Some people take change as a way of life, moving a lot when young, living in different countries, trying new jobs until they find a fit. Today, we’re chatting with Charlene who did all of this and then we’ll find out what happened when chronic illness drastically changed her life.
Can you please introduce yourself, tell us what you do and where you do it?
My name is Charlene. I used to teach English in Italy before I moved to England where I became a Teaching Assistant and worked one-to-one with children who have special needs. I loved my job! I have been housebound with Severe ME/CFS since 2015, so now I spend much of my time in bed. I blog, I paint, I rest…
You’ve been through a lot of change in your life starting when you were young. How many countries did you live in and was there one country or one area of a country that you loved best?
I have lived in 3 countries:
South Africa, where I was born and raised – much of that time was during apartheid although I was unaware of what was happening until I was about 12 years old. I don’t think that children see color, so it just never occurred to me. I had an adventurous childhood, exploring the bush and any abandoned or undeveloped areas around our homes. Most of the time we lived on the coast, so walks on the beach and exploring rock pools were some of my favorite activities.
Italy, this is where my mother’s family is from and we joined them in 2000, I was 18 at the time. We moved there without knowing any Italian and stayed in my gran’s little flat for the first 6 months. We had a tutor come by a few times a week to teach the 4 of us Italian. I fell even more in love with the language than I had been before, then one day all the old Italian songs we had grown up singing suddenly made sense and we laughed at the mushy love-sick lyrics we had been singing along to as children.
England, I now call this beautiful country my home. After living in Italy for 10 years, I felt like I had finally come home. I fell into a job I loved, something I’d never thought of doing, met so many interesting people, found a church I loved and felt a freedom I had not felt before.
South Africa has changed beyond recognition since I left and I no longer feel the connection I once did except to my memories and the people – most of my dad’s side of the family is still there. I felt quite uneasy and unsafe the last time I visited. Italy still has much beauty I have not explored and I love going back there, but I have not been able to travel for 2 years, so it will have to wait until I am doing better.
Each country has its beauty and its dirt, but they are ever-evolving, so going back is never the same. England is definitely my choice for home. I feel safe and I like the way things are run here for the most part. Services work well. People are helpful and friendly and the National Health Service is a huge blessing!
How did you handle all the moving? Was this something you enjoyed or dreaded?
We moved regularly when I was growing up. By the time I was 18 we had moved 16 times! It was just part of our life and I always found it exciting – although it did mean that I went to quite a few schools growing up. I don’t think it set me back though, I did quite well at school.
I loved moving into a new house, getting to redecorate my new room, etc. But I did also envy my friends who had lived in the same house their entire lives and could really settle in and make their mark on a house. Something we never could do as we often rented and couldn’t change things much.
You made the move from South Africa to Italy with your family but from Italy to England with just a friend and one bag of belongings. How did you make that decision and what were your thoughts when you first got here?
Life in Italy had become difficult. My teaching job was great, but as is so often the case in Italy, companies don’t offer much job security. I had a contract that only covered the months the school was open. That means that for 3 months of the year I was unemployed. So when I expressed my need for more job security they dismissed me right away.
That’s when my job hunt began and I ended up in London. A colleague I had met in England during one of my summer school jobs had put me in contact with an agency in London. They couldn’t promise me anything over the phone, just saying that they always have work, but that I needed to be in London with all my paperwork in order for things to move forward. So my friend who was also unemployed at the time joined me and we started our new adventure in London. Despite not having any security when we arrived, I felt like I had finally come home. Like this is where I was meant to be.
We were homeless for the first few days, sleeping in the airport, in a hostel and then we met a very trusting landlord who let us rent a room for 3 months. We remained unemployed for those 3 months before the agency came through with a job for just one day… 5 years later, when I fell ill, I was still there at the same place in a full-time position, loving everything about it!
I see you also had several different careers including Beauty Therapist, animation and teaching ESL. Were any of these jobs something you wanted to do as a child?
My employment history is quite a mix of unrelated jobs. As a child, I had wanted to be a teacher, so I did eventually get there although it took me many years and many different jobs.
I started working part-time in a supermarket while studying Beauty Therapy and doing computer courses. I had grown up without much technology, so computers were the new big thing at that point and I was hooked! The beauty therapy was something I thought I wanted at that age, but after a couple of years of study and part-time work in the salon, I realized that it is not who I am. Even though I enjoyed the work, it wasn’t fulfilling. I then ran a lunch shop in a primary school for a year, while I finished my courses before my family moved to Italy.
In Italy, I worked for my uncle who ran an Industrial Automation company. I didn’t need to speak Italian for this job and with my love of computers and technical drawing, I picked it up quickly and really loved the work. Once the recession hit, the company suffered and I had to leave. That’s when I decided to train as an English Teacher. I had finally found my calling!
In my blog, I write a lot about trying new things and people who start over. You’ve made many changes in your life. Some because of moves, others because of economic changes. Do you have any advice for someone in the same situation?
I live by the idea that everything will work out for the best. That life comes in seasons and each season will eventually pass. Good or bad. So I look at changes as a new beginning and an adventure. Things aren’t always as bad as they might seem from the outside or in the moment and we can usually adapt quite easily to changes if we stop fighting them.
When I moved from Italy to England, I left behind my own house with a garden in the Italian countryside, with views of the Alps, to live in house-shares where I only had a room and had to share the bathroom and kitchen with strangers. This could seem like a step backward by many people’s standards, but it was an incredible experience which taught me many things, even if those lessons were not always fun to learn at the time. Despite that, I was happier in London than I was in Italy.
