When I heard the words “ankylosing spondylitis” five years ago, I felt relief. After seven years of pain and too many doctor visits to count, I had a diagnosis. At the same time, however, I feared the effects a severe chronic illness would have on my life. Little did I know that ankylosing spondylitis (AS) would teach me so much about life, myself, and my purpose.

These are the 10 things I have learned as a woman living with AS.

Chronic illness can be invisible to the average person. Someone may look healthy on the outside, but inside they are fighting a battle against pain, hopelessness, and fear. A person’s outward appearance doesn’t tell their whole story. Most of us are battling something. This disease has taught me to be more patient, supportive, and understanding of others.

At times, it may seem the people closest to you aren’t supportive. In reality, they just don’t understand what it’s like to live with a chronic condition. Don’t fault them for that. Accept their love and support. They are doing their best to show they care.

In just a few short years, the reach of various autoimmune communities on Facebook and Instagram has grown exponentially. These platforms are running rampant with support groups and healing stories. Finding someone to relate to can help you feel less alone. To connect with others on social media, search hashtags such as #AS #ankylosingspondylitis #autoimmunedisease #autoimmuneprotocol.

Find people and support groups that align with your ideology. Shop around and try a few out before you start investing your energy and time. Some support groups can have a negative effect on you and bring you down. Engage with like-minded people who motivate and lift you up.

You may be scared to share your story with others. However, it can be healing — for both you and the person you’re opening up to. Ten years ago, I would have given anything to find others living with this disease who were willing to tell their stories. When I couldn’t find anyone, I started to tell my own story. Since then, I’ve gotten so many thank you emails from people who’ve read my story. They said it offered them hope. Sharing your story can also help you build your support system and raise awareness of AS.

You know yourself better than anyone else. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t disregard it. You’re in charge of your body and treatment plan. You have the right to ask questions about the care you receive. We’re all unique, and our approach to health should be too. Do your research, ask questions, and listen to your gut.

It’s easy to get mad at our bodies — especially when we’re in pain.

Nurture your body by eating unprocessed, nutrient-dense food and exercising at a level that works for you. Our bodies are amazing machines. When we respect them, they can do great things.

As women, we tend to overextend ourselves. We often put others first. Know your limit, and know it’s OK to rest and ask for help. To be there for our loved ones, we must take care of ourselves.

It may sound crazy, but I’m thankful for my AS diagnosis. It has enriched my life, and I’m forever grateful. Honoring your struggles can be difficult, but there is much to learn if you’re open and thankful. Practicing gratitude every day highlights the good in our lives. It may seem challenging, but the more you practice, the easier it becomes.

Statistics aren’t your reality. You can still pursue your dreams and achieve your goals. Your AS doesn’t define you (even though it can feel consuming at times). Don’t forget all the parts that make you who you are.

Chronic illness can be our greatest teacher if we open ourselves up to this idea. When life throws an obstacle our way, we have the option to either fight or honor it. If you shift your perspective and realize you’re still in control of your life, you can enjoy a quality of life beyond what you imagine.

Katie Faison is a mother, designer, and certified transformational nutrition coach. She has a passion for everything health, wellness, and nontoxic living. Through her own struggle and healing from ankylosing spondylitis and chronic iritis, she started her blog as a way to share her story and help others. Visit her website, wholelovelylife.com, and follow her on Instagram.