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To the Lady at Target Who Stopped Me and Asked, 'Are You Chronically Ill?'

This weekend I was able to go home for the first time in a long time. I was lagging from a long week in school, needed to pick up a medicine I couldn’t fill in Oklahoma, and had a lot going on in my mind and wanted to talk to my therapist.

The drive was difficult. Normally, the quiet three hours to myself with my “favorites” playlist is a relaxing time, but this time my mind was racing, my back ached from sitting and my arms started to hurt from holding the steering wheel. By the time I got home, I was so happy to see my family I just ignored anything that was hurting. I talked with my mom about the pain I had been feeling while at school, how my new medicine combination was working, and about crawling up the stairs because I couldn’t handle the pain in my knees anymore. We ate dinner as a family and I got to see my grandparents and aunt as a fun little surprise! I went to bed in pain, but I expected that the little extra medicine I took and actually sleeping in a comfortable bed would help relax my body.

I wish the world worked that way. Instead, I woke up with my pain at a five and slowly rising. My fingers barely straightened or gripped, my knees felt like they were burning from the inside out, and my wrists were swollen. I couldn’t lift my my left arm very high because my bicep tendon felt strained and was shooting pain down my arm, I couldn’t fully extend my right hip because my hip flexor was so tight it was pulling at my quad, and I could feel the tears in my eyes while I was getting ready. I finally felt a drop of what my mom feels everyday, maybe even just a small taste of what she must feel every time she drives to Norman.

I felt hopeless in that moment, like my life was going to be like this forever now. I had finally put my superior mesenteric artery syndrome into remission, but here I was with a pain of seven to eight and trying to focus enough to talk to my therapist. Afterwards I sat in the car and begged my mom to take me home. I gave myself a shot that’s normally pretty painful that I didn’t really feel, a muscle relaxer, and ate my Chick-Fil-A laying down in my bed. I also, apparently, took another one of my eight-hour pills, but I don’t remember that.

I woke up three hours later with my pain back down to its normal four, craving a vanilla latte, and needing to go to Target before it was too late. My mom rolled her eyes at me for waking her up, but agreed to take me to this new coffee shop that I was interested in. Wow was it cool! But, that’s a blog for another day. It was the Target run after that really made my weekend.

I needed a printer and also wanted to get a birthday present and decorating supplies for my best friend’s birthday that’s on the 18th, but I was required to sit in one of the automatic carts while my mom used a regular cart as a stand-in walker. We were having a fun time shopping and giggling, just enjoying each other’s company,when we were stopped in the card section. We must have been making another joke about being chronically ill when a lady said in the softest voice: “I don’t want to be rude and sound like I’m eavesdropping, but I heard you talking about chronic illness,” she turned towards me, “are you chronically ill?”

Not once in the past two years, from the time I had a feeding tube to the times I have had to take out my massive bag of medicines in public, have I had a random stranger ask if I were chronically ill. The expression on my face must have prompted my mom to explain that we were both ill, first her diseases and then mine. The lovely lady’s eyes brightened and filled up.

“I’ve been sick for seven years now,” she said sweetly. “You seem like you’re struggling right now, but I promise it gets better. I have POTS [postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome] and a few other small things like malabsorption as well and gastroparesis. But after this long, I can honestly tell you that it gets better.”

I thanked her profusely, making sure that she had both of our names and the name of my blog. Turning back to my mom, I didn’t have words. This stranger had reached out to me, seeing behind my wall of humor and sarcasm, and saw that I was actually really struggling with what I was going through. My heart felt broken to pieces yet full of compassion at the same time. I couldn’t even speak to my mom, she just looked at me with a face full of understanding.

For those of you who are a part of the chronic illness club, it can be hard to talk about what is going on with you. You feel as if the other person is struggling through so much more and what you’re dealing with is trivial. Therefore, it can be difficult to reach out to a stranger in the middle of Target and let them know that it does get better, to keep going, and that there will be a time where you will be yourself again.

So to the lady who stopped me and my mom in Target, thank you for reminding me that that it does get better, and that there is always hope.

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