It’s no secret that being sick really sucks. Losing friends, not being able to work and spending all your time at the doctor’s office sucks. But sometimes you have to go through hell to become who you are supposed to be.
Over the past year, I have discovered so many things I never could have learned in a classroom or on a job. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve already lived a whole lifetime and these other 20-somethings running around are just youngins who don’t know nothin’ yet. I’ve discovered that pain and struggling can teach you amazing things if you are willing to learn.
Here are four gifts I have received as a result of my chronic illness:
1. The Gift of Proactivity
Before I became really ill, my social anxiety was so bad that I was terrified of standing up for myself in almost every context. I was so afraid of “rocking the boat” that I became a passive wallflower who avoided confrontation like it was the plague. I wanted people to like me so badly that I was willing to stuff my own wants and needs under a mattress to rot.
But as I became sicker, I was forced to speak up for myself in all kinds of situations because my health depended on it. After a while, I didn’t mind being “that girl” who made a scene negotiating with the waitress about finding a dish that would meet my dietary restrictions. I no longer hesitated to ask friends and relatives if they could unplug their smelly Glade candles while I was over for dinner, because if they weren’t willing to make small adjustments for me then I couldn’t risk being there. (Shout-out to anyone who’s ever removed a Glade plug-in or Scentsy candle for me – you know who you are. Thank you!) It turns out most people are happy to make little adjustments to help a sick person out – who would have known? And now that I have a more courageous heart, I don’t mind asking for help one bit.
2. The Gift of a Clean Slate
When you experience a life-changing illness, everything you know is turned upside down. The pieces of your old life lie scattered across the floor and you have a blank playing board staring back at you…so what do you make of it?
Some people lose everything in a flash; a car accident leaves a professional athlete paralyzed and her whole identity is wiped away in an instant. Others, like me, lose little pieces of themselves over months, until one day we look into a mirror and realize we don’t recognize the face staring back at us. When you lose your independence, your hobbies and your job, who are you now, without any of the labels you took so long to earn? I had so many labels: “student,” “musician,” “rock climbing instructor,” “girlfriend” – and losing them was the best worst thing that ever happened to me.
Losing things sucks, but that loss also makes room for you to love new things. Once I couldn’t eat any of my old favorite foods, I learned to love a new set of foods (which was a huge deal for me, ’cause I’m a picky girl). For instance, now I love ginger and all things in the Asian aisle of the grocery store! But I never would have tried anything new if nothing was taken away from me in the first place. Another new love I discovered was a love for design, for writing and creating things. I found these passions only after I had lost others. Apparently I need to be dragged behind a horse before I’ll go out and try something new, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it!
3. The Gift of Real Relationships
Back when I was a healthy(ish) person, I could get away with relating to friends on just a few levels: drinking, boy-talk and general life drama. I would date people with whom I had very little in common, knowing that the relationship was shallow, but not being bothered to change a thing. I could float along through college, not caring which of my relationships were genuine and which were fake. But being sick turned that way of thinking upside down. My illness, my life restrictions and my lack of energy acted as a sieve that very quickly filtered out all of the friends and acquaintances with whom the relationship was not built on true love and caring.
I learned that when things get difficult and suddenly it is not super-convenient for someone to relate to you, a lot of people fall away. That doesn’t make them bad people, it just makes them not the right people for me. I am guessing most people don’t figure out who really cares about them until they hit a mid-life crisis or develop some life-altering disease later on in life, but I had the benefit of watching my weak connections fall away in my early 20s. Now I know that any friends who have stuck around through the hard times are the ones I really want to spend my “spoons” on.
4. The Gift of Gratitude
Yes, this is such a cliché, but it’s true: you really don’t appreciate things until you lose them. For example, you don’t realize how much you adore and depend on your smartphone until it breaks and you have to go without it for a week. You also don’t think about how amazing your body is until it starts breaking down on you. You aren’t cognizant of your every heartbeat until you have a heart condition and each beat is no longer a guarantee.
I used to take things like my eyesight, my balance and my breathing for granted. But now I am truly thankful for every heartbeat. I used to get bored so easily, and I was always looking for the next thrill in life. But now I see how beautiful life really is, even if I have to watch it all through my bedroom window. Now I cry a tear of happiness when I can step outside and bask in the warm sun for an hour. When you live in a dark cave, every little candle is like a blazing fire and you are that much more grateful for it.
In closing: I didn’t ask for these gifts, but I’m glad I got them anyway. They came wrapped in both joy and sorrow with a big, bright tag that reads: “No returns, refunds or exchanges. And you’re welcome.”
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