Finding Health and Happiness Living with Chronic Illness

by Pamela Kaufman Health Writer

Jim Curtis was once a star athlete with confidence to burn — until an undiagnosable, seemingly incurable illness sent him on a downward spiral. He explains what came next in his book The Stimulati Experience: 9 Skills for Getting Past Pain, Setbacks, and Trauma to Ignite Health and Happiness, set for release in August 2017. Curtis tells his personal story as well as those of others coping with chronic illness, spotlighting new research and healing strategies from medical experts, holistic health practitioners, and other authorities. These sources, whom Curtis calls the Stimulati, helped him understand the roadblocks that people face when they feel their only goal is to survive, not thrive. Curtis is president of Advertising, Strategy and Operations at Remedy Health Media, HealthCentral’s parent company.

Here he talks to HealthCentral about his work.

HealthCentral (HC): Why did you decide to share your health struggles in this book?

Jim Curtis: Everybody wants to contribute to the world. That’s a natural thing. But that’s not why I wrote the book. I wrote the book because I want the last 20 years of my life to mean something, and the only way to do that is to use the experience to help somebody else. Is that self-serving? No. That’s what empathy is built on.

HC: You write about how important it can be for people coping with chronic illness to feel a sense of purpose. Why is it helpful?

Jim Curtis: Not only can purpose give you hope, it can give you health. The feeling of loss that comes with chronic illness creates anxiety; anxiety creates stress within the body; stress within the body creates inflammation; inflammation keeps you sick, whatever condition you have.

One of the people I write about is Dr. Adam Kaplin, an M.D. and Ph.D. who explores the intersection of psychiatry and neurology in his research at Johns Hopkins. He did a study about purpose that showed it has a massive effect on bettering the health of people with dementia, diabetes, and MS. That was really interesting to me, so I started to focus on that.

HC: Let’s talk about the power of stories. You begin the book by discussing the negative stories people tell themselves.

Jim Curtis: A story that I had when I was in college and younger was, I’m an athlete. I’m strong. I can do anything I want with my body.

Then I got sick and couldn’t walk. My body had so much pain in it.

The first story I created: I’m an athlete. The second: I don’t know what I am. I’m a cripple. Who’s ever going to love me? I’m weak. When I start walking, it’s so ugly. It’s the kind of really negative story that people who are chronically ill tell themselves.

We need to change the story, to say, “I have dreams of being great and I’m going to get there.” That’s where the “f— you” comes in. “F— you, my own internal voice, for telling me I can’t.”

HC: That’s one strategy: getting angry. You also write about how important it is to allow yourself to feel vulnerable.

Jim Curtis: Totally. You need to use all of your emotions. Vulnerability is so important. People used to say, “Jim, how are you doing?” Clearly, I wasn’t doing well. But I would say, “You can’t hurt Superman.” If I had vulnerability, I would have been able to maybe shed a few emotional issues. If my mother said, “How are you doing?” I’d have been able to say, “Today, I’m not really doing well. I feel terrible,” and I’d get a hug. And I can do that now. Until you can do that, you can’t get the support you need.

HC: You also write about the positive side of storytelling and its power to help people.

Jim Curtis: When you start to tell yourself a positive story, you start to believe it. It’s way more energizing than a negative one. If you want to really embolden someone or connect with someone, you can do it by sharing a story of triumph.

Here’s a story from a man named Rob Hill: “I almost died on my kitchen floor from Crohn’s disease. I was rushed to the hospital, I got an ostomy. Years later I climbed Mount Everest. Today, I contribute by teaching other kids with Crohn’s disease to climb.” He’s inspired so many other people. To allow himself to almost die from Crohn’s disease means that his story used to be, “I’m shameful. I can’t get out of the house. I can’t get help.”

So it’s so important to tell yourself a positive story, so you can get to the next level of your life, and contribute to the world. Positive stories and your experiences based on what you’ve gone through really contribute to other people around you. It’s a domino effect.

[Interview has been condensed and edited]

Pamela Kaufman
Meet Our Writer
Pamela Kaufman

Pamela Kaufman got her professional start covering health at Vogue, where she wrote two columns on news and trends as well as feature stories. Her interest in healthy eating brought her to Food & Wine, where she became executive editor. Today she writes articles about health and food, profiles courageous people living with chronic disease, and pursues all kinds of great stories. You can follow her adventures as an eater, mom, and traveler.