Can any of us live “sustainably” with a chronic illness? I aspire to leaving a small carbon footprint. The IG-worthy images of reusable and minimalist lifestyles appeal to me. The idea of living light and making a more positive than negative impact on my surroundings… that all feels very right.
Unfortunately, those desires tend to butt up against the realities of having a broken body. We require so much more stuff than the average person. Just to make it through the day we try to tightly control temperature, brightness, noise, stress, rest, comfort, diet, movement, hydration, social interactions, medications, and more. Routine is especially important to helping mitigate flares and that comes with the baggage of having a lot of things. Here are some ways that my conditions make attaining a no waste life less viable:
Chronic migraines– Maintaining a consistent diet and sleep schedule, as well as low-environmental input, are important. Using lighting that doesn’t aggravate, having a cool resting space, earplugs, etc.
Gastroparesis– Very specialized diet that excludes most “clean” unprocessed foods. We have to eat low/no fiber and fat. Easily digestible protein sources and getting enough vitamins and minerals means sourcing foods that are typically packaged.
Small fiber autonomic neuropathy– Needing specific fabrics, hygiene products, and over-the-counter ointments leaves little room for simple refillable bulk goods. The same goes for recycled or pre-used fabrics and clothing.
Chronic uticaria– Similar to needing to stick with fabrics and products that don’t cause nerve irritation, hives and rashes stay quieter with certain materials. This also applies to cleaning solutions and temperature.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome– Being an all-encompassing condition, EDS is constantly aggravated and symptomatic. We have to use braces, certain clothing, mobility devices, and small products that assist our daily actions. It becomes as micro-thinking as knowing which water bottles open easiest or which shoes have difficult zippers. There’s not much space left for minimalism.
When it comes to the price of zero-waste or environmentally aware living, the lack of accessibility and cost of every product is wild. Sure, I’d have just a capsule wardrobe if I could afford to dress in cashmeres, silks, and wools. My cupboards would be filled with fancy glass jars (half filled so that I could lift them) of organic staples. Any furniture would be artisanal and made with sustainable materials. I’d use toxin-free paint on my walls and hand-tufted rugs that I clean with a HEPA filtered feather light vacuum. My groceries would be sourced from local purveyors and I’d purchase only the highest-quality versions of every item I need. But that isn’t my reality.
I need to buy medicines, have procedures, work less stressful jobs, and save money for the really bad times along with average living expenses. However, it is important to acknowledge that when you live a life of pain and symptoms, knowing and indulging in what brings you the slightest bit of comfort is critical to well being. For instance, many of the hygiene and beauty items that I use are considered expensive. After lots of trial and error, I’ve found that they work best for my body and are mostly environmentally friendly. I also, occasionally, splurge on eating out. I don’t know from one day to the next if my stomach will work, so I enjoy it when my body lets me and I pick the most well-sourced meals.
All this being said, my complaints are a very privileged problem. I’ve lived in many locations where most of my current must haves and wants were not fathomable. It was a sustainable and environmentally cohesive existence in the regard that there were no other choices. The fact that I get to buy whatever I need and that I have the luxury of spending money and time on trying to feel good, is the ultimate example of privilege. I am extraordinarily fortunate.
I think that it’s okay to be torn between wanting to have/do better in my current circumstances and holding a deep understanding of how much more I have than most of the world’s population. It brings balance, gratefulness, and motivation to my hopes and wants. Are there ways of effectively turning a life with chronic conditions into a more sustainable and minimalist existence? I don’t know. I stay on the lookout and make conscious choices when possible, but I’d love to do better.