How I Achieved Wellness Despite Chronic Illness in 2017

Print by The Latest Kate

I can’t believe it’s already the end of 2017! 2017 was a year of change and growth for me. It was the year I left the job I moved to this city for and started a career in a new, while adjacent, field. 

2017 was also the year I started blogging. I originally started this blog to chronical my journey to become a self-published author, and it was my goal to self-publish my novel, Panic Cat, by the end of 2017. 

Alas, the best-laid plans of mice and men… 

My illness ended up taking center stage in 2017, and I had to set my novel aside in order to prioritize focusing on my health. 

But I still was able to utilize my blog well, though it ended up being more of a chronic illness blog than a writing blog. One of my very first posts on this blog, which ended up being my first post published on The Mighty at the beginning of 2017, was on my one-word resolution for 2017, which was well. While obviously no one is 100% successful at something all the time, the word well really framed my year. 

I was able to focus on wellness, despite my chronic illnesses, and I was able to do so in a number of different ways that have not been top priorities other years. I believe the major reason I was so successful at them this year is because I was so focused on being well and making holistic, all around wellness a priority. 

One of my top ways I made 2017 a year of wellness was by prioritizing self-care. I have a print hanging up above my dresser in my bedroom by one of my favorite artists and mental health activists, The Latest Kate (I talked about another of her prints here) that reads “Self-care is smart. Self-care will lead you to success.” Self-care, to me, has been the key to wellness in 2017, because it is linked to so many different things.  

Self-care has not always meant things that are comfortable. It has also meant self-examination and self-advocacy. Wellness has meant prioritizing my health in 2017. 

That kind of self-care is rarely fun. It means at least ten minutes a day of taking pills and making sure I take the right ones at the right times, and at least one, if not multiple, visits, and often phone calls, to the pharmacy each month. It meant many doctors office visits, both to my primary and to specialists. Some brought answers and breakthroughs. Some were frustrating and felt like a waste of six hours of driving. It meant lots of tests, including 4 MRIs. And it meant learning to advocate for myself with medical, insurance, and billing professionals, something I’ve always hated doing but that proved necessary. 

This kind of self-care has admittedly not been my most fun part of 2017. But this kind of self-care is also a huge step in the wellness direction, because it is not always something I have made a priority before 2017. Most of it was my own discomfort and anxiety about standing up for myself and being my own advocate. It also can all just get super overwhelming, and you wonder, especially when the symptoms are relatively managed, if it’s all worth it.

But with the word wellness as my guide, I wanted more than “relatively managed” this year, and am really proud of the strides I have taken for my own health, strides I am sure that will take me far into the new year.  

I have also adopted other self-care habits that I have written about. One of the best, and most intentional, is my daily scripture habit. One of my forces in choosing the word well at the beginning of 2017 is the hymn “It is Well With My Soul,” and my soul wouldn’t be nearly as well as it is without plugging daily into scripture. I usually do it to start my day, as my mornings don’t really feel started without it–it has become as essential as my cup of coffee!–but if I end up sleeping in (I leave for work very early!), I’ll do it after my first shift (I normally work a split shift during the school year). 

Another big self-care wellness habit that is a work in progress, and enables me to do any self-care at all, is learning to shelve guilt. I wrote a post earlier this year on learning to give myself grace rather than guilt, and it is grace that continues to carry me through the year and into 2018. I am not perfect, but grace reminds me that I am worth taking care of. Guilt is a worthless emotion. It does not solve anything, and usually the things I am guilty about, like my illness, are things way beyond my control. Even when I do make mistakes, though, I am working on remedying the mistakes through action plans, rather than dwelling on them through guilt, and then not beating myself up over them. I am still worthy of self-care, even when I make inevitable human mistakes. 

My resolution towards wellness in 2017 has also enabled me to spend much more quality time with my daughter and extended family. Part of being well is prioritising the right things, and one of those biggest things is family. I have had so many special weekends spent with my daughter this year, and those were achieved despite my illness. We were able to do so many things that in 2016 I didn’t have the energy, health, or spoon reserves for. 

We got a zoo membership for my birthday in May and went to the zoo nearly every weekend over the summer. We went to multiple free events, including seeing sharks traveling from an aquarium that came to a local library. We traveled out of town to see family, often without my husband, trips that I never would have ventured on in 2016 with how volatile my health was. I was also able to attend several out of town weddings with my husband, events I had to skip the year prior. 

What made all of this possible was self-care throughout the week, boundaries, and knowing how to allot my spoons. Thanks to wellness, my illnesses are nowhere near cured, but they are a lot better managed. I will be likely taking a huge container full of pills for the rest of my life, but the idea of wellness has helped me come to terms of it. Being well is way more than just physical health, and 2017 has taught me that yes, I can certainly be well indeed, even though I am chronically ill. 

