By Jessica Goldman
I have a mantra that I readily pass on to family and friends: when your life has changed, change your life. Considering how frequently I offer this advice, it would seem that I, myself, follow it loyally. But the truth is, it has taken me six years to actually put that advice into practice.
A few months ago, I left my full-time desk job—complete with mid-level management title, consistent paycheck, and fancy business cards—to confront the realities of my autoimmune disease and give myself a healthier, stress-free lifestyle. My new path as a freelance writer affords me the time and flexibility to see my doctors, pick up medication, and stay strong. Also, it will allow me to live a long and healthy life.
As necessary as the switch was, the idea of being self-employed and departing the more emblematic working world was frightening and made me feel like a failure. When I left my job, I left tangible indicators of success. I felt as though I was giving into my pain and fatigue, which (because they are so personal) are easy to second-guess and underestimate. I was totally lost; I felt like a wimp and a quitter. Ultimately, I worried that if I eased up even a little bit on my disease, I would no longer be strong enough to push past the daily challenges. But, now that I have made the shift and have found true peace with my decision, I can’t imagine living any differently.
It all started in January of 2004: my life officially changed when I was diagnosed with Lupus, a chronic disease that on my best days leaves me fatigued and with joint pain and on my worst days demands a full schedule of doctor’s appointments and bed rest. During its onset, Lupus attacked my kidneys and brain. Within the first few days, I endured several grand mal seizures, my bone marrow stopped working, my kidneys failed, and I began emergency dialysis and chemotherapy. Through great medicine, wonderful family and friends, and an enormous amount of support, I became stronger and healthier and miraculously, my kidneys partially regenerated. I had been given a gift—a chance to leave the hospital and reenter the world once again. But it was in this moment, when I started to recover, that the true uphill challenge began.
Looking back, I now know that my toughest battle was not the one for my life, but to reclaim my life as normal. When in survivor mode, the goal is clear: live. Nothing else matters, and the simple act of sitting up in the morning, eating breakfast, and breathing are accomplishments. But once you’ve survived, and you begin to regain the strength and color that makes you like those around you, the goals of “real life” seep back in and become complicated by the things you think you should do and be: graduate from college, hold a full-time job, save the world (and not just yourself). It turns out that when your life has actually changed, the last thing you want to do is to diverge any further from your concept of normalcy. You’d like to get back to it as soon as possible.
I spent the first five years after college clinging to the expected course and began work as a full-time grant writer. I had no intention of slowing down or giving myself a moment of well-deserved rest. In reality, I had every intention of speeding up. I wanted to be a director of development by the time I was thirty, just a few years away. I wanted to increase the gold stars on my resume, add a few more numbers to my salary, and rewrite the title on my business card at least two more times. These were my goals and I was determined to achieve them. But they were unrealistic.
While I thought I had been maintaining a delicate balance of career, social life, and chronic illness, the reality was that the scales were greatly tipped and my health had become my last priority. Not only was there no time for doctors’ appointments, the mere act of scheduling them was overwhelming. I put off picking up medications so long that sometimes my prescriptions would get canceled. My hair began falling out, my blood pressure rose to dangerous levels, and I was thoroughly weak and worn. I had taken the gift of recovery and run myself right back into the ground. Everything—from my schedule to the fact that I sat in a chair for ten hours a day—was counter to what my body needed. If I wanted to live a long and healthy life, I needed to make a drastic change…so I did.
Today, I follow those words that I have passed on to so many others. Since my life is now about my health, my health became the muse of my career. I began to write a blog about the adventures of living on a no-sodium diet, documenting the tasks and cooking experiments that take up much of my time. The blog grew into more articles about wellness, and I quickly realized that the daily health chores that once seemed roadblocks to success had become my greatest assets. Myriad appointments and long stays in waiting rooms were no longer in the way of my work, but instead fueled my creativity and my writing. I had a defined niche, endless amounts of material, and—most importantly—I was doing something that would not only benefit me, but also others on a similar journey.
I thought that by listening to the needs of my body, my achievements would be stunted. But the results have been quite the opposite. I am now the best version of myself, with the energy and mental capacity to accomplish more than I ever could before. Once I stopped trying to be ordinary, I could begin to approach my illness, my career, and, ultimately, my life by seeking the extraordinary.
Jessica Goldman lives in San Francisco and splits her time equally between her two loves: cooking and writing. She hosts a daily blog, www.sodiumgirl.com, regularly writes for the Center for Urban Education on Sustainable Agriculture, and is often found trolling local markets for kitchen inspiration.