While driving to work one-day last autumn, I passed a middle-aged woman jogging along a trail near my home. It was a beautiful crisp fall morning, a little chilly but perfection in a runner's mind. I could see the smile on her face as she strode down the path, aware of nothing but the weight of each step on the pavement and the wind against her sweat-streaked forehead. She looked so free.
Immediately, I felt a lump forming in the back of my throat, and tears well up behind my eyelids. As I tried to bring awareness to my emotions and figure out specifically what I was feeling, it clicked. What I was feeling was jealousy.
I first realized my passion for running at the age of sixteen. During that time, my life was full of stressful and confusing emotions, and running became my blissful escape. Whenever life became more than I thought I could bear, I would tie my laces and let my feet pound the pavement until it all escaped my body through sweat and heavy exhalations. During a run, I felt free. I felt invincible. I felt at home.
Forced into the discomfort
My last symptom-free memories of running were during the summer of 2014. In those days, I'd rise with the sun and take my nine-month-old pit bull, Athena, on a quiet morning run before heading off to my two part-time jobs. Once I returned home from work, and the summer heat finally began to dissipate, I'd take Athena running once more—typically totaling around ten miles per day. There was not a single part of my body that was not pure muscle. I remember those runs so vividly, remembering how strong and alive they made me feel. There are no excuses for not being in great shape, I would think confidently to myself. Not one.
On my 26th birthday, I noticed the first signs of my declining health. It was March of 2016, and I worked as a flight attendant for my first airline for about eight months. I had just caught the last flight out to Sacramento from Chicago O'Hare—where I was based at the time— to see my parents. I was halfway through my inflight movie when, all of a sudden, I was jolted by severe sharp pain in my abdomen. By the time I arrived at my parents' home a few hours later, my pain had reached an excruciating level that was enough to take my breath away.
For the next three months afterward, I bore that same pain—along with several other unnerving abdominal symptoms— leaving me to spend many days in bed with a heating pad and Tylenol.
Eventually, I learned that my symptoms were caused by an illness known as ulcerative colitis—an autoimmune disease that attacks the colon. The disease consists of "flare-ups" and "remission," although sufferers are never completely symptom-free. I now know that those three months of agony in the spring of 2016 were my very first flare-up.
Immediately following my first ulcerative colitis flare, I began having other strange symptoms that made me feel even more confused and overwhelmed. Arthritis-like pain and numbness that originated in my extremities eventually spread throughout my body. Additionally, my joints would be so stiff in the mornings I'd wake up feeling as though I had just run a marathon.
I felt fatigued, flu-ish, and frail.
Finally, in the spring of 2019, I was also diagnosed with a condition known as fibromyalgia after being referred to a rheumatologist who had seen similar cases before. At last, I thought to myself. I had an answer.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder of the nervous system that causes all of the symptoms I described to my doctors. While an estimated six to ten percent of the U.S. population battles fibromyalgia, studies have shown that the disorder more commonly affects women... Because fibromyalgia is so under-researched, there is no known cure and very little known treatment. Additionally, the cause is still not fully known.
Grief and healing
Contrary to popular belief, grief is not an emotion that only occurs with a loved one's death. Grief can also be brought on from anything from losing your job to breaking up with your significant other.
Since the onset of my symptoms in 2016, I've grieved the loss of my health, my active lifestyle, and ultimately, the person I always envisioned I would become.
The week following my fibromyalgia diagnosis, I scheduled an appointment with my therapist. At this point in my grief process, I was floating between anger and denial, with acceptance somewhere off in the distance. In previous sessions, I had glossed over the topic of my chronic illnesses but always kept the conversations shallow. In this particular session, I wanted to be transparent with my therapist regarding my health's real impact on my life. Still, I was nervous to show that level of vulnerability.
When I arrived in her office, I took my usual seat on the cold leather sofa and took a long, deep breath.
"I feel like a burden a lot of the time," I choked out. "I cancel a lot of plans these days and can't do so many of the things that I used to do. It's so embarrassing having to explain why because no one seems to understand."
