A very dear friend, a fellow blogger with a chronic illness (you know who you are) once told me at length how her illness was a blessing. She spoke of being grateful, of appreciating the small things in life and of not wasting precious time. I wholly agreed with her, but I stopped short of calling it a blessing.
Now, I’m not so sure.
My illness has made me a better person, there is no doubt about it. I feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.
My blog has always been a labor of love. I started it as a means to tell my story and to vent my frustrations. I vowed to not dwell on the negatives, there were a ton, but to matter of factly talk about my life. Like my social media account, I made a real effort to be positive. No complaining, no placing blame for my situation and zero anger. Many have said that I have inspired them, that I am a good person. I suppose that I am a ok person now. But to be fair, I wasn’t always.
I would never go so far as to say that I was ever a bad person. Instead I would describe my former self as deeply flawed. I used to be closed off. I was angry. I often resorted to pettiness. I was jealous. I blamed others for my lack of success. I tried to be something I wasn’t and did a lot of things I am not proud of.
When I got married and started a family I genuinely wanted to curb some of my bad habits. I wanted to cut down on my drinking. Eat healthy. Be more loving and open. To lose my anger. But it wasn’t to be. Marital strife, financial issues and career challenges dominated any attempts to be a better man. My illness, particularly the hypertension that often bordered on out of control, combined with a drinking problem resulted in a horrible temper and some outbursts that I would give anything in the world to unwind them. I fought with my wife and said terrible things in front of my children. I would get mad at the kids if they took sides or interjected. My oldest daughter and I had horrible arguments. As tough as she was, I was failing her. I failed to recognize that I needed to be the adult. But my version of an adult was an angry, sick, disappointed and frustrated version of the man I wanted to be. Then one night I had a transformative moment.
After a particularly nasty argument with my oldest daughter I went to bed angry. I hated myself for the things that I said. It was truly unforgivable. Somehow, despite my raging blood pressure and self-loathing I somehow fell asleep. What happened next changed my life.
I dreamt that I was watching my daughter through a pane of one way glass. She was in jail, or a mental institution, I’m not sure. At the time of the argument my daughter was 12. But in my dream she was about 3. She was in a room, alone. I was watching her play with blocks. Her hair was pulled up in a tiny ponytail, she was wearing the cute stretch pants that I loved when she was little. She was intent on the puzzle, silent and sad. I somehow had the knowledge that she would be in that horrible, cold and loveless room forever. I pounded frantically on the unforgiving glass for her to hear me, to see me. For the opportunity to mouth the words, as late and fruitless as they were,
“I love you!”.
“I’m so sorry!”
“Please forgive me!”
She continued to listlessly play with her blocks.
I awoke in a cold sweat. I was crying. I did not fall back asleep that night. I was haunted by it for weeks. It still bothers me. For weeks and months I hated myself. It was then that I took a long, hard and brutally honest look at myself. I acknowledged my illness and made a real commitment to address my shortcomings. I knew I had to curb my drinking, my anger and mend my relationship with my daughter. By reconciling with my mortality, true healing began. I felt urgency to work harder. Most important, I committed myself to positive change.addressing my shortcomings.
I am happy to reveal that my commitment to repairing my tumultuous relationship with my daughter paid off. We get along wonderful now. Despite no apparent issues with my other 3, I know I formed a much better relationship with them that wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t been honest with myself. It inspired me to fix the other areas of my life.
The true catharsis occurred when I received a kidney from a co-worker. Her altruism changed my life. I received a humongous lesson in gratitude. Which resulted in a pay-it-forward attitude that I have yet to lose. I became charitable, if not with money I offered my time which is more valuable than any financial offering. By diving into charity, tapped into a well of empathy and caring I didn’t know I had. It made me a better husband, father, son, co-worker and friend to all.
I think we all look at our lives and think that we have about 80 years on this planet, more if you are lucky. It allows us the luxury of putting off things until “later”. Chronic illness puts a serious damper on the notion of later. This realization changed how I did everything. Before my transplant failed I had one time frame on my mortality. After, I had a much different, and shorter one. Later may be too late.
Chronic illness has caused me to be the man I always wanted to be. I owned up to the fact that it’s ok to walk away from a fight. To forgive those that wronged me. To ask myself if I’m right before I shoot my mouth off. To be nice in place of rushing to judgement. To let things go. To be kind and open to the struggles of other. It led to my life-guiding mantra of knowing that there is no value in self pity. Someone always has it worse.
Today I walk upright, true to myself and others. I try to give as much as I can of myself to others. I think of my funeral, whenever it may be. How I will be remembered matters to me. I want to be remembered by those that matter to me as a good person. This is an attitude that is lost by many in their pursuit of wealth, power and prestige. I have lost all of those things and in the process gained a unique viewpoint.
If i were to live 100 years as the man I was, I would never achieve the clarity of mind and comfort in my own skin that I have now. I thank my illness for this. I know in my heart of hearts that my illness made me a better man. Not perfect, but better.
That, my friends is indeed a blessing.