How living with a chronic illness prepared me for writing a novel

“Do you know how you’ll feel tomorrow?” my therapist asked.

“No,” I said. Living with chronic fatigue syndrome was unpredictable. Sometimes I could stay up all night partying with my friends. Other days I could barely get out of bed to take a shower. 

I was thirteen when I was diagnosed and spent my high school and university years under a wave of brain fog, pain, and debilitating fatigue. While my teachers and professors often allowed me to hand in assignments late or re-write exams, I didn’t know what my life would look like once I got into the “real world”. 

After university, I wanted to amble around ancient ruins in Greece, the Mediterranean breeze whipping against my face as I sailed from Island to Island and taste a barrage of spices while riding on trains in India. I wanted to travel the world. 

Then, there was the bigger dream – from the core of my being, the only thing I wanted to do with my life was write books. Yet, writing a book takes energy and concentration. How could I keep the plot of a novel in my head when I could barely make it through a thousand-word essay? 

I confessed my fears to my therapist one blistery winter day before graduation. How could I plan my future when I didn’t know how I’d feel tomorrow? 

“Plan for the life you want,” she told me, “make adjustments when you need to.”

I want to do what I want to do, but I need to be gentle with myself, is the mantra we wrote down together. 

Knowing that I couldn’t control the outcome helped me give way to the process. I ate everything my nutritionist told me to. I practised yoga and meditation daily. I built physical and emotional resilience. I planned (and went on) my round the world trip.

Now, working on my first novel, I feel the way I did back in that therapist’s office. What if the story doesn’t come out the way I envisioned it? What if nobody wants to publish my work? What if no one wants to read it, or, reads it and feels disappointed? How can I continue pouring my time and energy into this project when I don’t know if I’ll succeed?

Then, I return to the only thing I know – everything is uncertain. I can’t predict whether my book will come out well or be a commercial success, the same way I couldn’t tell if I would wake up feeling exhausted or full of energy back in my teen years. 

Having a chronic illness taught me that we can’t control the outcome, that life is uncertain, and all we can do is trust the process. Every day I work on my novel, I get one chapter or page or paragraph closer to finishing. But I don’t spend too much time thinking about the end product. I follow the steps of the craft and stick to my process, one day at a time. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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