When I was diagnosed with gastroparesis as a freshman at JMU, I never thought it would have such a huge impact on my life. At the time, medication made my symptoms manageable, and I felt like a normal college student. I changed my major half a dozen times, DJ'ed my own radio show, went to football games, and immersed myself in campus life. I even managed to complete my degree requirements a year early. I graduated, moved back home, and immediately began a full-time marketing job.
Everything seemed fine, until a year and a half later. I was living in Richmond, Virginia, and I had just helped a friend move cross-country from Orlando to Seattle. It took us a week and a half to make the drive, and I spent an extra week exploring Washington. My symptoms started acting up during the trip, and when I got home to Richmond, they got worse. Over the next six months, I lost 30 pounds. I also lost my health, my independence, and my freedom. I couldn't eat without debilitating nausea, and my body was withering away. Fortunately, after months of research, I discovered a medication that doubled as an appetite stimulant. I asked my doctor to prescribe it, and after a few weeks, my condition drastically improved. I was able to eat again, and my weight went up. It was honestly a miracle.
Life was good for about eight months. I ended up moving to Seattle in the fall, and I had a blast. My friend and I ate our way through dozens of local restaurants, visited Canada, and made several trips to Oregon. I moved back to Virginia Beach around Christmas and enjoyed reconnecting with my family and friends that winter. I even felt good enough to travel to the Bahamas in March. But on Memorial Day Weekend, my health took a drastic turn. I was rushed to the ER because I hadn't been able to eat or drink anything in over a week. That summer was the hardest trial of my life. I was in and out of the hospital, battling the most severe, painful flare I had ever experienced. I still don't know how or why it happened. It came on gradually, and then suddenly, and tore my entire life apart. I truly didn't know if I was going to make it through that dark period, and sometimes I'm still shocked that I did. If I ever doubt my strength, I think back to that time, and it puts everything into perspective.
Perspective is something I didn't really have before my diagnosis. It's something healthy people aren't forced to have. I assumed that I would always be able to enjoy the luxury of good health, the ability to eat, flourishing friendships, fun trips, and personal freedom. I didn't realize those things are privileges, not rights. I didn't realize they can be taken from you in a heartbeat, cruelly and swiftly. I didn't realize how much I took those things for granted...until it was too late.
Fortunately, my health has now been stable for a year. Once again, I feel like a normal person, and I live a normal life. I fear the resurgence of another flare, but I don't let that fear dictate my actions. In fact, the way I live my life now is drastically different than the way I lived before I got sick. I feel certain that without ever having those isolating, painful experiences, without ever standing on the ledge of life and watching everything slip out of my grasp, I wouldn't possess this optimistic mindset, this zest for life, this passionate need to immerse myself in everyone and everything.
You see, I now understand that life is fleeting. I understand that if something or someone makes you feel alive, you should pursue it with your whole heart. I understand that life could end tomorrow, so why waste today with fear and excuses? I understand that the future isn't guaranteed, so we have to appreciate and take advantage of the present. I understand that life doesn't wait for anyone, and if you want something, you just have to go for it. I understand that one day, we'll all be faced with a list of all the things we should've done but didn't have the courage to do...and it's up to us to make that list as short as possible. I understand that risks must be taken in life, and that failure is infinitely more satisfying than knowing you never even tried.
The woman I've grown into has been shaped by my diagnosis and the battles I've had with my health. I'm enthusiastic about life and strive to live every moment to the fullest. I'm a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, and I throw myself passionately into anything that peaks my interest. Trying new things fills my soul with so much joy, and I know what it feels like to lose that ability. I love hard. My walls come down easily when I feel a connection with someone, and I savor every emotion and feeling that comes with that vulnerability. I seize the day. When a crazy idea comes to mind, I make it happen. While my health was still in limbo, I backpacked around Europe for six weeks. I was worried something would happen while I was abroad, but my bigger fear was never having the chance to do it in the future. Lastly, I understand that life goes on. Even when things suck, and life doesn't deal you the cards you wanted, time passes. Better days always lie ahead.
Whenever I talk about my "life philosophy", I worry that I sound like I'm preaching. But that's not my intention. I am not a perfect person. I am flawed, and I make mistakes. I'm a work in progress, and I continually strive to improve myself. But these things do make me a passionate person; a loyal person; a resilient person; a strong person; an emotional person. These things have made me someone who spontaneously buys plane tickets to foreign countries, and gets her motorcycle license on a whim because riding makes her feel alive, and forges strong relationships with friends and strangers because connecting with other humans is a beautiful privilege, and someone who isn't scared of a goddamn thing - experiencing or wanting or loving or hurting or feeling. Despite the trials I've been through, I can't help but feel grateful for the circumstances that have shaped me, because I fought like hell to become the woman I am today.
Gastroparesis changed my life, in unfathomable and scary and brutal ways. But it also changed my life, for the better. And my hope is that by reading this, maybe my experiences will change yours, too.