The Mighty Logo

What 'Success' Means to Me Since Illness Changed My Life Plans

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Recently I came across a quote by Nelson Mandela that immediately became a new favorite quote of mine because it spoke to me on such a personal level. In his quote, Mandela said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

I think one of the worst feelings is to be judged by people who barely know you. Everyone is guilty of casting judgements; however, through facing many unique adversities through my chronic illnesses from a young age, I’ve learned quickly just how cruel it is to judge a person.

From my long and tiring battle with Lyme disease and multiple autoimmune conditions, I’ve had my fair share of people who have harshly judged me. Thanks to makeup, a smile, and a good attitude, a lot of the times it is quite difficult to tell that someone is battling a chronic illness. Even at my sickest when I was unable to walk, I was still questioned by complete strangers on why I was in a wheelchair when I am such a young girl and appear to “be fine.” Yet, these people did not know the struggle I had endured and continue to endure on a daily basis.

Life is never easy for anyone and we are all facing different demons and battles.  What I’ve found is that people don’t put thought into that a person may appear to be “fine,” however they could be facing something that is detrimentally impacting their life. I am almost 25 years old, yet physically I have the health of someone three times my age. I am almost 25 years old, yet I am behind in life in terms of my finances and ownership of materialistic things that society tends to define what it is to be an “accomplished adult.” I am almost 25 years old, yet I feel as if I am twice my age in mental maturity due to facing numerous hardships from a young age.

When you are chronically sick, you live a secret life. You live one life that is what society sees — a vibrant, put together person and as if there is nothing wrong.

Then there is the “secret” life. This is the life that only yourself and your close family and friends see. They are witnesses to your struggles, the pain, and the battles you fight behind closed doors. The frustration of trying to keep up a facade that requires energy that you don’t necessarily have to live life as if you are healthy. This facade is a double-edged sword — you keep going despite the discomfort, yet people around you are quick to judge.

I often become very embarrassed when I evaluate my life. I was always a planner; when I was younger, I had a blueprint of my life all planned out, from my education and career to dates that I wanted to accomplish my goals by. When I became chronically sick, life as I knew it changed and things didn’t happen according to my planning.

At 16, I didn’t have the privilege of getting my driver’s license and my first car. Instead, my first set of wheels were those of a wheelchair. After high school, I couldn’t go to school for what I really wanted to go to school for — a firefighter paramedic.

Thankfully, as I regained my ability to walk and built up my strength, I fought my way through a very difficult journey to accomplish the goal of becoming a firefighter-paramedic. Throughout this journey, it has been quite embarrassing and difficult to explain to strangers, teachers, and classmates why I don’t have a car or why I can’t afford this or that as a nearly-25-year-old.

I’m tired of feeling ashamed for things that I cannot help. I fight a daily battle that most don’t know about and have been for most of my life. Somehow each morning, despite the physical discomfort my body feels, I muster up the courage to get up and fight another day — for my health and my future.

I do not have a car right now because my life didn’t go as planned. I couldn’t walk from ages 16 to almost 19 years old. I couldn’t get my driver’s license until I was 21 years old, something that took a lot of hard work in physical therapy and exercising on my own time to be able to get.  Why don’t I have a car right now? Because I am too busy paying for doctors and treatments that keep my body going and will hopefully bring me to remission. I am too busy paying for my education, which I refuse to give up on regardless of the hardships I face. I recognize that as an adult, materialistic things are just things. They are not important. What is important and is of utmost value, however, is my health… and I have been fighting relentlessly for it.

Just because I have not hit milestones that society deems what “should” be accomplished at or by said age, doesn’t mean I haven’t accomplished anything at all. I am alive and I am walking. I have fought tirelessly for things that healthy people take for granted on a daily basis. I have fallen, but each time I pick myself up and continue on. I refuse to let my chronic illnesses define me, or let society define me by what they think is successful.

So instead of feeling inadequate about my “shortcomings,” I will celebrate my journey and how far that I’ve come. I will celebrate all the days that I’m able to get up out of bed and walk, because at one point I wasn’t able to. I will celebrate who I am as a woman, because my tribulations have molded me into who I am. I will celebrate the tests I have been given in life as I continue to turn them into my testaments. Most of all, I will celebrate every time I have fallen and persisted to rise once more, and for that I will measure my own triumphs and know that I am indeed, successful.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by sodapix sodapix

Originally published: April 14, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home