Health is everything

Good health is everything. So some people believe.

 

As humans  we structure our needs in that well-known colloquialism of ‘[insert life changing challenge e.g. having no job or experiencing a divorce] …but hey at least I have my health’.

 

I would argue that having no job or experiencing the break up of a lifelong relationship are often far more significant events than experiencing poor health, but as a society good health is so fundamentally cherished and important that the loss of it trumps most other misfortunes.

 

My issue with that idea is not just because it is totally subjective (someone’s poor health could be frequent headaches vs another’s experience of a life-threatening disease). But I also believe that some degree of poor health can be an enormously influential motivation to improve health. A motivation, that many people without an illness and those who take their good health for granted, do not have.

 

So I do believe that health is everything, but perhaps not in the same way that traditional phrase can imply, and I certainly don’t believe the opposite logic that poor health is worse than everything else life throws at you.

 

I’m aware that some aspects of this belief are controversial. Especially when poor health in its various forms kills people. It will probably kill me one day. But as a person with a chronic illness, I passionately believe I have gained things through having CF that I would unlikely have otherwise had.

 

Hopes, dreams, and a perspective that I fear would have passed me by if CF didn’t force me to slow down at times. A wish to be more grateful for the good happenings in life and a slow-burning determination to achieve what I care about, that personally, I think my CF is partially responsible for.

 

Some of the most inspiring, compassionate and intelligent people I have ever met live with poor health. I do not believe it is a coincidence.

 

Health is not a dichotomy.  Not everything that results from poor health is bad, and not all that comes from good health is instantly positive.

No matter how difficult or uncertain life can sometimes be with a lifelong illness, had I lived a life with perfect health I would simply not be me.

“Illness isn’t inspiring.”

Illness isn’t inspiring.

I’ve often heard lines like “He’s so inspiring, I could never do what he does,” when someone expresses their admiration for a person suffering from a serious illness. It’s a nice sentiment. But I don’t think many people realise what they could do, if faced with an illness and having no choice but to deal with it. Some people become extraordinary in the face of their adversity, but none of us really know what we’re capable of until we have to. Your resilience can’t be tested in theory, only in reality.

But for me, when it happens, there is nothing inspiring about being ill.

The day-to-day of being ill, is very far removed from ‘inspirational’. It’s characterised by all the things you can’t do, the possibilities you can’t realise in that moment.

It’s about the books and articles I can’t quite grasp the meaning of, because my head feels fuzzy.

The blogs I don’t write because I lack the energy or I feel down.

The projects I put off because I stop believing in myself and feel like I don’t have the ability to pull them off.

The exercise I don’t start because I just don’t want to be reminded of the heavy concrete feeling settling in my chest.

The friends I don’t talk to because I don’t have news to share and I don’t want to keep repeating myself.

 

Good health on the other hand, is like an adrenaline shot. It’s a burst of clarity and creative excitement, of possibility. A chance to start afresh.

It’s inspiring.

And for the first time in a while, I’m feeling pretty damn good.

“Professional discrimination with cystic fibrosis, Part II: Sticking it to the man.”

In January 2012, I went to Korea anyway. The previous summer I had posted a message about a Korean-English language exchange in a local oriental food shop. A few weeks later I got a call from a Korean student who was in England on a summer programme and wanted to get some conversation practise with a real live English person. I agreed to meet her and her 3 friends later that week for a coffee. I am very glad that I did. Over the next few weeks we became good friends and promised to keep in touch when she went back to Korea at the end of the summer.

I don’t suppose I really believed we would see each other again, but was happy to have met her nonetheless. I did not expect for a minute, that 3 months later when my application to teach English in Korea was denied on the basis of my cystic fibrosis, I would get an invitation to spend the 3 month university vacation  living with my friend in Seoul. Anyway, that’s exactly what happened. For  the next 2 months we planned the trip over Facebook while I carried on working as a bank teller to save up the money.  We were going to be living in a tiny ‘oneroom’ apartment (common student accomodation in Korea) in Yaksu, Seoul, while she attended English classes and sought work experience and I studied Korean at a small academy.

A part of me was definitely worried that it might all go wrong, what if it was awkward, what if we ended up hating each other and I had to fly back home in a hurry? I honestly believed however, that it would be ok.  I thought it was realistic way to achieve my goal of getting to Korea, but more so,  it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  A way of sticking up a defiant finger to those who said I couldn’t have a go.

Korea taught me so much.  I fell in love with Seoul and the way of life. The glossy sheen of the city; 24 hour shopping malls and designer coffee shops open until 6am.  The grumpy ‘ahjusshis’ loudly debating life until the small hours over bottles of Soju. The contradictions of an ancient society that has never had a social (correction, sexual) revolution, sitting alongside some of the most advanced technology in the world. The trials, troubles and exhilarations of living in a country so fundamentally different to your own. And the friendship. I met so many fantastic people and of course had so much fun living with my friend. We learnt a lot about each other, ourselves too I think, and we’re still in touch. I’ll be back in Korea one day to visit and I’m sure she’ll come over to London too.

I’ve often said that one of the greatest things about having friends from the other side of the world, is not only realising the ways in which your lives are different; but seeing beyond that to all the ways in which you are alike. In this instance, just two young girls in their 20s with similar hopes and dreams and a desire to learn about the world.

I learnt some valuable lessons about my CF too. It was a hard pill to swallow (hah), but I had to accept that teaching abroad in a country with virtually no sick pay, almost no understanding of my condition (CF is almost non-existent in Korea as the CF mutation is extremely rare there) and no specialist CF care to support me if things did go wrong, was a risk I’d be stupid to take. Putting it like that, I know it seems like an obvious choice, but you have to understand that having a longterm condition isn’t a simple case of things you can and can’t do.

Most of the time I can do everything I want to do, and that is quite a lot. At present my lung function is over 90%, I work long hours and fit in time for fun too. 5 years ago my lung function was reduced to 45% and I couldn’t climb two flights of stairs without breaking into paroxysmal spasms of coughing. It’s very likely I could have spent a year in Korea without any major incident and had the time of my life. I could also have put my life at significant risk for something that just wasn’t worth it.

It was not an easy decision to be sensible and sit this one out. Unlike many CF patients, I had spent my entire childhood being pretty well and being told I could do almost anything I wanted to. At the age of 16 I told my parents I wanted to volunteer in the Israeli-Lebanese war to provide humanitarian relief. They told me I was stupid and quite rightly couldn’t do it; but not because of my CF.  I spent most of my teens imagining I would be a foreign correspondent for the BBC, or a travel writer. I never believed that it would be my CF that might stop me from doing these things.

Despite it all, it has made me determined to find my own way to do things, to recognise when something is worth fighting for, but also to learn when to go back to the drawing board and work on my strategy. The number of detours is irrelevant, there is always a way of getting there.

Our favourite bar.
Our favourite bar.
A Japanese, Korean, and slightly English feast.
A Japanese, Korean, and slightly English feast.
This is not actually a real building in Seoul, it's a replica. Most of them have 20 floors...
This is not actually a real building in Seoul, it’s a replica. Most of them have 20 floors…
There's a dog in there somewhere.
There’s a dog in there somewhere.