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The Difficulties of Achieving Your Goals When You Live With Chronic Illness

Growing up, I always had my eyes on the prize. I’ve had firm goals and dreams since I was 3 years old. And those around me always encouraged and pushed me to achieve those goals, never doubting in my ability to do so. No matter what obstacles were in my way, I overcame them.

There were setbacks. In eighth grade I became seriously ill. I was diagnosed with gastroparesis and fibromyalgia. I missed many months of school and was afraid I’d never get back to who I was before. But I did. And in high school I got right back to pursuing the future I wanted.

During my senior year I began to struggle with my immune system. It was one illness after another until I’d missed so many classes I was kicked out of school. I thought my life was over. I went from being an honors student to a high school dropout. The prestigious universities that had been looking at me before were running away as fast as they could. Even after notifying colleges that I was testing out of the classes I had been taking in order to complete my education, they apologized and informed me they were no longer interested. I was crushed.

Miraculously, a school I had never considered before – but which was still a quality institution – contacted me and asked me to apply. I was accepted, and could feel the tides shifting back in my favor. It was a bumpy road to get to the beginning of my first year of college. There were problems with the testing I had done to finish high school as well as issues with my transcript. I went through appeals processes and spent many nights working on essays and emails, pleading my case, asking for an exception to be made. And when I attended my first class I felt as though I had conquered the world. I’d battled the odds and made it to a point I had previously felt I never would.

However, that was just the beginning of the battle. I had been getting increasingly more ill since the summer before college began. By the end of my first quarter I was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening condition called superior mesenteric artery syndrome. I had to take some of my finals from my hospital bed. And when I returned to class, I was on TPN and struggling daily to find the energy to carry on. I fought on this way for my first two years of college. Sometimes I was on TPN. Other times I was just trying to consume enough calories on my own not to die. I didn’t have guidance or anyone to help. I didn’t have any idea what assistance I could get through my university or who I should contact. Some quarters my grades suffered. My attendance was horrible at times. And I was afraid to talk to my professors because most of the time I got the same response of people asking why I was even there if I was too sick to make it to class. Shouldn’t I take time off to get better? And when I explained that I am chronically ill and may never get better, I’d just be asked why I wasn’t on disability or living with my parents. How would I ever use the degree I was trying to get? It made me feel as though I had to prove I didn’t need any assistance. It felt as though I constantly had to struggle to survive, as well as prove I was still a useful human being.

This would have been my third year of college. But my medical conditions depleted my savings and I was unable to afford to continue with school. My health has been getting worse than ever before. I’ve been forced to take time off work. And I don’t know where I will be a month from now. My partner supports me as best they can. We struggle to get by. And many times I feel as though I’ve failed. It hurts so bad to think about it that many days I feel like I’m suffocating or like I’ll break into a million tiny pieces if I don’t distract myself immediately.

But I have to remind myself that a setback doesn’t mean I’m a failure. I feel as those who have not been in this position – those who have not had their health take and take from them – cannot understand what it feels like to have to battle all the normal obstacles the world throws your way plus the ones your own body contributes. Chronically ill people are just like everyone else in that they have hopes and dreams. We have goals and lives we’ve envisioned for ourselves. And although some may be able to achieve theirs reasonably, many of us are still struggling to reach what we’ve been working towards. This doesn’t mean we are failures. And sometimes it’s hard to realize that. In the moment, the grief from the setbacks and the stress of having to work so hard to keep ourselves functioning on some level can take over and make us feel as though we’ve lost everything.

I know it can get annoying to hear again and again that surviving is enough and that you’re so strong just for surviving when you want more than to just be alive. It’s OK to want more than to just survive (and it’s OK for surviving to be your only goal as well). But if that is all you can do, that’s all right. You aren’t a failure. You’re allowed to be sad, or angry or disappointed. You’re allowed to mourn and grieve. But you aren’t a failure and you don’t deserve to think of yourself that way.

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