 When I made wellness my resolution, I never imagined that part of that journey would entail, except for a few very rare exceptions, giving up alcohol, likely permanently. When you choose a word, you never really know where it’s going to take you. I’ve been meaning to make a post about my personal decision to stop drinking, but haven’t gotten around to it. I definitely don’t judge anyone else’s choices to, but with my neurological conditions, especially my Chiari and migraines, I decided to try cutting it out, and it has made a big difference in my symptoms. 

Something that is a work in progress, but that I have really made progress on in the last few weeks especially is accepting that I am, and always will be, sick, and that this is OK. This is related to guilt, but there is more to it: it’s an identity thing, which is why it’s going to take more than just this year to unravel. Accepting one’s self as a sick person, in some ways, feels like admitting failure: and from a Christian perspective, almost seems sacreligious, like you don’t believe in miraculous healing. While I do believe in miracles, I also believe, more likely, I have these chronic illnesses for life. But I do believe that just discovering this issue was a major wellness breakthrough, and accepting the fact that I’m sick as part of my identity will be something I work on more in 2018 (and  be incorporated into the word I chose!). 

I could not have achieved any level of wellness without a totally incredible support system. I live fairly far from a lot of my family and friends, and chronic illness sometimes makes me not the best on filling them in on my life, but they are so constant in their love and support. My husband drives me to appointments and has given up so many countless hours of sleep, working night shift and still taking on many extra demands. My daughter is empathetic and sweet much of the time when I am flaring or extra sick. My sister, who lives in Michigan, is the first person I tell when I am freaking out about something medical or have a new test result or a new appointment. She is, and always will be, my advocate and the one who taught me to be strong, along with my mom. My mom has handled many frantic phone calls from me and has given me sage advice and a listening ear, along with lots of motherly love. My mother in law has dropped everything so many times this year to drive 3 hours to help us out. I have friends who are like family who live states and countries away who encourage me to take time for and care for myself. I have support groups, church, and caring coworkers. I have been thoroughly surrounded by my village this year, truly more than any other year. 

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the word that I have chosen for 2018, but until then, I am proud of the progress towards wellness I made in 2017, and I look forward to continuing it into the new year and beyond. 

A Book for my Chronically Ill Soul: Choosing Real by Bekah Jane Pogue

Reading is something I absolutely adore, but it’s something I have struggled to find a place for in my life in the last year up until  very recently.

 I read a lot from an early age, thanks to my mother. One of the earliest gifts my mother gave both my sister and I was a voracious appetite for reading. Mine came slower than my younger sister’s, my illness/disability being part of the struggle. It was a slow journey for me  learning to read. When I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) in the first grade and medicated, my ability to read was jump-started, and so was my love for the written word: one of the greatest loves of my life. 

I would often read multiple books a week: I would get in trouble in class for reading a book under my desk when I was supposed to be doing something else. My love for reading served me well as a student, going straight from a Bachelors in Religious Studies with a minor in English to a Masters in Divinity with a specialization in Youth and Young Adult Development. I was reading a ton: but very little of it was by choice. Most of what I read was mandated  by a syllabus. 

Because most of that reading was mandated, with one exception, a fiction series I really got into my last semester of grad school (the Longmire series), I had really gotten out of the practice of knowing how to choose and stick to a book that wasn’t assigned to me. 

As I’ve talked about a lot on this blog, my 2017 one-word resolution was “well.” Choosing to be well–committing to wellness, even when I cannot choose physical health–was the reason I started this blog in the first place. 2017 is nearly over, and it has taken a very unexpected trajectory. 

Reading has been a huge part of my wellness throughout my life. While I ha’ve not always been “well,” a lot of wellness I did habe could be attributed to reading. Reading was one hobby I’ve always been able to do, even while my illnesses have limited me from many others. I’ve had migraines since before I could even describe what a migraine was (at least early elementary school). I often sat out in gym class because of physical limitations from pain (multiple undiagnosed conditions). But I could retreat on the sidelines with a book, disappearing into a fantastical world where I wasn’t sick. Reading made me well, even when I couldn’t be healthy. 

One reading habit that has significantly contributed towards my wellness in 2017, and I have talked about multiple times on this blog, is my daily scripture reading practice, mainly using the YouVersion Bible App. All of the plans on the app are free, and many are condensed versions of books by various Christian authors. That is how I found one of the most inspirational books I have ever read, as a young Christian wife and mother battling chronic illness: Choosing Real by Bekah Jane Pogue. I was so incredibly inspired by the book that I chose to do a little write-up on it, hopeful that it will help others as much as it helped me. 

