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Honoring Difference: Lessons in Embracing & Loving Yourself

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When I was a freshman in high school, I was diagnosed with a disability that’s “traditionally” tied to middle-aged or elderly women: fibromyalgia.

He thought for a few minutes. I imagine it was hard to put aside all his history with me – I’d been ill for much of my time as a child, suffering from other chronic health problems that were linked to my prematurity (I was born three months early and had multiple surgeries thanks to my preemie status). Finally, he sighed and said, “Well, we usually only diagnose middle-aged women with this, but I’d say she has fibromyalgia.”

Finally, all of my symptoms fit into one clear-cut, clean box: the constant-pain, the daily level-ten migraines, the vomiting, the anxiety, the depression, the swelling, the insane amount of absences from school, the sore throats, the arthritic joints…all of it made sense. And it was a relief, but also a life sentence: I had a medical condition that fell under category of disability, and I was only a freshly-minted teenager.

The symptoms didn’t go away – they still haven’t completely, even though I take a cocktail of drugs every night and go see specialists relatively frequently, but to say I’ve learned a lot from my disability is the understatement of my entire life. It’s made me stronger, even in my weakest, most vulnerable moments. And I’m thankful for that, even if I hate my disability’s rotten guts.

After missing more than 200 days of high school, college was a dream. Not to say I haven’t missed a ton of my college classes – I have – but really, it’s been a dream. Especially after having my high school counselor and principals tell me I’d never graduate high school, let alone get accepted into or be able to attend college. So this is for all my HATERS. (Sorry – I just had to. One of the things that gets me through my rough days is laughter, even if it means laughing at my own jokes or…gasp…laughing at myself.)
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This is going to sound crazy, but I’m thankful for my disability. It’s made me learn some huge life lessons, in my opinion, apply to anyone going through a rough patch in life – like we all do, at one point or another. Here are a few of the big things I’ve learned.

It’s OK to ask for help.
Learning this was a big challenge for me. Especially when my parents were sick. I felt guilty asking them for help, but I needed it, and it was OK to need it. We all need help sometimes. Sometimes asking for help is the bravest thing you can do! So just do it! And know that you are strong because you know when and how you need help – and are brave enough to ask for it. It truly never hurts to ask. Knowing yourself and your needs takes strength, so asking for help is strong.

Take time to relax.
We all need relaxation. Taking time to relax is good for you. Sometimes, it is better to be lazy! So take a step back, do something that makes you happy. Read a good book, check your Facebook, call your mom, watch TV, or – by all means – take a nap! I tend to get behind with my schoolwork, studies, or commitments because I need more “me-time” than other people, but I’ve learned to be OK with that. Like I just said, asking for help is a sign of strength and self-love, and letting people know that you may need to extend some deadlines or might need to cancel a meeting because you’re either going through a rough patch or have a disability – well, that’s also a brave and strong thing to do. And, though I know this is most likely a cheesy thing to say, you’re worth it! It’s true!
Saying “no” is a good thing.
I touched on this before, but having different limits and abilities in life has meant learning to say “no.” This has been a hard one for me. I’m a people-pleaser by nature. I want to be able to do it all and I don’t want to let anyone down, but I’ve learned to say “no.” It’s a huge coping mechanism for me and keeps me healthy. I let people know that upfront. Being honest with yourself and others is a huge sign of maturity. It’s also a way to honor and know yourself – something we all need to learn. Saying “no” is a tool I – unfortunately – have to use on a daily basis, but it’s also the simplest way I know to stay healthy and in control of my disability. Sometimes I give people an explanation, but it’s also important to note that you don’t always need to. That’s something else I’ve had to learn. Sometimes, an apology just isn’t warranted! It’s OK to put yourself first – easier said than done, I know, but it’s important to TRY. Especially in those rough patches!

