Living with a chronic illness is hard but living with two is an even bigger challenge. But if you’re like me, you’ve been saddled with diseases that aren’t going anywhere. So what do you do? I think all you really can do is check your attitude and let yourself feel all the feels that you need to. That is basically what I do every day and so far it’s working out for me.
Do you ever notice how happy kids with illnesses are? Have you ever talked to kids that are really sick or maybe even dying? Children who are sick have every right to be angry and upset, but in my experience they have the best attitudes and handle their diagnoses better than most adults. Why is that? Attitude. By nature children are driven to seek things that make them happy, to smile, and to laugh. By the time we"�re adults we’re a little jaded about life and, frankly, we all expect things out of our own lives. Children don’t expect anything; they just live to the best of their abilities. I think that if we all just lived to the best of our abilities, we would all be able to smile and laugh with the same sincerity that children do.
"I wasn’t prepared to handle a double dose of chronic illness."
In 2006 when I was 22 and in my final semester of undergrad, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). To say I was devastated would be a huge exaggeration. Up until that point, my first 22 years were sickness and hospital free. I didn’t take medication; I probably didn’t even take a multivitamin. Much like everyone else in their early 20s, I thought I was invincible until I wasn’t. In retrospect, my MS diagnosis was like a curve in the road, but it wasn’t a dead end. I was more grounded after that. I appreciated "health" a lot more, but I really just kept on keepin’ on. I didn’t actually change much. I was and continue to be very lucky to only have experienced a handful of relapses in the last eight years. At the time I felt like my MS diagnosis was a huge life-altering experience, and in some ways it was, but it wasn’t until I was later diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis that my life really changed.
Just three years later, in 2009, I received that second diagnosis of ulcerative colitis and it was like the universe was laughing at me. It felt like cruel and unusual punishment. There were so many "why me" because I just couldn’t fathom how I could have two chronic illnesses in my early 20s. Chronic illness does not run in my family, so it was not even on my radar. I had zero reason to anticipate health problems at my young age. In both cases of diagnosis, I knew nothing about my disease. I spent hours and hours researching and, while I gained some powerful knowledge, the only other thing I really got was discouraged. I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared to handle a double dose of chronic illness. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
"I have learned to take things as they come."
Some people believe that you are never given things in life that you are not strong enough to handle. I, personally, do not believe this. I think that many of us are handed things that we are in no way prepared to handle. At 25, I was not ready to be a professional sick kid, managing medications, doctor’s appointments, and eventually multiple surgeries. All of this combined was mentally and emotionally taxing and it eventually lead to a complete breakdown in my strength and will to live. I do not believe anyone is strong enough to handle sickness like I did and come out unscathed. I think that we all just learn to deal with it, but in my opinion "dealing with it" doesn’t necessarily mean handling it. I didn’t handle my MS diagnosis for the first six or so years when I refused to take medication. I didn’t handle my UC diagnosis when I tried to hide it from everyone in my life. This is who I was five years ago when I began this path to be an autoimmune all-star. I was not strong enough to handle any of it but I dealt with it.
But now? Now I know I’ve got this. I’ve got my mental and emotional health in check. I know that my future is very unpredictable, but I have learned through this whole process to take things as they come. I’ve learned that no matter how much I freak out, or obsessively plan, I cannot reverse my health status and the ways that it might change.
"Illness is not without reward."
Living with chronic illness is not without reward. I truly believe that being diagnosed with both MS and UC is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It has changed my life in so many great ways. It’s taken me five years to get to this point and that’s not to say that I don’t have days where I wish it was all different. Do I wish I was as healthy as your average 29 year old? Sure. Do I feel more enlightened than most people regardless of age? You better believe it. Chronic illness is like the best gift you never wanted. It’s the gift that keeps on giving because well"it doesn’t go away, but also because it will continue to change your life in great ways if you let it. You and your attitude are the most important factor when it comes to your health. I’m a firm believer that everyone gets to throw a pity party when needed; however, you cannot live in a perpetual pity party.
In the five years since my double diagnosis, I’ve been hospitalized more times than I can count, had six surgeries, had one MS relapse, and have taken more medication than your average 80-year-old woman. Being sick is a full-time job that can take over your life"if you let it. I refuse to let MS and UC get the best of me, and that is what I hope for all of you. I hope that you too will see the good in living with chronic illness and that you can pass that mentality along to others who need it most.
Jackie Zimmerman is a multiple sclerosis and ulcerative colitis patient and the founder and executive director of Girls With Guts. Since diagnosis, she has blogged her IBD journey at Blood, Poop, and Tears. Jackie has worked hard to become a strong voice in the patient advocacy community and pays it forward as Social Ambassador of the IBDHealthCentral Facebook page. In her free time (what free time?!) she spends time with her two rescue pups and plays roller derby. She’s online @JackieZimm.