Dealing with Difficult Landmarks and Anniversaries

This is a post I wrote especially for ProHealth’s Inspirational Corner and first appeared there about a month ago

Celebrating anniversaries has become a big part of modern culture, whether it’s birthday’s, wedding days, saint’s days or other important life events. We also tend to have bigger celebrations for particular numbers, be it 10, 18, 21, 25 or 50 etc. But what happens when those numbers apply to illness? We’re so used to marking time that it’s hard not to notice our illness anniversary especially if it hit’s one of those special numbers. But noticing it usually just brings us pain and frustration.

Marking time is a tool that’s designed for celebration, but when we have a chronic illness we can turn that tool into something that damages us, and that is not what it is intended for. It’s kind of like taking a hammer and because there are no nails in sight deliberately hitting your thumb. We’re so used to using the tool it’s kind of like a reflex. However, if we reflexively hit our thumb with a hammer we’d soon recognise that we were causing ourselves harm for no reason and that’s exactly what we need to understand about our illness landmarks. Even if we can’t help noticing the time aspect we can avoid the damage by being careful about the meaning we give to it.

I’m not saying that it’s not a natural part of our humanity to have thoughts about all that we have missed out on, on our landmarks days. Nobody could judge somebody for feeling sad about the fact that for the last 10 years their life has been very limited. But we can learn to deal with these feelings masterfully or we can allow ourselves to hurt ourselves more with the meaning we choose to focus on.

I always aim to accept any feeling that come up with compassion for myself, allow them to flow, (because I know that way they change) and then I either aim to let go of the thoughts or challenge the meaning that’s causing the pain. There are several ways we can add meaning that are not only painful but really quite mistaken:

  1. Predicting the future based on the past

For example, I’ve had this illness twice, the first time I recovered after 5 years; this time after 8 years, full recovery still eludes me. It can be tempting to think that because it hasn’t happened yet it’s not going to happen, but there’s a strong chance that that would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without a belief that I can continue to move towards better and better health, I’d soon give up on the practices that support my well-being and I’d have far less a chance of moving forward without them! Nobody knows the future. If believing in a positive future helps me in the here and now, then that’s all I need. I also choose to focus on the fact that while my life may have been restricted for 13 years, I also have 13 years of learning what I can employ to make the future more positive.

  1. A skewed focus on the negative

For example, ‘life has been terrible because I’ve had a chronic illness’. Yes, I’ve suffered, and yes, I’ve lost and missed out on things, but actually life hasn’t been all that bad. There have been a lot of very good moments too. Unfortunately, when we have little energy to retrieve our memories we tend to remember in a more generalised way and because of this we can get an overall impression of bad. But we can choose to pay more attention to positives to balance this up. When I look back, I deliberately aim to look at what I’ve enjoyed and what I’ve achieved. It doesn’t serve me to focus on the bad. One way to overcome this natural skew is to keep an achievement jar. Every day or every week write down the things you feel good about having achieved and put them in a jar. Perhaps, each month look through them and pick out the best to put in an annual jar. Then on your anniversary take them out and read them! Alternatively, you could keep a gratitude journal or a record of all your little moments of happiness and joy.

  1. Other people are having it better

Everybody has challenges in life and while it might not seem fair that other people can still enjoy their physicality you have no idea of the hidden pain that may be in their life, what they have already had to overcome or what life still has in store for them. I strongly believe that our happiness depends on how we respond to our situation; we have the power to control that, so when I do pay attention to my landmarks I like to recognise what a great job I’m doing at responding well to my challenges. I very much doubt that people who’ve had it easy so far will be quite as skilled as me at making themselves happy!

So, when those anniversaries and landmarks come around, remind yourself that you don’t have to pay attention to them if you don’t want to, they are a tool for celebration not for pain, but if you do choose to recognise them remember that you can also choose what meaning that you give them!

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1 thought on “Dealing with Difficult Landmarks and Anniversaries”

  1. Great post, never thought about it that way! Modern society does put a premium on happiness; anything less than or in between is seen as a failure. Experiencing pain or unhappiness during an especially festive day just exacerbates the seeming ‘problem’. Thanks for the reminder that we have the power to provide meaning within our own lives!


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