Know your limits, but also know when to push yourself.
This probably sounds totally contradictory to what I just said, but honestly it’s not. For the longest time, I let my disability disable me. I let it run the show for fear of a flare up (AKA my fibromyalgia symptoms rearing their ugly head…AKA pain, insomnia, vomiting and lots of tears). It kept me from seeing friends or trying new things way too much. I said “no” all the time for a long time. Then I got sick of it. I wanted my life back, even if it meant dealing with more pain than usual. So I went to Paris. Literally – I went to Paris. (You can read a post about it here.) And I was scared! But it was also the best thing I ever did in my entire life. I was in a ton of pain from all the walking – I went with a class last Spring, so it was basically like an extremely amped up field trip – and the seven-hour time difference. I had tons of flare ups while I was there. Sometimes I cried. But I also had the best time of my entire life. I made some of my most favorite friends and my breath was constantly taken away from all the joy I experienced in Paris. I loved every second. Even the teary seconds. Even the painful seconds. Every second. I could go on and on. Want to know the biggest thing it taught me? It taught me that I was strong and brave and in-control of my life! My disability didn’t run the show, even when it was making my life more difficult. I was still capable of happiness even when I was in pain. I was still capable of doing amazing, wonderful, adventurous things. It forced me out of my comfort zone, and I am forever grateful to myself for it! (And you know what? Turns out you can say “no” even when you’re in Paris. I did. But I also learned to say “yes” again!) Holly011 Holly024 Holly035 It really will all be all right – eventually.
Ever heard the saying “this too shall pass?” It’s totally true. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by the fact that I will spend the rest of my life with this disability. Sometimes I cry – well, I cry a lot – and tell my mom and boyfriend that I feel like I’m dying. Sometimes I get super-dramatic about it and feel like my life is over. Dramatic, right? Well, it happens. And that’s OK! Because you know what? It will be all right! It all will be all right. The flare ups and freak outs will pass. Though rough patches will, too. Eventually. Sometimes, you just have to give it some time! Patience is a really hard virtue, but it’s necessary. I really do promise it will all be all right. Pinky swear.

You are a strong person, even when you feel weak.
Man, oh man! I feel like a total weakling sometimes. And physically, I probably am in a lot of respects. But I’m also strong – even when I’m at my most vulnerable. And so are you! I’ll pinky swear about that, too. It takes a strong person to learn how to be happy in this life! It takes a strong person to say “no.” It also takes a strong person to say “yes.” We’ve all been through the rough patches of life. They make us stronger. I know I’m probably sounding cheesy by now, but I think that it’s so important – and brave – to recognize that. Give yourself a pat on the back. Do it. You deserve it.
You are loved, so love yourself.
Think of all the people who love you. And yes, your mom and dad count, too. So do your dogs and cats. So do your fish. So does your pet…monkey…? It’s truly an epidemic in this country – the whole low self-esteem, low self-worth thing. I mean that. It makes me sick and sad and angry all at the same time. Self-love is low around these parts. So let’s all take a moment – or a bunch of moments – to give ourselves a huge hug for all that we do for others and ourselves on a daily basis. You are so loved – each and every one of you! So love yourself. Easier said than done in our society, I know. But learning to love myself and celebrate my achievements – even the tiniest ones – is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It’s still a huge learning process and it’s still a struggle, but all kinds of love take devotion, so let’s all become devoted to self-love, too. (If you need some more encouragement, check out my friend Cortnie’s blog. It rocks my socks.)

I asked my readers to share some of what they’ve learned from their disabilities or from their loved ones having disabilities – which I prefer to call different abilities (I learned that from my Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies classes), but for the sake of non-WGSS students out there, I’ll use the traditional D-Word for clarity’s sake. Because trust me – you learn a lot from being a disabled person, or loving a disabled person – especially if you are a young person who is affected by a disability, I’d say. That also goes for young people who love people with disabilities, too. I learned so much about myself taking care of my parents – who are both cancer survivors. Probably more than I learned from my own disability, so for everyone out there who is a caretaker, I think you are the strongest people around. That also goes out to my parents and my boyfriend, who are my caretakers on my rough days. Unconditional love gives me the most strength I could ever have – which also takes form in loving yourself unconditionally – don’t forget that! Learn to do that! PRONTO! Holly027 Holly021 Holly008 Anyway, when I asked my readers and friends to share their stories regarding disability, I received some beautiful, wonderful and amazing responses. They made my heart happy.

