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How Letting Go of My Old Dreams Allowed Me to Succeed in Life With Chronic Illness

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Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream.” I too had a dream. I knew what I wanted out of life from a young age. I had a calling and that was medicine and healthcare. I decided nursing was my best fit early in my high school career when my peers were busy planning their weekends. This didn’t waiver throughout high school or into college. My friends changed their majors countless times but I knew what my future held. I knew that getting those two initials, RN, after my name was the start of something great. That was until my sophomore year when the headaches I had throughout my adolescence got worse.

Two months into my second year at university, I was home for Thanksgiving break and was having my annual checkup with my eye doctor when my dream started to unravel. Peering into my eye, he seemed to take longer than normal and was abnormally quiet. After a while he asked about my headaches, the headaches we had talked about countless time over the past 10 years, and if I had any other odd symptoms. Sure, I had floaters in my vision but those had been there for ages as well. And over the past year I had a strange sound in my ear, almost like what you hear when you listen to the ocean in a seashell. This did not reassure him.

He told me my optic nerves were swollen and the only things that could really cause that to happen would be a brain tumor or a rare disease called idiopathic intracranial hypertension. To determine which of these two scary diagnoses were causing the swelling would require a brain scan and likely a spinal tap.

I remember telling my mother that night. I remember the disbelief from both of us. I was so young, barely 20. I couldn’t possibly have something so serious. I looked up the symptoms for IIH and to my dismay they described me perfectly.

I returned to college a few days later and the last month I was at school my symptoms and pain became unbearable. The pain was so severe I couldn’t sleep. I missed class and the classes I did make it to I couldn’t concentrate through because of the whooshing in my ear. By the time finals week came I was already failing my courses due to the inability to attend class or study, and I decided to go home early.

I received my diagnosis of IIH in January 2011, two months after that visit with my eye doctor. In the matter of a few months I went from an active college student enjoying life and working towards my goal of becoming a nurse to being practically bedridden, besides the numerous trips to the doctor.

The first several years after that diagnosis were the hardest. There’s no way to prepare for a huge life change like that. My friends and boyfriend at the time couldn’t relate and didn’t understand why I had changed so drastically. I spent many nights with my mom crying and wondering why this happened to me. I was hopeless and lost and I didn’t know how to live life as a chronically ill person.

Eventually after some time we found treatments that were effective and my health got better. I accepted my new life and the challenges it brought and learned to appreciate the days I felt well instead of dwelling on the days I struggled through. Some friends adjusted to the new me, others left my life, and I met new people who did understand what my limitations were. I started rebuilding my life around my diagnosis until I felt strong enough to attempt pursing my dream again. Throughout the entire process I still imagined myself as a nurse and wanted that so badly.

I did go back to school, even attended nursing school. But this is not the happy ending you are expecting. I am getting closer to 30 and I am not a nurse. I failed at my dream. I made it a few semesters into nursing school before the stress caused so many problems with my health that I was forced to leave again. This was heartbreaking. I was angry and depressed and felt myself falling back into those feelings I had after my diagnosis. I didn’t understand why I could feel so sure of my path in life just to continually fail. I felt worthless.

Again, after a while the hurt faded and I took inventory of my life. I realized that as much as I loved nursing it was not possible for me. If I kept pushing towards something that could not happen I would keep bringing myself down. Instead of pushing something that was beyond my capabilities I needed to really understand what my strengths and limitations were. By doing this I allowed myself to let go of my dream in order to create a new one. What I wanted out of nursing was to be able to help people and be around medicine. With all this in mind I realized there is still a spot for me in healthcare, albeit a different spot than I originally pictured. I am currently working as a receptionist in a primary care office and I am in the planning stages of beginning a program to become a medical assistant.

Throughout this entire experience I’ve learned a few very important things. First, it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to not live up to your expectations. Sometimes your expectations need to change. Second, life doesn’t always go as planned but if you are willing to work with your health and not against it, you can still achieve. And third, don’t be so dang hard on yourself. If you’re doing your best, then give yourself a break. Life with chronic illness is already hard enough without the added critic. Keep your chin up and just keep swimming.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd.

Originally published: October 19, 2017
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