What My Chronic Illness Taught Me

Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash

“When you have your health, you have everything,” writes American author Augusten Burroughs. His words ring true today as I reflect on our current global health crisis and my personal healing journey.

For the first 18 years of my life, I took my health for granted.

I ate whatever I wanted.

I hardly exercised or spent time in nature.

I worked myself to the ground.

I made little time for self-care.

I didn’t think I needed to change my lifestyle because I felt fine…until I didn’t. One month into college, I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), an autonomic nervous system disorder that turned my life upside down with debilitating symptoms ranging from pre-fainting spells to extreme dizziness, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and more. I couldn’t take my body for granted any longer and — after all of the conventional treatments failed — I decided to transform my lifestyle.

I ditched ultra-processed food for real, whole foods. I started exercising and spending time outdoors. I practiced active relaxation like meditation, journaling and yoga. I worked on my mental, emotional and spiritual health — which improved my physical health as well because they are all connected. Five years later, I feel 95 percent better thanks to lifestyle change on top of other healing modalities like acupuncture and neurorehabilitation. My healing journey has radically changed my life and helped me develop my own philosophy on health, which I present to you here:

1. There is no finish line. Every time I learned about a new healing modality, I was convinced that THIS WAS IT. “This [insert diet, medication, practitioner, program, etc.] will make me 100 percent healthy. I will be able to return to normal life and not have to worry about health any longer.” Wrong. Health is something we must constantly work on. There is no finish line. As the saying goes: “If you do not make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.” Until recently, I was not mentally prepared to accept the fact that health is a lifelong-journey. But once I did, I was liberated from the disappointment of the illusive finish line I never seemed able to reach.

2. No one can make you healthy except for you. It is so tempting to outsource your health to the practitioner, medication or treatment program — to let external forces dictate your wellbeing. If a treatment works, amazing! If not, it’s not your fault. This mindset can breed victim-mentality and imprison you to the whims of the doctor or disease. At the end of the day, you are the only person responsible for your wellbeing. You can enlist helpers along the way, but they can only help — only you can heal yourself.

3. It’s not just about physical health. For most of my healing saga, I was hyper-focused on alleviating physical symptoms. I thought that once my lightheadedness, fatigue, insomnia or [insert physical symptom] went away, I would be good to go. I didn’t know that physical health is just one dimension of wellness. There are mental, emotional and spiritual components to health (among others), and they are all interrelated. You could be 100 percent physically healthy and severely depressed or spiritually flying with a physical disability. For me to achieve optimal wellness, I had to pay attention to my mental, emotional and spiritual health. And you know what? The happier and more connected I felt, the better my body felt too.

4. Health is not all or nothing. When I learned that there are multiple dimensions to wellness, I breathed a sigh of relief. It meant that I didn’t have to reach “perfect” physical health to achieve optimal wellness. I simply had to develop the various dimensions of health to the best of my ability. That meant working hard to become as physically functional, mentally strong, emotionally balanced and spiritually connected as possible. But it also meant accepting exactly where I am and not expecting perfection.

5. Acceptance does not equal complacency. I spent so much time fighting against my symptoms because I was scared that once I accepted where I was, I would be sick forever. I remember once telling my mom, “In a year from now, I will be completely healthy.” She told me not to give myself a deadline, and she was right. In my frantic quest for control, I was in a sense fighting against my own body. Our bodies and minds are doing the best they can at every single moment, and we need to be their ally — not their adversary. I eventually learned that I can accept exactly where I am and still take steps to heal.

My journey with POTS has taught me so much about resilience, healing and hope — and it’s given me my career. After graduating from journalism school (my life-long passion), I decided to shift gears and pursue my M.S. in Health Education and Behavior from the University of Florida. I plan to become a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES®) and use my communication skillset to help people live healthy, flourishing lives. I hope to inspire people with my story and empower them to take ownership over their wellbeing.

Yet it shouldn’t take a life-altering illness to make us take health seriously. Luckily, it doesn’t have to. For better or for worse, COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on health in the global arena. People with lifestyle-related chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Even if you don’t have an official diagnosis, research shows that the majority of Americans are metabolically unhealthy, leaving them vulnerable to worse COVID-19 outcomes. Therefore, it is crucial to examine our lifestyles now and commit to improving them — whether it’s through diet, sleep, exercise, stress reduction or something more. Let the pandemic be a wake-up call to safeguard our health and actively work on promoting wellness in body, mind and soul.

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