Every Spring, gardeners and farmers hold their breath … hoping … praying … that a freeze doesn’t come their way. Mother Nature blindsided South Carolina’s peach growers, in 2017 — about 90% of the crop was destroyed. I remember that blast of frigid air. Aside from the effects it had on me, physically, I stood at my window … looking at my beautiful, ruby-red azaleas … and I felt utterly helpless. I knew they were vulnerable. It was just a question of how bad the damage would be. In the wake of that freeze, my azaleas looked burned. Shriveled. Brown. It was heart-breaking. Still, the bushes had survived. So, all was not lost. Children, especially teens, who live with Chronic illnesses are vulnerable too. They are the fragile blooms of the garden … trying to grow and thrive … struggling with an illness that creates additional problems in an already challenging phase of life.
I was diagnosed with my first Chronic illness, at the age of 13, by doctors at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN. During a time when I just wanted to make friends and fit in, I had to hear that I didn’t fit in at all. At least, that’s what the diagnosis felt like and sounded like to me. How many teens do you know with a Chronic illness? I didn’t know one. Suddenly, I had to remember to take my medications every day. I had to go to bed at 10 o’clock, every evening. If I got to watch SNL, on a Saturday night, I felt like I had partied hard. Activities that I once enjoyed were now closely monitored. I was an only child. My parents, God bless them, had lost twins nearly a decade before I came along. In other words, my diagnosis made my mother over-protective to a fault. Poor Dad was stuck in the middle — trying to maintain some balance. Every teen probably thinks, at some point, that their life is Hell. I was convinced that my life was Hell and even the Devil wanted no part of it!
When I reflect back on those years, I remember the usual angst of being a teenager. And I remember the frustrations of living with an illness that I didn’t want, or ask for. I remember a straight-A student becoming a B-student, no matter how much studying was involved. I was actually held back, in Eighth grade, because I had been hospitalized for more days than the state allowed a student to miss during one school-year. It seemed brutally unfair. In a way, it was. Boys were skittish. Dating is one thing. Dating a girl with a health issue was akin to a death-wish. Girls who I thought were my friends alienated me. A few cruel tricks were even played on me. The guilty know who they are. And I hope, for their sake, they have atoned since. Instead of punishing them, I was told by my school and society to toughen-up. Endure the illness. Endure the pain. Endure the pranks. Swallow the setbacks. Basically, I learned perseverance the hard way. If it were not for my faith, the love of my parents and a few sweet friends, I do not know if I’d be here.
Chronically-ill teens today are walking the same difficult path that I did, over four decades ago. Unfortunately, some things never change. Statistics tell us that their Chronic illness makes them even more vulnerable than their peers. They are three times more likely to commit suicide than a healthy teen. Depression is an obvious factor. Many are prone to high-risk behaviors, i.e. sexual activity, substance abuse and delinquent behavior. Others face developmental difficulties that detract from their academic readiness. Some are the targets of bullying.
As a happy and tenacious adult, I want to plant a few seeds of advice. To any child or teen who is living with Chronic illness, you CAN do this! Your life IS worthwhile! God doesn’t make junk. He never has. Society and the environment can decay His work, but you are wonderful just the way you are. Never lose sight of that. Those who cannot see it, male or female, are not worth your time or your tears. Set goals, despite your illness. Tomorrows, like gardens, need planning and nurturing to grow. Take care of your health. Take your medications, as directed. Make smart choices. Rest. Love yourself. You’ll never truly be able to love another, until you do. Last, but not least, start noticing others. It’s sort of therapeutic and allows you to keep a positive perspective. Everybody HAS an issue of some kind. Your Chronic illness doesn’t make you an oddity. You are one of millions. Life has handed you a lemon, at a young age. Show the world what you can do with it — make lemonade (Matthew 5:16)!
For parents, be patient … understanding … and encouraging. Protectiveness does have its limits. Your teen, despite their illness, needs to live — not exist. Help them achieve that. Keep the lines of communication open. I had to actually become a parent to have an inkling of what my diagnosis must have been like, for my own parents. Now, I understand the over-protectiveness that my mother wielded like a sword. I marvel at how well they did, with me. There is no easy way to raise a child. Each brings joy and sorrow. Keep that in mind. None arrive with instruction manuals. Focus on your child and his/her needs — not what your BFF is doing with theirs. Your child didn’t ask for a Chronic illness. You didn’t wish it for them. But, together, you can overcome every challenge that it brings. And the harvest that you reap will make it all worthwhile!