My therapist looked at me in the calm way she always did and said confidently without hesitation, "Do you want to know something about me?"
"Sure," I replied, unsure of how that was relevant.
"I have fibromyalgia too."
I was stunned. Until then, I had felt completely isolated in my struggle with fibromyalgia. I still struggled with my ulcerative colitis, but I had my sister relate to it since she had already been diagnosed years before me. She "got it." But my fibromyalgia—no one understood. Not my friends or my doctors—not even myself—at times.
My therapist explained that she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia over twenty years ago and had eventually learned to accept her symptoms for what they were and not let them keep her from living her life. She also added that yoga had been her go-to exercise for years since she, too, can no longer run like she used to.
Just like that, I felt the weight of a thousand bricks fall off of my shoulders, and relief slowly start to seep into my soul. Just by no longer feeling alone in my pain, by feeling like someone finally "got it,"— I began to heal.
A few months later, a coworker recommended a book called Suffer Strong by Jay and Katherine Wolf. I had no idea who Jay or Katherine was, but it seemed like a positive read (and I was in desperate need of a positive read), so I ordered it that evening on Amazon.
After reading the first several pages, I learned that Jay and Katherine Wolf are a married couple who began a ministry called Hope Heals—also the name of their first book—after Katherine suffered a massive stroke at age twenty-six her completely handicapped and bound to a wheelchair. At the time of her stroke, they had only been married for three years—and had a six-month-old baby boy to care for.
The book tells their remarkable story of how they were forced to shift their perspective and find positivity and hope after experiencing their darkest days.
"The fear of loss can paralyze us," they wrote, "and redefining it may be the hardest redefining of them all. But losing something familiar or precious can also help us let go of the illusion of control and the weight of expectations that have ruled us our entire lives."
I cannot even tell you how many times I cried while reading this book. I feel like, strangely, perhaps I was supposed to read it. It gave me the hope and change of perspective I needed to further move into full acceptance of my health for exactly what it is and make the absolute best of it. It's what gave me the healing I needed to grow.
Transforming my perspective
Although I still live every day surrounded by my physical pain, my symptoms no longer define who I am or the person I am becoming.
Let me repeat that.
My symptoms no longer define who I am or the person I am becoming.
I still have a life to live and a purpose of fulfilling on this earth. I still have goals and aspirations. I'm still able to find joy and contentment despite my circumstances. I can still hope.
No, I am no longer a runner. I no longer feel the joy of the wind on my back as I stride down the sidewalk or the endorphins after finishing a ten-mile run.
But I have discovered joy hidden in other places. I now can truly feel the sun on my shoulders as I walk through my neighborhood or hike my favorite trail. I find gratitude that my pain is minimal, and gratitude even on days when it is at its worst.
I savor my time with friends and loved ones more deeply and appreciate the tiny blessings that life throws my way.
My pain has brought me great suffering, but it has brought me even greater joy and healing. It has forced me to redefine my life and way of thinking. Even though it would be magnificent to get through even just one-day pain-free, I still wouldn't go back and change my journey for anything.
If you've walked down a similar path and know the forever sting of chronic suffering, I hope that you can find joy and purpose in your own life again. Even though chronic illness may seem like the end of so many beautiful things, it can often lead to an even more beautiful beginning.
"Life defines us, but suffering redefines us. Ultimately, hope refines us, transforming us from within in ways we could never have imagined." -Jay Wolf, Suffer Strong.
Rebekah Harcrow is a blogger and aspiring author living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She comes from a journalism background (high school and early college), but has worked as a flight attendant for the past six years and has had the opportunity to travel across the globe for work and for pleasure. Her favorite place she has visited so far is Dublin, Ireland—from the legendary history to the buzzing culture, the city immediately stole Rebekah’s heart. When she isn’t flying, Rebekah loves sharing personal stories of struggle, faith, and triumph through her writing.
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