By Melissa Swanson
Many people use quotes to describe themselves but so often the quote does not match the person. This is not the case with Julie-Anne Braun. Julie doesn’t just say, “I am living proof that you CAN overcome your circumstances and live the life of your dreams,” but she lives it every day.
She uses her life experiences to help others to build their self-esteem, to remove the stigma of depression and to know what they can do to help prevent suicides.
ProHealth: What was your life like before living with a Chronic illness?
Julie: Before fibro, I was described as a “bubbly overachiever.” I had been successful in a number of careers; managing a team of 40 travel counselors by day, while volunteering as a firefighter/EMT nights and weekends. I had an active social life, and spent at least eight to ten hours a week in the gym. When depression struck in 2008, I seemed to have it all. I had turned my love of emergency services into a full-time job as a 911 dispatcher, owned a great little home in the country, drove a sporty red convertible and had a great physique. There was no rational explanation for my depression. This was the life I’d always wanted.
ProHealth: When did you first show signs that something was wrong?
Julie: This is a tough question to answer, because I honestly cannot remember a time when I wasn’t in pain. I was a “child athlete” and began performing in water-ski shows when I was six years-old. By the time I was 10 or 11, my knees hurt constantly. I had my first surgery, on both knees, when I was just 14 years-old. I had at least 2-3 more surgeries while in high school, and plenty more in the years to come.
In the late 1990s I had major issues with diarrhea. Doctors ran every test known to man, and the best they could come up with was inflammatory colitis. Looking back, I would guess this was the IBS that goes hand-in-hand with fibro.
After a cycling accident in 2002, I had severe and debilitating pain in my ribs. X-rays and MRIs showed that I had broken a rib, but it was nowhere near where the pain was. I spent six weeks in bed, and was eventually sent to pain management for “neuralgia.” The pain eventually resolved itself, but I never really got an explanation.
Around 2006, I urged my doctor to test me for Rheumatoid Arthritis. This was the only explanation I could think for the constant wide-spread pain I felt. He ran the test just to humor me, said “I told you so,” and never investigated further.
After workouts, it was taking longer for my muscles to recover. I used to work upper body one day, and lower body the next. I began to divide workouts into three muscle groups…then four…then five. Even then, the first muscle group was still really sore when it came time to work it again.
As I mentioned earlier, depression struck hard in 2008. Because I didn’t really believe in depression, I did not get the help I needed. I attempted suicide in December of 2008. The next year was pure hell. I was harassed at work, and eventually had to leave my job.
In February of 2010, I was on a cruise in with family and friends when it could no longer be ignored. I was in extreme pain all week, and trying to hide it from friends and family. When I returned home, I fell into my bed and slept for a week. I was diagnosed the following Monday with Fibromyalgia.
ProHealth: Besides Fibro what other co-morbids have been diagnosed?
- Major Depressive Disorder
- High Blood Pressure
- Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Spinal Stenosis
- And I’ve had MANY orthopedic surgeries
ProHealth: How did it initially change your life?
Julie: In the beginning, I was angry. I wanted my old life back. I wanted to go back to being a firefighter, EMT, gym rat, overachiever, etc. When I couldn’t do those things, I thought I couldn’t do anything. I spent the first two years on my couch watching television reruns. I put on 100 lbs, could not walk without a cane and almost never left my home. I was eventually forced to short-sell, and move in with my brother. I went from being a happy, bubbly, optimistic overachiever, to being hopeless, angry and hostile. I lost most of my friends, alienated many family members, and saw no hope for my future. I spent most of my time online chatting with other Fibromites who were as angry and bitter as I was.
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ProHealth: What changes have you had to make in your life?
Julie: I first had to accept that I was not getting my old life back – no matter how much I wanted it. I also realized that I didn’t want to be the angry, hostile person I had become, and it was up to me to change. I started by focusing on the positives. I made sure to list the things I was grateful for each day. Then, I was determined to find purpose again. In looking at my old life, I asked myself “why” being a firefighter, EMT and dispatcher was so important to me. The answer was clear: I wanted to help people. I asked myself how I could still help people with what I was currently able to do. I had been writing about my experience since those “dark days” in 2008 and realized that my story had value. I published my award-winning autobiography (now called Fallen Angel Rising by Bridgette C. Kent in early 2012.
