How Chronic Illness Has Changed My Priorities and Identity
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from having a chronic illness that worsened at age 18, it’s that self-worth should not be defined by our health, our careers, our education or our material possessions. You can be content without them. You can still have a purpose. You can still make a difference. You can still be incredibly happy and fulfilled.
It was a very hard lesson for me to learn. I was always an incredibly high achiever at school and at work. I valued myself based on perfect scores, I got a “high” off of excelling at things. It became how I identified myself. Money and possessions have never been important to me, so I wasn’t crushed by any of those losses, and I’ve never had much to lose, but I was crushed when I couldn’t go on to higher education. When I didn’t have a concrete piece of paper with a grade on it to show my achievements to myself and others. I was crushed when I had to stop working.
That was all I knew. My success as a person was hinged on my success in education and in my career. So much so that I continued working in marketing for another five years after I became really ill. I missed days of work while in the hospital, but mostly I pushed through – which would eventually land me back in the hospital.
But I was working my way up at work. I went from being a retail salesperson to working on the marketing team, despite not being formally educated in that field. I was even offered a full scholarship to go to college, by my work, during a time when I was on medical leave, because I went into work anyway, and did courses on the computer there, just for fun. For something to do. For something to feel good about.
Simply being me wasn’t enough. At the time I needed constant validation, not from others, but from my achievements.
Then, I became too sick to work at all. To even leave my home, most days. That tossed me into a dark period that lasted six months. I had lost my identity. I had nothing to show for myself. I was lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I felt vacant.
Over the years, after I stopped working, instead of focusing on educational achievements, I reevaluated what was important to me. Love. Helping others. Friendship. Making a difference; making an impact on others.
This is when I truly became happy. My soul became full. I no longer needed a grade, or a promotion, to show me I was successful. I was successful if I made someone smile. If I had a group of people who cared about me who were high quality people. If I helped someone who really needed it. If I fed my soul with hobbies and things that meant something to me on a deeper level.
When I leave this world, when my time is up, I want to be remembered for what I did for others, how I enriched their lives and allowed them to enrich mine. I don’t want to be remembered for having the top score in class, or for how fast I made it up the corporate ladder.
Those things aren’t important to me. People are. I am. Happiness and love are what’s important to me, and that can be found anywhere, even during the times when I’m unable to leave my house.
Happiness and love are in every moment, every interaction, every sunrise and sunset, every friendship that’s formed and every heart I’ve provided comfort to. I can do that all the time, no matter what. I am living the life I want, even if my body is not allowing me to do it more actively.
I am loved.
That’s my new perfect score.
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Thinkstock photo via LiudmylaSupynska.