How a Poem Forever Shaped the Way I Approach Life With a Chronic Illness

In my final year of high school, I was diagnosed with what was to be my first of multiple chronic illnesses. It also happened to be the year I first encountered a poem that would forever shape the way I approached life with a chronic illness. The poem I’m referencing is “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be” by John Keats.

Keats was an incredibly talented poet, but his life was cut short when he died at 25 due to tuberculosis. In this poem, Keats grapples with how his disease will affect his life, mainly in terms of his success and in his love life.

While I’m incredibly lucky that my disease is neither fatal nor progressive (having chronic illnesses changes your perception of the word “lucky”), I found myself connecting with what he had to say. Keats’s fear is not simply his fate, but his failure to achieve love and fame within his short span on earth.

What I took away from this poem was how to make sure that I don’t follow in Keats’ footsteps (who allows love and fame sink to nothingness) and make the most of life with what I have:

Keats on success: 

“When I have fears that I may cease to be/ before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain”

We all have so much to give and offer to the world. It’s frustrating to think that we may be limited by our diseases and disorders. I was told by doctors and teachers to take a year off of school and try again at another point. I stopped going to school when I became bedridden.

Now, two years later, I’m still having to take months off from college when I get too sick. How am I going to catch up the work? How I am going to achieve my goals? I could have done better if I wasn’t sick. You’re going to have your disease forever. It’s a part of you. It’s OK to have to take time off of school or work because you’re unwell or unable. Don’t allow your illness to get in the way of achieving your goals.

It may take a little bit longer, and you may have to work harder and do more than others, but you’ll be all the better for it. You have your own timeline to follow and don’t be put off because you may be “behind” your friends. You can still achieve.

Keats on love:

“When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face/ huge cloudy symbols of a high romance;”

You might find that relationships are harder to keep when you’re ill. You may feel like you’re a burden because you will need others more than they’ll need you. You need to remember this: You are worth loving. You deserve to find love, just like everybody else. The right person will be there for you, no matter how much you need them.

I was incredibly lucky in that throughout my illness, I’ve had someone who carried me when I couldn’t walk, would rush to me to take me to the hospital when I woke up in agony and would do things slower to allow me to keep up. Don’t push people away because you feel guilty. Don’t accept less just because you’re grateful that someone is around at all. Love is unconditional. They will love you for the person that you are — every part of you.

It’s easy to think we aren’t good enough because we’re a little “broken” or that other people will get tired of putting up with us. Don’t let those thoughts affect your relationship. If your illness is invisible, don’t hide it from potential partners because you’re afraid it will scare you off. It’s time to embrace this aspect of your life.  

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