Last summer I had a series of very brief but very dark moments where I was convinced I was dying. Not because I was actually dying. Not because I was being dramatic. Not because I was a hypochondriac. But because I was drowning in a long-term illness that had gotten completely out of control.
The flareup was not expected, because at that point, I had already had Crohn’s Disease for several years. I had been on the same medication for basically one-third of my life. I had made it through college with a few hiccups, but with a very normal and overall healthy experience. And then suddenly nothing worked. Suddenly my body became this foreign, unpredictable, terrifying being that I could not control.
I was in Georgia, visiting my parents in the cherished home I had grown up in, planning on staying for a few weeks before I moved up to Chicago. Instead, I stayed for four months, sleeping in my childhood bed and barely ever being able to summon the energy to leave it.
I loved this Georgia house. It was always one of my favorite places in the world. It was safe. It held some of the most precious memories I’ve ever experienced. But it also quickly became the place where my body fell apart. Where I became terrified of food because everything I ate went right through me. Where I felt weak and dizzy and out of sorts if I didn’t sleep for sixteen hours a day. Where I went to bed every night wondering if this illness was also making me crazy, because I was now terrified to leave the house.
Somehow I got through it. By “somehow” I mean that I had a bunch of very special people in my life who did everything in their power to help me get on the path back to health. Eventually I moved to Chicago. Eventually I found an amazing medication that has been my saving grace. Eventually I forgot about the dark and anxious and depressed feelings I had felt all summer in the place that had always been my refuge.
I returned home at Thanksgiving and Christmas and the feelings returned, but only slightly. I could sense that overbearing, suffocating, dark gray anxiety cloud, but only at a distance. I was able to keep the memories at bay. My body was behaving. I felt decently healthy. The worry that my body would never become mine again was more like a hazy afterthought that I was able to brush away with the distraction of a nice book or by hanging out with my family.
And then I came home again last Wednesday, and the fear and anxiety and worry came back with a surprisingly strong force. My health is probably not as solid as it was at Christmastime, but it’s still millions of miles away from where it was last summer. But for some reason, I felt like I had gone back in time. I was walking around the different rooms in my home and remembering last summer, when I would come down to talk to my mom but had to stop and sit when I was halfway down the stairs, because my body was too tired to make it down the last eight steps.
It’s because Thanksgiving and Christmas were different. The air smelled differently. The days were shorter and darker. I wasn’t constantly wiping pollen off of our deck table while I sat out in the sun, trying to read a book. But now the air smells the way it did last summer. The sun is back. I keep going out onto the porch to try to relax, but all I can remember are those painfully brief moments of peace last July when my body was calm and I was able to forget, even for just a little while, that I was far from good health.
Coming home to the same light and air and temperature and environment that I lived in last summer has brought back, in a more tangible and uncomfortably real way, all of the feelings and worries and struggles that I went through in what was probably the darkest experience I’ve had so far.
I felt very down and out of sorts for the first few days I was home. I was so happy to be with my family, so happy to be in one of my favorite places in the world, so happy to sit at the same kitchen table we’ve sat at for twenty years. But I also felt nervous and unsteady and uneasy, because these negative feelings and memories would not go away, even though I thought I had beaten all of this.
I thought that changing my diet and finding the right medication and getting control back of my own body meant that I had won. That I had forever freed myself from those dark and depressing thoughts that I was sleeping under every night last summer. I saw it all as a one-time uphill climb. You just have to fight through it and get to the top, and then you’re free. What I’ve realized now is that most of the time, the struggles you’re going through – regardless of what category they fall under or how different they are from someone else’s – will often find their way back to you. They will drift for a while. They will disappear. You may go a day or a month or several years without remembering those things that plague you the most. But they will come back.
Struggles are not always capable of being banished forever. An alcoholic who is ten years sober is still an alcoholic. A person who deals with crippling self-esteem issues is always fighting against those issues, even if they have reached a very healthy and peaceful way of thinking. Struggles follow us throughout our lives. They are our constant companions. Most of these struggles cannot be conquered, abolished, destroyed. But just because you can’t fully conquer them doesn’t mean you can’t beat them.
Beating your demons doesn’t always mean being free from them. It doesn’t always mean curing them or completely getting rid of them. Sometimes, beating your struggles just means surviving through them. Doing things anyway. Living out the life you want, regardless of the things that are trying to hold you back. Acknowledging that your struggles exist and your struggles are real, acknowledging that sometimes they terrify you and try to paralyze you, but refusing to allow your suffering to get in the way of your life.
Your struggles will find a way to come back to you. They will find a way to try to stop you. But sometimes, winning the fight against your own suffering just means living the fullest and most exquisite life you can live, in spite of – and sometimes even because of –the struggles that have changed you.