Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Grad School · Personal · Recovery

How I’m Learning to Radically Accept My Life as a Young Adult With Fibromyalgia

Note: I wrote this article for “The Mighty” back in spring 2016 when I was on leave from social work grad school. During that time, I was unable to work or go to school. Though my life situation has changed in big ways, in large part thanks to my time at Mayo Clinic’s Pain Rehabilitation Center during summer 2016, the core message still rings true: Though my dreams may be larger than what my imperfect body can handle, I am enough. Even if I can do nothing, I am enough. With that, I invite you to enter my world from the first half of 2016, and the lives of so many people like me who have experienced short-term or long-term in their lives.

As an alumna of a top 20 university, the pressure to succeed in life is immense. Most of it is self-driven, though as a person with fibromyalgia, I cannot fight to have the same façade of perfectionism and over-achievement as my peers. My chronic pain, fatigue, and other symptoms can stop me in my tracks if I don’t take care of myself. Because of this, throughout my time in college and grad school, I have had to let go of much of my unhealthy drive to achieve and “keep up” with my peers. To be honest, letting go of that perfectionism has been one of the biggest reliefs of my entire life. I don’t harm my body and myself in order to triumph like I used to.

Emmie dressed in graduation garb, holding up her university diploma and smiling big
It was a big moment for me to graduate from Vanderbilt University, despite everything I had faced. And, God willing, there will be another day and another diploma from seminary. However, even if not, I would still be valuable and enough.

I’m learning to radically accept what’s going on with me while simultaneously radically advocating for myself to get the best medical care possible. Sometimes, that radical acceptance means slowing down or even stopping, which is what I’ve had to do this semester in grad school on medical leave. To say that I was sad to have to take time off, at least at first, would be an understatement. In some ways, I felt like a failure. It felt like all my college peers were out getting incredible knowledge in classes, internships, jobs, service opportunities, and grad school acceptances while I was stuck on my couch for most of each day.

Some of the pressure I feel to succeed is not just self-driven, however. Sometimes, it comes in the form of others’ comments, body language, and expectations of what a fruitful college graduate in America looks like: Entirely independent. Unstoppable. Moving up career, social, and education ladders at lightning paces. I know that they don’t mean to imply that I am lesser, but it can sting. I’m just as capable as my peers, but I live in a body that’s smaller than my expansive dreams.

Some of my peers this semester, in efforts to comfort and empathize with me, have told me that I am living the dream, getting to relax while they toil away at work. It feels like a slap in the face every time someone tells me that. It is not a dream to live with a disabling condition that can make you feel insignificant if you don’t give yourself grace and conclude that you’re doing the absolute best you can. Recovery – learning everything I can about my conditions, exercising, going through physical therapy, engaging in individual and group therapy, reading, journaling, eating healthy, sleeping 9+ hours a night, and going to doctor’s appointments, to name just a few activities – is hard work, and that’s not to mention the responsibilities that I still have to do outside of maintaining my health. It is not “relaxing” to have a day off living in my disabled body.

When I went to visit my alma mater this spring (I had some time and figured I’d make lemonade out of lemons!), I went to a meeting of one of my old extracurricular activities. Some of my college friends keep up with my life on my blog and Facebook. However, one of my friends didn’t know that I was taking time off. She came up to me and asked, “How’s grad school and being on your own?! Would you tell me about time and money management?” I was completely shocked. Being on my own was never the plan, even though the original plan did have full-time grad school in it. I’ve been living with my mom, barely able to do anything for myself – she sometimes even has to open my pill bottles for me because my hands hurt too much. The other friends I was talking with were similarly shocked.

I breathed, looked at her, and said, “I’ve actually been out on medical leave. My adulthood is looking really different from your image because of my poor health, but I’m making it the best I can. I’m living with my mom, and she has been absolutely amazing. I know that I will do something great with my life, even if I can’t finish a graduate degree, and even if I don’t have good enough health to work part-time or full-time. It’s okay to ask for help. None of us is truly independent anyway.” I then went back to the conversation I was having with the friends who know me better.

Friends, there is no shame in accepting your limits. In fact, there’s great peace. You are enough, right now, just as you are.

Emmie smiling, and holding up the palm of her left hand, on which she wrote in black Sharpie in all caps, “I am imperfect & I am enough!”
I am imperfect and I am enough.

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