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Chronically Sick to Chronically Successful

Granite countertops, a hot drink in hand, and a wide smile across a glowing face...That’s how most people would imagine a celebrity home cook at all stages of their journey, for that is the image presented across cook- books, websites, and blogs alike—and indeed what you, the person reading this, sees pictured above. The reality for the vast majority of aspiring entrepreneurs could not be more different from such an idealised utopia; and mid-2012 in the kitchen of her student flat, 385 miles from home in the small town of St Andrews, Ella Woodward (now Ella Mills) never even intended to start a business...she just wanted to feel better. University students are notorious for being ‘unhealthy,’ and understandably so. From spending days chained to our desks before that 3000-word essay left a little too late, to grabbing a tinned soup in Tesco, or a croissant from Pret on the way to a tutorial, to finally finishing the week at the union with a drink—or five—we are busy and have to prioritize.

However, Ella wasn’t the average ‘unhealthy’ third-year sim- ply avoiding the gym or adopting an exclusively beans-on-toast diet for a couple weeks—she was sick.

A member of the class of 2013, Ella studied art history at St Andrews, and to a stranger on market street, she probably looked no different to the person behind her; as with many chronic illnesses, her sickness was largely invisible to everyone but her. Her autonomic nervous system was not functioning normally, meaning that her heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion, normally controlled automatically and involuntarily, were not cooperating. She had recurrent infections, chronic fatigue, and “a whole host of other symptoms.” Ella spent months of her university career in and out of hospital, without answers and without much control. Finally, her doctors diagnosed her with Postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a circulation issue in which most of the body’s blood stays in the lower body which in turn causes an abnormal increase in heart rate when sitting or standing, as well as Mast Cell activation disorder which causes mast cells in a person’s body to mimic allergic reactions as a result of too many mediators being released too often. She was also told she had ehlers-danlos syndrome which affects the body’s connective tissues and is characterised by the abnormal function of collagen.

Although having answers in the form of a diagnosis might have provided momentary relief, the cocktail of medications Ella was pre- scribed, from antibiotics to steroids, did little to resolve her ever lasting symptoms, and “within a year [she] hit rock bottom,” she says. Those unaffected by invisible illnesses can find it difficult to sympathise, let alone empathise, with those of us whose struggle and sickness is largely, if not entirely, internal. Therefore, it frequently doesn’t make a lot of sense to many people why medications prescribed by doctors don’t quickly fix everything.

I asked Ella what she would say to a student with a chronic and/or invisible illness to help us feel more seen, understood and respected: “how did you get through those toughest days while also managing work?” Her response was beautiful and struck a particularly personal chord with me: “It was incredibly difficult, they were my darkest days. I was very closed off and I wish I’d be more vulnerable, more willing to open up and connect about the challenges earlier on. Throwing myself into Deliciously Ella helped so much though, having a passion project...did so much for improving my mental health.”

This connection that Ella makes between physical and mental health really resonates. The reality for many with chronic yet outwardly invisible health conditions is that doctors and healthy individuals can oversimplify or even overlook the seriousness of internal pain, damage, and dysfunction, so it can feel a lot like you’re going crazy when everyone around you, although well intentioned, says “you look great!”

Ella acknowledges that being ill at university, a time traditionally for meeting new people, finding friends, making mistakes, and trying something entirely out of your comfort zone, is, in so many words, life-changing. When I asked “how did being ill at university affect your social life/ relationships with others, and importantly, how did it affect your relation- ship with your mind and body,” she explained that “it changed everything, initially for the worse but then for the better – in many ways I’m so grateful for the darker days and the extent to which this pushed me to invest in myself.” I had wondered if I was alone in feeling as though my diagnosis initially ruined my life before changing me into a better person, exposing the people around me who did not truly support and love me, making me strong- er and teaching me the true meaning of resilience; Ella assured me this evolution is one shared by the sick.

