Does Living With Chronic Illness Prepare You For Pregnancy?by Julie Cerrone Croner Patient Advocate
Because I’ve lived with a chronic illness for several years now, there are certain things that I've grown accustomed to. Fatigue, pain, pacing myself, canceling plans, a strict diet — these are all are normal to me. Little did I know all this would prepare me for one of life’s momentous experiences.
In my first trimester of pregnancy, I was extremely sick. Before I realized I was pregnant, I actually thought I was having a psoriatic arthritis flare. A few days later, I thought perhaps I had a stomach bug. But a week into feeling sick, I started putting two and two together and realized I was pregnant.
I was throwing up five or six times a day, I had absolutely no energy, and I felt like I had been hit by a bus. The headaches made it hard to concentrate, and I lost patience over little things. I work from home, so between meetings I was either in the bathroom or lying on the floor next to my desk.
I was miserable. I thought, many times, “Why do women do this?” only to shake the thought a second later after thinking about the invaluable gift I’d be receiving at the end of it all.
As my first trimester wore on, I began to think, “Wow! Living with a chronic illness has prepared me for this.” Having a chronic illness forced me to grow accustomed to many of the symptoms I was now experiencing in pregnancy. Because of my psoriatic arthritis, I truly think I found pregnancy more manageable.
Here are a few standout ways that living with my chronic illness prepared me for pregnancy.
For a good two and a half months, I honestly didn’t have the energy to sit up straight. If I wasn’t lying down, I was laying my head down on my desk or the nearest counter. The fatigue reminded me of the bad days of psoriatic arthritis flare-ups, when it took effort just to open my eyes. Sure, having no energy at all was frustrating. But the difference between pregnancy and chronic illness was that I knew the fatigue would eventually let up. I knew the exact cause for my symptoms and that once my little baby was here (or perhaps sooner), I would regain some of my energy.
I paced myself and did what I could. I didn’t get upset if I didn’t get everything done. In fact, many things fell off my to-do list because they didn’t seem so important at the time. Having already accepted that I sometimes must pace myself with psoriatic arthritis, I knew I had to give my body the chance to rest when it needed it during pregnancy. Otherwise, I’d end up regretting it!
Aches and pains
My back ached, my head throbbed, and my expanding belly hurt. It would have been extremely easy to reach for an ibuprofen or turmeric capsule, but being pregnant, you’re not encouraged to take any extra substances. So, I muddled through. And to be honest, the pain I was experiencing was nothing in comparison to the pain I had when my complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) wasn’t in remission, or when my avascular necrosis (AVN) peaked, or when my psoriatic arthritis was at its worst. Sure, backaches aren’t the most pleasant of things, but they definitely beat living with the feeling that my leg was on fire for years on end (thanks CRPS and AVN).
I have yet to give birth, but I can’t help but wonder if living with chronic pain will help my labor and delivery process. With my AVN and CRPS, I was constantly in pain. If you look on a pain scale, it’s claimed that the pain from CRPS is more intense than childbirth or losing a limb. So, if that is accurate, I should be able to take childbirth head on!
Yet, I will say that every extremely painful moment I’ve had in my life had to be dealt with in that moment. Of course, I know that labor will be intense and extremely difficult. But having learned to cope with chronic pain, I believe I’m better equipped to handle it. I have my pain-coping tools ready to call upon at a moment's notice.
You must be flexible
Living with a chronic illness forces you to go with the flow. There have been many times I’ve had to cancel plans because of flare-ups. Because of this, my family and friends are more willing to understand and accommodate me in these situations.
During my first trimester, when I was extremely sick, I had to cancel several plans and even a big trip to my close friend’s wedding. Sure, having to cancel these things bothered me (especially the wedding), but I realized I had to put my health first. I knew if I pushed myself too far, it would take me twice as long to recover.
I think others would have gone stir-crazy from being cooped up in the house for so long in poor health, but to me, it was almost normal! I know that being flexible is a way of life, and if I’m not flexible, I’ll just end up frustrating myself.
Not having control
At one time in my life, I was a complete control freak. If things didn’t go my way, I’d freak out. But, disability leave and chronic pain have definitely taught me that — as much as I’d love to have control — I am not always in control of what happens.
Sure, there are things I CAN control; the way I think, the things I eat, the activities I participate in. But at the end of the day, I realize that I need to go with the flow and accept challenges as they come.
Having studied holistic health, I always thought it was strange that pregnant women complained so much of heartburn. In my mind, it was simple — just avoid the foods that are causing it. But once I was pregnant, and noticed anything and everything I ate caused me heartburn, I quickly realized I didn’t have as much control over heartburn as I thought. Because I was accepting of this fact, I was able to adjust. And with some small modifications (like using ginger oil or building a ramp of pillows in bed before I slept), I could soothe the symptoms as best I could.
Accepting the unknown
The biggest thing I believe chronic illness helped me to do is to accept the unknown. When I started on this pregnancy journey, I had no idea what to expect. And to be frank, I was terrified (you can read about it here). But once I realized that I didn’t have control, I started to move toward acceptance.
In a weird way, I really look forward to my doctor and midwife appointments now because they’re the first health appointments where I know the end result will be positive. I’m getting a baby girl at the end of this journey. With my rheumatologist, dermatologist, or pain management appointments, I can’t say that I know I’ll get something positive in the end.
Being able to move past my frustration of physical discomfort, and not focus on every little symptom, has helped me enjoy my pregnancy so much more. And honestly, I truly believe I have my chronic illness to thank for that!
I don’t know how my pregnancy story ends yet. Will I have a complicated birth and then a huge flare-up of my psoriatic arthritis? Or will I have a dream birth that ends up with me happy as can be and in complete remission? Only God knows that answer now. I won’t know until the time comes.
Until then, I need to support my body, be flexible, control what is in my control, and live as happily as I can. I know all the discomforts, pains, and frustrations I have during my pregnancy will be worth it. I can’t wait to hold my little one, look into her eyes, and know how just worth every moment of pregnancy it was.