Originally published on ProHealth.com
My journey with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome began when I was 13 years old. I had been an active child, always playing on my school sports teams and a competitive swimmer. One day in swim practice, I stopped being able to move properly in the water. I didn’t feel tired. I felt like a truck had run me over and I couldn’t move my limbs. I am forever grateful for my excellent floating skills that got me out of the pool. Nobody seemed to know what was wrong with me as I went from doctor to doctor. My grades began dropping and my physical health continued to decline.
Six months later, I was finally diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I didn’t know what that meant, and neither did my parents. They began researching and doing what they could to help me, but nobody seemed to know how to make it better. By the time I was 16 I had trialled more sleeping medications than I could count. At least I could sometimes sleep through the night. I hated taking the medication, but it allowed me to fumble my way through the rest of high school and get a university degree. I know for many with CFS that is still a huge accomplishment. I am very grateful that I was able to finish my education, yet during my time in school, I was surviving and not thriving –– and my performance in school suffered for it.
Just before my 20th birthday, I had a major crash. I couldn’t make it to classes, or write essays (I could barely write a cohesive sentence). Frustrated with doctors who didn’t seem to have any solutions, I cut out the sleeping pills and caffeine. (Yes, it had also been recommended to me to drink coffee if I was feeling tired.) I made a decision to improve my health –– on my own terms.
I began attending an environmental health clinic where I learnt about mindfulness, nutrition, occupational therapy, yoga, and other mainstream and alternative treatments. By the time I finished the program, I was able to take up a full-time job while still studying part time –– something that had seemed hopeless just one year earlier. My education did not end there, though. I became obsessive about my own health. I made very careful decisions about the foods I ate, became a dedicated yoga student, and made time for self-care each day. Slowly I started feeling better. I had more energy to spend time with friends and participate in extracurricular activities. I began to plan a trip around the world.
I attended the environmental health clinic for about six months. My full recovery journey took roughly two years. I often get asked what is the one thing I did or would recommend to get better. It’s a hard question because I did so many things! But I think the biggest factor for me was kindness. Instead of trying to fight my illness, I started working together with my illness. I allowed it to have space in my life and in my body. This meant my goal, at first, was not to live a ‘normal’ or ‘active’ life like I had done when I was younger. It was to live the life that would work for me. And that included my illness. What I wanted out of life for my career and hobbies changed dramatically. Just like a person who hates numbers would not want to pursue a career in finance, or a person who was a picky eater may not enjoy dinner parties as much as her friends, there are certain boundaries I have in my life that I choose to keep in order to feel energetic and healthy.
Once I started showing myself kindness, a lot of other things came into place. Yoga, meditation, and healthy eating became regular parts of my life. At the time, a lot of my friends were trying out yoga, or changing their poor eating habits to get skinny and look good. I was glad that my friends were also switching to healthier lifestyles, but for me it was completely different. My whole life, not getting a ‘hot bod’ was at stake.
Six years later, I no longer feel limited by my fatigue. In 2012, I took a one-year leave to travel around Asia, the Pacific, India, and Europe. I went from a girl who couldn’t sleep through the night in the comfort of my own home, to someone who slept on couches, in dorm beds, and in tents.
Yoga became a special passion of mine. I studied yoga and Ayurveda in an ashram in India and began reading up on the scientific research behind yoga and mindfulness meditation. My psychology degree put to good use! As I researched more, I found that other people who had suffered from CFS, fibro, and other chronic illnesses were finding varying levels of relief from yoga and meditation. It’s what inspired me to study to be a yoga teacher. Also, yoga is just fun. It gave me a new appreciation for what my body could do.
I still do yoga and meditation every day. When I miss a few days I start to feel my energy draining and my stress levels rising. Ongoing self-care has been so important in maintaining my health. I do not need to be as strict anymore about my diet, yoga, and meditation as when I was first beginning to recover. But if I tried to go back to eating a lot of fried foods and working at a high paced job or intense study program, or became an overachiever in hobbies, I know that my health would suffer. I’ve created a life that I love, that also keeps me healthy. I call myself a “solopreneur” because I run two businesses. One as a yoga teacher and the other as a freelance writer. I am able to work from home and set my own hours, though I generally work about 30-35 hours a week like a normy.
If there is one piece of advice I could give about recovery, it is to check your mindset. How do you view your illness? How do you view illness in general? Are those views causing you to fight yourself instead of work with yourself? How can you accept yourself as you are now, while still striving to get well?
For me, yoga and meditation were key in helping me better understand how my illness affected me and what I could do to slowly make it better. Everyone needs to find what treatment or lifestyle changes will work for them. Finding a healthcare professional who understands your illness is key. Working with health coaches, nutritionists, and therapists (yoga, massage, physio, etc.) can also be a big help. Try to build yourself a ‘healthcare army’ who understands your unique situation and can help you find the path to wellness.
If you're interested in learning more about how yoga and meditation can help you show kindness to yourself and help you on your recovery journey, my online yoga course- Chronically Kind Yoga, is a great place to start. It can also be done from anywhere in the world! Follow this link to find out more.