At 19, I received a diagnosis of chronic hepatitis C. It was one of those moments that makes you think, “There’s no coming back from this.” After all, how do you find peace with a diagnosis that could change your life forever?
My story begins back in 2008, when my mom contracted hepatitis C from a malpracticing doctor who used other patients’ needles. My mother was already battling cancer, and while hep C took a toll on her body, she was able to catch it in time and receive treatment.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that I had also contracted hep C. At some point, I unknowingly came into contact with her blood, and that’s when it all began.
I started to experience subtle health issues when I was 16. My doctors said it was stress, but I didn’t believe that to be the full reason.
As the months and years progressed, so did my health struggles. By the time I was 18, things began to get worse.
I couldn’t hold onto any weight. My hair, skin, and nails were brittle. My complexion was pale and I had constant dark circles under my eyes. My gut started to be extremely sensitive to foods I’d always eaten. My body ached 24/7 with stiff joints. I struggled with insomnia and started falling asleep in class, at work, and a few times while driving.
Even worse, I had been written off by so many doctors that I began to believe my symptoms were just from stress and that I was overreacting. It was only after hitting rock bottom with my physical and mental health that I finally started to believe that something was wrong.
Eventually, I found my way to a liver specialist and received the long awaited answer to my struggles: I had chronic hepatitis C.
My diagnosis brought with it sweeping feelings of shame and fear. I saw hep C as a stigmatized condition that held a lot of judgment with it.
What would people think when they found out? Would they label and judge me for something that wasn’t my fault? Would they suddenly question my morals and believe me to be someone I’m not?
These questions and emotions flooded my mind as I struggled to grasp the severity of the situation. There was so much unknown and that scared me. It felt like I was constantly swaying between fear and shame with my diagnosis, caught between the two.
I felt dirty, broken, different, untouchable, harmful to others, and overall, as though I was now unworthy. Those might seem extreme, but until you’ve lived with a condition that’s stigmatized, it’s hard to fathom how deep the shame can go.
I was afraid to tell others of my diagnosis because of what they’d think. There was constant pressure to explain my entire story just so they’d understand how I contracted it. And with that, I felt the pressure to be extra healthy and motivated, as I didn’t want anyone to think I was being lazy or careless with my health.
In the weeks following my diagnosis, I struggled with these emotions until eventually a moment of clarity came. I realized that I was already letting this diagnosis define and control my life. I was letting the unknown and stigma drag me down and make a not-so-great situation even worse.
That moment of clarity became a spark of self-awareness. Suddenly, I craved nothing more than to find a sense of peace with my reality and do everything I could to make the best of it.
I started to work through my feelings one by one. For the fears I had, I set out to find answers or sources of reassurance. I let myself hope for the best as I started treatment and imagined how I’d move through life — whether it worked or not.
The practices that helped me find peace with my diagnosis were ones that grounded me. Movement and exercise helped me stay grounded in the physical, while meditation and journaling helped me stay present mentally.
I decided to face the shame I felt head on. I began sharing my story on my wellness-focused Instagram and through my podcast, Let’s Thrive. What I found was that the more I shared, the more I accepted my situation. I was letting go of the shame so that it could no longer live inside me.
So often we feel the need to cover up our wounds, our hurt, our weaknesses — and that’s the last thing we should do.
Keeping everything inside of us halts the healing process of any physical, mental, or emotional struggle. I fully believe that by being open and honest, both with ourselves and others, we can let it all out and truly start to heal and find peace.
What’s beautiful about finding this inner peace even in the midst of struggle is that it sets you up for a better tomorrow. Once I found peace with my diagnosis, I was able to move past the fear and shame as I continued and finished my treatment.
I was content with the fact that I may or may not struggle with hep C for the rest of my life. Either way, I had accepted that this journey was out of my control.
This inner work made the news so much sweeter when I discovered 8 months later that I was hepatitis C–free. The treatment worked and I still had my inner peace.
I let go of the shame, the expectations, the fear of the future. Instead, I decided to live each day in the present and find gratitude for everything that was going right in my life.
Life isn’t always easy, and sometimes I still found myself reverting to fear and shame, but I always found my way back to peace.
No matter your situation or diagnosis, I hope you can have that moment of clarity and work toward peace, too.
Emily Feikls is a podcast host and content creator advocating for 360 wellness. Her podcast, Let’s Thrive, focuses on mental, emotional, and physical health to help others feel less alone on their journey. Connect with Emily on Instagram.