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How I Learned to Love Myself as a Woman With Chronic Illness

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Self-love is difficult. I’ve known this for quite some time. But I just recently learned how much others struggle with this idea of self-love after sharing a blog post on this topic and receiving the most vulnerable and heartbreaking feedback from my followers. I heard from women who look like they have it all on the outside, who told me that they actually hate their bodies, see themselves as ugly, feel nothing is ever good enough for them and believe they will never be happy with who they are. While their comments and messages broke my heart, it also brought me joy that they were opening up and sharing their vulnerabilities with me.

I wanted to dive deeper into this idea of self-love and share more of my story because I believe when we let ourselves truly be vulnerable and share our pain and struggles, the most beautiful things can emerge from sharing those truths. Self-love is something I am just now, at 33, starting to really prioritize and fully embrace. I’m beginning to see just how important it is in living a happy and fulfilled life. It is a lifelong journey and as I look back on what I’ve been through, I want to reach out and hug the woman and girl I once was, who hated her body and self. I want to tell her how beautiful and strong she is, how she’s overcome so much, and how I’m so proud of her.

As a woman with a chronic illness, self-love has been a struggle. It can be hard to love yourself and your body when you feel like that body is constantly letting you down. Since I was 16, I’ve felt like my body has been against me and that it was just a constant source of discomfort. That’s when I started having daily headaches that eventually became a constant source of pain that never went away. It would take over 15 years for me to finally be correctly diagnosed and discover the cause of my constant pain, a cerebrospinal fluid leak. Those years would lead me into some of the darkest moments of my life, and during those years I developed a hatred for my body and self that would silently break my spirit and threaten to eventually even take my life.

In 2018, after my second spinal surgery, which, unbeknownst to me, caused my cerebrospinal fluid leak to worsen, I would find myself scared and alone in the psych ward of one of the worst hospitals in Baltimore. I had voluntarily admitted myself, after feeling so lost and depressed from my pain that I didn’t want to live anymore. Surrounded by unstable people on the unit and staff that would roll their eyes and make assumptions about me that weren’t true, my broken spirit just about gave up. While their judgment hurt, I understand now that they didn’t know my story, how much physical pain I had endured in the past 15 years, or how much emotional pain had resulted from not knowing the cause of my health issues.

It would take almost another year for me to finally be correctly diagnosed with a connective tissue disorder which caused my cerebrospinal fluid leak, a condition believed to cause some of the worst headaches known to man. Looking back today, with the information I now know about what was going on in my body, I don’t know how I got through those 15 years of unending pain. It still makes me cry thinking back about those days in the psych ward, knowing I was so lost and broken from my pain that I had lost the will to live.

I am so thankful we finally found the right doctors who gave me the first glimmer of hope I had seen for years. Doctors who correctly diagnosed me and let me know exactly what was going on in my body and brain, causing my constant pain and a myriad of other symptoms that had led me to think I was having a mental breakdown. Since then, I’ve begun on a path of not only physical healing, but the healing of my spirit and my soul.

I will never be cured of the connective tissue disorder I was diagnosed with, as it is a genetic disorder one must live with their whole life. I will likely always live with some pain and discomfort from this, but the severe pain from my cerebrospinal fluid leak has eased since I was treated by one of the top CSF leak doctors in the country. Since then my path to healing has focused on prioritizing self-care and exploring this concept of self-love. It may not be easy to love your body when you have a chronic illness, but I believe by learning to cultivate self-love in your life, the soul and spirit can experience great healing.

I had to have yet another spine surgery a few months ago and found myself telling my husband, “I’m so frustrated, I hate my body.” But I recently realized how much energy I was wasting by viewing my body in this way. I asked myself how much I was damaging my spirit through the words I was telling myself. I realized I wasn’t appreciating how strong my body truly was and how much I’ve overcome. A new perspective was in order if I was to truly begin the work of healing both body and soul.

So I started changing the words I said to myself on a daily basis. I began to practice a meditation that focused on loving my body and promoting healing. I began to look at myself in the mirror and see not a chronically ill woman, but a warrior, a woman who has been through hell and made it to the other side. I began to tell myself how strong and powerful my body is. I began to see the scars from all of my surgeries as battle scars that showed just how much I’ve been through and overcome.

While I used to look at my legs and see the untoned muscle and weakness that has resulted from my lack of ability to tolerate exercise because of my illness, I began to see the strong legs that have carried me faithfully through life, that have navigated each obstacle thrown in my way and carried me through to the other side each time. Instead of viewing my arms as flabby and out of shape, I’ve begun to see arms that have held and supported friends when they were hurting and needed a soft place to land. I see my hands as beautiful hands that have written words and created art that has inspired others. I see the lines on my face as evidence of a life well-lived, filled with all the beautiful and heartbreaking emotions that come with a life lived fully.

While in the past, I may have been embarrassed about my story, ashamed that I spent time in a psych ward or that I didn’t even have the will to continue living at some points, I now see my story as one of triumph and victory. I have overcome so much and I’m proud and immensely grateful I’m still here on this earth. I refuse to feel shame or sadness when I think back on all I’ve been through. Instead, I choose to embrace it and see the power that opening up and being vulnerable enough to share my true story can have in this life.

Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s our greatest measure of courage.” I believe when we let ourselves be vulnerable and share even the darkest parts of our story, we begin to build a bridge that connects us to others and lets them know it’s safe to share their own struggles and truths. To me this is what life is all about — being vulnerable and learning to love ourselves and our stories. I hope you will be inspired to share your own story and begin your own journey to self-love. It has been the most rewarding work of my life.

Getty image by Sjale.

Originally published: June 1, 2020
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