When I was 21 years old, my writing career took off. I quit my day job, published my first book, and immediately started working on my second. I felt like I was on top of the world or at least on my way to it. I was living out my dream.
A few months later, when I started getting fevers constantly, I brushed them off. I thought it was mono or some weird infection. I got a prescription for antibiotics and went back to my busy life. When I was too tired to get out of bed, I called it laziness. I said I was staying up too late and needed to take better care of myself. When my hands became painful and contorted and my legs were too sore and stiff to walk, I finally acknowledged something was wrong. In the end, it took me a year to book an appointment with a doctor. That doctor referred me to another doctor, who then referred me to another, who then referred me to another. After months of tests, I got my diagnosis: Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic illness.
The thing about the word chronic: It’s just a polite way of saying incurable.
In that one year, I went from a healthy, active person to having constant fatigue and walking with a cane. I take a handful of pills every morning. The pills make my hair fall out, make my stomach swell, and make my hormones fistfight inside me. It is no longer easy to live in my body.
When I first got sick, I felt powerless in a way I had never known. Most days I was too exhausted or sick to complete basic tasks, no matter how hard I tried. I was scared and angry and didn’t know who or what to be angry with; I didn’t understand how you could fight so hard and still not win. But I didn’t know what to do, except fight.
I have always been tough. I have a will like steel. I am the nail and the hammer that hits it. I am the wolf. The lion. The last one standing. I do not cry in public, complain when I am hurt, or give up. I push harder. I am a fighter.
But sickness? Sickness comes for you no matter how tough you are. I can try to ignore it, to push it away, but the truth is still there, hard and edgeless: I have lost something that cannot be recovered. There is something stubborn and unwelcome in my body, and it is stronger than my will.
My illness is not a death sentence, at least not an immediate one. If all goes well, I have a lot more years ahead. The struggle now is to accept the dichotomy: to be sick and still be whole. To be sick and still be tough. To be sick, and maybe even to be tougher than I was before.
Now I live side-by-side with the thing that hurts me. It is there when I laugh and kiss my boyfriend and write poetry. It is there when I take my pills, when my hair comes out in clumps, and when I can’t sleep from the pain. My sickness is there when I look in the mirror. It is not all that I am, but it is an inexorable part of me. I am finally beginning to accept that. Which is to say, I am learning to accept the world in all of its contradictions and live as best I can within them.
I will adjust to my new normal. Who knows, someday there may be a cure, and I will get better and everything will be like it was. Maybe, but I can’t wait for that. I have to live in this body. This one I have now, today. This body, with all its flaws and strengths and complications, is all I have. Coming around to this way of thinking is slow going. It’s emotional and exhausting and some days it feels closer than others. It’s not easy, but true healing never is.