How to Turn Your Health Crisis into a Reinvention
9 women 40+ who turned what could have been disasters into lifelong reinventions
No one gets through life without a health crisis of some sort.
In fact, more than half of US adults are already struggling with a chronic health condition, and 27.2% of us have multiple conditions, according to the CDC in 2018. Chronic disease was highest among women, non-Hispanic white adults, adults aged 65 or older, and those living in rural areas.
This all comes with a giant cost: The March 2001 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine suggests that chronic illness causes more than 2.5 billion days of work loss. And illness not only interferes with your work — it can stymie your ability to care for others, damage your mental health and your self-esteem.
A health crisis often comes out of nowhere, proving quite clearly that even if we do everything “right,” we are still at the mercy of serendipity, chance, and the dictates of our DNA.
The question is: what are you going to do when it happens?
I’ve interviewed over 160 women for my podcast, Reinvent Yourself with Lesley Jane Seymour, and many of these women have been tormented, torn down, shocked and surprised when their body and their health turns on them. And yet every one of them I introduce you to has said: not so quick, buster. They used their ingenuity, smarts, spiritual beliefs, and relationships with those around them to turn what could have been disasters into lifelong reinventions. Here’s what they’ve learned.
Health Crisis Reinvention Lesson 1: One small health move you make for yourself can revolutionize your life.
Oonagh Duncan says that in her early 20s, she didn’t understand why anyone would actually want to work up a sweat. However, eventually she realized that her binge/purge relationship to food and exercise was corrosive to her sense of self. Duncan was a “passionate smoker” and “getting bigger and bigger” until she decided: “My body was not in sync with my inner self.”
Once she figured out that she could watch Jerry Springer and Maury Povich while on the treadmill, a lightbulb went off in her head. So she jogged for one commercial and created a habit loop around pleasure. Eventually Duncan became a fitness instructor, owner of a fitness company called Fit Feels Good, and the author of several best-selling exercise books. “The more social you can make your reinvention, the more it will stick,” she says.
Likewise, Suzanne Frank grew up with parents who never exercised and “were functional alcoholics.” By age 14 she was addicted to cigarettes. When her kids entered the DARE program at school, she suddenly realized that she was following the footsteps of her family. “I felt icky about my kids thinking I had to have two drinks every evening to wind down,” she says. “I decided that was not the way I wanted to be. And so I just stopped. I didn’t make a big deal about it.” Exploring other ways to relax led her toward marathons and eventually, at age 50, triathlons. Today she helps others plan for surgical recovery: “I call it more prehab, less rehab,” she says.
Health Crisis Reinvention Lesson 2: Several women find that only by embracing your health crisis can you truly reinvent your direction.
Terri Bryant, makeup artist and founder of GUIDE BEAUTY, has done makeup for fashion runways, film, print ads, and cosmetics. At one point, she noticed a stiffness in her shoulder and realized that her fingers didn’t move as easily. She went to the doctor, and at 47 got a potentially devastating diagnosis: Parkinson’s Disease. When her hands began to shake on television, she tried to sit on them. “I was afraid of losing my job, my identity,” she says. She had to keep doing makeup, which she loved. Her solution? Redesign the tools so that if her hands shook, it didn’t matter. Working with human factors and ergonomics, she rethought everything, from eyeliner to mascara — which helps even those who don’t have physical issues. “Being present is when evolution becomes a reinvention. At first I was not open and honest about my problem. Until I was, I couldn’t unlock my reinvention. The opportunity to embrace [your health issue] is the opportunity to find your community. Then you are not alone.”
Lisa Lori was a high-flying head of PR for Absolut Vodka; she also worked for Tom Ford and Gucci. Then she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that had no cure and was absolutely debilitating. “I had to rethink my life,” she says. She was 33. During her recovery, she watched Silicon Valley explode, and friends began asking for PR help in the digital world. Lori eventually had so many clients she opened her own agency, which lasted for 16 years and kept her flying between New York and Silicon Valley. When 9/11 happened, she and her husband packed up their downtown New York apartment and headed north, stopping in Greenwich, Connecticut. Realizing that her first son’s health issues required more time at home, she opened The Perfect Provenance, a store that sells high-end fashion and interior decor, and houses a terrific restaurant. “I love my career,” Lori says, “but my children will always come first. I said if I’m going to do [retail], do it now. I was turning 50 and I wasn’t dying.” She adds: “Life doesn’t go as planned. When I got sick, [I learned about] the randomness of life. You have to accept it and get on with it.”