Gabrielle Walter, who is also a blogger and UC student, gave a response that took my breath away. I didn’t even know she had an invisible disability like me, so it was a real eye-opener. Her comment was especially beautiful and relatable.

“Many times disabilities aren’t easily seen or noticed by people you work with everyday,” she said. “I was officially diagnosed with narcolepsy, a rare sleeping disorder, about a year and a half ago. I’m unable to regulate my sleeping patterns aka I fall asleep at the most inopportune times. At first the hardest part was coping with the fact I couldn’t live up to society’s expectations. I’d fall asleep before deadlines, classes and while working. In about 6 months I went from very involved, successful student to a part-time struggling-to-stay-in-school student. Once I got past the importance of grades, I had to accept I couldn’t do everything I wanted to be able to do for myself. That was by far the hardest.”

Gabrielle and I both used to be editors at our student newspaper, which takes a lot out of you, so hats off to her – and hats off to me, too. Because I’m a firm believer in exercising self-love.

“While any disability is difficult, you do grow as a person,” Gabrielle said. “Randomly sleeping about 12-14 hours a day makes you make the most of the time you are awake. I focus on doing what I love, and only what I love. I have re-evaluated what I truly consider important in life and have ultimately slowed down to enjoy the simpler things.”

This is evident in Gabrielle’s blog, Profoundly Simple. I check it every day for new posts and information. Gabrielle started the blog in an effort to live more simply since, like she said, making the most of the time you’re awake (or, in my case, not in pain) and enjoying every second of that time becomes so important. Learning to focus my time and effort has been a invaluable skill for me. Holly009 Holly013

Bloggers Ali Stigler and Marisa Whitaker (you can find their blogs here and here) wrote about the life lessons that come with depression and anxiety.

“[Sometimes] you just don’t want to go out and would rather lay in bed trying to figure out who you really are,” said Marisa on her anxiety, depression and ADD.

Marisa brings up a great point. Life with a disability – and rough patches in life in general – really does make you figure out who you are very quickly. Any rough patch tests your emotional and mental strength, but I’ve found that you really find out who you are, what you want and what you stand for when you deal with those rough patches every day, especially at a young age. I really related to Ali’s story; her life has also been touched by disability.

“My mom, like many others, has suffered from depression for about seven years now,” she said. “It isn’t visible all of the time, but sometime you can just tell when she’s upset. She’s on medication to regulate it, but when you can tell she’s having a rough day and not feeling it, it’s hard to figure out what to say to make it better. Because there really isn’t anything I can do to make her feel better. I just try to get her out of the house and take her to lunch or go thrifting (one of our favorite activities). I know those kinds of things make her happy, even if it’s only for a certain amount of time.”

Having a loved one suffer from a chronic illness, disability, or disease while you’re young – or at any age, I’m sure — causes you to grow up fast, as does having a parent or loved one who is ill. Being a caretaker at age 18 and on (I’m an only child) while coping with my own chronic illness made me grow up – or attempt to grow up, whatever “growing up means” – really fast. It made me put my priorities in check. While I didn’t get to party or be a typical reckless teenage girl, I am thankful for the life lessons helping my parents battle cancer taught me. In fact, I’m thankful for all my rough patches thus far in life. They’ve made me who I am and have strengthened my heart.

What are some things you’ve learned from your rough patches in life? What are some skills you’ve learned along the way? What some big life lessons for you? Let me know! Holly014

Forever Addicted to Humble Pie

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For me, the fine line between a lack of self confidence and a humble attitude has been a difficult one to walk. I have never been good at accepting compliments — I’d like to think this is just called “grace,” but it also stems from an anxious shyness that will most likely be a forever battle. That’s not to say I’m not an extrovert in numerous ways: I am the Type A, overly-excited, often-enthused one in my relationship; I am friendly; I am inquisitive and curious to a fault. I am also a journalist; a knowledge seeker; sometimes a know-it-all.

