Photo Credits: Michaela Dockery
Michaela Dockery is beautiful and vibrant. Just glancing through her Instagram feed, you’d never even know the Memphis-based fashion and lifestyle blogger battled through a major health crisis which completely took away her identity, and the strong, healthy body she worked so hard for.
But she did. The former fitness model’s body was completely unrecognizable at one point. She came through it fighting hard and focusing on her spiritual, emotional and mental health and getting to know herself more during what could have easily been her darkest time. In fact, she came through her health crisis focused on how she could take what she’d been through, and turn it into a powerful message to help other women embrace more self-love and self-acceptance, just they way they are. Her definition of what it means to have a healthy body also changed completely. Read on to learn more about Michaela’s story…
ONE OF THE MESSAGES YOU SHARE IS AROUND WOMEN’S BODY INSECURITIES AND SEEING BEAUTY IN OURSELVES JUST THE WAY WE ARE. HOW HAVE YOU LEARNED TO DIG IN AND FIND CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF AND THE LIFE YOU’RE NOW LIVING, WHICH IS MUCH DIFFERENT THAN THE ONE YOU WERE LIVING BEFORE YOUR HEALTH CRISIS?
Inspiring women and lifting their confidence is a major passion of mine. A lot of times you see these gorgeous, fit women talking about body insecurities and body confidence and I think half the time the reader is thinking to herself, “Right, you’re in shape and you’re gorgeous, you have no idea what this is like.” Well let me tell you, I do know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to be at the top, then to crash to the bottom. I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and see a six pack, and then to look in the mirror for the first time in four weeks and not recognize the person looking back at you.
I was at the top of my fitness game when I was 23. I was a signed athlete and a fitness model cover girl. I was in the best shape of my life. Two weeks after my thirtieth birthday, I was on a ventilator after going through a traumatic chest wall operation that went wrong. My entire life as I had known it vanished. From that day on, I was clinging to my life off and on for three years. We couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Something was attacking my bones and my immune system and creating masses in my chest. Seven surgeries, 24 scars, four pic lines and months of treatment later, I emerged a completely different person. I was stripped. I had nothing in me. I then had to make a decision. Would I let this destroy me, my confidence and my dreams? Or would I let it change me for the best and teach me beautiful lessons? I chose change.
AFTER YOUR SURGERIES, YOU COULDN’T MOVE YOUR BODY MUCH AS YOU HEALED. HOW DID YOU HANDLE NOT ONLY THE PHYSICAL CHANGES IN YOUR BODY, BUT ALSO NO LONGER BEING THE STRONG, ACTIVE PERSON YOU WERE BEFORE?
Every single thing changed for me after my first big surgery. I lost every bit of independence, every bit of pride I had, every bit of physical strength. I had to rely on everyone for everything. I was unable to lift a fork to my mouth, it was too painful. I was unable to wipe myself after going to the bathroom. I will never forget the night I lost all my pride. A male nurse was on my shift and I had to use the bathroom for the first time in 11 days (I had been on a tube and hadn’t eaten in seven days, and I’d just had my catheter removed). I thought, “Why God?! Why do I have to go now?” I was unable to walk, so he wheeled me to the chair toilet. He pulled my gown up, placed me on the seat and cleaned me up afterwards. I just remember thinking this is not happening. This isn’t real. I felt so weak. I felt like I was never going to be able to be on my own again. When I looked in the mirror a few weeks later, I cried. I sobbed. I didn’t recognize myself. I was emaciated and every bone in my body showed. A lot of my hair had fallen out. I was numb by the time I saw the scars. If I only had known that 20 scars would follow, and the partial removal of my breast. Months later when I started to leave the house a bit, things really started to take a toll. Nothing fit, I had no shape. I would try on 10 dresses before church. I would cry and cry. I couldn’t wear a bra, which made it impossible to hide everything going on with my body.
