Imagine this: you’re living in a world made for everyone but you. You’re expected to function just like everyone else, because nobody can see the hell you’re experiencing. You watch everyone who is healthy go through life with seemingly little resistance from their bodies, while yours is screaming for you to stop what you’re doing and just curl up in the fetal position.

If you’re able to make it to class, you take your seat next to people who take their health for granted…they come in sleep-deprived with bad hangovers and you just want to plead with them to take care of their healthy bodies — it’s a gift most of them take for granted. You can barely keep your eyes open and your whole body aches, but you still have to get up and make yourself look halfway decent, leave your home, and attempt to get through as much of your day as possible before your body literally gives out. You attempt to explain this feeling to others fearing they will think less of you or doubt your illness because you don’t look nearly as sick as you feel. Tired, yes, but otherwise you look fine.

But you’re not. You have hopes, aspirations and dreams, but they are all stifled by a body that serves as a constant reminder that you’re not in control of anything. This is what daily life is like for me. Thankfully some days are better than others, but I cannot predict when my body will grant me them.

It began when I was training for my first half marathon. Running was and remains a passion of mine. A few weeks into my training, I was sidelined by intense fatigue, body aches, headaches and nausea. I took a few days off and started to feel somewhat better, so I pushed through. Things seemed fine until about a month later, when I was again hit with these symptoms. When I say hit, I mean destroyed. I mean that I woke up one day after a month of feeling fine and felt like I was run over by a semi-truck. This time, the symptoms continued for weeks. I began to suspect that this was much more than the flu, which is what it most closely resembled.

After seeing multiple doctors and getting tested for what seemed like every ailment under the sun, I had no answers. It took seeing a wonderful infectious disease specialist to piece things together.

Six years ago, my bodily struggle was given a name: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (now called Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease). There is no known cause or cure for this disease. On the day my odd list of symptoms was given this name and I knew I would not feel for a long time, I began the journey that I continue to this day.

When my doctor explained to me that this was not going away anytime soon, I was devastated. It was such a hopeless feeling to know that there was nothing that could be done to help me. I wondered what the next few years would be like — what the rest of my life would be like — and if I would ever get better. How could I finish school? Would I be able to live alone and take care of myself? What about college? There was nothing I could do but wait for time to answer these questions. Nothing but waiting, hoping and praying. Eventually, I dove headfirst into alternative medicine which ended up being much more helpful than I initially imagined (Reiki is awesome, you guys).

Three years ago, I was given another diagnosis, this time with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). As a result of POTS, I am frequently lightheaded and collapse. My body will just give out, and seconds later I find myself on the floor. The only thing I find that alleviates these symptoms is a weekly infusion of saline, which makes me feel almost human for a few days. The combination of these two illnesses makes some days nearly impossible to get through, both physically and mentally.

Through this journey, I’ve learned so much about life, as well as myself. The little problems don’t seem to matter so much anymore. I’m forced to look at the bigger picture, which has given me a perspective that I don’t share with many of my healthy peers. I am able to advocate for myself now. I’ve learned that it’s ok to lean on others when necessary, but most importantly I’ve learned how strong I am.

Due to the fact that I prioritize my health, I am able to balance college (though this semester will be mostly online classes), a social life, a relationship and occasionally working all while managing my health. I’ve gained a more intense appreciation for life, and do not take good days for granted. Simple tasks become victories, like finishing a workout, completing a day of work or class or sometimes, just getting out of bed.

I have learned the importance of knowing my limits and not exceeding them. I now value what my body can do, and try not to focus to much on what it can’t do. In the past, I would not put my health first because there was no need to — now I do no matter what. I know that I can go out some nights, but I’ve learned to listen to the signals from my body that say “time to go home." I can pretty accurately predict, almost to the minute, when I will crash. That’s how in-tune I am with my body now. It’s a pretty awesome thing.

I also learned how great it feels to be able to work — sounds crazy, I know. I feel most fulfilled when I am able to work or attend classes. When people come to me to complain about having to go to work, I understand their struggles to an extent, but I also just want to scream “you are healthy enough to have a job, please recognize and appreciate that!”

Though many may see my struggle as a sign of weakness, I know that’s the farthest thing from the truth. I wake up every single day exhausted and sick…and I still choose to move forward. I choose to push through whatever life throws at me and smile because I know that all my issues aside, I am an incredibly lucky person and I am going to appreciate that fact.

Though this journey is not a smooth one, I would not be the person I am today had I been healthy all my life. In many ways these struggles have made me a better person, and for that I am thankful.

My illnesses may have taken my health, but they’ve left me with a newfound strength and resilience in its place.

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