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5 Reasons I Wouldn't Wish Away My Chronic Illness

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Let me make something explicit: chronic illness is terrible, and I would never wish it on someone else, not even my worst enemy. For over six years, neurological Lyme disease and Bartonella, and the resulting fibromyalgia, migraines, etc., have wreaked havoc on my life. They took my mind, my body and my youth. They confined me to bed for months while the rest of the world moved on. They destroyed my parents’ peace of mind and tortured anyone who worried about me. After two and a half years of a grueling intensive treatment, I am much better, but my chronic conditions still sap my energy and ability to concentrate and cause debilitating pain.

Chronic illness is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. But it also might be the best. Here’s why:

1. Chronic illness gave me perspective.

I am grateful for my parents, who have sacrificed everything to take care of me, and the friends who have stood by me through everything and loved me at my worst. The daily battle with chronic illness has given me a maturity that it will take decades for some of my peers to develop. I don’t care about being seen with the right people at the right parties. I’m not obsessed with having the most “friends” or the most “fun.” I’d rather spend time with family than at a frat party. Overall, I just care more about different things than many other 22-year-olds. That’s not to denigrate their priorities or say that mine are better; they’re just different. I’ve been sick. I’ve felt robbed of youth, and I’ve lost people along the way who really didn’t want to deal with the drag of having a sick person in their friend group. I’ve had to take a step back from the “typical” college experience, which has changed my perspective to a wide-lens view of my life, in which my priorities are cultivating relationships and meaning.

2. Chronic illness gave me purpose.

Experiencing an ongoing, invisible battle has inspired an empathetic passion to help kids and families battling chronic medical conditions. I’ve found purpose in my own struggle with chronic illness as preparation for a career in which I can use my experience to help others with similar struggles. This overarching pursuit has helped me see the light in several grueling semesters. With frequent migraines, it’s really hard to get out of bed, let alone motivate myself to go to work or do homework. But even on my most difficult days, I love my part-time research job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I am surrounded by like-minded people and feel like I’m playing a tiny part in stemming pediatric illness. Furthermore, trying to connect current school projects back to this overarching goal of peds psych (i.e. by doing a behavioral science project on coping in chronic illness) helps me find meaning and motivation in the mundane slog of schoolwork on my most symptomatic days.

3. Chronic illness gave me a partner.

If I hadn’t been home on medical leave from school, I wouldn’t have met my boyfriend, whose support has become an important part of my recovery. It’s really hard to need to depend on someone due to illness. Realizing that someone else could see through the sickness and love the person inside allowed me to experience self-compassion again. Realizing the closeness and trust that result from the vulnerability of being sick in front of a non-family member has freed me from the prison of trying to suppress my symptoms under a facade of functionality. It’s OK to not have it together all the time. Accepting this truth has helped me keep it together in the situations where I can’t afford to break down.

4. Chronic illness gave me perseverance.

For someone battling chronic illness, every day is a struggle, sometimes every hour. You have to be tough, resilient, fight through every day. Some things that aren’t challenging for other people are daunting tasks to me, like doing a reading assignment for class. Setbacks are common and constant, like experiencing a flare-up after a period of relatively decent health. You can’t give in, can’t give up. Chronic illness, in short, has made me a tough cookie. At first I felt weak. Sometimes other people perceive me as weak when they don’t understand my illness. I’ve been called a “delicate flower,” but then I realized that coping with this adversity requires so much more physical and character strength than many people I know possess. I take pride in this strength.

5. Chronic illness gave me peace.

“…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” The premise of the Serenity Prayer resides at the core of the secular field’s cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive reframing. The worst part of chronic illness, for me, is the struggle for control… feeling like my body, my life, are out of my hands. In order to survive and cope, I had to learn to relinquish control: accept that I can’t change what happens to my body but realize that I can change how I react to it. This attitude relieves some of the burden of stress and worry and allows me to find more joy and gratitude in my life, even when things, for lack of a better word, suck. I struggle with this every day but will never give up.

I would wish away my chronic illness for the strain that it has put on others in my life: physical, financial and emotional. However, for myself, if I had the choice to go back and do it over without ever having been sick, I wouldn’t. Because without all of the suffering, I wouldn’t have gotten any of the good.

Getty Image by Anna Ismagilova

Originally published: December 21, 2018
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