After finding the right doctor, and having my knee replaced, I also joined Toastmasters International where I began working on my speaking skills. Today, I am an award-winning author and professional speaker. I share my story, and work to end the stigma of mental illness and fibromyalgia. I sit on the Wisconsin Governor’s Advisory Council on Mental Health, and the advisory board for WISE – Wisconsin Initiative for Stigma Elimination. I hope to help others avoid the suffering that I experienced.
In 2013, I also founded Fibro Cruise. I wanted people with fibro to know that they can still enjoy life, and live it to the fullest, even with restrictions. Our second cruise is on April 2nd, 2017, and we’ve now added people with MS to our group.
I have learned to work at my own pace. When my body says rest, I have to listen. I have to be patient on those days when the fog won’t let me get much done. Then, when it clears, I do as much as possible.
ProHealth: How is your relationship with your family & friends?
Julie: I am incredibly close to my parents and to the brother who took me into his home. Other members of my family still struggle to understand my illness, but we are building bridges. In the beginning, I was very angry with them for not understanding. I felt judged, was defensive, and tried to explain my pain, fatigue and illness every chance I got. Eventually, I came to realize that other people's opinions of me are unimportant. Those who want to get it will. Those who don’t cannot be my problem. I began to focus on becoming the best person I could be, and released the need for approval. As I changed who I was, my friendships also changed. The negative, angry friends fell away and were replaced by uplifting, loving and positive friends who are there for me no matter what. I feel truly blessed to have an amazing “fibro family” around the world.
ProHealth: What are your biggest personal battles now and how do you confront them?
Julie: One of the things I most struggle with is my “relationship” with my illness. I became an author and speaker to uplift and inspire others facing illnesses like mine. At first, I thought this meant I needed to be uplifting and positive all the time. As we all know, that’s just not realistic. I still have days when I struggle. I still have days when I can’t do all that I want to. It wasn’t realistic for me to be uplifting and positive 24/7. In fact, that alienates the people who are struggling. Eventually, I realized I needed to be open with myself and others about the challenges I face. This does not mean I complain or say “poor me” on a regular basis. It means that it’s okay to say, “I’m struggling today.”
ProHealth: What inspires you?
Julie: I hope to spare others some of the difficulties I faced; to inspire people, and let people know that there is still life after illness and to remove the stigma of fibromyalgia and mental illness.
ProHealth: How is your life now?
Julie: Overall, it’s very rewarding. Fibro Cruise 2017 bookings are in full swing. I spend a lot of time working on the Facebook page and website, tracking bookings and answering questions, and negotiating with hotels, bus companies, scooter rental companies etc. I am about to embark on the 2016 International Speech Contest for Toastmasters International, speak to groups and conventions whenever they’ll have me, and attend regular meetings for the Mental Health Council and WISE. I have to build rest time in before and after big events. I don’t plan anything for the day before a speaking engagement, fly in a day early whenever I can, and allow a day of rest before and after travel. I continue to seek medical answers and am working to improve my physical health so that I can do all of the things I want to do.
ProHealth: You are an inspiration to so many. What advice would you give them?
Julie: Keep searching! If you don’t have quality of life, and your doctor tells you there’s nothing more he/she can do, it’s time to find a new doctor. Keep pushing. There will be days when you’re beyond frustrated, tired of being in pain, and feeling like it’s not worth fighting anymore. It’s okay to rest and regroup for a day or two, but then it’s time to push on again.
I would also say, “Pay attention to your self-talk.” Catch yourself when you’re thinking things like “I can’t,” and redirect those thoughts. You may not be able to do things exactly as you once did them, but you can still do them with some modifications.
“A positive attitude and purpose will go a long way.” ~ Julie
Melissa Swanson, a frequent ProHealth contributor, is a chronic pain patient, advocate, and author. Through her Facebook page, she offers positive encouragement, medical information, resources, and support to 16,000+ fibromyalgia and chronic pain patients. In addition to her own blog, Melissa has been published in "Living Well with Fibromyalgia" and the NFMCPA "Advocate Voice." She's a graduate of the 2014 Class of Leaders Against Pain Scholarship Training sponsored by the National Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Association and a member of the Leaders Against Pain Action Network.
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