June 16, 2016

How I Overcame Chronic Illness with Mindfulness & Magic.

Shan Sheehan/ Flickr

*Editor’s Note: No website is designed to, and can not be construed to, provide actual medical advice, professional diagnosis or treatment to you or anyone. Elephant is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional advice, care and treatment.


I was born a wild spirit—full of vitality and boundless energy.

I had a strong constitution, and an overwhelming curiosity and enthusiasm for life.

As I wasn’t used to getting sick, I took no stock when I caught severe, recurring bronchitis at age 15, 16 and 17.

Within a few years, lung issues and antibiotics evolved into gut and hormonal issues. I didn’t know then what I know now. That these are the root of many chronic medical conditions which are interrelated and can have life-altering effects on our entire mental and physical well-being.

I began experiencing regular black-outs and dizzy spells. I found this more amusing than troubling. In retrospect, I can’t believe I was so cavalier. I was just ignorant. I felt indestructible. I got a kick out of getting a head rush every time I stood up.

Then the anxiety began. Slowly, like a creeping creature, it took over my body and mind. I remember watching myself and thinking… “hang on a second…this isn’t me. Something isn’t right.” My previously grounded, articulate, cheerful manner turned to brain fog, confusion and insecurity. I couldn’t form thoughts or sentences, my memory turned to slush in my head. My whole world was turning upside down and inside out—caving in beneath my feet.

The change was sudden and exponential. My strong sense of identity unraveled swiftly. Before I knew it, I was a shadow of my former self.

I used to excel at sport. Now I couldn’t get up a flight of stairs. I couldn’t get out of bed. I’m not talking a few days of feeling run down. I was exhausted for years. So much so that every inch of me screamed with unbearable sensitivity. It felt like hell on Earth.

Light seared my brain. Sounds made me want to throw up. My cells felt weighed down by millions of tiny black holes. Trying to communicate was like calling across two distant turrets of a castle, surrounded by thick swarms of buzzing flies. Most things got lost in translation.

Despite my exhaustion, I could hardly sleep. I was at my wits end. I focused on trying to be positive, inspired, and my best self. In the beginning, it was like walking through tar. Perhaps even the dry kind. When no one was around, I would sob for hours in self-pity.

I developed fibromyalgia—a physical pain that burns every muscle in your being, incessantly, frying your brain, your body and your wits, simultaneously.

Luckily, I had had some vivid spiritual experiences around the same time. I was set on becoming a better person through it all. I wanted to be kinder, wiser, more masterful, more myself—healthier in every way. Progress was often two steps forward, one step back. If that. Some days were better than others.

Here’s how mindfulness eventually brought me back to life.

I chose to live with intention and awareness.

Practical intention is the mother of all healing. In retrospect, I see I was training myself, daily. The best days were when I made a gut decision to relax into the knowledge that I was well on my way to getting better, and that the process would make me a richer person. Notice that this was an energy of trust. It’s not pushing, fighting or willing it. It’s a surrendering into the solution, rather than focusing on the problem. This can be said for pretty much anything.

I realized, with some frustration, that being obsessed with plans and purpose could not be on today’s program. Today is about observing everything inside and around us. Training our sense of presence. So I made conscious effort, throughout the day, to get present.

I chose to become keenly aware of my own internal workings. I chose to move from desperation, into certainty. I educated myself to such an extent that I was empowered with understanding and confidence.

Over time, I addressed my fears of endless ill health and a wasted life with the wisdom of stillness, and my new-found knowledge of physiology and pathology. I learnt the hard way that deadlines, where your health is concerned, are damaging and unnecessary.

Part of living this intention, is letting go of the outcome. It’s a tricky contradiction, but eventually, I got the hang of it. Greatness (like everything) comes in the little things. Drop the mountain analogy. Baby steps, darling. One day at a time. Focus on feeling good. Master the mind. Be present in the body. Set that intention every day. Breathe.