After my fourth surgery which was the most serious, the nurse came to give me a sponge bath and when she removed my gown from my shoulders, I shrieked. My chest was completely flat. My breasts were gone. I had three tubes coming out of my stomach, a chest pump and a long scar that ran completely across my chest wall. I truly thought I looked like a monster. From then on, I didn’t let my husband see me with my top off and that lasted for months, because I felt like all my femininity was gone. I think flat chested women are gorgeous, but my chest wasn’t flat to start. I thought I looked butchered, I was concave. I thought my husband was lying when he said I was beautiful. I got a nice new bra from Victoria’s Secret with nice round cushions in the cups and I was so excited about it. When I got home and put it on, it slid right up to my neck. There was nothing to even hold it place.
WITH ALL THAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH, HOW HAS YOUR PERCEPTION CHANGED AROUND WHAT LIVING A HEALTHY AND HAPPY LIFESTYLE MEANS?
This is something that I’m so passionate about now. Before I got sick, I thought health only meant eating clean and working out. Happiness seemed to come when I was fit and healthy. Happiness didn’t stand alone. I had to be in shape, at the top of my game, to feel happy. What I didn’t realize is that health is so much more than eating clean and working out. Health is everything…mental, physical, spiritual and emotional. Health for me now means all four of those things are being developed. I started to realize I hadn’t really been fully happy before, because everything was centered on such a small part of being healthy, the physical side of it. I started praying deeper than I ever had. The suffering I went through brought me to a place of strength and intimacy with Jesus that I didn’t know existed. I started working my heart out, facing mental and emotional hurts. I started dealing with things that I had stuffed down for a long time. And I started feeling a joy that was overpowering. No matter how much I would suffer that day, I had this joy deep inside of me. Yes, I had days where I wanted to give up and I would beg God to just take me because I was so tired. But I know I’m here for a reason. For some reason, I kept leaving that operating room time after time alive. So I decided to try and live my BEST LIFE going forward. I wanted to live a big life, where I had it all in terms of health AND happiness. And once I started working on all four of those areas – mental, physical, spiritual and emotional – happiness started to come easier. I let God be the one who directed me instead of myself. I realized I had been missing the full picture for so long. I started to accept my body, and I started to praise God for it. I prayed that he would heal the trauma I had from my illness and that I would realize how blessed I was to have these scars, how blessed I was to feel what it feels like to lose something like your breast. I prayed for wisdom on how to minister to women who struggle in body confidence and self-acceptance, and that I would be able to turn suffering into wisdom, compassion and understanding.
I started playing the I’m grateful game. I would thank God for allowing me to have the strength to go to the bathroom on my own. I was grateful that I was able to drive, walk and sneeze literally without breaking a rib. I was grateful that I could laugh without suffocating and that I could drink without choking. I was grateful for my hair, for good skin and for my green eyes. I was grateful when I could finally lie down to sleep after having slept sitting up for two years. When you start to play the grateful game, your whole world changes.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU MOST NOW?
So many things inspire me now. People who are suffering inspire me. A dear friend of mine has multiple myeloma, and he doesn’t complain. He serves others. He makes me count my blessings. My family inspires me. My kids and my husband have been the biggest reason for survival. My little girl, Sophia, was so little when I got sick. No matter how bad of shape I was in at the hospital, she was always so positive. She would tell me I was a pretty mommy. She would tell me mommy you’re strong. She believed in me and she made every day in OT and PT worth it, because it meant me being able to chase her around again one day. On my sons 10th birthday last year, I had only been out of the hospital for two days and I was undergoing my 3rd seven hour treatment. I was so sick I couldn’t open my eyes. I wanted to die right there. He came in the room to say hello and I couldn’t lift my head to tell him happy birthday. I had nothing left in me. I whispered happy birthday and told him I loved him and he smiled and left the room. But I could see how sad his eyes were. I prayed and prayed that this would pass and that I could enjoy his birthday with him. Three hours later I made it to the birthday dinner table in tears, but there and smiling. He inspired me. He pushed me without even knowing it.
Women from all around the world have read my blog. They’ve reached out to me and told me how much I inspire them, but what they don’t understand is that THEY are the ones who have inspired me to be open and vulnerable. When I saw how many people it’s helped, it gave me the confidence to share my struggles in the hopes of giving others hope.
