“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” ~Rumi
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains discussions of difficult topics, including suicidal depression and a fatal car accident.
I’ve always been an active, athletic person. In my twenties I was huge in tennis, squash, and swimming, and I began every morning with an intense workout that cleared my head and let me confront the day’s challenges with a relaxed, positive attitude. So, when I started experiencing mysterious pains and fatigue that didn’t go away no matter how much sleep I got, my life was turned upside down.
After two years of doctors’ visits, I finally received the earth-shattering diagnosis: fibromyalgia. My worst nightmare had come true. The doctors told me I would have to stop exercising as all the sports I loved are hard on your joints, and according to them I needed to take it easy. But physical activity was my life, and I quickly found that “taking it easy” was emotionally devastating for me.
Without my workout routine, my depression and anxiety spiraled out of control. I couldn’t find meaning or purpose in my day-to-day life anymore. The days blurred together, and all the energy I usually released through exercise turned inward, against me, in the form of daily panic attacks.
Worse than anything was the sense that my body—my best friend and my #1 support system for so many years—had betrayed me. And on top of this, the symptoms of my fibromyalgia were not getting better despite the enormous sacrifice I had made of giving up exercise. In fact, they were getting worse.
My turning point came several years after my diagnosis, when I was in my early thirties.
My condition had continued to decline, and I was ready to give up—on my body, on myself, and on life. It’s not something you can really understand unless you’ve experienced it yourself, but I had reached a point where I had no interest and no motivation to go on living. The uphill battle just wasn’t worth it to me anymore.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was nighttime, pouring rain outside my third-story bedroom. I opened the window, put my head outside, and screamed from the top of my lungs into the howling wind: “Why, God, why do I have to go through this?” Then, overtaken by a sudden urge, I lifted my leg to climb out of the window, to fall to my death and put myself out of this agony.
At that moment, something happened that I still, to this day, cannot rationally explain. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a child standing by my side—a child I quickly recognized as the younger version of myself.
She looked up at me with pleading eyes and begged me to keep going. She told me to go back to my workout, that exercise would be my remedy, and that fibromyalgia, my greatest struggle, would lead me to my destiny.
I closed my window, feeling like I had just woken up from a dream. That night I made the choice not to give up on my life, somehow knowing my story would not and could not end here. I realized I had more to offer—instead of turning my misery into someone else’s grief, I could turn it into a gift that I could share with the world.
Although I had promised my friends and family that I would take it easy and not work out anymore, the next day I spent an hour swimming at the public pool. While I was there, I shared my story with a lifeguard who in turn shared some unexpected wisdom with me: “A doctor reads the book, memorizes it, and repeats it to the patient, but the patient knows her body.”
His words resonated with me. I started doing a mild exercise routine: a few hours a day of swimming, which was easier on my joints than tennis or squash. After a while, I decided to retry some of the other sports I had loved to play before my diagnosis and found that, as long as I was careful, I could enjoy them without too much pain. The trick was knowing my body—learning and recognizing its warning signs, keeping a close eye on how I felt, and not letting myself overdo it.
The young girl, the one who had stopped me from taking my own life, was right: exercise was my remedy.
My mental health started to improve, and while I was still experiencing body aches, swollen joints, and all the other joys of my disease, I had a renewed, intentional outlook that made them possible to manage. I couldn’t choose to live my life without pain, but I could choose to live it without suffering.
I will not lie to you and tell you it was a smooth recovery. I had bad days—days where all I could do was curl up in bed and cry, days spent feeling sorry for myself and angry at the universe. Days where my symptoms got so bad that I forgot all about my positive mindset and the mission I had set for myself, to turn my struggle into something positive and use it to help others.
I experienced a serious setback when, almost ten years after my diagnosis, I was driving with my best friend and we got into a horrific car accident. I was the one at fault. My friend, who was thrown from the car, ended up being declared brain dead at the hospital; I myself suffered severe injuries that badly worsened my fibromyalgia symptoms, and I was told by doctors that I would likely have to start using a wheelchair if my condition did not improve.
(Incidentally, while receiving psychiatric treatment for extreme suicidality in the days following my accident, I was also diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia—a fact that might once have given me consolation or comfort in understanding why I am the way I am, but given the circumstances, only served to depress me further.)
My physical decline combined with the trauma of causing my friend’s death was more than I could bear, and I again spiraled into hopeless agony. It was one of the darkest periods of my life, even worse than the few years after I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia. But I did not succumb to misery as I almost had back then. And now, looking back, I see why.
This disease, and my active and consistent determination to make the best of a bad situation, had given me the best possible tools to deal with whatever hardship came my way.
I was in worse physical and emotional shape than ever before. But years ago I had made a choice to keep going, and followed through with that choice for many years, and because of this my mind was in perfect shape to keep me from falling apart when I hit rock bottom.
So I kept going. Through my tears and my pain, I got up each morning and faced the day, whether I wanted to or not. Not only did I continue working out, I became certified as a yoga and Pilates instructor. It was during this time that I got my black belt in Taekwondo, though it took me six years. I even started working as a fitness trainer, finding that my experience with fibromyalgia gave me a unique perspective on physical and mental health that my clients appreciated.
This realization was the beginning of a much larger realization about the struggles each of us will face in our lives.
First, setbacks are an inevitable part of any recovery process.
If you’re not seeing forward progress on a day-to-day basis, that doesn’t mean you’re not still moving forward! I went through long periods of nothing but bad days, but I wasn’t giving up, and that’s what mattered. Continuing to fight is an active choice—you are making progress every day that you choose to stay alive.
Second, no matter what you’re dealing with, you have the power to turn it into something amazing.
Fibromyalgia made me a better, more compassionate, and more open person, allowing me to connect with people on a deeper level and help them more than I could before. It opened up opportunities and put me on personal and career paths I would never have followed otherwise. It taught me patience, gratitude, and—more than anything—that I am capable of so much more than I think.
Fibromyalgia has been the greatest gift of my life, but I need you to understand that it is a gift because I chose to turn it into one. The universe handed me an awful situation, and as you now know, I came close—too close—to letting it destroy me. It was my own decision to turn my pain into the blessing that it has become, for myself and for those around me.
Life is full of hardships, but the incredible thing about being human is that we have the ability to choose how we respond to them. You can choose to fall apart, or you can choose to turn your pain into a gift.
What will you choose?