The 30 Day Chronic Illness Challenge was created by @cfs_zombie. I learned about it when someone I follow on Twitter reblogged it onto my dashboard. Every day, for 30 days, there is a new writing prompt. Each one focuses on chronic illness and what it is like to be chronically ill.
The topic for Day 7 is: What was the biggest realization you have had?
The answer to that question is going to sound completely and entirely stupid. The biggest realization I’ve had is that I am, in fact, chronically ill. It took me decades for the lightbulb to go on and for me to get that being sick all the time wasn’t “normal”. For a long time, I figured that everybody else felt like I did. That was just what it was like to be human, right?
I guess it comes down to a matter of perspective (and, probably, some denial as well). My understanding of my allergies are a good example to start with. When I got diagnosed with several, severe, allergies, I knew that this wasn’t something that everyone else was dealing with. None of my friends had allergists. No one else had to get allergy shots, take daily prescription medications, and avoid a bunch of foods.
But, I didn’t realizes that this meant I had a chronic illness. As I’ve mentioned in some of the previous blogs that were part of the 30 Day Chronic Illness Challenge, I have a brother who also has several, severe, allergies. His reactions were serious enough to require trips to the emergency room. That never happened to me, so I must be “normal”, right?
When I was diagnosed with borderline anemia, I figured that was just part of life. I understood that my problems with anemia began after I got my first period. Plenty of my friends had gotten their first periods, and many had complaints about it.
They talked about experiencing bad cramps, breakouts, and chocolate cravings. I had experienced all that, too. A couple of my friends mentioned that they got sleepier when they had their periods. I assumed they were experiencing the debilitating exhaustion that I always got.
Nobody said they were passing out, and none said they regularly fell asleep after school and couldn’t wake up until after school had started the next day. But, everyone was tired. I was tired. That’s the same, right? I’m “normal”. I’m don’t have a chronic illness.
In college, I was taking a full load of classes while working several part time jobs. Many of those jobs were at day care centers. By then, I had learned to recognize many of my most common allergy symptoms. Sneezing meant that the pollen count was high that day, or that someone was dusting the shelves in the classroom. But, everybody is allergic to dust, right? Sneezing was a perfectly “normal” reaction.
I would get sick all the time. One little cold would last for weeks, grow bigger, and turn into a sinus infection. But, little kids are germ machines, right? All the teachers were getting sneezed on, wiping runny noses, changing diapers…. of course we got sick a lot.
I was certain that all the other day care teachers were getting sinus infections (or upper respiratory infections, or bronchitis) two to four times a year, just like I was. They all must have required strong antibiotics to help them get over it, just like I needed. Right?
Somehow, the other teachers all seemed to be coping with the constant sinus pain, the wheezing, and the digestive issues that antibiotics can cause much better than I was. But, I was certain all of us were having the same health issues. That’s just what happens when you work with children, right? It didn’t mean I had a chronic illness.
As an adult, I continued to work with children. I was a substitute teacher, and I also worked for a couple of after school programs. My health was about the same as it had been when I worked in day care centers. See? Working with children causes this, for everyone… so I had no reason to complain about it or question it. That’s “normal”.
Later, I spent about five years working in a book store. This required a lot of physical labor. Books are heavy. Boxes of books are heavier. All the joints in my hands ached all the time. But, that’s just a normal response to lifting and moving books all day, right?
The joints in my feet HURT at the end of each and every work shift. But, that’s just because of all the walking I did. It’s just part of the job. It’s normal. Everyone else who works here feels as exhausted, achy, and stressed as I did, I convinced myself.
It never occurred to me that there was a chance that the aching joints might, possibly, be symptoms of the rheumatoid arthritis that runs in my family. I was still getting severe sinus infections two or three times a year – even though I’d stopped working with children. I rationalized that the infections were just a reaction to the amount of dust in the store, and figured that was “normal” for people who had dust allergies.
Around the second or third time that I got tendonitis, I started to question things. This wasn’t something that everyone else was experiencing. By now, I was in my 30’s. I rationalized that working retail just wasn’t something that was designed for people my age (or older) to do. My symptoms (the daily wheezing and sneezing, the asthma attacks, the constant pain in my joints) was simply because I wasn’t a “twenty-something” anymore. It’s “normal”…. (wasn’t it?)
It dawned on me that I was no longer able to physically do the things that the retail job at the book store required. There was no good reason to presume that I’d be able to force my body to withstand all of that until I was old enough to retire. I switched jobs … and went back into teaching. Of course, I was still getting sick. But, kids are germ factories….
It wasn’t until after I became unemployed that I started to realize that I was, in fact, a person who had a chronic illness. Correction, I was a person who had more than one chronic illness. This realization enabled me to finally start making choices that would result in getting a “good day” once in a while, and a “good couple of hours” maybe once a week. The details about that are best left for an upcoming blog.
A few years ago, I figured out that I have a gluten-intolerance (and that this was connected to my allergy to wheat, rye, and barley). I stopped eating foods that have gluten in them. Over time, this helped me to feel somewhat better. The stomach pain that I’d had, all the time, since childhood, went away. Up until that happened, I figured that all humans had that kind of stomach pain, every day, just like I did. It turned out that constant stomach pain wasn’t normal.
Very recently, I began using the phrase “chronic illness” as an identifier. I guess that’s a good place to end the story about my biggest realization. In some ways, fully realizing that I am chronically ill is scary. It means acknowledging that things won’t get better, cannot be cured, and that more symptoms could appear.
On the other hand, the realization is also empowering because it helps guide me towards making choices that help manage my symptoms and/or prevent them from starting or getting worse. It’s all a matter of perspective.