When I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, I was sixteen years old.
Although I had been experiencing symptoms for years, there was no definitive diagnosis until my junior year in high school. Just like any other teenage girl, I struggled to fit in and find my place in the world; little did I know the impact that my disease would have on that process.
Figuring out who you are is hard enough on its own, let alone when you throw chronic illness into the mix.
Anyone with an autoimmune disease knows that it consumes you, whether you consciously allow for it or not. Not a single day has passed since my diagnosis that I have not been forced to remember that I am sick. The constant reminders, some days big and some days small, get into your head and change the way you think about yourself, others and life in general.
Teen years into the early twenties are crucial to developing a mindset that will stick with you for the rest of your life. I am aware that who I am today is largely a result of the fact that I have had to deal with such a serious illness. I cannot remember back to a time when I was healthy, but I do know that my personality, perspective and attitude then was not what it is today… and that is a good thing.
I grew up fast. When my life came crashing down around me for the first time, I realized I needed a reality check to shift my perspective and rearrange my priorities. The lesser things in life that mattered so much to me before now seemed trivial. I no longer wanted to waste my time as so many teenagers do; enough of my time had been spent sick in bed or in the hospital. If I have enough energy to do something productive and meaningful, that is exactly what I will do.
I decided what is important to me: my health, my family, my education and my career; everything else takes a backseat.
I went through college with a different mentality than the majority of my peers. I was never overly concerned with partying, climbing the social ladder, or indulging in senseless gossip. This makes sense if you consider everything else I dealt with: side effects from immunosuppressants that made it difficult to live in a dorm, missing class for doctor’s appointments, needing extra sleep, hospital stays that put me behind in my schoolwork. I didn’t have time to concern myself with any extras or bonuses.
I devote my energy to my top priorities because some days I barely have enough energy to accomplish more than one item on my mental checklist. If I have enough in me to study and go to the gym in one day, that is a major triumph.
I am picky because I have no choice.
To others this may appear as an air of superiority, but in reality, I am painfully aware of my limitations and have to adjust my activities and my life accordingly.
In developing my list of priorities, I could have nixed my schoolwork and replaced it with a higher prominence on my social standing. The problem with that is that I have found it extremely difficult to relate to those my age because most of them do not know what it is like to be sick and have your life be unpredictably out of your control. I also understand how boring I can be when I need to go to sleep at eight o’clock on a Friday night. So instead I choose things like fitness and academia, because that is more important to me and my overall wellbeing in the long-run than going to a frat party and having beer spilt on my shirt.
I do not feel like I missed out on college or any other aspect of my life. In fact, I got everything I wanted out of my college experience, plus more. I was extremely successful by my definition of success, and that is what matters. I am proud of myself for taking my setbacks, turning them into learning opportunities, and leveraging my experiences for personal growth. I know that I am not a typical young woman in her twenties, but I like that about myself.
I have often been told to not let my disease define me, but that is exactly what it does.
Because of my illness, I have become more mature, stronger, resilient, stoic, grounded, realistic, motivated, knowledgeable, and the list goes on.
Every day I am reminded that I need to put in a little bit more effort than others to accomplish even the littlest tasks, but that is what keeps me driven. I am comfortable with the person I have become as a result of my struggle with my health and that is powerfully reassuring.