Author Joanna Charnas recently wrote a self-help book about living with chronic illness. In the Book, she draws on her experiences with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFIDS), an illness that she contracted at age 19. It left her in a debilitated state for 17 years, finally resulting in a diagnosis. Joanna, a former HuffPost blog contributor, now works at a Navy medical center in San Diego. Her second book, “100 Tips and Tools for Managing Chronic Illness,” is full of personal anecdotes about her condition written with insight, heart, and humor. The book was made available on Amazon and the Barnes & Noble website as of April 20, 2018.

Joanna Charnas holds a B.A. and an M.S.W. A native of New York City, she has been a social worker for 30 years and currently specializes in group therapy. Joanna recently granted an exclusive interview where she discussed her illness, writing a book, and more.

Diagnoses, experiences, and books

Meagan Meehan (MM): You started suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFIDS) when you were only nineteen, so what were some of the early warning signs?

Joanna Charnas (JC): My primary symptom was inexplicable, crushing fatigue, which sleep didn’t alleviate. I also got something called "brain fog", which made thinking clearly difficult.

MM: Why did it take doctors seventeen years to diagnose you and how did you cope with the illness in the meantime?

JC: I first became ill in 1979, but the Centers for Disease Control didn't define Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) until 1988. When I sought a diagnosis for my symptoms no one knew about (CFS), so they assumed that I was having a mental health crisis. However, the mental health providers I saw did not agree that my symptoms were psychological, which left me without any help at all.

In response, I practiced all forms of wellness as possible. I didn't drink or smoke, slept eight hours a night, ate well, and exercised moderately when I could. I worked hard to be as healthy as possible in all the ways I had control over in order to boost my good health.

MM: How did your treatment and life change after the diagnoses?

JC: Being diagnosed gave me a baseline from which to function. It validated all my efforts to maintain my wellness habits. There is no standardized treatment for CFS, but the diagnosis helped affirm what I was doing right. For example, people with CFS are not supposed to "feel the burn." Moderate exercise, when possible is advised. My diagnosis guided me toward proper exercise, among other things.

MM: What inspired you to write a book about this experience and how long did it take to complete and find a publisher?

JC: I had no interest in writing about my health experiences. My late father thought that hearing about my experiences might benefit others and encouraged me to write about them. After a year of rejecting his advice, I had a change of heart and began writing the first book.

I worked on “Living Well with Chronic Illness” for about five years, then put it in a drawer because my life became busy with other things. My second book is a compilation of my WordPress blogs, which I wrote over a two-and-a-half-year period. MSI Press expressed interest in publishing my book within three months of my search for a publisher. I feel extremely fortunate to work with them.

MM: What were your biggest goals with the book and which information did you decide most needed to be included?

JC: My primary goal with both books is to provide other people living with chronic illness some tools with which to manage their daily lives and to break their isolation. Knowing you're not alone is deeply comforting.

Humor, readers, and goals

MM: Was it hard to write about something so personal and interject humor into the serious subject matter?

JC: Both books reflect my personality and speaking style. I have an intense nature, but humor is always a part of the package. I'm comfortable writing about personal issues. My goal is to write well in a manner that readers can relate to.

MM: What kinds of responses have you gotten from readers and what do you hope people take away from the book?

JC: Readers often tell me that one aspect of the book resonated with them more than others, and this element has made their lives easier. They also feel a kinship with me, knowing that I understand the challenges of their lives and accept them.

MM: You also work as a social worker so how, if at all, has that profession impacted your writing?

JC: I've worked primarily with physically and mentally ill people since 1995. I'm always learning from my patients how pain and suffering affect them. They inspire me to be kind and accepting every day. It's been a great and humbling career.

MM: What are your biggest goals for the future and would you like to discuss anything further?

JC: My goal is to publish my third manuscript, a completely different book about a wild year of dating after my divorce in my mid-forties. I also hope that my current books help people live better, more peaceful lives.