When I studied to be a Teacher and ended up working in an entirely different field as a Teaching Assistant for children with special needs, that could look like a step backward on a CV or resume, but for me, the assistant job was so much more meaningful and rewarding. I could really make an impact in the individual children’s lives without being tied up in all the paperwork a teacher has to deal with – something that I longed for while teaching a particular class or student for only an hour a week in Italy.
I think we can always find a silver lining in any situation and make something wonderful out of it if we stop fighting against change and learn to go with the flowing seasons of life.
I am Christian and one of the verses that come to mind is “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” Romans 8:28. In my experience, this has been absolutely true. Whenever I thought tragedy had struck and things were falling apart, He somehow managed to turn it around and make something beautiful out of it.
You have ME. Can you explain what it is and when you first started getting symptoms?
ME (also commonly referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, although this is a grossly inaccurate name for the devastation caused by this illness!) is a neurological disorder that affects all body systems. It is inflammation of the spinal chord, generalised pain, utter exhaustion upon the smallest mental, emotional or physical exertion, tingling and numbness, cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, sensory processing issues, extreme sensitivity to light and sounds which can cause terrible pain throughout the body, heart palpitations and breathlessness, gut issues, and just a host of other symptoms. It affects every aspect of your body and your day.
I first had unexplained migrating pains all over my body in 2014, doctors were stumped and sent me home with painkillers. I then noticed something was very wrong on Easter Sunday of 2015. I started shaking, but I knew this was something serious. I had already been in bed with a horrible ear and throat infection for about a week by this point – three years on and I’m still spending most of my time in bed.
How has ME changed your life?
I used to work full time, run after-school clubs, tutor and babysit after hours, go to church (hours away by bus) once or twice a week, dinners with friends, Bible study groups and had also recently taken up dance classes once a week when I fell ill. My life was busy and I loved it all!
Now I spend most of the day on my bed or on the sofa. I cannot sit upright for more than a few minutes without feeling awful and my heart rate soaring, I must stay reclined with my legs lifted to hip level to keep my heart from struggling too much. I might read, write on my blog, draw, paint or just scroll on social media to see what’s happening outside these walls and interact with other people.
I can only bath once a week because it takes so much out of me that I pay for it for days afterward in pain and weakness. Many of those payback days are spent in the dark in bed with severe light sensitivity, so using screens is not possible on those days, neither is drawing or reading in the dark.
I am unable to leave the house, even in a wheelchair, without payback for days or even weeks or months. It’s unpredictable, so I prefer to maintain my current levels of ability by staying indoors rather than set myself up for unavoidable pain and suffering in exchange for only a few hours outside – unless I feel like it would be worth it. Like maybe a visit to the seaside or my outing to the Lake District around new year’s eve after being stuck inside for 5 months. Missing the changing seasons is hard. I love nature and I don’t get to see much of it now, but our parents visit once a week and they provide a steady supply of houseplants and flowers!
My sister is my full-time carer, so she keeps me company and we have things set up so that I can easily spend a few minutes on an activity and go rest, leaving things set up so that I don’t waste energy on tidying up and setting up each time. I can just pick up where I left off. I make sure to do something every day that I enjoy. And if I’m too weak and in too much pain, then I just rest. I replay my memories of past adventures or daydream about the future and things I will do when I am able. So grateful for that ability!
Looking back over all the changes in your life, countries, careers and even health, is there anything that you wished you’d done differently? Or something that you wished you done sooner or not at all?
I’d not change the moving or the jobs, I have loved all of that!
What I might change now with hindsight is my fear of failure and of what other people might think. I spent many years waiting for other people to ask me, invite me, join me, go with me, missing so many opportunities because I was too scared to do things alone. I had just started living my life, my way, doing what I wanted even if none of my friends were interested to join me – about 2 months before I fell ill. Those were super happy times I am very grateful for!
Another thing I might change is removing stress sooner. I now realize the awful effects stress has on our bodies, it completely paralyzes me physically now. I imagine it has negative effects on healthy people too, it’s just not as pronounced so we ignore it. I would have said goodbye, let go, walked away, and moved on much sooner rather than holding on and hoping things would change.
And to go along with that question, what advice do you have for someone who may be in similar circumstances either with their health or thinking of making a move to a foreign country with only the hope of finding a job?
If it’s chronic health issues, I would say be kind to yourself, listen to your body, be your own advocate and don’t stop searching till you find people who listen and believe you. Reach out online and find a supportive community to join, people who understand what you’re going through, it makes a huge difference. You’re not alone!
If it’s moving to a new country, I would say go for it! Make sure you have thoroughly researched the cost of living. Join expat groups online so you can ask questions and have support from the start. Try to learn from and adapt to your new surroundings, it’s harder if you try to bring your country over with you and constantly compare or expect your new home to work in the same way. Moving to a new country is hard work, it won’t be easy, but it is an exciting journey, and even if you decide your destination is not the right place for you, in the end, I am sure you will not regret it.
Life will likely not work out the way you have planned or imagined it. That’s okay. You can figure it out. You are resilient and much stronger than you think!
Wow. What an incredible journey Charlene has been on so far. Her attitude is amazing and she’s shared some very valuable advice when she said she wished she didn’t worry so much about what other people thought before she got ill. If you’d like to read more about Charlene and her experiences, her information is below.
**All pictures used in this post are with permission from Charlene of Chronically Hopeful.**