Ultimately, Ella’s message was an uplifting one of perseverance, and she summarised it eloquently when I asked, “what advice would you give to your younger self at St Andrews now that you are a successful business founder?” She said: “not to give up, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There will be endless challenges and it’ll push you to your limits, but you’ll be so much more fulfilled, stronger and more empowered as a result.”

Ella credits this emergence on the other side of illness to Deliciously Ella (DE) recipes/, her brand which was initially intended to be a personal passion project and motivation for her to start to eat more plant-based whole foods. Ella created a website which, with the encouragement of her friends and family and her partnership with her now husband and DE CEO Matthew Mills, ultimately snowballed into a significant social media presence, an app, and a cookbook, and her brand has exploded from there. Naturally, I wondered what she would say to an aspiring young entrepreneur, and she replied: “starting Deliciously Ella is the best decision I’ve ever made, but I think it’s important going into it with your eyes wide open. Start- ing, scaling-up and running your own business is no small feat, and you’ve got to be ready to invest all of your time, energy and resources into it, knowing that you’re willing to fail time and time again, consistently picking yourself back up.”

Ella’s message for those at St Andrews hoping to start a healthier life then feels doable: “Start small, with easy everyday changes that feel positive, achievable, and sustainable. Daily movement, mindfulness, and a little nourishment make the world of difference.” I think it’s easy to make living a healthier lifestyle overcomplicated, to quickly overwhelm ourselves with an 18 page list of tasks to check off each day to meet the elusive standard of self care that mainstream media has both created and reinforced. Thus, we inevitably fail, punish ourselves, and become slaves to the cycle of self sabotage. But, as Ella explains, when she started she “couldn’t cook...had no idea how to make plant-based recipes, and had lost all of [her] sense of drive,” but focusing on her health and committing herself to changing her lifestyle via DE “reinvigorated a sense of purpose and belonging.”

Ella took her advice a step further and explained how the town of St Andrews specifically impact- ed her rediscovery of her health during a time when her body was not under her own control. She told me that “the beach, walking down west sands every day became such a ritual—it’s just magic, I really miss it. It was also home to my darker days though, where I felt most isolated and alone while I was ill.” Indeed, St Andrews is just this to so much of the student population—a home away from home that plays host to some of the best and, for some, potentially the worst times of their lives thus far. I thought it was special that Ella used her surroundings and the environment of St Andrews to her benefit during those lowest times, and it was a healing space above all. She said, “I loved my time at St Andrews, it’s such a special place and I love that it’s where our company started.”

Ella’s is a story not only of sickness to health or St Andrews student to successful business owner, each of which are significant in themselves, but of fortitude, personal growth, and self-advocacy during a time when she had to be her own biggest supporter. As a St Andrews student myself living every day with multiple chronic illnesses affecting my digestive system, Ella’s journey is emotional and inspirational. Although she didn’t go into too much detail about those “darkest days” she refers to, I know what it is like to live an unpopular university lifestyle because of the need to put my health first. It is, just as she says, isolating to have your body betray you, to say no to that last-minute pub invitation, to spend that extra hour preparing and cooking a meal that will take you away from study time or a dinner with friends, to walk from DRA to the scores in a brain-fogged haze, sitting down on each bench just to re- gain the energy to walk the next 100 yards. This is the behind the scenes, the struggle and interminable array of symptoms that wreak havoc on the chronically ill. And it’s easy to feel hopeless, to sound like I’m complain- ing, or, worse, asking for your pity. Rather, let this serve as a call to action to really ask your friend diagnosed with that autoimmune disease or mental health issue how they are, and be willing to listen to the honest answer. To change our behavior so that we are inclusive of those with dietary restrictions, physical disabilities and mental illnesses alike. Let’s be more empathetic as a St Andrean community, and try to look beyond what we see.

A very special thank you to Ella Mills and the Deliciously Ella team for their time and contributions to this article!

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