In-depth advice on a healthy lifestyle and coping with chronic illness
Road to Recovery: How Zoe Emma Healed Her Chronic Fatigue
When you’re diagnosed with chronic illness, is there anything you can do to improve your health and happiness? Can you (fully) recover from persisting health problems, and if so, how? In this first interview on recovery, Zoe Emma from Heal Chronic Fatigue shares her story.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Hello! I’m Zoe B. C. Emma and I’m a Complementary Medicine Practitioner based in Edinburgh in Scotland. I was diagnosed with ME/CFS in my early twenties.
When did you first get sick?
As a student at the University of Aberdeen, I experienced a variety of stressors which seemed to snowball until I developed ME/CFS. I had a history of anorexia, anxiety, and abuse as well as other physical issues like an unhealthy diet and lack of sunshine, fresh air, and access to nature. I also felt emotionally trapped in a situation which I did not want and didn’t know how to get out of. There came a point where my coping mechanisms with these problems began to fail and that’s when I noticed the first symptoms of ME/CFS.
I felt the kind of bizarre overwhelming fatigue that most others with ME/CFS experience, which didn’t get any better with rest or managing my physical activity. I also experienced depression, aching limbs, swollen glands, brain fog, and a return of anorexia and anxiety. It took me eighteen months from the initial symptoms showing up to get a diagnosis from my GP as I was tested for a great variety of other illnesses. At this point, I could barely walk and sometimes would have to be spoon-fed food, as I was unable to move my jaw and was afraid of choking.
What happened after you were diagnosed with CFS?
My GP said there wasn’t much they could advise apart from resting in bed and gradually increasing my physical capability much like someone with a broken bone going through rehab. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work for most people with ME/CFS, but other approaches weren’t known to my GP.
I was seeing a counsellor for the emotional side of things, but I still felt like there was something missing. I was relieved to have a diagnosis to be able to explain to unsympathetic friends and family members what was going on – but I felt frustrated at the lack of knowledge, understanding, and treatment available.
What were the first steps you took to start your healing process? Did you take any medication that helped? Which lifestyle changes did you make to support your healing?
I started to do my own research to see if there were natural ways to heal ME/CFS. As I learned more about holistic methods of healing, I realised that there is no ‘magic bullet’ which can quickly and easily cure specific illnesses. In our society, we tend to view medication in this way, popping pills and expecting to be returned to perfect health without having to do any actual healing work. It was at this point that I changed my focus from “healing ME/CFS” to “healing myself”. I focused on my diet, beliefs, behaviours, and how I processed emotions. Interestingly, I didn’t focus on physical exercise, intuitively knowing that I needed to rest and address other areas of health first.
The area which was most effective at eliminating my specific ME/CFS symptoms was definitely cognitive health. This involves looking at your beliefs and how they affect your behaviour in subconscious ways. There are quite predictable patterns that people with ME/CFS have become stuck with which actually create physical fatigue and a whole host of other symptoms. Once I really began to sort these beliefs and behaviours out, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders and the bizarre overwhelming fatigue never came back. However, I wasn’t 100% healed just yet.
Did you have any psychological breakthroughs that helped you further on your road to recovery?
Absolutely. Like many other illnesses, ME/CFS is a mind-body illness and psychological breakthroughs are common in healing from it. Personally, I did a lot of work on assertiveness, boundaries, and self-worth.
How long after you started working on your health did you start feeling better? Was it a straightforward process or did you have setbacks along the way?
Once I started working on my cognitive, nutritional, and emotional health I actually experienced very few setbacks. Setbacks were common before that point, when I didn’t really know what I was doing. I often thought I was getting better, but it was more like a brief interlude between episodes of severe symptoms. Within a few weeks of starting the cognitive work, I noticed my ME/CFS symptoms had almost entirely gone. Within a few months, I was convinced they had gone for good (and they were!). However, it took several more months to process the emotional consequences of letting go of old patterns. I would say that my symptoms disappeared quite early on but it took almost a year to really feel healthy again – better than I’d ever felt before.
How did you overcome the obstacles on your way? Where did you find the courage, hope, and determination?
There were certainly low moments, but I never gave up because I knew, deep down, that I was going to get better and that any suffering was only going to be temporary. I had absolutely no patience with the view that ME/CFS is incurable – in fact, this made me even more determined to prove them wrong! When a very low moment strikes, it’s good to have an action plan, such as having blankets and cuddly toys ready, a nice DVD, or lavender essential oil (which I found to be quite relaxing). Reaching out to someone you trust, while it can feel uncomfortable or scary to be that vulnerable, is actually one of the best pain-relievers. Other than that, I made sure to focus every day on what I wanted to do – what I would enjoy. An inspirational teacher called Robert Holden talks about ‘following your joy’ which basically means doing what makes you happy right here, right now. This helped me a lot!
How would you define ‘recovery’?
Recovery to me means noticing that your symptoms are easing and having the sense that you are on the right path towards health. I do not believe that you are ‘in recovery’ forever from ME/CFS. If your symptoms are gone and you are in better health than you were before you developed the illness, you most certainly are completely cured. After all, if we don’t have the symptoms of a cough or a cold any more, we don’t say we are ‘in recovery’ from the cough forever. We have it, we heal, and then we move on.
What would you like to tell others who are diagnosed with CFS?
First and foremost: It is 100% possible to completely heal yourself from ME/CFS. If you are like me, you will already have heard many people express the opinion that this disease is incurable. You wouldn’t be reading this unless you believed that there was a possibility to heal from ME/CFS, so follow your instincts!
I felt so strongly about this issue – that people believe ME/CFS is incurable – that once I was better, I trained to become a Complementary Medicine Practitioner with a view to creating an online course for people with the illness to learn the methods I used – cognitive, nutritional, and emotional – to completely heal. We have had extraordinary successes on the course so far! Every day I am thankful that people are realising that they have the capability to heal from ME/CFS and it is a privilege to be able to support them along the way.
If you have ME/CFS or you know someone who does, please take a look at the course website: https://healfatigue.teachable.com/p/heal-chronic-fatigue It has all the information you need and if you have any questions at all please do not hesitate to get in touch with me to talk things over. It is my joy and purpose to see people feel better and begin to get their lives back!
Note from The Health Sessions: ME/CFS is complex disease that affects multiple systems of the body. Although the cause is still unclear, it’s possible that various factors play a role, from genetics to infections and stressful conditions. Not every patients has the underlying psychological issues described in the interview above. However, by sharing different personal experiences with illness, we can learn new ways to cope better and support our health.
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