The Mighty Logo

How Exercise Has Helped Me Through Health Challenges and Heartbreak

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Dealing with chronic illness is no party. Neither are autoimmune issues, mainly because there’s a whole lot of gray and symptoms severe enough to impact your life, but not quite severe enough to be easily identifiable, prevented or treated. I, for example, have had a stomachache since last September. How I wish I were hyperbolizing for dramatic effect.

I’ve had an IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) diagnosis nearly since birth – spent weeks in the hospital when I was 1 or 2 because my stomach was so inflamed that I could literally eat nothing and was dehydrated from constant diarrhea (glamorous, I know). Anyway, last September, the IBS flared up and never quite settled down, despite increasing, self-imposed diet restrictions (no gluten, no dairy, no anything that made my stomach unhappy) and an absolutely clear bill of health from the GI following an upper- and lower-GI. It has been beyond frustrating, embarrassing and exhausting, but I am grateful to say that I managed to find a PCP who is willing to try different things that might help. It’s early days on a new med – and it will have its own challenges – but so far? I’m almost afraid to jinx it by saying this, but things seem to be less inflamed and calming down. Fingers crossed.

Between the GI issues and my fibro, the last several months have been some of the most challenging in my chronic illness journey. But I have found rest and relief in the most counterintuitive of places: exercise. I know, cue the sighs and eye-rolling. But hear me out.

I know very well how tempting it can be to tout a new supplement, med, diet, lifestyle or whatever as “The Answer.” This isn’t wise for a few reasons:

  1. Everyone’s journey (both in life and chronic illness, if it affects them) is different. And what works for me may not work for you. Doesn’t make it any less valid for me or any more effective for you – we are just different people.
  2. It can pretty easily come off as condescending or annoyingly trite to start doling out advice to people if/when you don’t understand their individual experience.
  3. Even if you do understand someone’s experience (or have your own), sometimes what people need isn’t guidance or advice. It’s empathy.  Just having someone listen is often much more healing than people tend to realize.

So there’ll be none of that here. Just my own story:

I exercise. Regularly and intensely. It is hard. There are days that every fiber of my body and being scream, “Nooo – please! Don’t make me do this!” There are days when I am incredibly frustrated by my inability to improve or be consistent. Nearly every day, I curse chronic illness for usurping control of how I feel day to day and what I’ll be able to accomplish. But I do it. Usually four or five days a week, maybe more if I’m feeling particularly stressed.  Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes I hate every minute and berate myself for making Me so miserable. It is a choice and a task. But I do it. Why? Because it is truly the only time that the rest of my world fades away, and I am wholly and entirely present in the moment. (Tongue firmly in cheek: I have to be – feels like I’m dying about 70-80 percent of the time!) Somehow, in the midst of my racing heartbeat and hyperventilating, there is peace. Nothing else matters, no anxieties overtake my mind, and I 100 percent forget any and everything else going on in my life.

Some of you may read that and think it sounds like absolute hell and I am being absolutely ridiculous. Who knows, maybe I am. Maybe. But my exercise and gym time have been entirely responsible for preserving my mental health through many of the most difficult emotional experiences I’ve had to endure.

  • Realizing too late that someone I ended up being engaged to was a severe, active alcoholic, complete with regular blackouts, fits of rage, verbal abuse and irrationality that descended into terrifying chaos. I was in a 5:30 a.m. fitness boot camp class at the time, and despite the difficulty of getting up so early, I looked forward to those mornings. The early call time gave me an excuse to avoid spending my evening attempting to predict and pacify his erratic behavior. And I knew that I would have at least 30 minutes to myself after class, before he got up and began to harass me with dozens of texts and calls until I answered.
  • Losing my Pops. He was sick for some time, but his passing wasn’t exactly expected. The call came in midmorning on a Sunday. I walked through the rest of my day and the next morning’s 6 a.m. session with my trainer on autopilot. “How was your weekend?” my trainer asked, walking up to the treadmill where I was warming up. “Not so great,” I responded in what must have been a very odd, robotic voice, “My dad died.” He stood in silence for a few minutes while I continued my warm-up, eyes straight ahead. Then he said, “I’m really, really sorry. Why are you here?” Nearly breaking down, I said, “Because. I have nowhere else to go.” He sighed and (God bless him) said, “Well… then let’s get to work.” And I had a little over an hour of blissful ignorance of having lost the most important man – if not person – in my life. All I had to do was what the trainer asked me to do. He didn’t force small talk or anything else, but let me share as I felt comfortable and gave me something to do with my nervous, grieving energy.
  • More recent heartbreaks – mostly too irrelevant (and fresh, to be honest) to get into detail about, but painful and disappointing nonetheless. Having a consistent routine (currently early morning OrangeTheory Fitness [HIIT – high-intensity interval training] classes and Zumba), has given me something to focus on outside my hurt. It’s forced me to preserve the vestiges of my life routine that keep me together (bedtime at a decent hour, trying to eat reasonably well, staying active).

All of that to say, despite my health challenges and frustrations, I exercise. Regularly and intensely. Sometimes, it sucks and I hate it. It is a choice and a task of gargantuan proportions. And it has saved my life.

Getty Image by jacoblund

Originally published: May 22, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home