Doctor Donnica Moore, who was trained in obstetrics and gynecology, has had four surgeries for scoliosis from age 17. They’ve required her to reinvent each time. She had a family practice, but after a year fell off a gurney doing CPR on a patient and fractured her hip. Her surgeon told her she needed a desk job. So Moore moved into clinical research for a pharmaceutical company. After rising through the ranks to medical education and communications, Moore became the corporate spokesperson where she got a lot of media training. The day after she was elected President Elect of the National Organization of Women Physicians, NBC called and asked for a medical commentator. Moore did so well, NBC offered a contract and Moore became the On Air Women’s Health contributor. But another operation forced her to rethink again, and today she runs the super successful podcast In the Ladies’ Room with Dr. Donnica where she discusses everything medical and especially taboo for women 40+.
Donnica’s key to getting through repeated health crises? “I would recommend to people [with] any kind of sickness, reinvention, or health-related reinvention, to be very honest about what your limitations are,” she says. “Pay attention to the things you joke about. One of the things I joked about was, ‘I need to find a job where I can just get paid to talk, because there’s nothing wrong with my voice. Okay, how can I build on this? You know, how can I be in a situation where I’m sitting, where I’m talking, where I’m still contributing, where I’m still working with people who are interesting, and valuable.” And that’s exactly what she does today.
Health Crisis Reinvention Lesson 3: A mental health crisis can create an opportunity to change everything in your life
Shailee Chopra was a globe-trotting healthcare strategist, techie, and data nerd. She was married with two beautiful kids, ran three miles a day, and was a closet poet. But on a flight to Saudi Arabia, her heart started racing, and she was unable to calm herself down. She did her deep breathing, but she couldn’t get her body to stop shaking. When she disembarked, she asked the worker at the gate to call EMS. “At that moment, I thought maybe I was having cardiac arrest,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about a panic attack. I’d never experienced it before.” Chopra says the strange part was that she was laboring to catch her breath, to subdue her anxiety, “but there was a part of me that was very removed from that experience, that was looking at me and smiling and saying, ‘see, now begins the journey.’”
As Chopra explored the reasons behind her uncontrollable anxiety, she thought about her father, who had depression. There was stigma and taboo around mental illness when they were living in India, so no one spoke about it. “I knew he was having mood swings. I [knew] something was not right,” she says. Though she had suffered from depression herself since the age of three, Chopra didn’t want to accept she could be flawed. “I knew there was something that I was carrying within, and I overcompensated for that in my ambitions, my achievements, my hard work. I spent four decades running away from it and covering it up.”
When she was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she says, “it broke me. It got me face to face with the deep-seated stigma and shame. That was the beginning of my falling apart.” She moped for six weeks, then asked herself: “Now what are you going to do about it?” She discovered the National Institute of Mental Illness (NAMI), with chapters in most cities, and began psychotherapy and medication. Changing the way she related to her diagnosis began her healing. “Starting to see myself as whole again, it is not my imperfection, it is just a part of me. I am not bipolar, I have bipolar,” she says. “Some of these subtle shifts were also very profound shifts for me, in seeing myself and seeing myself capable again, in sort of gathering myself together and willing to show up in life again.” Today she travels the world speaking about how to normalize the conversation about mental health, helping to change corporate policy toward illness and the values of leadership. “Why can’t there be vulnerable, authentic leadership?” she asks.
Health Crisis Reinvention Lesson 4: Many women find their own reinventions while caring for others with health issues.
