It’s that time of year when we reflect on the past 12 months, evaluating what worked and what didn’t, while considering changes for the year ahead. Everywhere we turn, we encounter discussions about New Year’s resolutions, goal setting, and self-improvement. Just as we’ve wrapped up the holiday indulgence and treats, the pressure to eat healthier, become more physically active, and somehow gain control over our lives with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sets in.

However, it’s seldom as simple as that. Often, these resolutions lack a detailed and gradual plan, leading to a return to old habits by mid-January, when we find ourselves back on the couch, indulging in cookies. In fact, this is such a common occurrence that January 17 is playfully designated as “Ditch Your Resolutions Day.” Moreover, living with a chronic illness can pose additional challenges to even the best-laid plans.

Swap a Word of the Year for Resolutions

A year ago, I decided to skip those resolutions that never quite take hold and instead choose a word or theme for 2023: Joy. No matter what happened, I wanted to focus on continually returning to joy, even during hard times. It turns out that the past year took this as a dare, presenting me with a theme of big changes. And sure, change is part of life, but this much?

No matter where I looked my job, my health, my medication, and so much more, a big change happened. Staying focused on joy amid all these changes was very much a challenge. However, the more these usually unwanted changes were thrust upon me, the better I got at pivoting to my favourite coping mechanism.

Beneath it all — the changes, the struggle, and the joy — was a master class in adapting to the ups and downs of life with chronic illness. Despite several decades of living with RA, it is a lesson I find myself needing to learn again and again.

We like to imagine our journey toward a goal as linear and unimpeded — but life sidetracks, backtracks, then wanders off into the weeds. And if we don’t expect it or forget “stuff” happens, it’s easy to become discouraged, and even give up.

Those changes and surprises happen to us all. However, personality also plays a role. An additional complication in dealing with change is my tendency to push through when I perhaps shouldn’t. As you probably know all too well, this is a recipe for a fight with your body, also known as a flare.

After five decades with RA, much of that time untreated, the only way I’ve ever gotten anything done — a university degree, holding down a job, cleaning the living room — has been by ignoring my body’s messages and moving forward. This frequently led to my body stalling out, then more disappointment, perhaps even depression.

At times, it felt like there was no point to keep going. By the time I dealt with the flare and feelings of discouragement, my goal seemed even further away. Nevertheless, giving up was never an option (a valuable yet occasionally less-than-wise survival mechanism when living with untreated RA). So, I would get back on the horse that threw me, pushed through, and soon have another flare.

These days, I am on a journey to learn how to work smarter and, if not eliminate stalling out with the flare at least reduce their intensity and frequency.

After decades of repeating the same patterns and expecting different results — an exercise often defined as insanity — I finally recognized the need to adapt before the depression hit, perhaps even before the flare-up itself. What a wild idea!

How to Choose Your Word of the Year

This brings me back to the word of the year. It’s a delightful process to spend several days mulling over inspirational words, narrowing down your choices, and making your final decision (then changing your mind a few days later — or is that just me?).

It involves thinking about where you are and where you want to go, what went well or not so well in the past year, and whether there are things within your control that can help you become who you want to be or achieve your goals.

The word of the year is not a goal, it is in the underlying foundation. For instance, if one of your goals is to shed 20 pounds, it necessitates changes in your diet, lifestyle, and the establishment of an exercise routine. However, beneath this goal lies a commitment to your health and strength, which might lead you to choose “health” or “self-care” as your word of the year — a deeper, more encompassing concept.

My word this year is space. Giving myself the space to take care of my physical and mental health, space to think, space to spend time with family and friends, space to have fun, and space to be creative. These different categories of space will help me complete my goals of writing a book and getting more balance in my life.

To ensure your word of the year (or resolution if you prefer that approach) stays with you, and works as you intended, you need to be able to adapt. Challenges, hiccups, and sidetracks are as inevitable as the sun rising in the east. When they arise, take the necessary time to deal with them — whether a family crisis, flare, new job, or whatever obstacle gets in your way.

Once you emerge on the other side, remember to take a deep breath, revaluate your alignment with your word or your goal, and think about how to get back on track while accommodating that changes that have occurred.

Last year, this meant I needed to continually return to choosing joy — and let me tell you, it was deliberate and, at times, a difficult choice. I recognized that I feel better when there’s more joy in my life, which served as a big motivation in getting off my butt and doing the work needed to connect to this.

This year, my commitment to myself is to create space. It’s only January and I know that this year will include times when I’ll have no space for myself, the book, the fun, or anything else I intend to do. But I also know that when my life goes into the weeds, it will eventually disentangle itself and get back on the main path. When it does, it will be up to me to make the choice: give up on this commitment I am making to myself or adapt and get back on track. I hope to always choose the latter.

What’s your word this year?

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