Life and Writing Advice is a blog series intended to help writers, editors, and freelancers learn from each other. Sometimes the most helpful information is knowing that we’re not alone in our experiences, that others can empathize with us, and that we can learn from others.
Once a month, we give a writer a prompt question. Then we post the writer’s response. Get ready to read about personal experiences that impacted or changed writers’ and freelancers’ lives. We hope this series connects people and provides inspiration. Let us know your thoughts about our series in the comments!
When I was 14, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease after about a year-long slide into illness. While treatment for me is pretty effective overall, I have still had periods of my life, including an entire year and a half in college, where I have been extremely ill. Crohn’s disease is not curable, and the rest of my life will likely be alternating periods between sickness and wellness.
To be clear, this sucks, and I don’t recommend it. I give the experience zero out of 10 stars and would not do it again. However, as anyone who has gone through Hard Stuff knows, you can create meaning and learn from the things you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The following represents some of my own hard-earned wisdom.
1. Lean Out Already
Like a lot of writers, much of my career has been a constant struggle with perfectionism. Much has been written already about why perfectionism is toxic and how to deal with it, so I won’t bother rehashing that here. Suffice it to say that when you’re so sick that you can barely feed yourself, you get a hard lesson in learning to accept less-than-perfect performance at school or work.
For me, chronic illness has been an intense crash course in accepting my limits. The lesson stuck too: even now when I’m well, I can remember that the world didn’t crash to a halt when I got my very first B in a class when I was sick, and it won’t stop spinning now if I mess up something in my writing.
2. Accept Uncertainty
Chronic illness is a huge unknown. I’m fine now, but what if my medication stops working next year, or even next month? It’s happened before, and it could happen again — and if it does, it’ll upend my life for possibly months at a time.
Symptoms change, too. Flare-ups happen at the most inconvenient times. In order to keep going, I have to be okay with not knowing what will happen next.
Letting go of certainty helps my writing and my career when I recognize that some things are entirely out of my control. There’s no use in being paralyzed by what could happen, and all I can do is keep going and trust my future self to handle whatever setbacks come my way.
3. Trust the People Around You
When you have an illness that isn’t obvious to those around you, you get some weird comments. Most chronically ill folks have a horror story or two, and I’m no exception. For me, it was my doctor who didn’t believe I was in pain because none of the tests he ordered showed anything out of the ordinary. A week later, I was in the hospital having emergency surgery because he wouldn’t listen.
However, while Crohn’s disease could have made me more distrustful of those around me, it’s actually done the opposite. This doctor who didn’t believe me was a bizarre outlier compared to the many people who have trusted and supported me just because I asked. People are actually awesome overall, from the college professor who gave me numerous extensions on papers to the bosses who’ve given me the flexibility to work when I felt the healthiest.
If you need something, you can often just ask. I know I always hesitate to ask for help from people when it will inconvenience them, like asking to work from home occasionally when that’ll impact how available I am to my team. However, I’ve found that while the answer is sometimes no, more people want to accommodate and help you than you think.
4. Trust Yourself
When you have an unusual illness, a lot of people will have opinions about it. Some people are qualified and helpful, such as medical professionals or folks with similar health problems. Other people are much less helpful, like the woman who told me that my symptoms would go away if I just rubbed the right essential oils on my belly. (Spoiler: they did not! However, the oils did make my skin itch and burn for a few hours when my mother insisted I try them to be polite.)
Even when advice comes from the best, most well-meaning sources, I’ve had to learn to trust myself above all others. If I pay attention, I can often tell what my body needs to feel better. As a side benefit, this intuition has also made me an expert in helping friends and family soothe their own run-of-the-mill upset digestive systems.
If some test results come back without anything out of the ordinary, I still believe that my symptoms are real and that I need medical care. I trust both my own judgement about my body and the expertise and assistance of my excellent medical team.
Similarly, while I need and rely on the talented editors I work with, I trust my own judgement about what I write. Because I did the work to create the text, I know what I mean to do with it and see a bigger picture than a person reading it for the first time. While an editor’s perspective and assistance
5. Use Your Stories
Sometimes I feel betrayed by my body’s self-destructive habits, and I’m bitter that I have to deal with this pain for the rest of my life. I think these emotions are both normal and healthy. However, having a sick body has given me a different perspective and way of interacting with the world that healthy people don’t have, and it’s given me the material for some of my best writing.
I don’t think you have to suffer to be a great writer or artist. If I could stop suffering, I would have — like yesterday. However, if I’m going to suffer, then you better believe I’m going to use those experiences. Once I spent an entire Friday night in the emergency room with my husband just waiting for an IV to combat severe dehydration. This experience wasn’t just horribly unpleasant: now it’s material, which didn’t help
Sometimes life sucks. You can’t stop it. While I wish for your sake that it didn’t have to be this way, at least use your pain and make something from it. Fuel your writing with it and create something that the rest of us can’t. If you’re like me, you’ll feel better about it afterward.