The greatest gift you could ever give yourself and those around you is the most lively, liberated, peaceful, healthiest, fullest version of you.
My earliest memory consists of watching my paternal grandmother feed spoonfuls of soaked oatmeal to my dying grandfather in Mexico. His delicate and fatal decline was due to Alzheimer’s. During that time, very little was known about the disease. The medications available were mostly to help alleviate his symptoms, but there was nothing to buffer the decline. About two years later he passed away. By that point in time, he couldn’t remember anyone. He couldn’t walk, move or even eat on his own. It was a complete decline of everything most of us take for granted.
Growing up I would watch my mom grieve for her parents all the time, especially the weeks leading up to their death anniversary. Both of my grandparents from her side passed away in their early 50’s. My grandfather suffered and died from prostate cancer. His last few years were a quick but painful decline. My mother wasn’t able to visit him at all due to a lack of legal citizenship at the time. My grandmother suffered from coronary heart disease and passed away from a stroke. My mother hadn’t been able to visit her either for the same reason. When she passed my mother finally had her residency and was able to go to my grandmother’s funeral. They both passed away years before I was born. Instead of meeting them, I simply saw my mom mourn and grieve their passing all of those years later.
I was eight when my mom had a horrible car accident. She survived but suffered from severe trauma. She’s dealt with high blood pressure ever since. A few years later she developed asthma and a chronic cough due to all the chemicals she inhales at her job as a housekeeper. Her quality of life has significantly decreased; she finds it hard and painfully uncomfortable to even go for a walk sometimes. She’s also been overweight as long as I can remember and has had multiple emergency tumor-removal surgeries. Most of the memories looking back are of her typically being very tired or stressed all the time. She inspires me though. Despite everything she has always pushed herself to provide and care for me growing up the best she could. Now she does the same for my father as well. Yet, it’s still emotionally painful to see her struggle with her condition.
Since infancy, both of my parents have worked full-time jobs. Therefore, I would stay with a babysitter before and after-school. I had multiple babysitters growing up but there was one who was very elderly. I would call her “Abuela” because she was the closest to having a grandmother that I had known. La Abuela took care of me on and off because she had multiple knee surgeries. There was a time where one of her relatives, Doña Berta, took care of me after one of Abuela’s surgeries. Two years later Doña Bertha disappeared from my life. I literally just stopped seeing her. It wasn’t until months later did my mom tell me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and left for her native country in El Salvador. She had both of her breasts removed. We didn’t hear from her for years. Eventually, we received the news that she had passed away. I was under Abuela’s care when I was sexually and verbally abused by her nieces and nephew. When I was a teenager I developed a lot of resentment towards her because I finally had some kind of understanding of what had happened.
During my sophomore year of college, three weeks before my finals, la Abuela was diagnosed with leukemia. It was already at stage four when they found out. My mom practically begged me to visit la Abuela multiple times. I told my mother that I would go after my finals were done because I didn’t know how to handle the emotions I had associated with her. She passed away the week right before my finals. I never had a chance to say goodbye. I felt so much guilt because I knew that everything that happened wasn’t necessarily her fault. Since she had always loved my hair growing up because of its light brown color and naturally blonde highlights, I decided that I would grow it out to donate it.
Almost exactly a year later, my hair was only an inch away from being long enough to donate. Later that week my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV Kidney Cancer the weekend before my finals of my junior/senior year of college. His cancer had already spread to his lungs, brain, and later on, it made its way to his spine. He has also developed arthritis in his neck and spine. Not to mention the high blood pressure and insomnia he later started to experience because of the multiple chemotherapy treatments. Then came the acid reflux, heartburn, chronic pain, and heavy fatigue. He’s still fighting today; trying to battle for his life. I had ended up cutting my hair too early. Instead of trying to donate it, I kept it. I don’t have a real reason why. The inspiration to do so had seeped out of me.
I’ve dealt with my own kind of chronic disease as well. Anxiety left unresolved can become depression due to chronic inflammation and chemical imbalance that occurs in the brain. As a teenager, I experienced my worst case of depression that impeded my ability to do anything throughout the day. Even doing my school work was a struggle for me, but it was the only thing I kept myself accountable for so that no one would notice that something was wrong. About three years later the depression began to come and go, but it was no longer a mild linger that invoked my life for weeks. By this point however, at the age of 15, my disordered eating worsened until I developed anorexia nervosa. I was eating technically nothing at all. And my anxiety worsened as well. I couldn’t leave the house. I was very exercise and food-focused. All I could think about was how to become leaner. How to reduce my calories. About how to run more and more.
My dad’s diagnosis was a wake-up call for me. Even though I had pretty much recovered from the eating disorder by this point, the anxiety and depression I experienced were still at an all-time high. But it was my fear and anxiety that drove me to look for answers. I wanted to better myself, to fill my cup, my knowledge, my heart in order to somehow save my parents. I learned that developing a chronic disease has everything to do with our lifestyle and quality of life. Lacking proper coping mechanisms, deregulation of stress or intense emotions, poor eating and sleeping habits, toxic and chemical exposures, or even complete submission to a sedentary lifestyle can all take a toll on our bodies. My dad’s conditions motivated me to want to look for a solution to his disease. Even if I couldn’t find something to save him now, at least find answers to prevent this from happening from someone else’s loved ones in the future. Because the most heartbreaking thing about chronic diseases is that over 90% of cases could have been preventable with a few lifestyle changes. Premature death from these conditions are preventable and within our hands. This probably has been the hardest pill for me to swallow in seeing or hearing about those closest around me going through this. And honestly, there are more people around me with these conditions that weren’t mentioned here. I’ve simply chosen the stories that have impacted me the most.
The mindset shouldn’t be about avoiding disease or about living a certain kind of life but instead aiming for the best version of ourselves. With this, we can never truly fail. However, I’ll admit that this path to a healthier life will be difficult. It’s the road least traveled by. The choice of eating better, moving more, sleeping efficiently, thinking effectively, and living truthfully is not common. I know because in trying to better my anxiety and depression I’ve faced multiple roadblocks myself. Trying to convince my mom to move more and my dad to eat better hasn’t been as easy either. The great thing is that it’s all possible. It may require some extra effort at first, but little by little it becomes habits. Just know that in the long-run, it’ll be worth it. The freedom you’ll have in discipline, the quality of life you find in consistency will leave you with the greatest gift you could ever give yourself and those around you. The most lively, liberated, peaceful, healthiest, fullest version of you.