Studying Abroad With Chronic Illness: Don’t Let It Stop You!

Chronic health issues, diseases and disorders range on a wide spectrum. But one thing is consistent across that entire spectrum, and that is the fact that they change the fabric of how you do life. In some capacity they impact every decision you make, from the food you eat to the activities you can take part in. Everything is evaluated through a different lens.

I want to share with you one of the biggest parts of my life, that I really don’t talk much about. Not because it is a secret, but because I want the way I choose to live and not what I live with to define who I am.

Turning 21 is a significant event. It’s a milestone for many, it signifies taking one step further into adulthood, and it’s a cause for celebration! For me though, turning 21 quickly went from being a celebration and became a very different kind of milestone. Just after my 21st birthday, I was diagnosed with a disease called Fibromyalgia, followed by four other diagnoses of various diseases and disorders.

In the blink of an eye, my whole life changed.

I can handle the surgeries, the quarterly blood tests, ultrasounds, x-rays and MRI’s. I can handle the chronic migraines, the constant pain my body is in every day, and I can even handle the anticlimactic test results that reveal no answers or hope of anything changing moving forward. But the one thing that I found nearly to handle was that I suddenly found myself with all of these physical limitations dominating my life, yet my mind was still trying to achieve and accomplish everything I normally would.

It was as if someone had suddenly thrown me into the obstacle course of American Ninja Warrier without any warning or training, and told me: “Hey guess what? All your life goals are now on the other side of this insane obstacle course. If you want to achieve them, you’re going to have to figure out a new way of doing life.”

My mind had been so used to functioning inside of a body that could keep up. Then one day I found myself trapped in a body that couldn’t.  

At each visit to the doctors gave me new information, a new hoop to jump through and it seemed like once I overcame one obstacle there was always a new one waiting, more challenging and complex than the first.

As if getting a ton of input and information from my doctor’s wasn’t enough, I now had a lot of people tossing their own pieces of advice on to the overflowing mound I felt was consuming me as I tired desperately to sort through and make sense of it all.

I pride myself on being a person who adapts to change pretty well. I like change. I feel like it signifies growth and movement. There are few things I hate more than a life of complacency and stagnance. But how do you choose to change the dreams that you have had for years?

This was the crossroads I found myself standing at. A very different type of crossroads, though, because instead of having both roads open to me, one was now barred shut. My crossroads were either to sit myself down and remain there, wishing I could take the road I had dreamed about for years. Or, I could enter down a road of constant obstacles, tribulations and a whole lot of unknowns.

I could either give up and change my dreams, or I could attempt to achieve my dreams by taking a more challenging road. These were my options… This was my crossroad.

Since I was in Junior High, I have wanted to study abroad. I have always been marked with an adventurous spirit and a hunger for seeing the world. I have always wanted to see how other people lived life, what they believed in and what challenges they faced and how they overcame them.

I can remember my brother and I taking my mother’s antique globe, spinning it, closing our eyes and putting our finger down to see where we would be destined to live when we grew up. We would imagine what careers we had that took us to the ends of the earth! Though it was just a child’s game of imagination, it displayed in many ways the free spirit I would never grow out of.

William Shakespeare once wrote,

“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

In many ways, I believe this crossroads in my life has taught me to be true to who I was created to be. It has taught me that the choices I make in life should stand firm on the truth of who I am and not on the ever-shifting sand of who others want me to be.

For the next four years, I worked hard through my new obstacle course called life and I strove to get the best possible control over my health and build a brand new lifestyle. I knew that if I wanted to achieve my dreams and see the world, then I would have to first manage my health. I had to figure out what triggered pain, I had to establish a very particular exercise routine, I had to understand my physical limitations and I had to learn how to do things differently.

My family has always been very active, either playing sports or enjoying the outdoors. It is a lifestyle I still love, but I understand that my body can’t always handle what others can. I had to learn to accept that I couldn’t play contact sports anymore; that my daily routine would look very different, and that it would be hard for others to understand why. Nonetheless, I made it a point to make my body as healthy as it could be.

Because I believed I my goals were still achievable, even if they were achievable by different means.

In March 2016, I was accepted into the study abroad program in Germany. I couldn’t be more excited and scared! I was so excited that I was about to embark on a season of life I had dreamed about for so long! But I was also scared about how my body would respond to the changes and transitions that were coming.

There were a lot of unknowns and those who knew of my health challenges asked me if I was really making a wise choice. To be honest, at the time, I didn’t know the answer. But I did know that if I didn’t go I would regret it for the rest of my life. I had worked so hard for this opportunity, for this dream of mine, and I wasn’t about to let the hardest obstacle I had faced thus far intimidate me from attempting to overcome it.

August 1st came and I jumped on a plane to study in a foreign country where I didn’t know the language for a whole year. It was the most fulfilling, exhausting, amazing and challenging year of my life!

Now, one year later, I look back on this journey of studying abroad and reflect on the challenges I faced with my physical, emotional and mental health. And, in the end, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I knew going into this year that it was going to be hard; but I also knew it was going to be amazing and a dream come true.

Accomplishing this year abroad meant more to me than getting good grades. It was an opportunity to be defined by the way I chose to live, and not by what I live with. I am choosing to take the accomplishment of this dream, and all that I learned along the way, and use it to propel me forward as I strive to accomplish every dream I have for the future.

Studying abroad looks different for everyone, and I think that many people believe that studying abroad isn’t for them. Or they believe that the challenges are too great whether they are financial or physical. But I would argue against that belief. I would argue that the reward you gain from diving head first into a new culture and a new way of doing life, is worth whatever the small price you might pay.

For those of you who struggle with health issues, diseases, disabilities or any other type of disorder I urge you: don’t buy into the narrative that you have to give up on your dreams. Don’t listen to the voices that tell you that you can’t possibly make it through the obstacle course of life, that it is impossible.

We might get hit with curveballs in life and find ourselves at a crossroad. We might be faced with the hardest choice we have ever had to make. And that choice might look too painful, too long, too daunting. And while it might very well be painful, long, and daunting, the choice to move forward, the choice to persevere is is worth it, and it is never impossible. So don’t let anything stop you!

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Hallie is a young wanderer who loves coffee, photography, and all things travel. Follow her adventures at @roamcatalinaroam

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