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

A Letter from an Alum to Current Students

I wrote this back in early 2014 when I was asked to give advice to current high schoolers at my alma mater. It’s a time capsule in some ways. It represents how hard my chronic illnesses were for me to handle at that time. I also had different ideas of how my life might look in a few years. Even though some of my future plans changed (I got an M.Div. instead of an MSW, for example – I never could have guessed that I would work as a hospital chaplain; I didn’t even know what that was when I wrote this letter!), it’s not that different from what I would write today. I was beginning to learn how toxic perfectionism is and how to start the process of letting go of it and having the joy of being real instead.

I’m grateful to have rediscovered this piece of my process of growing up and becoming myself. Enjoy this time capsule.

Alumni letter from Emmie, Class of 2011

Me at my high school graduation.

Hi! My name is Emmie. I was a member of the class of 2011 and I am now 5 semesters into college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. It’s wild to think that it’s already been that long. I’m a child studies major (basically child psychology), a music minor (I play the piano!), and pre-nursing track. At this point, after many decisive and indecisive moments, countless times exploring possible career paths in person and on the internet, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and loving, learning, and trying everything in sight, I’m thinking that I want to get a master’s degree in social work. My hope is to work with kids and families who are dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events; for example, being diagnosed with a chronic illness that could significantly impact the child’s future hopes and dreams. 

Sometimes, days pass when I don’t think of high school at all, but on days that I have to write papers, study for multiple monstrous exams at once, or draw out seemingly interminable to-do lists, I think back to my time here. I came way more prepared to Vanderbilt than a lot of my classmates, even many valedictorians, because I was pushed intensely but lovingly by each of my teachers. Were there moments I didn’t like what I was going through in high school? Many. There were many free periods spent with my guidance counselor talking about stress and coping with my perfectionistic need to achieve. But there are so many more moments that I’m immensely thankful for the hard work I put in, whether it was for honors biology class, AP English language class, or when I, along with two classmates under the tutelage of our histotry teacher, created a final study guide for all of US II to share. (I wonder if that’s still floating around!).

At the beginning of my first semester of college, I sent out emails of gratitude to many of my old teachers because of all of these moments that I often didn’t even realize were impactful at the time. I still do every once in a while. You’ll realize once you’re off to your next big destination (whether it’s in New Brunswick, NJ or New Brunswick, Canada) just how much you’ve learned. No matter how insecure you are now, or how nervous the thought of college makes you feel, I can promise you that you’ll be surprised by and grateful for everything you packed into your brain during high school. You will know how to study, research and write a paper, and manage your own time. And the coolest part is that you’ll never stop improving on those skills. I’m 5 semesters in and still finding what works best for me. I’ve succeeded academically so far and am hoping to graduate with Latin honors. These learning experiences you’re having are amazing – say “thank you” to anyone who’s helped (or, sometimes, dragged…) you along the way.

By the same token, though, I want share lessons with you that didn’t stick with me until they had to: It is absolutely okay not to excel at everything. In fact, it is expected that you won’t. It is absolutely okay to pick a few things to be passionate about and to let the rest go. You cannot be in more than one place at a time. You will likely make the mistake of trying to be, as I was before I learned better. Finally, it is absolutely okay to have a bad week, month, or semester. I’ve had a few and I’m no longer ashamed of it. I became too sick to attend 100% of my classes, or even 75% of my classes, in early 2013, and got diagnosed with fibromyalgia at the end of the year.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic musculoskeletal pain syndrome with many causes and symptoms, and it isn’t the only chronic condition I have, making it even more life-altering. 2013 was a year of doctor’s visits, sick days, learning to allocate my time wisely to make sure I could still do the things that were meaningful to me (school, music, crisis intervention volunteer work, cultural events, spending time with friends, etc.), leaning on my most trusted people for help, and asking for accommodations in school. 2014 isn’t looking to be much different – I spent most of my break doing research on my conditions, preparing medical records and forms, and trying to work out how I can still enjoy Vanderbilt and be an active, healthy member of the Nashville community. I’ve learned a lot from my experiences and have had to let go many of my perfectionistic traits because, simply put, I can’t be everywhere and do everything. I couldn’t when I was healthy and I certainly can’t do it now. I have to choose very carefully what I do spend my time on because my time is even more precious now than before – I could pretty much get a minor in doctor’s appointments, taking care of myself and my friends and family members, and doing everything I can to get healthy!

Weirdly enough, having to let go of some things and learning to not be a perfectionist has taught me to cherish the things I do manage to do, the people who have stuck by me, and learning for the sake of learning, not for a perfect grade or a gold star. Telling yourself that it’s honestly (honestly) okay to get a C every once in a while (really, a C) is huge in the fight against perfectionism. Learning to say no to something so you can say yes to something that matters more – even if that activity is just personal time on Netflix in your pajamas – is also huge.

The moral of this story is find what gives you joy and do it. Major in it. This process of searching takes a while for everyone – trust me, even if you go in with a specific intention in mind, be it pre-med or pre-anything, you’re likely to be searching again soon! Do volunteer work for it. Research it. Live it and love it. And do it alongside people who give you just as much joy.

The top 5 regrets of the dying are as follows:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Find what gives you joy and don’t let go. Work hard, but don’t stress so much that learning itself becomes daunting and displeasing. Express yourself by living a life you love. Keep your authentic friends close to your heart. Work hard to find what will make your life and what you do your own sources of happiness. Are you living a life you’ll love or one you’ll regret? I’ve learned through my experiences that I am creating a life I love, despite and especially because of my illnesses. 

XO, 

Emmie

Me at my college graduation.
Me when I got a job offer for my dream job – one I could only get with the Master’s Degree I ended up doing, the Master’s Degree I never imagined getting.
I’m no longer a patient here – I’ll be an employee!
Me at my seminary graduation.
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