A little disclaimer: while many of my posts are broad and applicable outside of a specifically Christian worldview, this book, and most of the other books I will be reviewing in the near future, write from a specifically Christian worldview and are most pertinent to Christians with chronic illness. I understand that not everyone who reads my blog is a Christian with chronic illness, and I urge you to read books that resonate with your own traditions and that can help you view your illness(es) through that perspective. 

I’m not even sure how I ended up reading the Choosing Real Bible plan in the first place. But nevertheless, I really resonated with the themes in Pogue’s seven-day devotional. The main idea of the plan, and Bekah’s book, is to bridge the disconnects  between real life and faith and to make them one and the same; to invite God into the mess of one’s real, actual, day-to-day life, not just the grand moments or the Sunday mornings but the pain and the grief and the hustle and bustle. Pogue posits that choosing an authentic, beautiful life and choosing to walk hand in hand with God are the same. 

A main idea behind Choosing Real that resonated with me is that life was never meant to be easy. If it’s hard, you’re on the right track. Pogue writes about all the hard, scary seasons in life, and about not shying away from these seasons, but choosing to let God lead in them. 

In the hardest seasons of our lives, in the hardest seasons of my illnesses, I can lean into the truth of who I am, which Pogue discusses in her book. When I choose real, I choose to accept who God created me to be: “made in His image. (Genesis 1:26–27) Fearfully and wonderfully made, that is. (Psalm 139:14) We are chosen. (1 Peter 2:9) We are the dwelling space for the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) He loves us even when we mess up. (1 Corinthians 13) Simply because He is our Father and we are His children. (1 John 3:1) (74)” all these descriptors are what truly defines me. I am not defined by my illness! Even on my worst days, I can lean into the truth of who I am created to be as a child of God. 

The truth of the matter is, no matter how sick I get, through flare ups or rough patches or questions over treatment, when my journey gets rocky, I can always return to the core, unshakeable truth of my faith. I believe that my body: yes, my chronically Ill body, was created by God. Pogue puts it this way: “now when moves, career changes, babies, or serious illnesses come, I find comfort knowing I am enough, for the Spirit of the Lord lives inside me.” (74)

My word for 2017, well, is underscored by this beautiful passage on the same page: 

“No matter what happens, my identity will not be shaken. This doesn’t mean I don’t get scared or disappointed or binge on obscene amounts of sea salt chocolate when Plan A is chiseled down to Plan Q; it just means I get another opportunity to walk outside, look into the night sky, and listen as trees rustle their created music. I recognize the tune carried and believe, “Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’ When seasons shift, as Ecclesiastes 3:11 assures, He will make everything beautiful in its time.” (74) 

Page after page of Pogue’s book are invitations to persevere, invitations to tread through the hard stuff of life hand in hand with God, in order to reach the good stuff. This doesn’t mean sugarcoating: the opposite, in fact. I love that Choosing Real is underscored with an awareness that the hard stuff is hard. Chronic illness is lonely and isolating and hard. Check out these passages that I highlighted: 

“We can’t reach the good stuff unless we are willing to be aware that the hard stuff is, in fact, hard. Isolating. Maybe solitary isn’t something we need to run away from, but an indication to run toward Someone.” (95) 

“Nothing, my friend, is wasted. God is using every drop—whether from rain or tears or sparkly paper thrown in celebration—to urge us to keep going, keep giving, keep living in today. Keep pushing against the social norms, the false expectations, the racing against the clock to achieve, arrive, and get there. There is no there. There is only here.” (179)

The last important truth I got out of Choosing Real is that part of partnering with God in persevering through real, everyday life is that we can use our pain to relate to and serve others. Serving takes our focus off ourselves and helps us at the same time as it helps others. Pogue writes: 

“When I use my in-the-middle story to come alongside hurting souls, relatability and compassion and the sacred art of giving are born.” (190)

I have definitely experienced this as both a chronically ill educator, and a chronically ill mother. Focusing on my children, both my biological daughter and the kids I work with, takes my focus off myself and puts it onto the kids, and many times I even end up forgetting my pain for a spell. 

My chronic pain also helps me relate to those I work with in different ways. Whether kids are sick chronically or just have colds or flus, my chronic pain helps me relate to them in new ways. I am able to be a light to kids who are frustrated with their own problems because of problems I face with my own struggles with chronic illness. Pogue writes about this beautifully in my very favorite passage from her book: 

“How are you using your light in the dark? Where are you choosing to illuminate how God is authentic and present and working? Even in your frustrations, pains, and disappointments? In your grief and “just because” funks?” (197) 

I am glad that I was able to read Choosing Real, and encourage others to read it as well. It is an uplifting and encouraging read, especially for those with chronic illness, and helped me see how I can live authentically, in my real, everyday life, letting nothing go wasted.