When I got sick, it was public. I was late and out sick often, I couldn’t be as social as I had been before, I lost a lot of weight and later a lot of hair. I know some people criticized me for how often wrote about my illness, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. I didn’t know any other way to process the seismic shift in my body and identity that took place when I was diagnosed and when I suffered.
I wish I could say I shared what I did so that I could be a model for others, but at the time it was a selfish act of spiritual self-preservation. Yet now, when people pull me aside to tell me about their colonoscopies or when friends tag me on Facebook in posts about dealing with illness I am so glad that I shared what I did, so that others know they can talk about their bodies and not be ashamed.
Social media reminded me this morning about another act of self-preservation from this time – a trip to Africa I made four years ago with fellow Jesuit educators. Making this trip delayed some of my treatment because my doctors wouldn’t immunosuppress me before I left. It was probably too taxing as I was already quite frail. But I needed to go. I needed to know that I still had something to offer.
At the time I wrote:
There were a few times I had to skip lunch or tea time because my belly wasn’t up for it. There were a few times that my stomach made monstrous noises you could hear around the room. But overall I was feeling OK – and I was doing something.
Sometimes it takes refutation of an idea to make you realize you had that idea in the first place.I thought Maybe I am not a worthless, broken person? Maybe my dreams of being someone-who-does-great-things are not completely gone?
After months of being a hair too close to depression for my liking, these weeks of work did wonders for my morale. Again, I feel guilty for having such a selfish takeaway from spending time in service. But if it inspires me to continue striving and serving maybe it’s not all bad.
I spent my first night back in the States relaxing with my parents and brother. After our long journey back I was in pretty rough shape, unable to hide how sick I felt from them. I lay on the couch rubbing my abdomen, which often alleviates the pain when it is at it’s worst. My mom sat next to me and asked “how was it?”, as if she knew she could ask a vague question and I would give her whatever answer I needed to give.
“It made me feel like I can still do things. It made me feel like maybe my destiny isn’t just to lay on the couch for the rest of my life.”
She patted my ankle and her blue eyes got that look that reminds me that she might know me better than I know myself. “No, that’s not your destiny,” she said, laughing. “Not at all.”
I have now been in remission for more than three years. For the first year I said yes to everything, so excited to be well enough to take on new challenges and get back to being my productive self. I can safely find my self-worth in accomplishing things, like I always did before.
I still have to work to know better, to stay busy because it is part of my personality, not because I need it to be who I am.
Our worth does not come from vigor or health, nor from accolades or projects or from knowing that others say “I don’t know how she does it”. We are worthy simply because we were created, because we hold a mystery inside of us that is uniquely our own.
When we are broken we heal and then we change. This growth is painful, but progress.
I will never glorify illness. I will never propose that it is purposeful or preordained. It is a tragedy. Tragedy becomes part of who we are. Sometimes it makes us stronger or wiser, sometimes it makes us weary and sad. But it never destroys that fundamental dignity inherent in our creation.
No matter what you do or how you feel, no matter how much you rest, no matter what you accomplish, or don’t, you have a purpose: to be yourself, to love as much as you can, and to know that you are loved as well.
In other words, it’s OK to be sick. Take care of yourself.
The photo above is of a nap c. 2014. Naps don’t make me feel great anymore, but I always make sure to get a good night’s sleep. I am very grateful for health.