Tall and slim, a sunny smile, charged with positive energy, these were my first impressions of Michael Zakall when I first meet him. But the trained actor has been suffering from a chronic bowel disease since 2015, which has turned all his projects upside down and made him find a new way for himself.
Very motivating and extremely inspiring, that’s how I would describe my conversation with Michael!
1) Who are you and what is your chronic disease?
My name is Michael Zakall. I am a trained musical performer and actor. Since 2015 I have been suffering from a chronic bowel disease, Ulcerative Colitis – it took me a very long time to learn this name! – which affects the last part of the intestine. Before that, I didn’t even have an allergy.
2) How does it affect your life?
The chronic disease comes in episodes, maybe it’s the most important feature. It inflames the intestines. It means I have to go to the toilet much more often than normal. I have much more severe diarrhoea and worse bowel movements with pain. Because I lose a lot of fluid through my bowels, I also have nutritional problems, much more than others. I am physically much less fit and weaker. When the chronic disease is very severe, then it is both a physical and a psychological burden, because nutrient deficiencies cause more “biological breaks”. This has professional implications, in my choice of job, but also impacts on everyday life, which has to be organized quite differently.
3) How did your family and friends deal with it or deal with it now?
In the beginning, when the chronic illness was new, it was very difficult because of course nobody had a clue, including me, how to deal with it: nobody knew what the right way to deal with it was. Learning to find the right communication was difficult.
There were also people who always wanted to help, although there was nothing they could do to help. That was very difficult: my family, for example, wanted to help a lot.
I distanced myself a lot from my friends who were more passively involved in the whole thing: They could not do anything about it, neither talk to me about it nor stand by me. While the friends who were just there and did nothing did everything right, the friends who were there and mainly wanted to do something did everything wrong. It was very difficult to find a basis for understanding each other. In the meantime, they all deal with it very well. They have learned to simply have an open ear when I say that I’m not doing well, that I’m having problems at the moment, that it’s starting again, that I’m having mood swings, that I’m too eager, even if it shouldn’t necessarily be because the situation doesn’t look so good. Meanwhile, they all accept it very well. I have “won back” all my family and friends and I have also prepared them well for when bad phases come again, when the relapses become stronger.
“The most difficult thing was the acceptance.” – Michael Zakall
4) What was, or is, the most difficult thing about the disease?
The most difficult thing was the acceptance. It was accepting that the disease will not go away, that I will have it all my life.
Learning to deal with the disease was also difficult: learning what is right, what is wrong, what is good for me, what is not good for me.
Reorienting my life was another difficulty: I had to turn everything completely upside down. I had to question what I thought I knew and change it for this new situation. I simply stopped holding on to what I was trying to save and let go. You don’t have to let go forever either. I have had to make a different person out of myself, and still stay true to myself.
5) What are you most proud of having achieved despite your disease?
Achieving my goals and my vision.
I am a trained musical performer and actor, but I hung up my career as I had originally pursued it: to be in the theatre, to lead a nomadic life and to be on the stages of German-speaking countries.
The vision of being happy and fulfilled by what I do has remained the same. I gave up my career but still looked for the goals that make me happy and continued to pursue them. That is something I am most proud of, as well as having regained the state of “being happy”. I used to have the opportunity to entertain and make people happy with musicals. Now, without wanting to be a preacher, I can simply inspire people, motivate them and make them think differently. That’s a much higher goal than entertaining people.
6) Is there something you would have done differently?
There are several ways in which this condition can be triggered. One argument is that it can be triggered by salmonella poisoning, by having an intestinal infection. I had a very serious salmonella poisoning back in 2015, three months before the chronic disease developed. If I could change something – although I don’t know if it’s that, of course: not eating that salmon roll at the airport, which tasted very good.
Not that I blame myself. I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t have even begun to think it was wrong at the time, because that was a very well-known, high-end, expensive restaurant where I ate that, even if it was in the airport. Still, I always think to myself, “Why did I do it?” But I could never have reacted differently because I chose something good, right, safe that was still wrong. I kept thinking, “Why did this have to happen? Why was in that place on that day?”
But I would never, even if I hadn’t known what it entailed, have reacted differently. You don’t take the cheap or the bad version, of course, but obviously the one where you say, “Nothing could happen there!”
7) What keeps you motivated?
A vision of how I want to live my life and what I want to achieve, what kind of life I want to have. That keeps me motivated.
What also keeps me motivated is the thought that chronic diseases come, relapses can come, but they also go. Everything that goes down eventually goes up.
People who accompany me positively in my life, people around me who have a positive mindset, are a motivating factor.
And ultimately pursuing my goals also keeps me motivated.
8) A lesson learned?
Don’t go beyond your limits if you don’t have to, and in most cases, you don’t have to. Limits are there to be tested – is such a saying. But it doesn’t have to be. Instead, look at yourself, at what is good for you. Don’t measure yourself against the achievements of others, because everyone never pursues the same goals, even if they look that way on the surface. But everyone has different prerequisites. Compare yourself in a positive sense to feel motivated. But once motivation is achieved, stop comparing yourself to others and compare yourself to your past performance.
9) A word of advice?
If you have a chronic disease, or are diagnosed with one, try to talk to people and get all the information you can. At the same time, have patience and understanding for your body and the situation. Don’t beat yourself up!
Say to yourself: “Everything is fine the way I’m doing it, because I’m doing it to the best of my ability anyway.”
Question what you think you know from time to time. Otherwise, you always tend to do the same thing that is not right. You don’t get anywhere because you don’t see what’s outside the box.
“Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean you have to accept your fate and can’t still learn something positive from it.” – Michael Zakall
10) One last word for the end ?
This chronic disease, as bad as it is, as unpleasant as it is, has taught me more positives than negatives and has definitely made me a better person. By changing myself, I have also had a bit of a positive impact on other people.
Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean you have to accept your fate and can’t still learn something positive from it.
I also don’t want to say that it’s the right and only attitude. Maybe sometimes it’s too naive. But as long as I remain flexible, hopefully nothing can happen to me. When circumstances change, I change myself and my attitude. Then I hope I have enough strength to go through with it. If I don’t have it, then I just don’t have it. Still, nothing is lost.
Picture by Michael Zakall