Declining health and uncontrollable migraine attacks were not a part of my post-grad plan. Yet, in my early 20s, daily unpredictable pain began to shut the doors to who I believed I was and who I wanted to become.
At times, I felt trapped in an isolated, dark, endless hallway with no exit sign to lead me out of chronic illness. Every closed door made it harder to see a path forward, and fear and confusion about my health and my future grew rapidly.
I was confronted with the terrifying reality that there was no quick fix for the migraines that were causing my world to crumble.
At 24 years old, I was faced with the uncomfortable truth that even if I saw the best doctors, diligently followed their recommendations, overhauled my diet, and endured numerous treatments and side effects, there was no guarantee that my life would go back to the “normal” I so desperately wanted.
My daily routine became taking pills, seeing doctors, tolerating painful procedures, and monitoring my every move, all in an effort to minimize the chronic, debilitating pain. I had always had a high pain tolerance and would choose to “tough it out” rather than having to take pills or endure a needle stick.
But the intensity of this chronic pain was on a different level — one which left me desperate for help and willing to try aggressive interventions (like nerve block procedures, outpatient infusions, and 31 Botox injections every 3 months).
Migraines lasted for weeks on end. Days blurred together in my darkened room — the entire world reduced to the searing, white-hot pain behind my eye.
When the relentless attacks stopped responding to oral meds at home, I had to seek relief from the ER. My shaky voice pleaded for help as nurses pumped my exhausted body full of powerful IV medications.
In these moments, my anxiety always skyrocketed and tears of sheer pain and profound disbelief at my new reality streamed down my cheeks. Despite feeling broken, my weary spirit continued to find new strength and I managed to get up to try again the next morning.
Increased pain and anxiety fed off one another with fervor, eventually leading me to try meditation.
Nearly all of my doctors recommended mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as a pain management tool, which, to be totally honest, made me feel conflicted and irritated. It felt invalidating to suggest that my own thoughts could be contributing to the very real physical pain I was experiencing.
Despite my doubts, I committed to a meditation practice with the hope that it might, at the very least, bring some calm to the absolute health debacle that had consumed my world.
I began my meditation journey by spending 30 consecutive days doing the 10-minute guided daily meditation practice on the Calm app.
I did it on days when my mind was so restless that I ended up scrolling social media repeatedly, on days when severe pain made it feel pointless, and on days when my anxiety was so high that focusing on my breath made it even harder to inhale and exhale with ease.
The tenacity that saw me through cross-country meets, AP high school classes, and debates with my parents (where I prepared PowerPoint presentations to get my point across) rose up within me.
I doggedly continued meditating and would sternly remind myself that 10 minutes a day was not “too much time,” no matter how unbearable it felt sitting quietly with myself.
I clearly remember the first time I experienced a meditation session that actually “worked.”I jumped up after 10 minutes and excitedly proclaimed to my boyfriend, “It happened, I think I just actually meditated!”
This breakthrough happened while lying on my bedroom floor following a guided meditation and trying to “let my thoughts float by like clouds in the sky.” As my mind drifted from my breath, I observed worry about my migraine pain increasing.
I noticed myself noticing.
I had finally reached a place where I was able to watch my own anxious thoughts without becoming them.
From that nonjudgmental, caring, and curious place, the very first sprout from the mindfulness seeds I had been tending to for weeks finally poked through the ground and into the sunlight of my own awareness.
When managing the symptoms of chronic illness became the primary focus of my days, I had stripped myself of permission to be someone who was passionate about wellness.
I held the belief that if my existence was so confined by the limits of a chronic illness, it would be inauthentic to identify as a person who embraced wellness.
Mindfulness, which is nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, is something I learned about through meditation. It was the first door that opened to let light flood into the dark hallway where I had felt so trapped.
It was the start of rediscovering my resilience, finding meaning in hardship, and moving toward a place where I could make peace with my pain.
Mindfulness is the wellness practice that continues to be at the core of my life today. It has helped me understand that even when I cannot change what is happening to me, I can learn to control how I react to it.
I still meditate, but I’ve also started to incorporate mindfulness into my present moment experiences. By regularly connecting to this anchor, I’ve developed a personal narrative based on kind and positive self-talk to remind me that I am strong enough to handle any circumstance life presents me.
Mindfulness also taught me that it’s my choice to become a person who loves my life more than I hate my pain.
It became clear that training my mind to look for the good was a powerful way to create a deeper sense of well-being in my world.
I began a daily gratitude journaling practice, and though I struggled initially to fill an entire page in my notebook, the more I looked for things to be grateful for, the more I found. Gradually, my gratitude practice became the second pillar of my wellness routine.
Small moments of joy and tiny pockets of OK, like afternoon sun filtering through the curtains or a thoughtful check-in text from my mom, became coins I deposited into my gratitude bank on a daily basis.
Another pillar of my wellness practice is moving in a way that supports my body.
Redefining my relationship to movement was one of the most dramatic and difficult wellness shifts to make after becoming chronically ill. For a long time, my body hurt so much that I abandoned the idea of exercise.
Although my heart ached as I missed the ease and relief of throwing on sneakers and going out the door for a run, I was too discouraged by my physical limitations to find healthy, sustainable alternatives.
Slowly, I was able to find gratitude for things as simple as legs that could go on a 10-minute walk, or being able to do 15 minutes of a restorative yoga class on YouTube.
I began to adopt a mindset that “some is better than none” when it comes to movement, and to count things as “exercise” that I never would have categorized that way before.
I started to celebrate whatever form of movement I was capable of, and let go of always comparing it to what I used to be able to do.
Today, integrating these wellness practices into my daily routine in a way that works for me is what keeps me anchored through every health crisis, every painful storm.
None of these practices alone are a “cure” and none of them alone will “fix” me. But they’re part of an intentional lifestyle to support my mind and body while helping me cultivate a deeper sense of well-being.
I’ve given myself permission to be passionate about wellness despite my health status and to engage in wellness practices without the expectation that they will “heal” me.
Instead, I hold tightly to the intention that these practices will help bring me greater ease, joy, and peace no matter my circumstances.
Natalie Sayre is a wellness blogger sharing the ups and downs of mindfully navigating life with chronic illness. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including Mantra Magazine, Healthgrades, The Mighty, and others. You can follow her journey and find actionable lifestyle tips for living well with chronic conditions on her Instagram and website.