During my first five years with ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome), I saw a wonderful psychologist who specialized in chronic illness. Her favorite question – often asked at every visit – was, “What are you looking forward to?” She explained to me that it had two purposes.
First, she thought this question was the perfect test to differentiate clinical depression from other kinds of chronic illness. Since her own grown son had ME/CFS, it infuriated her that medical professionals – including many of her own colleagues – were constantly questioning whether ME/CFS was really depression (this was about 12 years ago). She said that if she asked her question to someone who was clinically depressed, he or she usually could not come up with anything they were looking forward to and, in fact, didn’t want to do anything. In contrast, she said that when she asked this question of someone living with ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, or Lyme, they would usually respond with a long list of things they wanted to do, if only they could.
The second purpose of her question was to get her chronically ill patients looking forward and thinking about the good things in their lives. When you get to that point where you are “sick of feeling sick” (as we all do), this question prompts you to take a step back, away from the intricacies of your daily symptoms, and think of your life in broader terms. What’s going on in your life? What is coming up with your friends and family? In spite of ME/CFS symptoms, what kind of good things are you looking forward to?
Discouragement When Living with ME/CFS
During ME/CFS treatment, long after I stopped seeing that wonderful psychologist (who is now, alas, retired), I have continued to use her favorite question at times when I am feeling down. My first step is usually to flip through my Joy Journal, a journal I have kept off and on over the years since I got sick, where I jot down things that brought me joy each day. Often, they are small things, like sunshine, a hug from my kids, a piece of dark chocolate, or a fabulous book. That helps to remind me of all the small joys that occur in my everyday life — even on the days that seem dark and routine.
Next, I take the question to heart and really think about what’s coming up in my life. Maybe I am looking forward to some big thing, like a holiday or special occasion, but those kinds of events usually also carry some stress over how I will manage my energy by pacing. Often, the real things I am looking forward to are smaller things: the arrival of spring, the return of a favorite TV show that my husband and I enjoy, a rare lunch out with my closest friends, or the new release of a book by my favorite author.
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Just like my psychologist told me all those years ago, this question reminds me of all the things that are good in my life, all the things coming up, all the things I am looking forward to, big and small. It’s a way to re-center yourself and pull back from the web of misery that we all fall into once in a while.
Try it yourself – right now or once a week or whenever you feel discouraged or dissatisfied. If you truly can’t think of anything you are looking forward to, then take my psychologist’s words to heart and consider seeing a professional – perhaps you are suffering from clinical depression (and if you are too ill to leave the house, there are counselors specializing in chronic illness who can work with you via Skype).
However, for most of us, this simple exercise will help us to remember the little things that bring us joy, to be grateful for what we have, and to remind us of the things we are looking forward to. If you are still feeling down, take concrete steps to remedy that – act on some of those small joys – make yourself a cup of your favorite tea, watch a show or movie that is uplifting or funny, or lie in a chair out on your deck or in your yard (or even just open your window) to look up at the sky and listen to the birds. Before you know it, your spirits will be lifted.
So, what are you looking forward to?
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on May 9, 2016 and was updated on December 10, 2019.
Suzan Jackson, a frequent ProHealth contributor, is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for 13 years. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS, but one is now fully recovered after 10 years of illness and the other is in college, also dealing with three tick infections. She writes two blogs: Learning to Live with ME/CFS (with an emphasis on LIVE!) and Book By Book. You can follow Sue on Twitter at @livewithmecfs.