For the month of November, I am taking each day to highlight some element in my life that I want to express my gratitude about. This could be something deeply personal or just a passing appreciation for something more superficial.
Having a chronic illness is no fun.
I know that’s a bit of a shocker for anyone reading this, especially if you have a chronic illness/disability. That said, having a chronic illness did bring about a positive change in my life: I think it forced me to rethink my life and my health and make important changes.
I am not about to turn this post into inspiration porn (don’t worry, that link is safe for work), but I do want to express gratitude for the wake-up call my MS gave me. I call it my “rock bottom” because it forced me to make some decisions about the direction I wanted to take physically, mentally, and emotionally. I do, however, wish it hadn’t taken a chronic illness diagnosis to make these changes
I would be more than happy to give back my illness and keep all the healthy changes if given a chance.
Prior to the Diagnosis
To understand why I am grateful for my current health, it’s best to compare it to where I was physically prior to my diagnosis.
I’ve hinted at my state in previous posts throughout the blog, but I never fully discussed my mental and physical state. Partially because it was never necessary to the post, but mostly because I was ashamed of where I was at in life.
I was delusional about my physical health. It’s easy to see that on the other side, but living in the middle of it I thought I was healthy. I would eat vegan, run, do yoga, try to meditate when the time would allow, but essentially go through the motions of what I thought was healthy living.
And then I would wonder why I wasn’t losing weight. I justified it by saying this to myself repeatedly:
Ah, that’s just muscle being put on. Muscle weighs more than fat.
I am just stressed out right now, so once I get beyond this period, I will be fine. I need to eat like this because it’s how I am coping with my stress.
Apparently, my 5’3″ body is meant to be 160 pounds. Since I can’t lose the weight, that must be my natural set point.
I also didn’t feel better, I was just grumpier for waking up earlier and sweating a bunch with little to no payoff.
Let me be clear and say that weight is not the absolute indicator of health: athletes can be considered overweight and be at peak physical fitness. A person can be a normal weight and be coping with an illness of sorts. Weight can be a symptom of a bigger problem and it can also cause other issues, but looking at weight for whether a person is healthy or not shouldn’t be the only factor. It is just one of the factors.
Through most of my adult life, I was carrying around an additional 20-30 pounds. This extra weight played a negative role in my overall activity level, my mood, my energy levels, and my depression. I firmly believe that these factors exacerbated my MS symptoms. There were days where I would come home after teaching and fall asleep for hours until Ash got home, wherein he’d have to make or order us dinner.
It was always a slog to get any important work done for school and professionally speaking.
Prior to my diagnosis, I had very little motivation to make any positive changes in my life. I would do it in spurts, but those would fade out when I didn’t see immediate results. I had nothing truly motivating me beyond “this is what our culture tells me to do.” It wasn’t enough and therefore I couldn’t stay motivated to continue.
I figured I could never get into peak physical and emotional condition because I just couldn’t. No other reason other than that: I just was not able to be healthy.
How my Illness Shaped me
Once I found out what was going on with my body and I gave myself the time needed to mourn the loss of normalcy, I was ready to move forward and figure out what my normal would look like. I tried the natural route with doing things more holistically to avoid medication, but soon found I needed the medication because I couldn’t stay committed to healthy living.
Once Jai came along, all my motivations changed and I recognized that I had to do something for his sake. My MS was holding me back from being the parent I wanted to be to him.
This is where I think my illness forced me to be healthier and why I am grateful for that.
I already had it in my mind how I would raise Jai with his diet and exercise, but if I didn’t have a chronic illness and still was 20-30 pounds overweight, I don’t know how committed I would have been to maintain his diet. Perhaps I would have stayed committed for his sake, but I know it would have been a “do as I say; not as I do” sort of situation.
My illness made it difficult to be an active participant in Jai’s life, and with the extra weight exacerbating that, I had to make changes so I could give Jai as much of a normal life as possible. I had to get healthier to manage my illness and so I could enjoy as many years with Jai as possible before my MS progressed to Secondary-Progressive.
I wanted to be a cliche mother: dance at my son’s wedding and be an active grandparent to his children (even if they were furbabies).
Without the illness looming in the distance as a possible roadblock I don’t know if I would have taken the steps to lose weight, eat healthier, and make the necessary emotional changes to improve my mental health. I don’t know if my son would have been enough to help me reprioritize my life in a positive way.
Chicken and the Egg
An important point is that I do not know which came first: my unhealthy living and then my MS diagnosis; or my MS leading to unhealthy living.
In theory, I could have had MS since I was sixteen. My fatigue, depression, and malaise were attributed to being a growing teen, hormones, and poor coping skills so I never thought to get it checked out.
Or I might have gotten it when I was in my early-to-mid twenties. My fatigue and depression were attributed to my professional and personal struggles, so I just assumed a steady job with a reasonable boss and a good night’s sleep would cure all my struggling.
My mindset since I was 15 was that once things got settled in my life, I would have the time to rest, get everything together to be healthy, and meet all my personal goals.
That never happened and then I got my MS diagnosis.
I honestly do not know if my unhealthy behavior was entwined with my MS and ultimately, that does not matter at this point. If I never got MS I may have shaped up after High School and be in the same place physically, mentally, and emotionally I am now. Or I might not have because I may never come to the important realization that I needed to make changes.
Through the Lens of Illness
It took seeing what I lost and would never have for me to see what I was capable of doing. I heard the term “going through the crucible” and while it is typically used in a military context, it is also what happens after a chronic illness diagnosis.
Every patient undergoes the intense pressure of figuring out what is going on with their body, the crushing reality of their diagnosis, and then the crossroads of deciding which direction to focus their perspective. Some patients immediately shift into a positive perspective on their situation, others need to take more time before making changes, and still, others never get beyond internal frustration and doubt.
For me, I exited the crucible the moment I decided that my illness was not going to define me. I would work hard to make it difficult for people to know, or even remember that I had MS. I was not going to let it get me down or hold me back any more than it did. I would also advocate about it, share my experiences and show that one didn’t have to just accept the diagnosis.
My MS, despite not wanting it to define me, forced me to become a better person in a way that I don’t think I would have had I never gotten ill. It angers me to think that it took a lifelong negative companion for me to want to be a better person overall, but I am also grateful for the internal and external work its forced me to do. This isn’t an easy journey and I will continue to have bad days where I resent having MS, but I am finding those days are growing fewer.
I am finding that I am appreciating my life and what I have at the moment rather than focusing on what I don’t have and where I wish I was in my life.
I still wouldn’t want to wish this on anyone. I hope others can arrive at a similar place in life without needing to hit “rock bottom.”
I am hoping that this journey I started over a year ago continues forward and continues to be a positive one for myself and those closest to me. I know that I am less stressed out, engaging in less negative emotions, and becoming the person I wish I was when I was 15.
I am not quite there yet, and really, I never want to arrive at the end because I want to continuously grow as a person.
Has an illness or negative event made a positive impact on your life? What changes internally or externally have you made because of it? Leave your stories in the comments below.
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Featured Photo Credit: Michelle Melton