Audrey Gruss’s mother, who had to flee Lithuania during the communist revolution after World War II, struggled with depression since she was 30. “Back then,” she says, “it was called a nervous breakdown. It had a stigma.” She would visit with her mother in the hospital or senior residence and wonder why there was no cure for her. “She never got remission,” Gruss says. Gruss, who has a degree in biology and worked her way to the top levels of the science end of the beauty business for Revlon and Elizabeth Arden, dug into the research on depression and was horrified to find that there were no new treatments. “Every medication is a version of Prozac,” she says, “which was introduced in 1985….Seventy of the top companies in the brain science business did not do brain research because it was too expensive or they wanted to repurpose drugs.”
Though her mother passed away in 2005, Gruss created the Hope for Depression Research Foundation which put together a group of leaders in each discipline of neuroscience and cellular biology. “They are collaborating, sharing research,” she says. “We are in clinical trials at Columbia University Medical Center and Mount Sinai with a brand new category of medications for people who don’t respond to Prozac – which is 35% of the population.” Gruss funds the foundation with the sale of a fragrance made from the white flowers her mother loved.
How do you make the transition to work you love? Gruss advises: “Look inward. Write down all talents and skills you might not have used. Sit down with a glass of wine and think of what you do best and what would make you happiest. Get the best people to advise you – the best lawyer, graphic designer, business planner. Don’t skimp. You must believe in yourself and never give up.” Gruss says that when she presented the fragrance to a few retailers, some loved it. Others said, ‘it’s just a project.’ Don’t let the no’s stop you. Sometimes a series of no’s can lead to the best yes.”
Health Crisis Reinvention Lesson 5: A late-in-life diagnosis can answer many questions and create unexpected opportunities.
Sarah Nannery grew up in the Midwest and went to college at the University of Michigan. She married and had two children. Her son had a heavy dependence on routine and difficulty with transitions. When picking him up for school, coming home, or going to bed she had to develop routines to get him through it. “Going to school, we would walk or scooter and he would ring the doorbell to get in, wait for the teacher.” If another family rang the bell, she says he had a meltdown, throwing himself down on the sidewalk.
When she brought her son in for neurological testing, Nannery began asking herself about her own qualities and habits.
“I always gravitated to work that was detail-oriented and quiet,” she says. “As a child, I would only want to interact with adults and parents. I was not really connected to kids. They weren’t following the same rules. They were messy or not sharing the way they should.”
She also noticed that, like her son, she liked things to be predictable, so she didn’t have to think so hard. She loved routines. “I had a wonderful childhood,” she says. “But I could never figure out why I didn’t fit in. I played differently and didn’t pick up on cues. I didn’t get the point of jokes.”
Nannery made it through college and graduate school as a successful student. But it was repetition and structure that helped her succeed. “What got me through was being in marching band. It was 6 am rehearsal. Every weekend was a football game.” She had a career that progressed properly.
Finally, at age 31, Nannery had herself tested. What she discovered changed her life. “Getting the diagnosis [of autism spectrum disorder] let me give myself grace in the workplace,” she says. “I know that if I have a meeting, I need to have an agenda to put my thoughts together. I have to take notes. People are accommodating. I don’t have to bring up that I am autistic in the workplace. I focus on things I need: lights dimmed or writing things down to stay organized instead of feeling flustered.”
Since Nannery knew other people were suffering from the same lack of diagnosis issue, she decided to write a book, What to Say Next: Successful Communication in Work, Life, and Love—with Autism Spectrum Disorder. “A lot of autistic people struggle in the workplace,” she says. “With me everything is 100% important. And it’s especially important when you’re a mother and have a career — you have to learn to prioritize.” Nannery says that because spectrum disorder research focuses on men, lots of women go undiagnosed — especially women of color. “You have to let go of your preconceptions. Not all of us are Rain Man. We’re very diverse. I’m still me before and after the diagnosis. I know who I am now.”
Nannery inspired me to invite psychologist and life coach Diann Wingert to CoveyClub to give a talk about adult ADHD. Almost everyone on the call had struggled with focus and staying on target for long periods of time. No one had suggested adult ADHD. When one friend who had been a huge agent in the entertainment field finally sought treatment at age 72, the pieces fell in place. “It explained everything,” she said, and it offered peace and acceptance for the way forward. Serial reinventor Wingert confesses she has ADHD herself and says she loves change because she gets bored easily. She has switched husbands three times, religion once, residences many times, and moved from being a psychologist to life coach.