No matter how old I get, it always seems that around back-to-school season I can manage to conjure up that feeling of an antsy little school girl; eager and apprehensive for her first day. It often seems like no matter how hard I attempt to avoid it, I get that strange "butterfly in your stomach" feeling, accompanied by anticipation for the new school year. Insecurity and unstable footing repeatedly accompany the nostalgia, and it often leaves me feeling sick to my stomach.
How is it possible that something as simple as everyone going back to school drudge up such ugly and unnerving feelings? Because these memories are a vicious cycle of guilt and shame that circle through my mind every fall semester... Because my life looks VERY different from all of my friends in college.
I was eighteen years old when I walked through the door of my first apartment. I was simultaneously eager and terrified for the adventure that was right at my fingertips, and everything smelled new and fresh. I was always terrified of this first step into adulthood, but feeling it painfully necessary I managed to dive headfirst into my first semester of college.
I grew up singing, and I always felt like my vocal abilities were a gift from God, something that I had great passion for, and what my future held. Music was what I was supposed to do, and all that I thought I wanted or knew how to do. I was a vocal performance major, diving into 16 credit hours of music classes. And as nervous as I was, I felt prepared and ready to delve into endless hours of vocal practice, theory, piano basics, aural skills, and performances. Music was about to consume my entire existence, and at the time I felt perfectly okay with that.
I'll never forget my first day of college as I managed to get lost seemingly dozens of times, and mentally stumbled over all the different textbooks that seemed to make my head spin! That quiet little mouse of a girl sat quietly in the back of each class with her stomach in knots, avoiding eye contact at all times and trying desperately to remember every ounce of theory and vocal technique. For the most part, I was like every other college kid: young and eager for my future to begin. But what most people don't know is that I was far from being an "average college kid."
My symptoms began long before college, but I easily managed to push them to the side in attempts to fit in with my peers and create a future for myself. When college hit, my symptoms simply spiraled downward and left me experiencing enough discomfort that before my first semester I was tested for coinfections and other possible health problems. I remember laying on a bed telling the nurse about the college I was attending as she took thirty vials of blood. No matter what, I wasn't going to let anything get in the way of my college plans.
School soon began and among all of the regular college stress, I began to experience extreme fatigue, joint pain, muscle pain, regular panic attacks, and extreme pain in my lower abdomen that would come in waves. The problem with this predicament is that I was "supposed to be in college," having the time of my life and learning all that I could for the benefit of my future, but these seemingly always lingering symptoms made it near impossible to successfully do anything. I recall coming home every day and crashing on my couch, only to wake up realizing that I was late for a tutoring session or a rehearsal, which only caused greater stress and anxiety, which then caused an increase in symptoms. With this brewing storm over my head, my grades dropped, and I found myself fighting for test accommodations that didn't even pan out to be all that helpful. I found myself crying on the floor of my apartment regularly, wondering why I seemed like the only college kid in the world that couldn't handle school in any way, and I often spent Saturdays on the couch or in bed.
I was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease about half-way through the semester. Treatment began rapidly, and in my attempts to stay at college I decided to move forward with treatment on my own, in an apartment with roommates that probably thought I was completely nuts. Treatment added the extra stress of diet changes, sleeping with oxygen, and taking ridiculous amounts of pills and supplements every day that I hardly had time for. And at the end of every day when I would check and record all of my vitals for my doctors, nothing changed, and nothing seemed to improve.
Throughout all of the pain, anxiety, and desperately trying to stay on top of school, I prayed desperately to know if going home was the right thing to do, and I got an overwhelming and resounding yes. I found myself walking through the front door of my house and collapsing on the floor about two thirds into my first semester of college, and I never went back. And I never will.
I do not record my story of a 22 year old college drop out to claim that everyone should follow in my footsteps, or to say that those who are in college should quit now before they're ahead, for I don't actually believe that. What I do write this for is to say that college does not necessarily equal success. Those who have walked the path less taken, away from university and college life, to heal from chronic illness should be celebrating that MASSIVE victory, not feeling embarrassed or ashamed from their differing experiences.
I learned fairly quickly that when you choose not to attend school in your young adult years, everyone and their dog will try to convince you of all the reasons why you should be in school. It's important to remember that those people do not know the battles that you are fighting and SUCCEEDING at, and you do not have to allow uneducated comments even an ounce of your ground. For your ground is one of blood, sweat, and tears that we often face by ourselves. For our arena is often unseen and unrecognized, yet very real, and very scary.
When I first left school, I wanted desperately to go back. I craved the need to fit in with my peers, and I felt like an utter failure because for the first two years of my Lyme battle school what absolutely impossible. What I wish I knew back then was that life does not end when school does, and there are often things in life that can educate you in ways that a college education possibly never will.
God has been my personal mentor and tutor for five years now, and I couldn't be more happy with my decision to leave and not go back. I have now attended an online school where I received my health coaching certification. I'm well enough to work, and am starting my own business. I find joy on the days that I feel good. And on the days that I don't, I have room to breathe and recuperate. Life is very different than what I ever envisioned it to be when I was a freshman in college, but I am proud of my battles that I have walked out of broken and scarred, but still held together by God's grace and enabling power.
There are two ways that you can look at an experience like this: call me a college drop out, or call me thriving in the Lyme life. Either way, I'm happier than I've ever been as I seek for success and happiness. I no longer believe that success comes from a degree, as big as an accomplishment as it may be. The greatest success we can experience in this life lies within our hearts, our relationships, and our ability to endure and conquer the afflictions of life. Your worth or intelligence is not based on your college education. Quality of life is more likely measured by your heart and your spirit and how they propel you to whatever beautiful destination is in store for you.
Let's talk about dating for just a minute. Dating, relationships, friendships, social outings, you name it; I guarantee that anyone can relate to feeling like their illness is CONSTANTLY third-wheeling it with them!
It's normal to feel different and want to spend most of your energy on hiding your differing lifestyle from your friends, dates, or even family at times. I've found that it's best to just be yourself, and if your illness happens to rear it's ugly head into a conversation or situation and people don't response well, then those people are not worth having in your life anyway. Illness and disability do NOT define you. It may make my life look a little unique. It may add a little sparkle to the conversation, but in no way does it determine your worth or your power in life.
Every single person on this planet has baggage and problems. Everyone has things that we are working on. Everyone has that something that third wheels it with them. I used to have to work on getting out of bed and walking across the room. Now I work on not letting PTSD run my life. Whatever it is, the important thing is that I keep aiming for healing, improvement, and joy. Chronic illness may be something that is often accompanied by stigma and fear in the eyes of many, but the truth is that chronic illness has a way of bringing out the strength and beauty in those who carry that cross. I may have Lyme disease, but Lyme does not take away the strength and spunk that comes with it. As is with all chronic illness warriors.
Comment below if you relate and tell me what character qualities you have that your illness will never take away from!