The Importance of Health Anniversaries and Recovery Milestones in Chronic Illness

Kelley NunnMy Migraine Blog

#TinyVictory |Vestibular Migraine and Chronic Illness Recovery

Chronic Illness and Health Anniveraries

Anniversaries can be extremely important for people coping with serious, chronic illnesses. By anniversary, I don’t necessarily mean traditionally celebrated dates like weddings, engagements, and the like, but rather personally significant dates related to our health. There can be good health anniversaries and bad health anniversaries. For me, the biggest, baddest health-related anniversary, and the one I most wanted to avoid, was May of 2015, which would have marked 1 year of being bedridden from vestibular migraine and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). As the calendar turned from 2014 to 2015, I became obsessed with the date May 15th, 2015 and spent countless hours thinking about what it would mean to have been bedridden for an entire year. Fortunately, these negative thoughts led to a positive outcome; I began to feel an intense motivation to get out of bed before reaching that date, which turned the anniversary into something of a deadline for me.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that in my recovery I love to focus on the positives: the tiny victories, the not-so-tiny victories, and the recovery milestones. And as such, the single best and happiest anniversary I’ve encountered is March of 2016– the first anniversary of transitioning from bedridden back to being out and about in the world again! Reaching March of 2016 is personally significant to me, as it represents 12 months out of bed, 12 months of evolving into a happier and healthier version of myself. So, to celebrate this anniversary, I decided to do two things: 1) to push myself as far as I could in March, to see just how far I’ve come in the past year, and 2) to take a look back into my migraine symptom journal to compare March of 2015 with March of 2016.

Looking Back at My 2015 Migraine Symptom Journal

What’s a migraine symptom journal? It’s a simple method of keeping track of your symptoms in relation to your diet, sleep, mood, exercise, etc. to determine what environmental and behavioral factors contribute to your migraine symptoms. Every day, I kept track of my symptoms on a 0-10 scale, plus my mood, what I ate, the medications I took, etc. in hopes of making connections between triggers and symptoms. Now, as you can imagine, keeping track of all of your symptoms at the end of each and every day can be rather depressing and a not-so-great way to end the day. To combat this overwhelming negative feeling I encountered every night after filling out my symptom journal and realizing just how impacted I had been that day by my symptoms, I decided to finish up each entry with a tiny victory.

“TODAY, I MADE BREAKFAST LIKE A CHAMP.”From My Migraine Symptom Journal on January 5th, 2015
A tiny victory can be anything that made you happy, gave you the feeling of accomplishment, or whatever made you feel like yourself on that day, and is entirely unique to you!
 A somewhat hilarious example of what a tiny victory can be from my January 5th, 2016 entry: “TODAY, I MADE BREAKFAST LIKE A CHAMP.” Ha! That’s it! That’s all I wrote that I day, that I made breakfast like a champ. Today, I don’t even know what making breakfast like a champ means, but I know that on that day, being able to get up and make myself my own breakfast was a huge deal. If you’re not convinced about the benefits of keeping a symptom journal, consider how fun it would be to look back and see what sorts of things you were excited about just a year ago in your “tiny victory” section!

Below, you’ll see another huge perk to keeping a symptom journal. Using the excel spreadsheet in which I keep my symptom journal, I was able to create a graphic representation of my symptom severity on a daily basis over a time period of nearly a year and a half. This column graph shows a dramatic decrease in my overall symptoms over time, and served as an incredible source of encouragement while I was bedridden and afterwards.

Migraine Symptom Journal - Graphic Representation of Symptoms from May 2014 through September 2015 Showing Overall Decrease in Symptoms Over Time

Migraine Symptom Journal – Graphic Representation of my Symptoms from
May 2014 through September 2015 Showing Overall Decrease in Symptoms Over Time

Recovery Milestones, March 2015:

Ok, so back to the point: comparing March 2015 with March 2016 to gain perspective on the scope of my recovery in the past year. Straight out of my migraine symptom journal, here are some of the tiny victories and recovery milestones I reached in March of 2015:

March 1st, 2015
“Pretty clear-headed today, feeling like I had a good amount of energy. Freezing rain outside kept me from being able to go anywhere today, but I had a successful day nonetheless and did my laundry!”
March 2nd, 2015
“DROVE TO HANNAH’S BACK AND FORTH BY MYSELF”
March 6th, 2015
“DROVE MYSELF TO SOMERSET LAKE! Also to Abbondi and around Northbrook. Good day!”