WHAT’S THE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’D GIVE TO OTHER WOMEN AROUND WORKING TOWARDS A HEALTHIER BODY IMAGE AND LOVING OURSELVES JUST AS WE ARE, IMPERFECTIONS AND ALL?
You are SO MUCH MORE than a size and so much more than a shape. I tell women all the time who have had babies, “Don’t you dare put your body down for it not being the same as it was before the baby. You literally grew a life. Your hips are bigger because you bore a child. Your breasts may be sagging now because you fed your baby, you kept it alive. You may have circles under your eyes and stretch marks, but that’s the sign that you carried something precious, and a sign that you’re working hard.” The world tries to tell us we have to be a certain way, a certain size, a certain shape. Don’t listen. YOU ARE PERFECTLY IMPERFECT. You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.
WHAT DOES YOUR HEALTHY LIFESTYLE LOOK LIKE NOW, AND HOW DO YOU FOCUS ON STAYING HEALTHY?
I am finally gaining strength back. I relapsed last June and that hit me pretty hard. I’ve just gained energy again and I’ve been trying different workouts since I don’t know how my body will respond. I never had a problem with being motivated, but I do now. I am partly scared and partly just tired, and it’s just so hard to keep up. Sometimes I feel guilty doing things for myself when there is so much to do at home. I then realize that doing thse things for myself makes me a better wife and mom. I realized if I want to feel good in my clothes, I’ll have to put the work in. I started kickboxing recently and I’m obsessed. I love hitting that bag! I eat pretty cleanly during the week and have little treats on the weekend. I watched the movie “What the Health” six months ago and have been about 90% plant based since then, and I feel so great. I take a million herbs and vitamins today because my body has been wrecked. I have a high chance of lymphoma due to all the radiation I’ve been through, and my kidneys and liver have taken a beating. So I’m focused on cleansing out and strengthening my body. I love kombucha and it’s been a game changer for my immune system. I’m also trying to get pregnant, so getting all the vitamins is important. I love juicing, fresh seafood and curry on everything. I love to cook, and I’m always trying to find interesting new recipes. At night I’ll turn on some Frank Sinatra, pour a glass of wine and cook with my kids, and that’s my favorite time of the day. I try to take a mental health day once a week, with no work, no appointments or anything else. I’ll go to lunch with a girlfriend, get my nails done or just relax at home with a good book. These days are crucial for me. It was really hard to get back into “real life” for me, and I started having some difficult emotional falls after my last relapse. I really struggled with being “normal”. It was tough to get back into life in a healthy way. I felt like I had lost so much time. I felt like I owed so many people for so much. I overdid it a lot. I didn’t want to deal with the emotional side of what I had gone through so I didn’t, which hit me hard months later. I was diagnosed with PTSD and was given some medication to help get my poor brain back on its normal track, and while I’m very holistic and almost never take medication, I’m glad I did. I feel so much better.
YOU’RE A BELIEVER IN THE POWER OF HAVING A DAILY ROUTINE. WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S SO IMPORTANT FOR WOMEN TO HAVE ROUTINES AND DAILY RITUALS IN PLACE?
Having a ritual is so important. I think every woman needs that time, even if it’s just 10 minutes. All day long you’re doing things for others and it can really wipe you out. Having that time for yourself first thing in the morning is so crucial to keeping you emotionally, mentally and physically energized. I started waking up at 5:30 am, an hour before everyone is up, and it’s pure heaven. I make my tea, snuggle up on the coach and pray, read or just meditate. It revives me and when my family wakes up, I’m ready to take everything that’s thrown at me.
HOW DO YOU ENJOY DOWNTIME?
I’m such a homebody now! I wasn’t before I was sick but now it’s my favorite place to be. My favorite kind of Saturday would be at home in my sweatpants with a glass of wine, music on and cooking with my husband, kids and friends, just hanging out together.
WHAT’S THE MANTRA YOU’RE LIVING BY RIGHT NOW?
YOLO. Kidding! Well, sort of. With all seriousness, a strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows that it’s in the journey where she will become stronger.