How My Chronic Illness Taught Me to Live My Best Life

I really love my life. When the sun is out, I go outside in the morning and soak up its rays. I pause frequently to admire the beauty of my cats when they stretch or sleep or generally do anything. I take the greatest pleasure in every bite of food, and I make sure there’s extra butter or cheese or anything I’m eating at that moment. When I go out with my friends, I always pull out my camera to record our memories – I love reliving those moments over and over again throughout the week. Even my designing and knitting is both fun and soothing, and my yarn is comforting and smooth.

If you ever meet me, I am usually in a great mood, and most people tell me my enthusiasm for life is contagious. In fact, even if I share the fact that I have a chronic illness, most people quickly forget, and I genuinely enjoy that love and not fear or weariness of life is what people remember about me.

I was not raised to appreciate as many moments of life as I can. While I certainly have happy childhood memories, my home was not a happy one. Because of that, I shut myself down, and my high school and college memories are dampened by the fact that I was too shy and afraid to really enjoy myself fully. Luckily, even my fearful self is still braver than most, and I moved to New York City to pursue a career in television and film, and I loved it.

But the industry isn’t kind, and even the exhilarating moments were still harder than most. The 12-15 hour days/6 days a week, the hour long commutes (or more, depending on location), the rigidity on set, and the incredibly high stress levels aren’t great even for healthy people. I remember one day taking the subway home, and I was so tired, I hurt all over, and I was miserable – and I noticed that everyone around me was miserable, too. I’m sure some of them at least were going to a happier place and the ride was merely a waiting period, but I’m sure too many were like me, and chronically unhappy. That subway ride changed my whole life.

The frustrating thing about being sick is that before you begin treatment, you encounter a series of doctors that tell you if you just lowered your stress level, you’ll feel better.

The even more frustrating thing is that they’re right.

Of course I’m not anti-medicine; it has saved my life many times and continues to do so. But that subway ride forced me to look at my life. Why was I so unhappy? In what ways could I change?

Like most people, I was resistant to removing stress from my life. Was I supposed to dump my boyfriend, quit my job, move out of New York City, and somehow change the family dynamics I’d grown up with for decades?

I started with mindset books that would help me appreciate the moment, live in the now, not get bothered by what’s going on around me. To get rid of my panicked, negative, and fear driven thoughts, I began journaling stream of consciousness style every day. When you start writing over and over again things like, “I’m not happy, and I want to leave,” you start to noticeĀ  your life in a new way, even if you have no idea how to proceed.

Mindset training teaches you that you can’t control the conditions around you, that it’s pointless to try, and that you can only control yourself. As I meditated, as I journaled, as I really began to take care of my health, I found that I still had no general idea what to do to get better, but I could see the next step – and it was an obvious, no-brainer step to take.

One of my favorite motivational essays is from James Altucher, and it’s the idea that if we just try even 1% each day, we can change our lives in 6 months. I wasn’t ready to make drastic changes in a day, but I was prepared to make small changes and find little things to appreciate about my situation. Within 6 months of my daily mindset work, I had quit my job, I was living in Memphis, and I had broken up with my boyfriend. Within another 6 months, I had come off of all of my medication, and I was starting to socialize again rather than being mostly bedridden.

I’m definitely not saying that I cured my chronic illness or that it’s all psychosomatic.

The Tao of Pooh mentions a Chinese saying that translates as, “One disease, long life; no disease, short life.” I’ve seen healthy people get knocked out by a common cold. They can’t handle the symptoms that I deal with daily and generally consider to be a normal part of life. I’ve seen people refuse to accept their recent stroke or heart attack and just get terribly depressed and literally stare at the wall for hours on end.

Sure, some days are better than others, but I know my illness, and I know how to listen to my body. I eat only what feels good, which is usually foods made from scratch. If I’m tired, I sleep. If my muscles hurt, I take a bathe. If I’m feeling great, I go out for a walk or find an event.

I see so-called healthy people who constantly push their limits and are therefore sleep deprived or in physical or mental pain of some kind. While I know they don’t experience pain and fatigue on the same level as I do, I genuinely don’t understand the general acceptance and even encouragement in society of abusing your body.

I’m off my medicine now and my illness is generally considered to be in remission, but it’s not luck – it’s because of my lifestyle.

If I bring in groceries from the car when I’m tired, I can pass out.

If I dance for an extra song at the club when my body needs a break, I’ll have to take a 30 minute break sitting on the curb outside because I can’t breathe.

If I eat something that isn’t good for my body and I’m lucky, I’ll throw up. If I’m not lucky, it feels like saw blades are churning in my stomach.

If I try to run even half a mile, my muscles will seize up, and I will collapse.

I am confronted by my mortality every single day, and while I generally know my limits, I don’t ever let this stop me from living my life. I have accepted my body, and I’m okay with what I can and can’t do. Beyond that, I choose to love every single aspect, not only of my body, but of my life. Maybe I can’t run a marathon in every state in the country, but I can visit every state and meander down the city blocks, finding little shops to pop into, chatting with the natives, and checking out the local art scene – all things that bring me infinitely greater joy anyway. Things are always working out for me, and my illness is just another thing that steers me, gently sometimes, and not so gently at others, towards a happy and fulfilling life.

If you don’t have any sort of chronic pain in your life, I encourage this type of radical self-acceptance and soul searching even more. Life can become routine and comfortable, and years can go by without you even noticing. Maybe you can start by soaking in the sunlight every morning as you drink your morning coffee. If you’re feeling really stuck or despondent or anxious, remember that happiness is a skill, not something that just happens to you. Check out a few more tips below.

  1. Journal. Pick up a notebook, and write 3 pages every morning. Don’t think about what to write, just write the first thing that pops into your head stream of consciousness style. Don’t worry about what you’re writing, but think of it more as a brain dump. Keep writing even if you have nothing else left to write. When you’ve filled 3 pages, go ahead and stop. Don’t read what you wrote.
  2. Be mindful. Pick an activity, like drinking your morning coffee or doing the dishes or walking across the room, and then put all of your focus into that activity. Stop worrying about what you need to do in 5 minutes or in an hour, and focus on your breathing, on your muscles, on what’s happening immediately in front of you. Your mind will get distracted. That’s okay. When you notice that your mind has wandered, just direct it back to your activity.
  3. Choose better. If you’re not in a good place, happiness can seem out of reach – and it probably is for you at the moment. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start moving in that direction. Maybe you’re presented with two bad options, but one probably feels less bad than the other one. Choose the one that’s less bad. Keep choosing better options, even if it’s just slightly better, and soon you’ll begin loving the options that appear in your life.
  4. Stop worrying. Meditating and mindfulness are great and have their place in my daily life, but thoughts are constant – and worrying can be, too. When my mind starts to react and wander, I remind myself of the facts and the opinions of the situation. The fact is that I haven’t heard back from a friend; it is my opinion that my friend must be mad at me. The fact is that I didn’t make a sale this morning; it is my opinion that something must be wrong.
  5. Read. Or listen, however you prefer to get information from books. I have a whole library of mindset books, but I think my favorite to recommend for beginners is Psycho Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. You don’t necessarily need to dive deep into your traumas to start making changes and appreciating your life.

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