After years of pushing myself, I’m learning to accept my limitations

In life with COPD, it's enough to simply do what I can

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by Caroline Gainer |

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As we go through life, we face many changes. Some are happy, like the birth of a child or the accomplishment of a goal, while others, like illness and physical limitations, are harder to embrace. Such experiences are on my mind because I’m preparing for my yearly wellness check. In times past, I would’ve been sure I’d pass with flying colors, but now I dread what doctors might find.

As someone with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), my lungs can’t move oxygen to my blood and eliminate carbon dioxide efficiently. Breathing requires much more energy for me than it does for people with normal lung function. That’s part of why I can’t do everything I used to do. I suspect another reason is the abuse my body has taken over the years.

Reflecting on years of physical demands

I’ve put my body through many challenges, beginning in eighth grade when I decided to try out for the cheerleading team. Not only did the sport require a lot of practice and nerves of steel, but I often had to perform while deprived of sleep.

I remember my girlfriend’s mother waking us up for school after we cheered at our first away game. As I sat up in bed, pain coursed through my body. I didn’t think I could move, but I gave myself a pep talk. How could I not get ready for school when my friend’s father was the principal? The old excuses wouldn’t work with him — not that my father would’ve allowed me to use them, anyway.

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I shouldn’t have to fight so hard to live with COPD

The next five years brought many similar mornings. Some of my aches and pains likely resulted from falls and overextensions, but I always felt that the rewards of cheerleading outweighed the downside. In fact, I gained so much from my extracurricular activities that, after I started teaching as an adult, I decided to sponsor clubs and coach sports teams. My adult life looked similar to my adolescence, except that I was now the one making sure everyone was up and ready for school.

Although I stepped away from coaching during my last 12 years of teaching, I remained active with other after-school activities. However, I began experiencing episodes of extreme fatigue that resulted in me sleeping for the better part of two days. I remember feeling like I was lying when I called in sick, but I just didn’t have the energy to get dressed, let alone go to work. I eventually retired from teaching when I realized I no longer had the stamina to pursue my profession.

But I still needed a reason to get up each morning, so I took a job at a large department store. Because I’m a results-driven person, I soon became a department manager. It was during that time, though, that I was diagnosed with COPD.

Despite my illness, I was able to manage my job because I didn’t have to work for eight hours, five days in a row. My schedule gave me time to recover. But over the years, I began experiencing COPD exacerbations.

One winter, after I’d dealt with numerous sinus infections, flulike events, and other medical issues, my doctor looked me in the eye and said, “Caroline, you’re going to have to stay away from sick people.” I was too worn down to argue with him and resigned from the department store.

I then found myself with time to spare. For a while, I enjoyed my new freedom and traveled, but my fatigue and other symptoms made me less able to do many things over time. Still, I try.

Giving myself permission to slow down

I recently sought to change my routine to allow me enough time to recover from activities or loss of sleep. I’m trying to be happy with whatever I’m able to accomplish and hope that I’m on my way to accepting my physical limitations. It’s time to stop berating myself for being “lazy,” “no good,” and all the other pejoratives I’ve used from time to time.

One of my friends sent me a quote saying people with chronic illnesses don’t pretend to be sick; they pretend to be well. That seems to reflect my intention to focus on doing the best I can.

Years ago, my father asked me if I’d tried my best after I received a B in algebra. I said no. He looked at me and explained, “If you’d said yes, then I would’ve told you I was proud, no matter the grade.” Those of us with COPD need to be happy with doing our best, even if we’re not accomplishing as much as we once did.

So instead of dreading this wellness visit and worrying about potential declines in my health, I need to embrace the appointment and appreciate that medical professionals will perform all the necessary tests to assess my present condition.

Note: COPD News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of COPD News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.