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Why It's Such a Big Deal to Graduate High School When You Are Chronically Ill

On May 25, 2018, I walked across stage to receive my high school diploma, which of course is a big deal. I was proud of myself, but not because of my GPA, or other accolades. I was proud of myself because I graduated as a chronically ill student.

I won’t go into great detail about my experiences throughout school. I will just say that I first became sick with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) in third grade, I wasn’t diagnosed until 10th grade – and I spent a whole semester of high school homebound, unable to get out of bed.

If you are struggling with POTS or depression, I see you. If you’re struggling with other chronic illnesses, although I cannot comprehend what it’s like to be you, I still see you. I see the strength in you that you cannot see. I see the perseverance, grit, and endurance you have within your fighting heart. I see your incredible spirit. You motivate me. You inspire me, and others. It was students like you that I looked up to when I was first diagnosed with POTS, and I hope I can be that student to you now.

I see all the triumphant moments of your life, but baby, I see all the horrendous parts too. I know what it’s like to cry yourself to sleep in the ER on New Year’s Eve when all your classmates get to ring in the year without having IVs running through their veins. I know what it’s like to be depressed and think you will never recover physically (or emotionally), and that your life will always suck. I know what it’s like to be an outsider because you can’t do things that other people your age can. I know the sting you feel when you realize, after becoming sick with a chronic illness, that someone doesn’t love you as much as you thought he or she did. I know what it’s like to not only deal with “normal insecurities,” but to carry around “chronic illness insecurities” because you’re afraid no guy will ever want to date a girl who has to exercise an hour every day, constantly drink water, and is required to stay on a consistent sleeping schedule. I know what it’s like to be so sick that everything you once valued drastically changes. You go from being a student with a 4.0+ GPA, to suddenly wanting to dropout of high school, because you don’t know if you can take having to get your parents to wash your hair one more night, since you’re suddenly incapable of standing in a shower without fainting.

As if dealing with a chronic illness isn’t hard enough, you’re still dealing with trivial high school problems and other hard things life throws at you. I remember at the peak of my illness, a family member of mine was diagnosed with cancer, and suddenly I felt like I was bearing his struggles as well. Bearing others’ burdens can be difficult when you have so many of your own, but it is freeing to allow yourself to love someone so well.

In a few weeks, I will be starting a new chapter of my life: college. I remember being at Duke Children’s Hospital as a sophomore and my nurse asked me what major I wanted to pursue in college. I burst into tears because, as silly as it sounds now, I didn’t think I’d even make it until college. I thought my life was just somehow going to end because I was strugglin so much with POTS. My nurse believed in me though, and reassured me that one day, I would get to pursue my dream of becoming the same profession as her.

I do not share my story to make you feel bad about yourself, or to make you envy me. I know when you’re in deep darkness, you don’t want to think optimistically, and I’m not suggesting that you should think optimistically. I know that some of your illnesses may get progressively worse as you get older. I know not everyone will be able to manage their symptoms like I can for the most part. I know there are bad times ahead and I am not naive enough to think that living with a chronic illness somehow gets better, even though it can. All I’m saying is that you just can’t give up on life. I don’t mean this literally, even though suicide is not the right answer either. I mean please don’t give up the parts of you that make you, well, you.

Chronic illness can take a lot from you. It hurts you physically and emotionally, to the point where you might feel like you’re going to break. Chronic illness can’t take your spirit from you, though, unless you let it. When I was so sick, my parents weren’t just hoping I would physically feel better, but they wanted me to get back to what makes me who I am. My humor, witty ways, and love for life was gone. I let POTS lead me into a scary, lonely time of depression and it shouldn’t have had that power over me. On nights like tonight, I may feel just as terrible physically, but my joy still remains. I believe my life and my struggles has a grander purpose that I can’t always see.

As I reflect back on my time in high school, I want to leave you with a few tips. Forgive students for not understanding your illness or saying ignorant things about it. I had a lot of bitterness towards specific classmates because of mean things they said about my condition, but you must remember they (and you too-)are still teenagers. Also, if you have friends who go out of their way to help you feel better, treat them as if they are precious gold, because they are. Try to be at school as much as you can. Being absent really messes up your grades and I find I’m happier when I’m with classmates as opposed to laying in bed whining.

That leads me to my next point: don’t whine. You may be struggling immensely, but once again, teenagers don’t understand that and they don’t want to hear about it. Save your whining for people who genuinely love you and understand that you have the right to whine…sometimes.

Lastly, just be kind to yourself. Being in high school can be miserable and being in high school while fighting a chronic illness can be miserable times two. You are doing better than you think you are and I promise that the day you graduate will be worth the long four years.

As Taylor Swift once said, “Now in this perfect weather, it’s like we don’t remember, the rain we thought would last forever and ever.”

One day your struglges will make sense, but if you’re in the season where it doesn’t make sense, just know that sunshine is on its way.

Image Credits: Anna Catherine Kueng

This story originally appeared on One Foot in Front of You.