Women in Health: Noelle Janka - Life Coach & Spoonie Superstar

Noelle Janka

The Women in Health series was launched a few years ago as an effort to feature inspiring women who use their unique talents to improve the health of those around them in profound ways. After a long hiatus, I am delighted to bring this effort back, and can think of no better person to interview for this relaunch than the fabulous Noelle Janka. Noelle and I met in Cambridge, MA when we were both working at the Harvard Kennedy School. Today, Noelle runs a thriving coaching business where she guides and supports individuals with chronic health challenges. I am sure you will learn much from all that this talented and incredibly intelligent woman has to offer. Enjoy her interview below. 

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You and I met in Boston, at a time when we both worked at the Harvard Kennedy School. We've obviously changed career paths since then, and so I'd love to hear a little bit about what inspired you to become a life coach.

I left my job at the Kennedy School after getting sick. I got in a bike crash, got a bad concussion and with it came a resurgence of symptoms that I later learned were related to late stage Lyme disease. I was having a lot of trouble understanding and remembering what my boss asked me to do and eventually I left to find part-time work and pursue treatment. That was the second time I'd left a job for health reasons and I actually started and left a third job before I saw that pushing through my pain and illness wasn't working for me. The third time I ended up unable to work. Thankfully my parents took me in. I was determined to find a way to do meaningful work without getting sicker in the process and ended up hiring a life coach to help me figure that out. I got hooked up with this great group called Coaching for Social Change and fell in love with coaching. It helped me tremendously in my healing and I saw that I wanted to bring it to others in my community. I started coaching changemakers, community organizers, and artists, and while I still coach some of those folks, I'm more focused now on supporting people with health challenges. Specifically, I support people in seeing new possibilities for their healing so they're excited to be alive and able to do more of what they love. It's my belief that if people aren't doing things that bring them joy, they'll never heal fully. 

You work with people with health challenges, or spoonies. Can you tell us a little bit about what a spoonie is, and the role you play as part of their wellness team?

Think of a spoon as a unit of energy, physical, mental, or emotional. A spoonie is someone who, due to chronic illness, has limited energy and therefore has to count spoons in a way that a healthy, able-bodied person does not. If healthy people start the day with 10 spoons, a spoonie might start with 6 or less. People with chronic illness have taken to calling themselves spoonies as a way of building community among often isolated individuals. 

As a life coach, I support spoonies in seeing where they might be getting in the way of their own healing. All people - sick or well - have doubts and worries that can slow them down or even get them completely stuck. When you're ill, there are often factors that compound the normal doubts and worries, like financial strain from lack of employment, cost of healthcare, etc. I support people in seeing clearly when the worries are coming up and give them tools to overcome the worry so it doesn't run the show. I also help folks build self-compassion, shift their mindset from scarcity to abundance, and grow diverse support networks - all things that reduce stress and aid in the healing/illness management process. I'm actually working on a program called, "How to Not Hate Yourself" because I find that 100% of my chronic illness clients are really hard on themselves, which makes it very difficult for them to manage their illness with ease and grace. 

You run a Facebook group for spoonies called Spoonie Superstars, where you emphasize the importance of positivity and the celebration of one's journey. Can you tell us a little bit more about this approach? Do you find that it facilitates healing? 

The term "spoonie" is not yet a household word and I would say only about half of my chronic illness clients identify as spoonies. I like to introduce people to the term though and invite them to the Facebook group so they can be with others who relate to their experiences in a truly supportive way. There are a lot of spoonie Facebook groups where someone can speak their truth about how friggin' hard their life is. It's important that those groups exist, and I'm grateful to the admins who manage them, but they generally aren't uplifting groups to hang out in. They're more like deep wells of suffering. A lot of in-person support groups are the same. I wanted to create an alternative, and specifically, a place where someone could post, "I went for a walk today for the first time in three months," and get a flood of encouraging comments, emojis, and memes from people who know how huge that is. People are certainly allowed to kvetch in the group, and there's a lot of sharing strategies for healing and pain/illness management. Giving people a space to share what they know is huge too and contributing to others really helps us heal. A lot of people get sick and feel like all they do is take and never give. Spoonie Superstars offers an opportunity for people to share a lot of knowledge and wisdom with people who really need it. I also like to introduce spoonies to different kinds of holistic medicine because I see a lot of us getting left behind by allopathic medicine. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback about the group. People say it gives them hope and we can always use more of that. 

Sometimes dealing with a chronic health condition involves a lot of detective work. Finding out what's going on "in there", what makes it better or more manageable, and who to turn to for help can be a difficult and sometimes frustrating quest. Do you have any advice for spoonies on how to manage this part of their journey? 

Yes! Do your research and build your support team early on. I really love Dr. Richard Horowitz's book "Why Can't I Get Better?" because his intention is to teach you how to be your own medical detective. It's focused on Lyme and MSIDS but parts of it can benefit anyone with a chronic illness. I encourage everyone to learn more about the body and how it functions. Most of us know nothing about the body and how it works. Everyone knows that your liver is affected by alcohol, for example, but most people don't know that it's a huge player in pretty much all illness and wellness. When I had chronic sinus infections, I learned a lot by going to the library and pulling out standard medical texts. We get so little time with our doctors now that even if we're lucky enough to get a diagnosis, we need to do a lot of self-education to get the full picture. I also think it's important to try out allopathic and holistic approaches to see what resonates with you. I run an interview series with holistic practitioners called Healcast because I see a lot of spoonies getting left behind by allopathic medicine and I want people to know what else is out there. 

I recommend too that people join online and, if possible, in-person support groups for any diagnosed condition they have. It's a good way to get information about good doctors, and bad ones, and it is a way to make friends who really get what you're going through.  I really love that if I have a question about Lyme, there are literally twenty people in my phone that I can call for advice, a resource, or an account of their experience with a particular treatment. And, having someone to call after a disappointing doctor's appointment is not only emotionally supportive, but it can help you stay motivated when you're on a difficult patch in your journey. 

5) If you had the power to make everyone you meet adopt 3 healthy daily routines or habits, what would they be? 

I LOVE this question Nirvana! 

1) A mindfulness practice like 10 minutes of meditation, even if it's lying in bed, or 20 minutes of yoga, or a daily nature walk. Something that gets you away from a screen and might allow you to shut your brain off. 

2) Practicing gratitude, either by writing down three things you're grateful for each day or by sharing them with someone you love. This helps cultivate a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity, which is the default for most, or maybe all people with a chronic illness. 

3) Eat at least one meal a day without distractions. A lot of people have digestive challenges and eating slowly and chewing food completely can make a big difference! It can also help you be more present to how your body responds to certain foods.

If you had to pick one book that is required reading for spoonies and non-spoonies alike, what would it be? 

I think Pema Chodron is brilliant. I'd have everyone read "Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears."