I spent this past Christmas in the hospital. I had one tube in my left wrist, keeping me hydrated, and another in my back, filling me with an anesthetic that numbed my abdominal area. A month earlier, I hadn’t anticipated spending my Christmas this way, but there I was anyway, serenaded by the whirr of automatic IV machines and the beeping of heart monitors. As a joke, my mother brought in a small wooden carved Santa ornament and hung it on a small screw in the wall.
Though it may seem depressing and horrifying to spend a Christmas in such dismal surroundings, I honestly didn’t mind it. You see, I had made a decision to have my colon removed completely just 3 weeks earlier. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease affecting my large intestine, approximately 3 and 1/2 years before, and I had since had ample opportunity to grow tired of the nausea, discomfort, frequent bathroom trips, and exasperating medication changes that went along with my condition. Although the surgery and accompanying recovery time necessitated changes to my plans for Christmas and the spring semester, I embraced the opportunity to have a little more stability in my future.
Until I was sixteen, I was fairly healthy. I had some allergies and asthma, and a slightly worrying preoccupation with macaroni and cheese, but I was generally in excellent health. I played sports (badly), did schoolwork (decently), and hung out with friends (occasionally). In my sophomore year, I applied to and was accepted into a boarding school that I had dreamed of for years. I felt excited, even enthused, to strike out on my own for the first time and see what I could do with my new freedom. Instead, I got sick.
My illness came on like a thunderbolt that same Spring. At the beginning of April break, I was looking forward to the beginning of the tennis season and enjoying some unusually pleasant weather. By the beginning of June, I had lost 30 pounds, 20% of my weight, and hardly had the strength to walk up a set of stairs. The fear and powerlessness I felt was a world apart from anything I had felt in my life. It seemed as if, at the tender age of sixteen, my life was already over.
Thankfully, it wasn’t – here I am, nineteen years old, and still very much living! At the time when I first got ill, I knew only how to make a plan and follow it, and I couldn’t imagine my future when my plans were derailed. Even as I grew stronger that summer and I was able to attend school, my health remained inconsistent and I sometimes felt as if I couldn’t possibly hope to live a worthwhile life. I managed to graduate on time through hard work and the help of teachers, friends, and medical professionals; but the sense of helplessness still hung in the back of my mind.
Despite my experience, I wanted to go to college, make friends, take classes, and graduate in 4 years. I didn’t want to be the “sick kid” that people worried about or called me “brave” or “strong”. I would much rather have forgotten all about illness and hospitals and medications, and worried only about homework and friends. However, as a Freshman, the mental toll of everything I had experienced caught up with me. After two months, I suffered a mental breakdown and decided to leave school. The fact that I couldn’t remain in college at first grated on me and actually was the factor that brought me down even more than my illness. In the end, it was my anxiety about having my plans derailed that brought me home. At the time, it seemed like the ultimate failure.
As I reflect, during the last 14 months, I’ve grown tremendously, mainly from a combination of therapy and personal reflection. Most importantly, I’ve learned something. Because I have deviated so far from all of my ever-so-important plans, I feel that I have finally been set free from them. Now, I have a new plan: to go back to school next fall, and finish college as quickly as I can after that. However, even though my plans seem the same, because of my recent experience, this time I’m no longer afraid to adjust my expectations. Even if I develop new health problems, my family runs into financial trouble, or if I fail all my classes, I will not fall apart again. My plans are just sketches of potential routes that my life could take. Now I can accept who I am and be far better prepared for any punches life throws at me, and roll with it.