I decided on the kind of person I wanted to be: real, strong, confident, kind, vibrant and grounded. One fun alliteration affirmation I made up was, “I am peaceful, I am powerful, I am positive, I am present.” I’d sometimes say it over and over again, as quickly as I could, like a tongue twister. Because it was fun. And fun is good.

I rested. Then I rested some more.

My mother taught me, “Don’t stand if you can sit. Don’t sit if you can lay down. Don’t stay awake if you need sleep.” Priceless advice. I believe this was the advice given to soldiers who developed Gulf War Syndrome. Balancing the warring parties of an active personality with a feeble bod was a lesson I had to learn in earnest. This paragraph is short and sweet, but we shouldn’t let it pass us by. Rest is the body’s most powerful healing tool.

I learnt what to eat and what not to eat. Instead of medicating, I self-educated.

Our guts are the root of both our physical and mental health. They are the first port of call between our inner workings and the outside world. They are also where 70 percent of our immune system sits, and about 90 percent of our serotonin and dopamine are generated. It’s been found that the health of the gut microbiome is inseparably correlated with our state of well-being. Issues with anxiety or depression are often rooted in imbalance of gut flora and digestive health.

There are countless stories of people healing “incurable” illnesses through diet and lifestyle changes. I recognised that I wasn’t obligated to subscribe to narratives that robbed my personal power and agency. This was tricky for me, at first, but I decided that choosing empowering narratives was more likely to get me better than choosing dis-empowering ones. It seems to have worked.

Diet and lifestyle are first-rate routes back to ourselves, and at least some level of vibrant health.

I stopped eating anything that made me feel worse. This included gluten, dairy, corn and soy. The more I cleaned out, the better I felt, and the more attuned I became to which foods were good for me, and which were bad. I also ended up cutting out the deadly nightshade family (tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, peppers, white potatoes), oranges, nuts and sugar.

This was the best thing to address pain, inflammation, anxiety, IBS, and brain fog—giving my body a far greater opportunity to heal itself.

Health is our most valuable resource. Without it, almost everything else becomes difficult. There’s a fine balance. We cannot afford to be too hard on ourselves. But to break a habit, we can’t be too laissez-faire, either. This takes guts and dedication. Both of which are available to everyone.

I craved fruits and veg. I became less interested in things like rice, potatoes and meat. The better I felt, the clearer my head got, the more vibrant my spirit felt, the less I wanted to eat meat. I haven’t had any cravings for things like pizza or pasta, because I used to get so sick after eating them, I’d throw up. Sugar sent my body into a fiery hell that was enough to cure my cravings for life!

Everyone is different. What works for me might not work for you. But there are a few simple rules that should work for most:

  1. Cut out refined and processed foods. Cut out condiments which are full of crappy ingredients. Simple is best. Homemade, from wholefood fruit and veg is the best-best. Sugar and corn, wheat and soy can get lost!
  2. Eat lots of whole vegetables. Eat the ones which feel best. I like zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, artichokes, and various lettuces. I basically eat a bowl full of vegetables, in some shape or form, most meals. Fruits are great, too. For candida concerns, be mindful about fructose.
  3. Take oregano oil capsules for candida overgrowth. To check for candida, spit into a glass of water. Leave for about five minutes. If the spit has turned to long, floaty strings, you’ve got overgrowth. Dealing with it will help ease some symptoms. Probiotics are really important. For probiotic foods, homemade sauerkraut and Kombucha are super easy to make.
  4. Drink plenty of water. This isn’t to be dismissed. If you are under the weather, you need more water to help clear out and re-hydrate your system.
  5. Take supplements. Get a decent dose of vitamin C. My doctor recommends 3,000 mg per day (one gram with each meal) and up to nine grams a day when you’re especially under the weather. Steer clear of sugar and milk at this time. Omega3, L-Glutamine powder, Vitamin C, Vitamin D3, Magnesium glycinate, bioidentical progesterone (ladies please get a hormonal profile taken!) and 5HTP all help me out, too. I believe they have been priceless additions to my health routine.
  6. Drink green juice. A simple recipe is:
    4 kale leaves.
    3-4 green apples.
    fresh ginger root
    1 whole lemon
    3 stalks Celery
    fresh mint
  7. Consider your consumption of meat or animal products. The health and environmental benefits of cutting these out entirely are astronomical, but I understand that there are multiple factors at play, and going vegetarian or vegan isn’t always straight-forward, or for everyone. According to The China Study, it’s probably a good idea to not overdo it on the meat or casein (found in milk), especially if there is any risk of cancer. I was vegan for ages, but I have found that reintroducing eggs and the occasional fish, are doing me a good service.
  8. Find inspiration. I enjoy Fully Raw Kristina, and am fascinated by Annette Larkins, and Dr. Terry Wahls, who cured herself from Multiple Sclerosis with a functional medicine diet. These women, along with a book written back in 1939 by Jethro Kloss, called Back to Eden, inspired me to believe that I could bring myself back to a state of vibrant health by eating and, equally importantly, thinking right.

