If you or a loved one are dealing with chronic illness, this is a must-listen! Shanelle Gabriel is a poet, singer, and lupus warrior from Brooklyn, New York who has performed internationally including gigs in Africa and Europe. Widely known for being featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, she has shared the stage with artists such as Jill Scott, Nas, Dave Chapelle, and more. Shanelle is also a health activist who has spoken alongside the President of the National Institute of Health, lobbied for patient rights on Capitol Hill, and hosted a column on www.lupusnewstoday.com. She is an inspiration to everyone- whether you are suffering from a chronic health issue or not! Click below to listen, or keep reading to see the highlights!
How did you discover you had lupus?
I was always very active growing up. Back-then I was called a tomboy because I always wanted to do what the boys were doing. I was an athlete in high school and in a dance troupe in college. In my sophomore year, I felt like it was getting a lot harder to get out of bed in the morning. I shrugged it off and chalked it up to being overworked and tired. Once I remember my roommate had to put my bag on my shoulder for me because my wrist hurt so much. Eventually, I did go to the doctor, but they also said I was probably just tired from dancing. Since the doctors said I was okay I just kept pushing the symptoms off.
One day I was combing my hair and something felt funny, so I went and got a hand mirror to take a look. Patches of hair were just missing from the back of my head. That day we went to the doctor because I just wanted my hair back. I didn’t connect any of the dots. Fortunately, my doctor was next door to a rheumatologist, so he saw it right away in my blood work. He started bringing up these symptoms I was experiencing, all of which were symptoms of lupus.
How did you feel about your lupus diagnosis?
Even after the diagnosis I was in denial and didn’t take it seriously. I ended up going to the hospital for inflammation of the heart membrane. That’s what made me really sit down and re-evaluate what was going on. I had to think about what I haven’t done, what I cared about, what I enjoyed doing, and what I wanted to do while I was here. I vowed that I was going to do what I loved from then on. That led me into pursuing my career as an artist. A few months after I graduated college I did Def Poetry Jam, and from there I was able to start touring. I was able to be a full-time artist for over 8 years while also teaching artistry. Teaching young people how to find their voices, explore their experiences, and express themselves through poetry.
How did music & poetry play a role in your healing?
I’ve seen the power of writing down what’s going on around you and the healing that can come from facing “the thing”. The first poem I wrote about lupus was nothing like the second. In my first poem, I literally compared all of my medications I was on to being addicted to drugs. I was in such despair so I wrote from that place. I finally came to accept what was going on and I wrote the second poem, Vanity, about what I needed to remember as I continued. The poem speaks about making yourself a priority, which I still forget sometimes. Our stories are able to heal others, and that itself can heal you.
What does acceptance mean to you?
At the time, there were two perspectives I had to choose from. I could either mourn the life I thought I was going to have, or I needed to figure out what my new life would need to be. I still needed to give myself space to grieve that old life though. There is always room for doubt and spaces where we question, but with acceptance, the idea is recognizing what reality is right now. I don’t think I would have been an artist if I didn’t get lupus. I would have continued living for other people instead of myself. This gave me a space to help myself but also help others too. Acceptance is continually going back to the idea that there is something greater than you. As sucky as some things are there is still so much good in the world.
What is your health regimen now?
I’m definitely a partner with my doctor. If I want to change something or if something isn’t working I always talk to her first. I track my symptoms a lot better now which is very helpful with lupus. I‘ve changed my diet, and I’ve made movement a daily goal. I love to dance, so sometimes my movement in the day is just putting on music and dancing in my room! I also love yoga. Those spaces of calm are so beneficial. Now I’ve made it a priority to have a therapist. Having that space to talk about everything I’m feeling is so helpful.
A lot of medical doctors don’t really think about how the patient might be mentally dealing with a diagnosis so they don’t think to recommend it. Whether you have a health issue or not being able to talk about your life in that way is so beneficial. I’m much more mindful of what I eat and how certain foods feel in my stomach. I try to listen to my body, so some days I’m doing resistance or mobility training, and other days I just really want to sleep in!
What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment?
I’m really proud of going to graduate school and getting my master’s degree. I really procrastinated getting that. My answer to that question changes though. A few years ago I would have said that my biggest accomplishment was performing in South Africa. That was an incredible experience, being able to connect with the native land of my ancestors. As of right now though, I’m so proud that I was able to go to a great school and pursue something I love. I’m adding onto the things I know, I’m growing, and I’m so proud of it!
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What are some of your top health tips for both Lupus-sufferers and those without a chronic illness?
Learn to listen to your body. Whether you have an illness or not, when our bodies are tired we will always push. We wait until we’re exhausted and drained. Our bodies are so amazing at telling us when something is wrong. So being able to know what is normal for you and your body will help so much. If you have a disease like Lupus you will notice patterns that can help you and your doctor. Movement is so important. We sit at the computer all day and take the stairs sometimes, but moving every day in new ways is amazing. Listening to your body means changing your diet too. What does your body like? What gives you indigestion? If your body says sleep, then sleep! Stop pushing things off that your body needs right now.