When a cold is a trauma trigger
And other reflections from my current health journey
I have a cold this week, and yesterday, the trauma of it got to me. You see, I’m always sick, always fighting for balance in my body, sometimes frustrated by setbacks, and in particular, feeling tired and achy because of a cold sends me spiraling. I have to breathe and remember that I had a cold in September and went backpacking with it and was fine. I got Covid in November and came out of that with minimal complications: my asthma was inflamed for about five or six weeks after, but that had passed. And then my oldest kid brought home another cold this past week and I found myself fighting up through despair once again.
You see, as someone with chronic illness that I fight regularly to manage, feeling sick is a trigger. At least, it is for me.
I’m used to people being surprised when they find out I’m sick. Lately it’s been for better reasons, though the underlying theme of invisible illness is still behind it. I’m in the midst of a 30 day yoga challenge that until my son brought home a cold last week, I was staying up on. Daily yoga is a commitment, and I’d been walking around for the first half of the month with sore muscles somewhere.
I’m also training for a hiking marathon. It’s a fundraiser that benefits Make-A-Wish, and I had the best time doing it last year and couldn’t wait to sign back up this year. To me it’s a near perfect example of mutual thriving in a broken world. As I got to know my fellow hikers and heard their stories, heard what they’d overcome to participate, to hike 26.3 miles in one day, and then to see how all of us regular people with regular people networks had come together to raise 1.1 million dollars for kids with chronic–and yes sometimes deadly–illnesses, made me have just that much more hope in my fellow humans.
When I told my kids last year what I was doing, my oldest paused and was like, but you’ve got a forever sickness too, mom. And it’s true, I do. Three of them actually. And I hate that he has to know that and that I had to explain that to him at a young age because of all the things I couldn’t do.
Two of my chronic conditions are mostly managed these days and that has freed me to hike and backpack and adventure again. I’m finally able to be physically active in a way I haven’t been able to be in about fifteen years.
And so people look at my instagram or facebook page full of hiking and backpacking pictures and they have no clue that I’m still sick, that I sometimes fight flares to go out and still hike because overall, hiking is helping. That sometimes I can’t hike because I get laid out with a migraine but that sometimes I hike with a migraine if it’s not too bad to stop me. But these conditions have always been invisible, I’ve never “looked sick” to anyone, and I look less sick now, so I always feel like no one’s going to believe me when I’m hiking one day, and then cancel something the next because something triggered a migraine. And then a few days later, I might be out hiking or running again.
Fortunately, I’m surrounded by people that get it, and the more I’ve talked about it, the more I’ve realized that many people are dealing with invisible conditions and are likewise worried about talking about it.
It’s similar to discovering how many women you know have had miscarriages: It’s a lot of us. It’s only when I’ve talked about mine that others have come to me and told me that they’ve had them too. It’s very common, but for a nation that loves to debate abortion and what a woman can or can’t do with her body, miscarriages are still taboo and may only because more so as laws restrict abortion to the point that a lost pregnancy turns a woman into a suspect. And considering that around half of all pregnancies miscarry, what is that going to do to women everywhere both from a healthcare perspective and from an emotional health perspective. We already didn’t handle miscarriages well.
I’ll never forget sitting in the waiting room of the midwives office waiting to be seen after my first one, surrounded by pregnant women. At least by the time I had my second one, they thought to immediately bring me back so I wasn’t left surrounded by the tangible reminders of what I’d lost.
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Both miscarriages and chronic illnesses continue to be shrouded by layers of secrecy and disbelief. I’ve had people doubt and discount my struggles. One person who had the same condition as I did but had it managed better from the start didn’t believe how much trouble I was having with my hypothyroidism because she also had hypothyroidism and it didn’t affect her like that.
And of course posting online about chronic conditions leads to inbox suggestions of pink shakes and supplements. The irony is though, that managing hypothyroidism has always been a collective process as it’s terribly underdiagnosed and mismanaged and only by coming together with others have I figured out how to get what I needed, push for better dosing from the prescriptions end, and learn what food can hurt and what food can help.
My mother-in-law changed my life quite literally because as a retired nurse she knew that caffeine affected the absorption of synthroid and when I stopped drinking coffee for at least a half an hour after taking my meds, the difference was night and day. I got my brain back and could read and write again. Not that I’d lost the actual ability to read or write, but I couldn’t retain what I’d read or form thoughts long enough to write an article, much less a book.
It still took a year or more of proper dosing to get to where I could start exercising again and as soon as I discovered I could exercise again, well, I haven’t stopped. And I’m finally getting back into the kind of shape I’d like to live in.
And yes I’ll still be taking mountain-top pictures from time to time, I hope to have another set for you all soon. And yes, I’m still sick, and yes, I’m still fighting the trauma trigger that viruses bring with them every time I feel my energy depleted and I freeze and wonder, “Is it all going away again?”
My word for this year is “open” and I decided that for me that meant: “shameless, fearless (or doing it while afraid), asking, giving, being clear.” So here I am, being open about my struggles this week and everything they are connected to. I’m quite certain I’m not alone.
Alabama Trailblaze Challenge 2023
Last year, I decided my words for the year were “find out,” and one of the things I wanted to find out was if I could pull off the 2022 Trailblaze challenge. And I did! Hiking by myself on all those training hikes showed me a lot of personal strength and I went into wanting to help kids but it still felt like more of a personal goal.
This year, as I sign back up in the midst of studying the interconnectedness of the forests I hike through, I realize that we are all connected: connected to each other, connected to the rest of life on this planet for better or worse.
Hiking last year with several hundred others, getting to know them on the hike weekend, hearing their stories, I realized how much of a difference it makes when we all come together. Raising over a million dollars seems like a lot when we’re raising $2500 to $5000 a person, but when you multiply that by hundreds of hikers and thousands of donors, suddenly it’s achievable. We raised over a million last year, and we’re setting out to do it again. And you can be a part of the story! Some of you already have been, and I’m so grateful that you’re back to do it again.
I am excited to take on this year’s Trailblaze Challenge. In addition to the physical challenge, I have committed myself to raising the critical funds necessary for Make-A-Wish to grant the one true wish for each eligible child with a critical illness. With your help, it’s possible.
Did you know that Make-A-Wish grants more than 15,000 wishes nationwide every year? That’s a lot, yes. But that’s only 50% of the eligible kids. Every hour of every day, on average, three children are diagnosed with a critical illness. Every one of these kids needs a wish to give them strength and help them heal. I’m fundraising so more deserving kids and their families can know the true happiness, relief and renewal a wish can bring.
These essential wishes are only possible because of supporters like you. Together, we are transforming lives- One wish at a time!
Will you help me support Make-A-Wish by donating today?
Reclaiming Your Wild
Visit this post to learn more about hiking and backpacking retreats where we reconnect with the wild in ourselves and learn to read the Book of Nature. Coming Fall of 2023.
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Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. An avid hiker and backpacker, many thoughts start somewhere in the middle of the woods, or under a waterfall. She is a regular contributer to Earth & Altar and her latest book is Inward Apocalypse: Uncovering a Faith for the Common Good.
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