I’ve taken the personality tests. I’m always an eclectic mix between introvert and extrovert. I crave attention at times, but I can just as easily spend hours on end alone in my room entertaining myself. Sometimes I’m full of much too many words and far too many questions. Sometimes I can’t think of anything to say at all.

Accepting that I am more than good enough is something I’ve struggled with for my whole life. It comes from being prone to anxiety and perfectionist tendencies. It also comes from growing up with medical problems. It’s been a weird web of praise and scolding from authority. While I had a number or supportive educators growing up in the public school system, I had an equal amount of administrators who told me I would never graduate and would never be able to “make it” or build a “normal” life for myself. I met this cacophony of opposing attitudes with defiance and gumption. I also met it with a lot of tears, a lot of panic attacks, and a lot of self esteem issues.

After graduating high school with both a 4.000 and more than 200 absences, self esteem was easier to muster. Sometimes. When I’m faced with adversity — which, trust me…it’s in college, too — I tend to rise to the occasion. I can stick up for myself. I can fight. I can articulate my feelings and emotions and I can usually claim victory over the social struggles that come with having a disability. I fight the good fight and feel good about myself in the end. Because I feel like I’ve earned it. Like I’ve paid my dues.

Praise, on the other hand, is sometimes crippling. Not when it comes from my mom or dad or family or my boyfriend. That’s easy praise. It’s expected. I can handle that. I can drink it up and soak it in and become lighter and brighter because of it. I can use that praise as fuel without feeling undeserving.

But praise from my peers or professors or strangers? That’s hard. It’s unexpected. It’s an attempt to get under this thick skin I’ve grown. Praise from authority or people who don’t…you know…have to love me? When I don’t have to fight for that praise? That’s scary. Because it blurs that line between being humble and being confident. It blurs the line of being tough and vulnerable. If I don’t have to earn it — you know, by fighting for it — that stops me in my tracks. It makes me feel like I have to bake myself a humble pie and stuff my face with it as fast as I can.

Today was a big day for praise. I received several emails from one of my professors complimenting me on the work I’ve done. How good of a writer I am. How raw and honest and beautiful. No criticism. Just praise. Email upon email of praise. Three of them. In one day. I thought I’d gotten past this whole, “Oh, me? I don’t deserve this! Little old me?!” thing. Guess not. In my email back, I was eating piece after piece after piece of humble pie. Being vulnerable is hard. Harder than sticking up for yourself. For me, anyway. It makes me squirm and blush and feel figuratively naked.

But it shouldn’t be that way. You can remain humble while accepting some love — self love and self confidence is OK. We shouldn’t always have to earn it — sometimes you just deserve it without any strings attached or dues to pay. Learning that continues to be a journey for me. For everyone. Or for the people that truly deserve the compliments they are paid, I think. And because of all this, I’m going on a humble pie-less diet. Because maybe I’ve earned it. And maybe you have, too.

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Do you struggle with an addiction to humble pie? How do you curve the cravings?
Let’s talk about disability. Do you have a disability/different abilities like me? I have a chronic medical condition that affects my day to day life, but before I talk about my disability, I want to hear about yours. If you or a loved one have different abilities, how have you coped with society’s expectations? What has disability taught you? What are some pitfalls and peaks? Before I share my story, I want to hear yours.

 8BS8YSTDEVND

Let’s talk about disability. Do you have a disability/different abilities like me? I have a chronic medical condition that affects my day to day life, but before I talk about my disability, I want to hear about yours. If you or a loved one have different abilities, how have you coped with society’s expectations? What has disability taught you? What are some pitfalls and peaks? Before I share my story, I want to hear yours.

8BS8YSTDEVND

(via thechronicfight)

Let’s talk about disability. Do you have a disability/different abilities like me? I have a chronic medical condition that affects my day to day life, but before I talk about my disability, I want to hear about yours. If you or a loved one have different abilities, how have you coped with society’s expectations? What has disability taught you? What are some pitfalls and peaks? Before I share my story, I want to hear yours.