Could Claire Chitham’s turning point inspire your own health overhaul? Sophie Neville talks to the actor about overcoming an autoimmune disease and taking her wellness into her own hands.
As far as summer holidays go, Claire Chitham’s recent break on the Coromandel Peninsula was a pretty good one. There were long, lazy days on the beach, wonderful catch-ups with friends and family, and an incredible night spent at a festival dancing alongside hundreds of others to her favourite band, Shapeshifter.
In the midst of a global pandemic and with much of the world in some form of lockdown, the beauty of this incredible freedom wasn’t lost on Claire. And when we meet just a few days after her return home, it seems she’s still on a holiday high.
“Oh man, it really was magical,” she says. “You know, beaches with hardly anyone on them and great roaming pōhutukawa trees that you could rest under, barbecues, fish and chips, cocktails… it was heaven! I know this sounds cheesy, but everywhere I went it was like everyone you saw had gratitude shining out of their hearts. We’re just so f***ing lucky to be able to do all these things.”
The Kiwi actor, who first shot to fame as Waverley Wilson on Shortland Street in 1994, is a big believer in gratitude. So when she found herself in the same company as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her glorious holiday, she just had to thank her.
“I had a couple of chances to chat to her and it felt amazing to be able to express my gratitude for her leadership and thank her for the work she did,” says Claire, who’s an old pal of the PM’s fiancé Clarke Gayford. “It was also really nice to see her getting her own time to relax and enjoy a holiday with her family. I can’t imagine the past year was easy on her.”
While Claire could chat about her holiday for hours, the real reason for our catch up today is to talk about Good For You, the book she’s written about her journey to health after a debilitating battle with Crohn’s disease. Becoming an author was never on this thespian’s to-do list, but after devoting the past two decades to her own health and wellbeing, TV star Claire, 42, realised she had a story worth sharing.
But she’s quick to point out she’s not here to lecture anyone – she simply hopes it might help others.
“I’m an actor, not a doctor!” tells Claire, who co-wrote the book with her writer friend Kylie Bailey. “I’m certainly not here to tell people what to do, but it’s about sharing the things that worked for me and explaining that everyone has the power to take responsibility for their own health.”
Claire’s story begins at age 13, when she was diagnosed with the crippling autoimmune disorder after experiencing increasingly painful stomach cramps whenever she ate. At the time, she was told the inflammatory bowel disorder would be with her forever and she’d likely be on immune-suppressant medication for the rest of her life. “That’s a pretty tough thing to hear when you’re a kid.”
By the time she was 20, though, Claire – who in the book describes her then-self as a “Coca-Cola drinking, afternoon-sugar eating, takeaway queen, who smoked and didn’t really exercise” – was in a bad way. On the face of it, she was living the dream riding the Shortland Street wave of success, but in reality, her health was in grave danger.
“People would say to me, ‘You’re so skinny, you look amazing!’ But that’s such a dangerous comment because it was the opposite. I was deeply unwell. Even my skin was weirdly translucent,” recalls Claire, who admits she’d given up taking her pills in her teens.
“I just didn’t want to have to deal with my health,” she says. “The idea of having something that inhibits your life when you’re young can feel cataclysmic.”
But things reached a frightening turning point for Claire in her early 20s, when she was hospitalised with severe symptoms and dangerously high levels of inflammation in her body. She came extremely close to having surgery to remove part of her bowel, which would have meant relying on a colostomy bag. It was a close call, and provided the turning point that changed the course of her life.
“After that, I became determined to get better,” she says, adding that the fear of being too sick to work also helped spur her into action. “Acting is what I loved most in the world, so the thought of having to give it up was awful.”
Over the next few years, Claire embarked on a journey of discovery, learning everything she could about her condition. As well as religiously taking her medication, she visited many different types of healers, tried a huge variety of both traditional and alternative therapies and changed her diet. Most importantly, she listened carefully to her body, taking notice of the things that did and didn’t work every step of the way. She tried everything – including taking imported bovine colostrum after reading about its ability to heal the gut. Slowly but surely, she started to get better, and after a few years she was confident enough to stop her pills.
Claire knows doctors might question her assertion she no longer has Crohn’s, but she firmly believes she’s free of it. In fact, she can pinpoint the moment it left her body, writing in her book about the “very strange, green, splodgey excretion” during a toilet visit. “Whatever it was, I had a moment where I declared to myself, ‘That’s it! It’s gone,’” wrote Claire.
“I’m not so arrogant to say that I’ll never be hospitalised for it again or that it will never return, but right now, I am 100% disease free and I have been for nearly 20 years now.”
This is why she’s so keen to share what she’s learnt. A wealth of information on every aspect of health and wellbeing, Claire hopes that people will see Good For You – which will be on shelves in early February – as a book they can refer to for many years. It’s as much for those who want to learn more about wellbeing as it is for people struggling with specific health problems, both emotional and physical. Much of what keeps people from tackling the subject, she says, is the overwhelming amount of information, which can feel like “too big a mountain to climb,” especially for anyone in the midst of an illness.
“I know that even the word ‘wellness’ can make people a bit eye-rolly, but it’s actually a really simple concept – wellness is literally just the opposite of illness. It’s so important to focus on your health and prioritise it, because without it, you have nothing.”
I know that even the word ‘wellness’ can make people a bit eye-rolly, but it’s actually a really simple concept.
One of the biggest things she’s learnt is that you don’t have to lead a restricted life forever. Gone is the Coke-swilling smoker, and in its place is a “kombucha-drinking, dark chocolate-eating Pilates queen” who still enjoys a few cocktails on a Friday night or fish and chips on the beach during the summer holidays.
“Being healthy isn’t about never doing any of these nice things,” she says. “It’s about listening to your body and watching for signs that you need to make some small changes. I’m at the point now where if I start to feel like things are out of whack, I stop and use what I know to rebalance myself.”
Claire writes openly in the book, which is published by Di Angelo Publications, about her journey to strong mental health, too, and is a firm believer in reaching out for help when you need it. She credits her ability to cope with her 2009 divorce from broadcaster Mikey Havoc as testament to her years of therapy.
She also opens up about her relationship with her parents and the devastation over her 74-year-old dad Bryan’s dementia. The Covid-19 pandemic has been especially tough on families like hers, with rest homes closing to visitors for several months in 2020.
“It was extremely difficult for all the men in his unit, because they couldn’t understand why things had suddenly changed,” says Claire. “The carers were wearing masks, which was confusing, and there were no visitors coming and going anymore, which meant a lot less stimulation for the brain. The carers are incredible and did their best to combat the loneliness, but they reported a big jump in agitation and a definite cognitive decline.”
Being able to spend Christmas Day with her dear dad felt particularly special. Although he can no longer communicate, he’s able to recognise his family.
“We gave him a zero-alcohol beer, which he was very unimpressed with, but absolutely delighted when I shared my pinot gris with him,” she laughs. “And that’s the lovely thing – so much of who he is has gone, but there is still joy to be found.”
Claire, who shares a home with two flatmates, is happily single, filling her life with work, friends and family – not to mention health, wellness and her other great joy, Pilates, of which she’s a qualified teacher. As she looks to the year ahead, international travel and work abroad might be off the agenda, but she’s got some exciting acting and directing projects on the go here, and is even developing a TV show. She couldn’t be happier.
“I love my 40s because I genuinely feel like I give far fewer f***s about what anybody thinks of me,” she says.” Maybe that’s how I got brave enough to write a book! I’m in a great place.”
Good For You is available to pre-order at goodforyoutv.co.nz, and will be in stores from February.