Redefining What 'Success' Means to Me After My Crohn's Disease Diagnosis
To say I was a driven student would be an understatement.
I loved school for the most part; I loved the challenges, the reading, the discussions, I loved everything academic about it. College was going to be the perfect platform for me to learn new things and to be around the socially conscious and politically active. I graduated high school with honors and high hopes.
Then, shortly after, a Crohn’s disease diagnosis reared its ugly head and my life drastically changed. Going to a four-year university was off the table altogether as far as anyone was concerned; at least until my Crohn’s was in remission. However, I was given grants to go to a community college and I was going to go! Crohn’s wasn’t going to rob me of my education! This was my one piece of independence and I was going to keep it!
During this rough transition, I decided I needed two on-campus jobs to pad my resume since I couldn’t work traditionally and to keep me busy, while attempting a full course load. Somewhere in between all that, the few friends I still had after being diagnosed decided to drop out of town for one reason or another, and I no longer had an external support system outside of my family. After my first bowel resection, I had somehow managed to convince myself that I was managing fine with a 3.78 GPA, two on campus jobs, student teaching in two schools and showering maybe once a week.
Somewhere, somehow in the middle of all of that, I met my husband. He’s a wonderful man, with whom I grow and change all the time. He’s a traditionalist himself, who prefers to be the breadwinner of the household; however he’s never said I couldn’t work, or demanded I quit school. In fact, quite the opposite: he was happy I was in school and supportive of my career path.
Except that it was turning me into a human wreck.
There were a lot of days, especially weekends, where I couldn’t walk. Crohn’s and, unknown to me at the time, fibromyalgia, were catching up with me.
One night in late spring, I was laying in my bed sobbing. I was surrounded by unfinished school work, ungraded tests, a filthy living space, and a growing list of responsibilities. I had just come home from an ER trip which had left us with more questions than answers and with more pain medicine Band-Aids for me.
I was on the phone with my husband (who at that time was my boyfriend) and he was trying to calm me down as I rattled off the stuff I was behind on. He listened and when I was done, a shaking, sobbing, heaving mess on my bed, expecting him to back out, he did something unexpected.
“Rosella.” His voice was so soft. “It’s OK. You don’t have to do this anymore. You can take a break.”
I felt my stomach tensing up. I started to argue, I tried to explain that education was my life! It was everything about me!
“No, it’s not. You’re incredibly smart, Rosella, you soak up knowledge like a sponge and it can be overwhelming, even borderline intimidating, but it’s not everything about you. You’re more than school.”
I scoffed, “I’m the first person in my family to go to college! There’s a lot of pressure-”
“From who? Your family or yourself?” He asked, his tone still kind but more firm this time, “What are you trying to prove exactly? What’s the point of making yourself so sick you won’t be able to do anything when you do graduate? Rosella, you’re worth more than you do. Let me take care of you until you can go back. You know, when you’re actually ready.”
I was dumbfounded. I had always been the “smart” friend, the “bookish” daughter that looked kind of plain next to her beautiful sister. And here was someone telling me that this giant piece of my identity, something I had buried myself in for years and years was just a little chunk of me after all. He loved me for the other parts of me. All of me. He was willing to support me and take care of me while I healed enough to keep going.
It’s been almost a year since that phone conversation. I’ve had more medical complications and emotional ups and downs that I would have liked to, but this break has been the most important in my life. Having Crohn’s has made me reevaluate what it means to be successful in the broader sense and also on a personal level.
I’ve fallen in love with some of the trappings of homemaking like gardening, baking and writing when time and health permit. I’m starting to understand that victories will sometimes seem minor (like being able to go up and down the stairs more than four times in one day, for example) but that those are victories that I should value. My husband continues to be my rock, and I couldn’t imagine doing any of this without him. However, I’m starting to develop a secret strength in myself: the courage to redefine success in the face of lifelong illness.
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Thinkstock photo by quantiumpix