Graduates across the region are preparing for commencement ceremonies, graduation parties, and plans for the next phase of life. I remember the time myself. It was very exciting. Over the next few months they will be given truckloads of advice, direction, and inspiration from commencement speeches on what they should do with this new chapter.
I've always loved listening to graduation speeches. I soaked up the inspiration. I wanted to know the formula to a successful career. As a result I graduated high school with honors, received a double major degree from a university, worked my tail off and maintained a fulfilling career. I diligently worked to improve my weaknesses. I went on to enjoy life with a great husband, perfect daughter, and nice home in a small caring community surrounded by friends and family. I didn't have it all but I had enough. Everything was great, or so I thought.
What I didn't know is that everything was not great. I missed the most important piece of advice anyone could ever give. At age 32 I realized that dreams and goals, good grades, and even spending time with friends are all secondary.
I was forced to recognize this while lying on the couch going into my second week of a clear liquid diet in early 2011. A decade worth of odd and run-of-the-mill symptoms culminated in a final blow that left my intestines paralyzed in three different places. At this point I had already lost about 10 pounds, my hair was beginning to thin, I was off work with no idea of when I would ever return and I didn't have the strength or energy to even walk the dog two blocks.
I saw everything I enjoyed in life slowly becoming fuzzy. All the dreams I had for myself in high school, all the goals I was hoping to achieve, all the time I wanted to spend with my friends, and all the things I still wanted to do with my family were not even an option at that point in time. All the career advice in the world wasn't going to help me. Every nugget of inspiration from every motivational talk I had ever heard was useless.
This was the moment that changed everything. It was the moment I realized that taking care of your health is Step No. 1, not Step No. 2, or No. 8 or relegated to the list of things to do when I have more time. Want to finish college and get a dream job? Step No. 1: take care of your body. Want to enjoy fishing all day? Step No. 1: take care of your body. Want to take care of your family? Step No. 1: take care of your body. If your body doesn't work for you; nothing else will work out that great either. Sure it might work out fantastically for a while but no matter how fast you can run, eventually your neglect and unhealthy habits will catch up to you.
What does this mean for graduating high school seniors? It means that all this hard work you put into grades, all the work you put into preparing for a career, all the time you spend dating with hopes of one day having a family, and all the time you like to spend with friends at parties is never going to be as good as it can be if you aren't doing your best to take care of your health first.
Eating properly, physical activity, staying away from drugs and excess alcohol, and learning how to manage stress lay the foundation from which your life is built. Most of us ignore this foundation. I did for over a decade and it almost killed me. You graduate high school and before you know it you're middle-aged and have a lot of wishes. I wish I could hop in on that baseball game but my back hurts. I wish I didn't feel achy all the time. You get diagnosed with syndromes and disorders you never knew existed. Then you hit your 60s and your medicine cabinet looks like a pharmacy. You're less productive, less vibrant, and experience less joy from life (although you may not realize it because you've gotten used to poor health).
When I finally learned that I had an autoimmune disorder I started reading about fixing it with nutrition. I found life return to my body and now have never felt better. I look back and think of all the things I could have done better along the way if only I had felt better. I look at the time I missed being so weak that I couldn't even think clearly and wish that it never happened. But, if it hadn't happened I would never have learned life's most important lesson. Taking care of your body is Step No. 1. Health is a luxury we can all afford if we make the effort and in return, life's potential increases exponentially.
Mary Beth Stutzman's Inspiring A-Town runs bi-weekly on Tuesdays.