— This one was HUGE and felt SO GOOD. It was the first time I drove myself, alone, to go birding in nearly a year!!

March 15th, 2015
“FIRST TIME DRIVING AT NIGHT!”

— I wrote this one after driving myself about 15 minutes to and from the local Short-eared Owl spot. The drive home was in the dark, which was a big deal to me at the time!

March 16th, 2015
“FIRST BINGO NIGHT. SUPER EFFIN FUN!”

— This milestone was pretty significant to me, as it was something I looked forward to the entire time I was bedridden. Before I became incapacitated, I would go out with my group of friends and play bingo at a bar most Monday nights. For months and months, I had this vision of myself in the future, being perfectly healthy and showing up at bingo, which was unrealistic. At some point, I had this epiphany that if I didn’t let go of the “I’ll go back once I’m 100% again” mindset, I might not ever get back to these sorts of fun nights with friends, and as soon as I could physically do it, I went back to bingo night.

March 24th, 2015
“WENT TO MIDDLE CREEK WITH HANNAH!”
March 31st, 2015
“Drove home in the dark from Ashland and was SUPER productive today!”

Recovery Milestones, March 2016:

I feel so incredibly fortunate to have come so far in the past year! It’s amazing to look back on my list of tiny victories from March 2015 like being able to do laundry, drive at night, socialize with friends, and travel to Middle Creek WMA, and to think that these milestones are my new normal. It hasn’t been an easy journey so far, and I’ve still got a very very very long way to go, but progress is progress, and I’m relishing every positive moment I can get! Here are some photos highlighting my top 3 experiences in March of 2016 below. You’ll note that in March of 2015, being driven to Middle Creek WMA was a huge deal, but this year, I was able to drive myself! In March of 2015, reaching 10,000 steps in a single day was a momentous occasion, but now, I can reach 15,000!

Kelley Super Excited to Have Driven Herself (!) to Middle Creek WMA, PA

Drove myself 3 hours round trip (!!) to and from Middle Creek WMA, PA

Step Count for Sunday -- 15,414! - Vestibular Migraine Recovery Big Year

Reached my Highest Step Count Yet — 15,414 Steps!

Kelley and a Spotted Salamander - French Creek State Park, PA

Got to Participate in the Annual Spotted Salamander “Sally Rally” at French Creek State Park, PA

Takeaway Messages

First, for those who are caretakers of people coping with chronic illnesses, it’s critical that you realize the impact that good and bad health anniversaries can have on your loved one. A positive anniversary, like hitting the one-year-out-of-bed mark can be incredibly uplifting, but a negative anniversary like one year of being bedridden can come with serious emotional consequences.

Second, keeping a symptom journal is one of the top things I recommend to everyone I encounter who’s on a journey with chronic illness. For migraineurs, a symptom journal can help you identify which migraine triggers to avoid, thus reducing your trigger load and the impact of migraines on your life. Plus, keeping track of your tiny victories can help you to focus on the day-to-day positives and provide some much-needed motivation (and even humor) when looking back. And, if you’re as into making graphs and charts as I am, quantifying your symptoms on a daily basis can allow you to create a visual representation of your symptoms over time. Being able to see your physical symptoms in this objective context can provide insight into your successes, triggers, and more.

And lastly, if you’re coping with chronic illness, I hope that you’ll carry #TinyVictory, #NotSoTinyVictory, and #RecoveryMilestone with you into social media, to spread the word that you can live an awesome, successful, and meaningful life no matter what the universe throws at you!