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Our footprints

I recently ended a two week long road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. A trip that I never thought I’d be able to take at this point in my life.

At 36, I never thought I’d be struggling under the burden of multiple chronic illnesses. Never thought that I would live each day in pain and fatigue, wondering if or when it would all end. In March of 2016, one of the eleven doctors and specialists that I saw on a regular basis told me that I was living on a clock. A clock that no woman in her mid-thirties should have had to think about. A clock that was slowly counting down the time unto which my life would end. I had time, years in fact. But not decades, like most my age looked forward to. Ten years minimum, fifteen if I got lucky.

I took that news on my own, silently in his office, starting at my hands as if they were supposed to provide me with the answers he didn’t have. If they could find a medication that worked for me, more time could be bought. But they hadn’t found anything in the years leading up, and every day my disease turned more aggressive. Every time I visited a doctor a new diagnosis would be presented, or the bad news of a failed medication would be shared. Years of allergies and intolerance to the leading drugs for my diseases, countless failed treatments, and pain, so much pain. And then to hear that despite all my optimism I was going to die sooner than maybe even my own parents…

Five months later I landed in the Intensive Cardiac Unit at Queens Medical Center for ten days. I survived a “multiple cardiac event”, according to my cardiologist and the medical team that looked after me. Despite my doctors projections, my body had other ideas in mind for my time left on earth.

But something changed in me the night that I almost died. It’s not that I wanted to go… Sure some of us living with chronic pain have been down that road where we wonder if the pain is worth going on. Nothing as dark as giving into those thoughts though. And in the middle of my second heart attack of the night on my third night in hospital, apparently when the pain became too great that I actually blacked out, I had an epiphany.

No, I did not “see the light“. I mean yes, there was light, but clearly it was the doctors shining something in my face trying to wake me. I did however feel like I had a choice. A choice on whether to let go, or to continue on.

I don’t know how long I was in that place, probably only seconds. Later my doctors told me I could have died. And I knew if I had been willing to give up, I would have. But something had changed. Despite all the pain, and the knowing I didn’t have long, I still wanted to continue. Something told me that I had purpose.

A year and a half later I finally understand what that is.

Earlier this year I made the life changing decision to move to New Zealand, as healthcare was more accessible for me there as I was a citizen. More so than it was in the US, as it wasn’t affordable, even on Federal Disability. It was a chance to turn my life around as well, live healthier, make friends, maybe find my purpose.

I started bi-monthly Infliximab infusions in June, and had successfully gotten myself off most of my hardcore painkillers by October. I’d even lost a large portion of weight that I’d gained from years of Prednisone usage. I got some new hobbies, joined groups, and made friends, so many friends. I even started dating for the first time in two and a half years.

Sure, I was still in pain. My disease didn’t magically disappear because I moved. Chronic illnesses don’t drift off when you find love, despite what Disney movies try to teach us. I still spent multiple days in bed, fatigued beyond repair. Lung Disease reared its ugly head in a new diagnosis in August. Lupus followed soon after..

The change was that I felt I was around more people that supported me. People didn’t treat me as pitiful, and because of that I was able to let the real me shine through. I reclaimed the person I used to be, maybe not in body, but definitely in spirit. And I realise now it’s all because of footprints.

Just like others footprints made an impression on me during my illness, my footprints were helping others too. I accepted the love and generosity of friends and strangers in Hawaii because my blog had reached them in ways I didn’t know. I couldn’t see that the knowledge I’d learned in my own experiences were helping people just as those whose generosity helped me. Just by listening to a friend, or sharing a meal, I was leaving footprints on the journey of others, just as they leave theirs on mine.

Today as my partner and I concluded our two week vacation, one that I wouldn’t have taken had I not left footprints on his journey as equally as he left his on mine, I had my epiphany. We were talking with our Airbnb host, just as we were getting ready to depart for the airport, and she shared that she had lupus. She shared this only because I shared that I wrote a blog about living with invisible illnesses. Through this tiny piece of information she came to not only understand that she shouldn’t feel alone, but also some references I gave her for support groups. She had no idea the resources that were available to her, feeling isolated by friends and family who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand.

On the plane ride home I thought about my footprints… If I can leave pieces of myself behind, to help or to grow or to love, then no matter how much time I have left, that time was worthy. I have and will continue to make a difference on those who choose to share my journey with me, just as I share theirs.

Our footprints, my footprints, matter…

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Let’s talk about karma

I had an interesting revelation recently about karma. See, for the longest time I thought that karma wasn’t on my side because of the chronic illness I suffer from. I figured things surely weren’t going my way especially if I was in constant suffering from this terminal disease. I’d hear other people complaining about their lives and I admit that it really frustrated me. Not because they aren’t deserving of complaints, no judgments here, but because they sounded so minor in my mind to what I was feeling. And that’s of course wrong. I shouldn’t judge others lives as much as they shouldn’t judge mine. I wasn’t mad at them, I was mad at my disease. 

