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Lessons I learned when I lost my health, Part 1


I used to be the youngest person on my team at CNN. And while there were endless discussions about the work ethic of millennials with my older, more seasoned colleagues, I considered it a great privilege to work with journalists who had years of experience covering some of the biggest stories in history.

The Gulf War. Bosnia. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Katrina.

Every day, I was immersed in a world of stories. And each day was a brilliant learning experience. My colleagues were generous with their time and their knowledge. Some of them were what we called “CNN originals.” They started with the company, when 24-hour news was just Ted Turner’s crazy idea. As a young journalist, I was hungry to learn. What was journalism like back then? What was CNN like in the old days? What advice could you share? I had questions, and I didn’t hesitate to ask.

At 24, I was busy making big plans for my future at CNN. Most my life I’d dreamt of working there, and when I made it, I had no plans to slow down.

This all changed when my health took a turn for the worst in 2011. After months of perpetual hospital stays, dozens of doctor visits, and countless days confined to illness, I was finally diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder.

It turned my world upside down.

Yet, coping with and growing from my illness has become both the best and worst experience of my life; it bestowed a number of insights upon me that, I would like to pass on to younger professionals, in the same way my elder colleagues have passed their aqcuired lessons on to me.

1. Learn to practice gratitude

I lived for most of my life with an undiagnosed disease and battled recurring, excruciating episodes of pain every month. I’ve had more hospital stays than I can count. The one thing that helped me get through some of my darkest, lowest moments was gratitude.

I always believed my situation could have been worse. I found solace in the good things. I was grateful that I had family and friends to take care of me, grateful that I had access to the medical care that I needed, grateful that I had an extended family at CNN who fully supported me. Even in the worst of experiences, there is always something to be grateful for. You just have to find it.

A friend of mine, whose mother lives with MS once told me this is the greatest lesson he’d learned from her: Find the good in everything.

2. Honor your health

Health is like so many other things in life — you never appreciate it until it’s gone. I didn’t value my health, until I was fighting to get it back. Don’t wait to make your health a priority until you’re forced to.

It’s easier to maintain the health you have, rather than to lose it and try to restore it. Take this time to develop healthy habits, because the habits you form in the next few years will most likely be ones that you carry throughout the rest of your life. Walk, run, play, be active. Nourish your body. Eat well. Rest properly. Drink moderately. Honor your health.

3. Take time off

The best decision I’ve ever made was taking time away from my career. It’s hard to figure out what you really want out of life when you’re busy studying, working, or committed to some big thing in your life.

Take time off to read, travel, take a class, join a group, give your time. Expand your world — go somewhere you’ve never been, do something you’ve never done. When you take time to enjoy and broaden your life, you’ll find what makes you come alive.

A brilliant producer at CNN once told me that you have to find work that makes you feel like every day is Friday. Find something that makes you feel like you can’t imagine doing anything else.

4. Never say no to traveling

Rarely will you hear yourself say, “I shouldn’t have taken that trip.” Traveling opens up your eyes and your mind to different ways of living and being. It shifts your perspective. It makes loss feel more manageable. It allows you to see that great things came before you. Traveling is healing. There’s nothing like a spectacular view of a foreign lan to help heal a broken heart. There is something therapeutic about experiencing a place for the first time.

When I left CNN, I used the money that I’d saved while I was working to travel, and it was worth every dollar spent. If you have the opportunity to travel, do it. You won’t regret it.

The time when you were lost, and didn’t speak a lick of the native language. The time when you were exhausted and all the hotels were booked. The time when you were way too hungry and couldn’t find an open restaurant. Even the trips with unpleasant experiences become great memories.

5. Pay attention to that little voice inside of you

Intuition is something that is inherent in all of us, but we don’t always honor it. When I think back to big decisions that I’ve made in my life — including the one when I chose to step back from my career — I realize that these judgements have all been grounded in an internal, innate wisdom, one that we all have the capacity to tap in to.

Despite how much I contemplated leaving CNN, and regardless of how many people’s advice I sought, deep in my core, I knew the answer.

As a dear friend and mentor once told me, “listen to that little voice, you’ll hear it more loudly and clearly.”

6. Cultivate mindfulness

Life moves fast, especially nowadays as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that requires extreme multi-tasking, and in the midst of the franticity, it’s easy to reach a point of sensory overload, tune out and shift in to mental auto-pilot.

Losing my health forced me to slow down. In every capacity. After I was diagnosed, I started practicing meditation, and it changed my health and my life. Creating time to be still each day has given me a sense of clarity and peace of mind that I haven’t found anywhere else. It has enabled me to develop mindfulness in a way that makes even the most ordinary, mundane things seem spectacular. Meditation comes in different forms for people. Some people run, walk, practice yoga, play music, cook. Whatever it is for you, find something that creates space and stillness in your life, and watch your world open up because of it.

7. Find faith

Despite how much I contemplated leaving CNN, and regardless of how many people’s advice I sought, deep in my core, I knew the answer. Some people are born with a into a religion, deeply convicted in it, carrying faith throughout their entire lives. But it doesn’t work out that way for everyone.

I was born Muslim, educated Catholic, studied and practiced Christianity. Next on my list is Buddhism, then Judaism. The more I learn about faith, the more empowered I feel by it. I’ve always believed that we’re guided by something greater than us, but it took me a long time to find a place where I felt at home with my faith. Read, ask questions, explore and learn about faith. Keep searching until you find what feels right to you. You will know. You gotta believe in something. Even if it’s yourself.

Check back next week for the second set of lessons Summer Suleiman has learned from her illness and passes on to other young young professionals.


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