By Katya Schwab
Pittsburgh-based author, blogger, health coach, public speaker and advocate Ashley Boynes-Shuck has not let much get in the way of her life, not even the list of nearly 40 chronic ailments of her medical history.
Her latest book, “Sick Idiot” (a term Boynes-Shuck uses to describe her particularly difficult days), is an easy read with a motivating message. With frequent metaphors and a smattering of cliche, Boynes-Shuck exposes the world of chronic illness with plenty of wit to go around.
Her blogging background is evident in the casual language and approachable style (see abshuck.com). Poignant and honest, she invites readers to share her experiences. Thanks to humorous anecdotes and heavy doses of sarcasm, Boynes-Shuck balances out the heavy weight of her medical nightmares. She recounts the lowest-lows of living with a lifelong disease. She also celebrates the highest-highs of living.
The memoir begins traipsing through the author’s unremarkably normal childhood. She spent her early years musing about life with typical childhood innocence and naivete. She worried about wearing a “weirdo cast” after hurting her ankle in second grade. She was excited to take her first communion.
And then the growing pains set in.
Except, they were not growing pains. At age 10, Boynes-Shuck was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. That only marked the beginning of her medical rap sheet. With conditions including celiac disease, Bell’s Palsy and permanent blind spots in her vision from medication, day-to-day tasks presented a challenge.
Along the roller-coaster ride of her health, Boynes-Shuck recounts her adolescent angst, dealings with boorish bosses and other engaging side stories. These common life encounters give her an approachable identity, a typical individual faced with atypical challenges. Add on her bouts of bad luck (including being on a hit list in high school) and her story moves well beyond average.
Like other inspirational memoirs, the draw of this particular work lies not in the shocking list of ailments, but in the way Boynes-Shuck withstood, confronted and overcame her medical woes to wholeheartedly embrace her life, and herself. “I want to see love and compassion, laughter and smiles, empathy and happiness, positivity and good,” she writes at the end of “Sick Idiot.” “I want to feel good vibes. I want to be a prayer in action.”
In general, her memoir spreads the feel-good vibes Boynes-Shuck seeks. That said, a few chapters in the middle depart from this tone. It becomes clear she has a chip on her shoulder against those with ignorant assumptions, especially stubborn doctors and horrible bosses. She teases readers with tidbits of stories about hit lists and meeting Oprah, and then moves on to focus on more routine personality conflicts. Perhaps she could be prompted to expand a few of her unfinished cliffhangers into another book.
Most of her venting is easy to overlook. Perhaps it’s because readers are sympathetic to her because of the hurdles she faced. Perhaps it’s because she checks her own ego through honest self-reflections. Or, perhaps it’s that she convinces readers to admit and rethink biases against those with an invisible illness.
By the end of the memoir, Boynes-Shuck gets downright upfront with readers about the reality of lifelong illness, “The ignorance, rudeness, insensitivity and mistrust that patients with invisible illness face is otherworldly,” she writes. “The public needs to understand that disabilities can come in all shapes and sizes, and that illnesses can be mind-blowingly invisible.”
The end of this quick read offers the brightest gems in Boynes-Shuck’s collection of advice. For her, the advice centers on health, but are valuable with broader application as well. Live as best you can and focus on your individual journey. Work to spread awareness about health, or other matters close to your heart. Take responsibility, for your health and your life.