I guess for a long time I felt cheated by life. Cheated by the world, for having this incurable pain that I had no control over. But then I had this great epiphany a couple of weeks ago. It was just after receiving an amazing gift from a friend. I had unfortunately just cracked one of my teeth, while eating boneless chicken, no less. I was desolate because I knew I didn’t have enough money to go to the dentist, let alone go and get a root canal and a crown, which surely would’ve been the case. I was super depressed and had posted on Facebook how frustrated I was that I was too broke to go to a dentist. And amazingly an acquaintance of mine reached out through a personal message and offered to pay for a dental visit for me. 

I was floored. Having only one other time experienced such generosity, I was shocked. 

Despite my protests, my friend insisted I go to the dentist the next day, which I did. And very unhappily came to find that it was not one tooth, but two! Could the news be any worse? Yes. It would cost close to $4000 to fix my teeth. I was even more depressed by that point. So I told the dental assistant to call my friend, whom would be paying for the consultation, and he would give her a credit card over the phone. While she went off to collect her few hundred, I sat trying to comprehend how I could come up with all that money for a problem that was a pretty big issue. They were my front bottom teeth, and it wasn’t something I could ignore. Imagine my giant surprise when the dental assistant returned and told me my friend had not only paid for the consultation, but also for my two root canals AND crowns. Almost $4000 in dental surgery and reconstruction!

I was speechless. After agreeing to come back later that afternoon for the dental surgery, I contacted my friend, worried at how much money he had spent. But he was so nice! Told me he was glad to help me, having known how much I needed it. Not only did he know I would never be able to pay him back, he didn’t even ask for me to. I could not believe the generosity of someone I didn’t know that well.

That  night, as I rested at home with a swollen and numb jaw, I also remembered the generosity of another person. Someone who had read my blog and sought me out because of it. A very generous person who treated my mom and I to an amazing meal at their restaurant, just as a way to say “I care”. Two people who barely knew me, but understood my struggle, my pain, had reached out and given amazing support in ways I didn’t know could happen to people like me.

And of course I have received support in many other ways, from many other people as well. Friends who have bought me groceries when I’ve run out of food stamps, or couldnt get to the store. Friends who’ve paid my phone bill because all I could afford was rent. People who didn’t even know me and donated to my fund to help me have a home. Family members who have helped get me to the er and the doctors office. Family that took care of my cats when I was ill or away. As well as two military families that took me in after I couldn’t work anymore. And all of this done selflessly, with no expectation of payback, or strings.

I have been very very lucky.  I realize this now. All this time I thought I had bad karma because of my disease. That I was being punished for any wrong doings I’ve done in my life. No. How very wrong I was. My karma is outstanding. How else to explain why so many amazing  people do amazing things for me in my life? How else to explain what wonderful people I have around me, who dedicate themselves to supporting and loving me? If I were a bad person, people would not help me as they do. You don’t give your generosity to someone you think isn’t worthy of it. Not generosity like I’ve received. 

Silly me. Bad karma? No no no.

My karma is outstanding. What a wonderful thing to behold. And thank you to all of the people in my life who helped me realize this.

I hope you’re thankful

Everyday I see people on the street living their lives, and I wonder if they are thankful for what they have.

I saw a woman at the mall yesterday with her arms full with shopping bags, they were literally dragging on the ground, and she was struggling to get a better hold of them. She turned to a man I presume was her husband and was grumbling about something I couldn’t make out. In the end she left her bags at her husband’s feet, took the credit card he pulled from his wallet, and left him sitting there looking exhausted and a bit sad. And I wondered… Was she thankful to have a husband that sat and watched her shopping while she strut all over the mall in search of the perfect stiletto? Was she thankful to live a life in which she was financially able to shop til she dropped? Was she thankful to have a life at all?

I often wonder if people realize how lucky they are to live the lives they have. If they are thankful to be living at all. How often do you really sit back and contemplate your own existence? How often are you thankful for the roof over your head, the food at your dinner table, the air in your lungs?
I think people, society, humans take life for granted. Becoming so accustomed to a certain way of life, we now take it for granted.

I wonder if that woman in the mall has ever known real hunger, or what it feels like to wonder where her next meal would come from? I wonder if the barista from my local coffee shop has ever been homeless? I wonder if any of my doctors have ever experienced real, chronic pain? I wonder how many people out there in the world wake up every day like I do, wondering if they will ever be well again?

I don’t take my life for granted.
I am very aware of how little money I have, and how very much pain I have. I am aware how my roof over my head is an illusion that could be taken from me in a second,  and how many meals I have left in my pantry. I know exactly how little true friends I have, and how many not so true there are as well. I am aware of who my real family members are, the ones that support me no matter what and would give everything and anything to help me, and I know the ones who just like the title.

I can’t take things for granted. If I did, I’d be in a very different place than I am now. I’ve learned who I can trust, and who I must be cautious around. I’ve learned exactly how far I can make my food stamps stretch, and how many meals I have til I’ll be hungry again. I’ve learned that you don’t need new clothes, music, and trinkets to be happy; just a $2 used DVD, a pot of hot tea, and two cuddly cats on your lap.

Take some time and have a wonder about it yourself. How thankful are you for the life you’ve been given? And have you said thank you for it?

If you would like to help me in my life please visit my campaign page:
Christine Lilley’s Life Fund