I learnt to manage my thoughts.

Focus on the solution. Not the problem. Thinking, “I’ve got M.E. (or, fill the blank) and it is going to last forever and it’s ruined my life, and I will never be fully human again, and my dreams are dashed forever…” is simply not helpful.

Thoughts are powerful. At first it seemed as though I had no sustainable power over mine. Thoughts ran rampant, turned into feelings and dashed my heart upon the rocks. The more aware I became, the more I was able to disconnect from thoughts that undermined my progress, replacing them with ones which made me feel good.

It just takes practice. Learning to master our internal garden is the stuff a good life is made of. Whether we have a chronic illness, or not. Meditation can’t be beat as a lesson in this. Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society, by Thich Nhat Hanh, was part of my saving grace. I really recommend it.

One of my many disconcerting symptoms was a feeling of being extremely far away from myself and from the world around me. I could see through my own eyes, but they didn’t feel like mine. Everything seemed distant, distorted and foreign.

I drew myself into presence, at first, by looking at myself in the mirror, every day. I would look into my eyes, and call my spirit back. I got incrementally closer, each time. I still do this, from time to time, if I feel my presence is off centre. This has been fundamental in healing the chasm that had grown between my inner and outer selves.

I did lying down meditations when too sick to get out of bed. Then, when I was well enough to, I took to walking meditation.

I focused on things within and around me. My breathing. The way my body felt. The way specs of dust and fluff were caught, suspended, in shafts of golden sunlight. The weight of my body on the earth. Warmth. Cold. Emptiness and the space between myself and the expanse of blue sky, far above. Ants, green leaves, spiders on fine thread in the breeze. All these things returned me, again and again, to the present moment.

I was in considerable pain much of the time. My back, arms, legs, chest and neck, face, nose, hands and feet, burned with it. Fanned by the frustration of being house-bound and too sick to read or listen to music, the sensations often seemed insurmountable. I lay in bed one day, feeling especially determined not to waste any more time.

I decided I needed to stop resisting the pain and face it, in all its glory.

So I did. An image of myself appeared in my mind’s eye, lying next to me. My body was a dense cluster of blue-white points of light. The closer I got, the further apart they seemed. I was seeing myself at a quantum level. My cells turned to elemental molecules, atoms and then quarks. The spaces in between became larger and larger.

I realised then that those points of light weren’t just physical parts of me, or even points of energy—they were points of pain. But look at all that space! So I went into the spaces in between. My pain began to dull and dim and fade away. A body that had seemed all pain had become all space. Welcome to the spaces in between.

I met a medicine man who pulled out roots of self-pity, anger and resentment from my body. I felt it! And I screamed with primordial rage. Anger, self-pity and resentment are sinkholes for the spirit. Pull them up at the root.

