For a lot of people, it’s hard to understand that people who are sick actually lead really healthy lifestyles. Even sick people may think their lifestyle is healthy and might discover two years down the road how unhealthy it had been relative to where they are now. Much medical bias and assumptions from friends and family and even lifestyle programs designed to make us better are built upon the idea that all sick people only eat fast food, don’t move their bodies, and are lazy.
But after years of living with a chronic condition, I can tell you we can always be healthier, but the assumptions of what “unhealthy” looks like doesn’t actually look like one thing to every person. And, for the most part those of us with chronic conditions naturally lead healthier lives in the interest of managing our conditions because no one wants to feel really, really bad.
Two years ago, my unhealthy looked like:
- Hiding away in a dark room, even when the pain wasn’t as severe.
- Trying to exercise by following more strenuous yoga videos and striving to be on my feet more.
- Waking up earlier than the rest of the world.
- Eating a big breakfast to start my day.
- Treating the pain, not the whole.
- Pushing through and accepting the next day or two needed as recovery days.
Today, my lifestyle habits looks a lot different, even though some of those habits weren’t necessarily unhealthy for everyone. They were unhealthy for me.
I worked to desensitize my sensitivity to light and can spend much of my day in a room full of natural light. I found that stretching every morning got my body moving and blood flowing and that strenuous exercise can be replaced with more gentle yoga sequences.
I embraced mindfulness in every aspect of life, from being aware that my natural sleep rhythm is delayed so I don’t rise as early as others, to listening to my body and all that its saying.
I don’t crash the way I used to, because I have a better awareness of what different symptoms mean and what warning signs my body gives me to slow down and prioritize rest. Because rest is actually one of the healthiest habits one can have.
I eat what makes me feel good, I eat meals closer together and I limit, rather than outright avoid, foods that don’t always agree with me. I was told to remove emotions from food, and for me that doesn’t work. I have to feel good about what I’m eating and find enjoyment from it.
My migraine “treatment” looks a lot less like pain pills when I need them, and a lot more like structured days moving at the proper pace for my body, getting fresh air and sunshine, eating delicious home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients, enforcing boundaries, and remaining open and curious to learning more about my body and habits without leaving room for blame.
So how did I get to my new healthy?
A lot of shifts had to occur in the world around me, and that started with me, carving out my own space in the world.
In seeking to have a better online experience I not only learned to limit when I’m online, but filter who I follow and the content I consume. I also made an active effort to share my migraine journey differently. For me, seeing photos on Instagram of the constant sadness that comes with pain wasn’t helpful – and also plays into why my migraine community isn’t based on that platform. But when I use that platform I strive to share joy. I spent two months sharing a picture of something that brought me joy in an effort to shift what the migraine narrative can be.
Healthy Habit #1: Have an intentional social media presence, be mindful of what you consume, and don’t hesitate to enforce your own boundaries.
For me, that set a new standard for how I approach the world. I want to look for the beauty and good in everyday life that is there no matter how shitty I feel.
There’s a lot to be said about what we choose to focus on, and although I think there’s a lot of bullshit in the idea that our pain is bad because we focus on it, we do maintain a level of control by expanding our focus. Challenging myself to stop everyday and find something that made me happy eventually expanded into doing something that made me happy that I could share with others.
See the weekly, and even daily photos of the moon or sunsets.
Healthy Habit #2: Embrace Gratitude. Even if you struggle to find something you are thankful for about yourself, because let’s be honest our bodies fighting against us can make that complicated, you can embrace gratitude by acknowledging something you appreciate.
For me, photography of all things sky things gave me an outlet to pause and appreciate the world.
Having people we emulate, whether they become mentors or not can really make a positive impact. Focus in on what you appreciate about that person. Is it their desire to learn and question thought patterns? Maybe it’s the way they hold others with compassion and approach difficult conversations from a place of kindness. Perhaps its the way they make everyone feel included and heard. Whatever it may be, striving to make those habits our own can make a huge difference when it comes to personal growth.
Growth is healthy. Remember we’re basically houseplants with legs.
Little reminders from people I look up to have transitioned into natural lifestyle changes. Reminders to unclench your jaw or stretch out a bit pushed me to work even harder to stretch every morning and be aware of where I may be holding tension physically and emotionally.
Surrounding myself with people who understand that we should be proud of ourselves every day and that our worth isn’t tied to our output has allowed me to be more compassionate with myself on high pain days where my best is simply putting on fresh clothes and resting.
Most importantly, finding individuals who ask important questions has allowed me to get to know myself, my beliefs, and my body more than any doctor.
Healthy Habit #3: Surround yourself with people who remain curious.
It’s rather easy to fall into the trap of having tried all available treatments – and by available I mean treatments that are fully accessible to an individual – and deciding you’ve done all you can and now you must just live with that.
For me, over the last year I mostly ran out of new “migraine” things to try, but curiosity remained. Migraine is obviously my main condition, it isn’t a misdiagnosis and there isn’t a bigger problem that hasn’t been found. However, migraine overlaps with a whole lot of conditions that manifest with many of the same symptoms. Spending my time exploring the possibility of a comorbid condition, either with identical symptoms as migraine or one that could explain some of the outlying symptoms like widespread chronic pain or digestive issues opens up new doors for treatment.
I have not found those doors yet, but I’ve ruled out a lot. And most importantly, I’ve learned a lot and listened to a lot of conversations that pushed me to keep seeking out answers even if a potential diagnosis fell through.
Ruling out severe sinus issues, but understanding humidity and it’s impact on sinuses and allergies pushed me to invest in a humidifier. Which in turn reduced bloody noses, helped me sleep better at night, helped manage allergies, and *bonus* made my plants happier.
Battling with abdominal pain and ruling out conditions like celiac, crohns, and food allergies pushed me to break up with my fear of food. Along the way I learned a lot about ingredients and benefits of fresh food, but also developed a horrible relationship to food. Although there’s still an awareness of what I eat, I’ve learned to cook better, more nourishing foods with all sorts of flavors and actually love everything about the process.
Treating food as medicine is actually a great way to develop an eating disorder.
Healthy Habit #4: Eat what makes you feel good and energized, but unless your chronic condition is directly linked to food – such as a gluten intolerance – don’t spend years of your life hyper fixating on food to cure yourself.
Health can be a lot of things to a lot of different people. Just as healing can hold many different meanings. For me, seeing the progress in leading a healthier lifestyle is a huge step in my healing journey.
Good health to me is eating what I love, moving my body in ways that feel good, and having a strong curiosity for the world around me that I hold with compassion rather than contempt. Health is not hinged on freedom from pain, but rather the freedom from guilt.
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