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Kathleen Baker Is Making Me Look Bad — But I Don't Mind

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Kathleen Baker is making me look bad. She’s 19, she’s a public health major at the University of California, Berkeley, and she won gold and silver medals at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

I didn’t care about the Olympic Games until I heard about Kathleen. Nothing deflates the chronically ill more than watching gorgeous, glistening, able-bodied gods deservedly flaunting their physical prowess to the world.

But Kathleen also has Crohn’s disease. I have Crohn’s disease. Some days, I feel like I deserve a medal simply for getting out of bed. So who the hell does she think she is?

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m no slouch either. I run my own business; I also manage to clothe and feed a husband and a toddler on a daily basis. I have hobbies and interests, and some days I even manage to wear socks that match.

But I am also constantly affected by the consequences of Crohn’s disease. The pain and nausea, the fatigue, the overwhelming effects of rounds of treatments and medications. There are days when even having a shower feels like a super-human effort. And everyone around me knows it. They can see it in the strain on my face and the weakness of my body.

Consequently, I have a good thing going. My friends and loved ones feel they understand my condition and my limitations. They don’t expect too much from me. We all know where we stand. And I’m OK with that.

And then here comes Kathleen, having Crohn’s and winning medals, and I can feel the eyes sliding from the TV coverage of her success to me, and back again. And I know what they’re thinking. They’re wondering if maybe, just maybe, they’ve been had. Perhaps they’ve been cutting me too much slack. Possibly, they should be expecting more.

So there is a very small, very selfish part of me that resents her success. There are many public misperceptions about invisible chronic illnesses like Crohn’s. A suspicion that if we ate differently, or exercised more, or somehow tried harder, we wouldn’t be so tired and sick all the time, or make such a big deal about having a “bit of diarrhea.” It’s hard to convey how devastating this illness is to someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand.

But Kathleen is winning. At the Olympics. Smiling and waving and looking radiant.

The problem is she makes it look easy. I’ve done this myself. Achieved a success and then downplayed the struggle it took me to get there. I’ve been wondering lately if maybe this is wrong, and whether minimizing our battles reinforces the public underestimation of the struggle faced by people with inflammatory bowel disease. If not emphasizing the blood and tears somehow devalues our success.

Watching Kathleen makes my heart hurt, because I know too well how strong she has to be to do what she’s doing. Living with this illness is hard enough for mere mortals, but for most of us, the expectations for our achievements are pretty lenient and flexible. She, on the other hand, is an Olympic athlete. Because of her Crohn’s, she can’t be as good as the other swimmers; she has to be better, just to break even. To win, she has to be exceptional, by their standards. Everything I go through, she goes through, then goes further. So, so much further. And the real shame of it is, the thing that truly breaks my heart, is the actual magnitude of her success and what it says about the sheer force of her will and determination will not be appreciated as the miracle it is by most people. Her success will be taken for granted because winning medals is what Olympic athletes do.

So do I actually resent her? No. What I feel for her is more akin to the wistfulness you secretly feel for your smartest, most accomplished, beautiful, and funny friend. The one you feel you should be jealous of, who you should begrudge, but whose achievements are so well-deserved and hard-won any hurt feelings are eclipsed by your admiration of them and the pride in the bond you share. The one who makes you love them all the more, because you know that when they stand in the sun, you get to stand with them.

So you keep winning those medals, Kathleen. I don’t mind if you make me look bad. While you’re in the spotlight winning for all of us, I’ll be here, cheering you on and celebrating your achievement as my own.

And who knows? If toddler wiping and video games ever become Olympic sports, the sky will be the limit for us both.

Originally published: August 16, 2016
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