her husband can’t deal with it so he has left and left her wondering how she will manage on her own. I know that she will make it through this but the sad thing is that she does not know this and that scares me. I do not know how to support her through this so any input is greatly appreciated and welcomed.

  • Rupert Mannin

    Rupert Mannin

    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    ^^My suggestion would be just to stand by your friend, you know…give her moral support and ask her to be educated about her condition. If she has knowledge about we condition then she will find it much easier to go on. Also,let her not lose hope about life and keep telling her-Where there’s a will there’s always a way! :)

  • Isabella

    Isabella

    November 28th, 2016 at 2:48 PM

    I was diagnosed with Lupus at 13, I am now 24. When I was a teenager it affected me but I could over come it forget about and move on. But now I have more bad days than good, and i find it hard to cope. I have a husband and a son who depend on me and I have made it to a point with my lupus that I can not be the mother or wife I need to be. I can no longer work and most days I can’t care for my son. Around the holidays things with my emotions get worse because I see how my sickness effects my family, and I realize how little I contribute. I am at a point in my life that I wonder if this is it, will it just get worse and worse until I die, will I be so miserable until then that I can’t function. I really enjoyed the article and it did bring me hope, however I ask that if you read this you pray for me, because my life is in God’s hands and my faith in him is my hope.

  • Charlotte

    Charlotte

    July 19th, 2017 at 10:31 AM

    Thank you for this article. It was really great to read and I definitely liked the idea of writing down an inventory of what I CAN do. Often I get so caught up in the things I can’t, that it makes everything feel really miserable so I’m going off to try this right now :) Thank you.

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