Owning My Wellness Story by Megan Langille

megan langille

Megan Langille is currently a Hall Director at the University of Michigan. She graduated with a BA in Communications from Hope College and completed her graduate work in Student Affairs Administration at Michigan State University, where she also worked in residence life. Megan loves college towns in the summer and walking over driving whenever possible. Connect with Megan via vizify.com/megandlangille

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For a while I was doubtful about the news-worthiness of my wellness story. It’s not about significant weight loss, and it’s not an inspiring marathon story. If someone were to measure fitness success in a traditional sense, I probably wouldn’t measure up. However! I love that the the SAFit Blog was created to explore fitness and wellness in all their facets, and we celebrate every story here.

I have lived my entire life in the shadow of a major chronic health condition. I was born with a congenital heart defect that required bi-annual doctor’s visits, several major heart surgeries, and the need to constantly make sure I wasn’t “over-doing it” physically and putting unnecessary and potentially harmful stress on my heart. So in that context, school sports, running, or fitness of any kind was off-limits to me. Since I was the type of kid who preferred band and theater to other school activities, these restrictions didn’t affect my life in any real way. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties, when I had to have open heart surgery during the semester break of my second year of graduate school, that I really started thinking about physical wellness as it might actually apply to me. After surviving that major operation, I felt like my entire perspective had shifted. We talk about a “crossroads” as part of Baxter-Magolda’s theory of Self Authorship… a time of discontent, of searching for meaning. For my wellness journey, the crossroads happened with that surgery, and the few months that followed.

Of course I wanted to take care of my hobbling, slowly healing body. I started walking, first on doctor’s orders, and then because it felt good to be up and moving. I celebrated the completion of my comprehensive exams with a brisk walk around campus (and then a delicious meal at Chipotle!). That July, I started my first post-grad job, and started walking regularly after work to get to know the campus and the community. Once that became routine, I started occasionally jogging, which would have been unheard of before my surgery. I would say to coworkers, “I just started RUNNING! I actually RAN this morning! It was awesome!!!” They responded encouragingly, but seemed a little mystified about how excited I was.

While the physical benefits of my increasing activity were obviously nice, I still felt kind of incomplete. I had survived a surgery that had a 1 in 3 chance of me dying on the operating table, and I was making HUGE changes to my physical wellness, but no one really understood the magnitude of this journey I was on. It wasn’t until the next spring, while I was co-facilitating our student staff class, that I really opened up about my experience for the first time. A major component of our staff class experience is sharing a social identity testimony, and for the first time, I talked openly about my experiences living with a chronic health condition. The response from the students was amazing, supportive, and encouraging. One response I got from a student has remained with me to this day. He asked, “If you didn’t have this heart condition, would you would be the same person you are today?”

No, I realized. I am much stronger, more optimistic and have better confidence because of it. And since then I have realized how much this experience has taught me, both personally and professionally. And in the spirit of sharing, here are eight lessons I have learned from my own journey:

1. Be an expert on yourself.

So say you, reader, have a chronic health condition, a physical or mental disability, or you are experiencing a temporary but significant health concern. Can you explain your condition or your illness to your friends? To a health care professional? What are your normal test results? What treatments have you had? What has worked for you? What hasn’t? What specific questions do you need answered at your doctor’s appointment?

2. Be your own best advocate. 

Similar to some of the above questions, sometimes a health care professional will assume the answer, based on their “expertise” or on “relevant studies”, but not examine it in the context of your body or your experience. One of the most powerful lessons in advocacy I have ever learned was when I was seven years old. I still remember my feeling of shock hearing my mother tell a doctor “no” to a controversial treatment he was recommending for me. She later explained to me that you don’t have to listen to someone just because they might seem more knowledgeable than you. This was incredibly powerful lesson that planted the seed of eventually being my own healthcare advocate.

3. Challenge the dominant narrative.

I cannot change the health condition I was born with. Nor can I change the challenges and preconceived notions of what it means to be “sick” or “hospitalized” that I and others often face from giant healthcare providers. As a small-statured woman often perceived as weak due to a heart condition, interacting with busy, well-educated doctors, who are often male, I sometimes have to fight to be heard. Our healthcare system doesn’t always empower its patients, but we help ourselves by being self-empowered.

4. Learn from your students how to be the best patient.

Think about the most successful students you’ve met. What makes them that way? Is it passion? A sense of curiosity? Some days, is it their polite demeanor during a conduct meeting or the nice follow-up email they send you after a great event? Your healthcare providers are seeing dozens of people every day. How have you been memorable, even enjoyable during their busy day? How does your investment in your own care motivate them to do their jobs even better?

5. Accept that sometimes your best effort will pale in comparison to others’ half-hearted attempts.

When I’m trudging up one of the many hills in Ann Arbor, wearing a free campus events t-shirt and jamming out to 90s boy band music on my outdated iPod, and two super-fit 18 year-olds fly by me without working up a sweat, I have to keep this in mind. Because they have a totally different health history than I do. And just because I’m not breezing through the miles in tiny shorts and a sports bra doesn’t diminish the value of what I am doing. This is my journey, and I am owning it.

6. Own your story.

Having a chronic health condition is an impactful, but often invisible social identity. It took me a long time to realize that the reason I felt so isolated was because I wasn’t talking to anyone about my experience. Once I started sharing with people, my sense of isolation lifted. I could connect to others in a more genuine way. Instead of being vague about needing to miss a half-day of work for some “appointments” or mumbling excuses about why I couldn’t join the department kickball team, I finally, specifically told my supervisor and colleagues what was going on. It felt groundbreaking at the time.

7. Your experience will absolutely influence your work as a practitioner.

I have connected with students through shared experience. Students who are undergoing chemotherapy as a first year student, who have experienced a scary diagnosis right before finals, a staff member who is wearing a heart monitor as her doctors try to diagnose unexplained symptoms. This extends beyond physical conditions, as we know many students are fighting invisible battles about which they rarely share. My experience has provided me with empathy to better support these students.

8. Wellness is a continuing journey.

Even if you are in a place of understanding and ownership over your physical health, your wellness journey is far from over. I read a great point in the Editor’s Note of the latest WebMD’s magazine that their publication “is dedicated to you as a person, not just one aspect of well-being or a single health condition.”

(http://img.webmd.com/dtmcms/live/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/magazine/digital_issues_pdf/webmd_magazine_may_13.pdf)
This idea neatly summarizes my evolving understanding of wellness, especially as a person living with a chronic health condition. I’m not just that condition, and that condition is not the sole determining factor of my wellness. Yes, I was born with this heart problem that will never go away. But at the same time, I’m a student affairs professional. Additionally, I’m a regular walker and emerging runner. I am also a cisgendered woman, a U.S. citizen, a graduate, a mom-to-be (!), a partner, a sister, a daughter, a role model. My wellness journey connects with all these identities.

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