Through the craft website ConsciousCrafties.com, Karen Thomas empowers others like her who are managing a chronic illness.
- Posted on Jun 6, 2017
When Karen Thomas was diagnosed with a chronic illness 5 years ago, she never thought she’d find her life’s purpose: empowering others through her online support community and craft website Conscious Crafties.
It started in 2011 when Thomas was in a car accident. After awhile, she would get sick and faint when she tried to stand up. She felt queasy just sitting on her couch. It took a year to find a diagnosis -- Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a rare condition affecting the blood vessels and heart rate. It took a while longer to discover that her POTS was caused by Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a connective tissue disorder affecting the skin, cartilage, ligaments, and blood vessels of the body.
Her symptoms appeared suddenly, but Thomas says that’s how it works for many people.
“A lot of people get sick after trauma to their body, whether it is physical trauma like a car crash or emotional trauma,” Thomas tells Guideposts.org. “It’s almost as though it lies dormant and then something happens and you get sick practically overnight.”
She started going online, looking for support groups where she could connect with people managing illness the same way she was. She thought it might make her feel better, but as she began chatting with others facing similar chronic diseases and disabilities, she realized they all had something else in common.
“Everybody just felt as though their life had been stripped away,” Thomas says. “They didn’t feel that they had any purpose. It really upset me. I was lucky in that I was able to work around my sickness but so many people weren’t able to do something that was from home. And, there weren’t many sympathetic employers that would let them work around their sickness.”
That general, overwhelming feeling of uselessness spurred Thomas to act.
A lover of crafts from a young age, she realized many of the people she chatted with online shared her creative hobby.
“[Crafting] was something that really helped me because it was quite meditative; I think it is for a lot of people,” Thomas explains. “It takes you away from the stresses and strains of life for a bit. When you’re creating, making something beautiful that you know other people will appreciate, it just makes you happy. You feel useful.”
There was so much talent in her online community but many of the people with chronic illnesses that she spoke to didn’t know how to effectively sell their products online. They found sites like Etsy were too confusing and selling things on Facebook was a slow process.
Thomas decided to take her experience creating and managing retail websites, her love for crafts, and her newfound commitment to helping others and put it all to good use.
“It was almost as though everything in my life up until that point had prepared me to do something that was going to help lots of people,” Thomas says.
She bought the domain name ConsciousCrafties.com in 2011 but wasn’t able to create the website until four years later because of her illness. In the meantime, Thomas reconnected with her love of crafting, selling some of her own products online.
“I was able to escape judgment from people who couldn’t understand my illness, from worries about work, worries about money, my pain,” Thomas says. “I was focusing on something else and it was giving me a sense of achievement again.”
She was able to get Conscious Crafties up and running in 2015, building it to be both a business platform – sellers can contact her to have their shops and products added to the site – and a support group for people living with or caring for someone living with a chronic illness or disability.
“We needed a way to work around our health and we needed a way to showcase our talents,” Thomas says. “Our group isn’t just about how sick we feel today, it’s about positive things that have happened. When we have sales, we share it with the group; we all just share in each other’s happiness. It’s important for us to be successful. We want to feel more than our illnesses.”
Now, the site hosts over 200 crafties and over 7,000 products. They are inviting more people to participate. Thomas has connected with other crafties who help mentor new members. She welcomes each crafter to the site personally and offers her help in selling their goods, giving them advice on everything from how to take great photos to how to market on social media.
She’s also using her site and the community she’s building to bring attention to problems people managing chronic illness face. After fighting for so long to get diagnosed, Thomas says she still battles misconceptions about her condition.
“The hardest thing is trying to help other people understand. They’re not feeling it themselves and [we] look perfectly fine,” she explains. “You can have good and bad days and also good and bad hours. I might be able to walk my dog one minute and the next minute, I’m consciously deciding if I have enough energy to go to the bathroom. It’s so variable. When people see me on the rare occasion when I leave the house, that would be a very good day. They don’t see what really goes on with my health.”
Still, Thomas feels lucky to have found something meaningful in her struggle.
“I was a workaholic before, but nothing that I was doing was of value to anybody,” Thomas says. “It was all meaningless to me. As much as I loved my job, it didn’t light my heart up like this does. There’s a tiny part of me that’s quite glad that I got sick because it means that I’ve been able to do something that’s actually worthwhile.”