Teachings From Me and My Chronic Health Condition

Whether you have a chronic health condition or not, these lessons will help you heal.

I’m Sarah and I have Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease. You probably haven’t heard of it, but NAFLD is a chronic disease where one has an abnormal amount of fat cells in their liver, therefore it doesn’t function the way it’s supposed to. Not to get too medical on you here, but your liver has very important functions that deal with secreting different hormones, being able to detox the body, aiding with digestion, and so many more my geeky self could tell you--but just know that it’s real important. This article isn’t my whole story, but it’s some of it that I’d like to share with you.

I was diagnosed three days after my high school graduation (I know, great timing right?). So while all of my friends were going off on their graduation trips and creating sentimental moments before leaving home, I was on my couch, curled up in a ball, frustrated from the amount of pain I was in. You see, the fatty globs in my liver (when not treated properly), can create chronic pain in the upper right abdomen area (or otherwise known as where your liver is, duh). Honestly, you really can’t understand chronic pain unless you’ve had it; it’s like your body is fighting against you in a way you would have never thought possible. So when I had this pain that couldn’t be described by one of the adjectives (stabbing, sharp, cramping, etc.), but all of the adjectives? My doctor knew that something was wrong.

The doctor’s office and I go way back. From General Practitioner to Gastroenterologist (specialist doctor for your GI tract/digestive system) to Endocrinologist (specialist doctor for your endocrine system, i.e. hormones), I’ve seen it all. I’ve had tests for Celiac, PCOS, and everything in between to find out what was causing the constant symptoms I was having. I knew that it wasn’t normal to be nauseous 24/7, but since I knew no other way, I kinda got used to it. Since I’ve always been overweight in terms of the traditional BMI scale, doctors also thought weight loss was the only diagnosis to be given (which is a whole other topic in and of itself), but after years of being ping-ponged all over the place, someone finally listened to me.

My pediatrician (who is a God-send and one of my favorite people) told me about NAFLD and the symptoms that coincide with the disease (which started sounding extremely familiar). Since the disease hasn’t been researched very much, no one had thought about looking at my liver in the first place. After an ultrasound solidified my doctor’s initial thoughts, it was time to start the healing.

The thing with NAFLD is that the symptoms are treatable, but there is no found “cure” for the condition. Although I did alter my entire lifestyle (i.e. changing my eating habits, going to the gym at least 5X a week, etc.), the fat cells will always be prevalent in my body, which consequently affects my hormone levels.

So I could get into the nitty-gritty of it all right here with what I changed and how I eat/workout now, but for you I want to reflect on what this disease has given me instead of what it has taken away. It’s been two and a half years since I was diagnosed, and there are so many things that this time has taught me.

  1. 1. Prioritizing and Speaking Up for Yourself

    I was always taught to put others in front of myself (thanks @ society, just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I’m responsible for the wellbeing of others). With the lifestyle that I live today, I need to talk to my professors about certain accommodations I receive and advocate for myself in every conversation I step into. I do eat on a regular basis, so when I pull out my protein bar or lunch for the day in class, I can’t care about the judgement of others, but only about speaking up for myself and doing things for my needs.

  2. 2. The Language Society Places Around "Health" is Challenging to Navigate

    When you read the front of a package for some new and improved almond-this or chickpea-that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best for you. Marketing nowadays is a very intricate game about how to get the consumer to buy your product. Today, the consumer is imagined to be health “conscious”--i.e. looking for better products for their body. Public Service Announcement: just because it says that it has probiotics that are amazing for your digestion or contains a new vitamin to help your brain function, does not mean that it’s any way better or worse for you. My advice? Read your labels. Do your research. Stick to the whole, good foods that you know your body thrives on.

  3. 3. Everybody's Different, So Every Body is Different

    It’s as simple as that. Don’t question yourself, your worth, or even your size because someone says that you need to be a certain way. My rule of thumb: do whatever makes you feel your best. That’s it.

  4. 4. A Good Support System is Everything

    Whatever you’re going through right now, whether that be pertaining to a chronic health condition or not, you probably cherish (and yet simultaneously take for granted) your support system. The simple act of being able to rant to your family, friends, and those other extremely special people in your life about whatever’s going on is honestly one of the best things I could have ever asked for. I owe so much to all the people who have truly been there for me throughout this whole journey, so please thank and hug the people closest to you with your grateful, warm heart.

  5. 5. At the End of the Day, Be KIND to Yourself

    Okay, this last and final one is hard to unpack because I feel like a lot of the time I can preach it and never practice it. When I come across a day where I didn’t eat how I was supposed to or I didn’t go to the gym so my liver starts hurting, I try my best to think positively, but at the end of the day it just sucks. Honestly, it’s hard as hell to balance out your life in college, period. Cooking my own food and going to the gym at a constant rate can be so challenging with constant homework, work, friends, and going to bed at a reasonable hour. I do my best each day, and if some of the days are better than others, then I need to breathe and remember that that’s the way it is sometimes. Because some days you’re going to cook that expired chicken and you’re going to get food poisoning and we’re all just going to have to live with that.

Throughout these two and a half years of having NAFLD, I’ve learned much more than just these simple 5 bullet points above. Having a chronic disease truly changes your life, whether you view that change as good or bad. Although some days can seem brighter than others, I have to remember that I’m doing the best that I can in the situation that I’m in. I like to live my life knowing that things happen the way there are supposed to; you are need to be exactly where you are right now. If that means that I’m meant to have this disease, then I will try to embrace every deep, healing part that I can.