After that, I couldn’t take myself seriously enough to think “woe is me.” Instead, I began thinking, “Sh*t! Despite the pain and the fatigue and the loss of absolutely everything I used to identify with…so many people would be so grateful to be me! I am so grateful to have these hours to watch little black beetles crawl to the tops of the grass stems on my lawn. I am so grateful for this time to work on myself. So grateful to begin to learn to master the inner spaces and the spaces in between. Between things, between people, between me.”

I learnt to completely let go of the attachment to full physical recovery.

It won’t necessarily happen as we want it to happen. Learning to let go of attachments has been one of the most powerful attitudes I’ve gleaned from this illness. Non-attachment is one of the key founding principles of Buddhism. Now I understand why.

As we become more in tune with subtler elements, we recognise that surrender makes each day much more vibrant. I could be exhausted and in pain, today, but I sure don’t have to suffer. Now I know, I can slip into myself and go on adventures that change me forever!

The decision to heal my inner energies, whether or not I ever became physically well again, brought me onto a path of much deeper healing. My whole life is infinitely richer. To become someone with a rich internal life and inner substance—that’s gold dust.

I let go of ego by not giving myself such a hard time.

Undoubtedly, thoughts of guilt and anger and inner struggle ran rife. I felt desolate, hurt, lost. My ego was torn to shreds. I was only 19 when the floor caved in. I had just met my first true love. I wanted to spread my wings! I wanted to show how successful I could be, how hard I could work, how reliable I was. I wanted to follow my over-flow of dreams, rather than lying in bed, for years on end. But I couldn’t do anything. What a laugh!

The thing is, no matter what our lives look like, we are the masters of our own power and self-esteem. We give and take power from others, all the time. So we need to be mindful of the power dynamics between ourselves and those we live with. Not to mention, the ways we communicate with ourselves.

I made a conscious decision to see, act and think with kindness. Speak from the heart. Give of myself, and to come home to wisdom and vulnerability. I forgave those who judged me, because I knew, if I hadn’t experienced this, I would never truly understand, either.

I became more of myself—deeper, stronger and wiser. I tapped into what Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls, the river beneath the river: a deep and ancient wisdom within my own nature. My wilderness. I broke open. My pain was my baptism by fire and sweet oils. I faced the void, unguarded. I swam so deeply into the pain of seclusion and loneliness, that I became whole in my aloneness—free in my captivity—as the clock ticked from seconds, to minutes, hours to years.

I am grateful for this time. I have had the space to truly observe the wisdom, folly, tenacity and struggle in my fellow human beings—in myself. I have had the opportunity to see things that tear at me, and make my spirit soar.

It’s been almost eight years since I first became ill. I was bed and house-bound, often for months at a time. I used a wheelchair. I would crawl on hands and knees to the bathroom and then sit with my body half slumped against the wall to use the toilet.

I am so much better now. So much stronger.

Over the last few months, I have been running, swimming and diving, cycling, dancing and fire-spinning again. I am over the moon!

I have grown into a woman I feel proud of, comfortable with my strengths and weaknesses. I am passionate about healthy eating and living. I have learned some of the ways to alchemise a sick body or spirit into a healthy one. Base metal into gold. Step by step. Slowly but surely.

It never happens in a straight line, but in a million directions at once. And yet, simultaneously, in doing almost entirely nothing, while we aren’t looking.

Rest and kindness are immutable medicines. Authentic expression breaks down walls.

Magic, balance, mindfulness (and some science) are the ways back into our souls—into our strength, power, and saltiest wisdom. There is little power in willful fighting, ironically. But there is immeasurable power in surrender. Gentleness is the greatest strength.

It’s not an easy road, but it’s a worthy goal. Balance isn’t about always being on an even keel. It’s about not sweating when we’re not. Inner harmony, despite all outer odds, allows the greatest healing of all. It leads to mastery of the whole.


Author: Catherine Simmons

Image: Shan Sheehan/ Flickr

Editors: Khara-Jade Warren; Nicole Cameron


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