Strength and Resilience
Because my immune system has declared mutiny, unlawfully attempting to overthrow my joints, I have declared an insurrection of my own. It is a revolt against stereotypes of the chronically ill that pervasively infect our society with negative connotations and assumptions. To be chronically ill is not an end to one’s social existence, though at times it can feel like living in exile, shunned by a culture that praises youth, beauty, health, and the appearance of success above all else. But these things are short lived at best.
Though I live with rheumatoid arthritis, a difficult and hostile disease that is less commonly known and often misunderstood, I still have dreams and aspirations, love and passion, strivings, accomplishments, and goals. I retain my determination to make something of my life, though it is far more difficult than before. I don’t want pity. I want people to know that there are many with chronic diseases who show no visible signs of it, who rarely speak of it, and who continue striving, but with obstacles, privations, and disappointments that are often hidden from view.
Many, many people living with wearisome health burdens continue to do the absolute best they can.
This last fall I applied to PhD programs in public health. Some schools require two statements: one professional and one personal. In the professional statement, you cover academic, research, and work history, as well as career goals and interests. In the personal statement, you try to give the school an impression of who you are as a person and your motivations for pursuing a graduate degree. I hesitated as to whether or not I should share that I have RA in the personal statement. Would sharing my difficulties exclude me from being a candidate? Would the admissions committee view me as less likely to complete the degree, or as an unpredictable liability? Or would it give them the picture I hoped to paint of a resilient and determined person who is driven by curiosity, love of knowledge, and care and empathy for others who also suffer.
Though I had decent Graduate Record Exam scores before my Master’s degree, I retook the test. A PhD at a top school would require more. For three months I studied two hours a day during the week and six hours a day on the weekends. This was on top of work and caring for my family that includes a toddler and teenager. At every spare moment, I buried myself in practice books.
If they don’t want me because of RA, then I don’t want them…
I worked hard, sacrificed, and leapt with joy upon seeing the result, having surpassed the score threshold required for the schools I wanted to attend. Combined with six years of disciplined academic effort and relevant work experience, I became a potential competitor at top tier universities. After deliberating extensively on whether or not to share having RA in my personal statements, I finally came to a simple but risky conclusion: if they don’t want me because of it, then I don’t want them. Amidst my struggles, I have continued to achieve academically, in writing, and in research. In raw and frank words, I discussed how living with RA is at times painful, isolating, and defeating, that pursuing my goals while managing the illness has required strength and resilience combined with help from caring doctors and a supportive family, and that my desire for a PhD in public health is borne from a desire to help relieve the hardship that chronic illness brings to all who suffer from it.
When I finally clicked submit after endless toil at applications, I was flooded with self-doubt. “What did I do?” I thought in my worst moments, “I shouldn’t have discussed RA. I ruined my chances. I’d be a stronger candidate if they didn’t know.” When I recognized in my stream of thoughts the pernicious seed that the chronically ill are second rate, less capable, and less deserving, I resolved to never think such things again. “If that is how they evaluate me,” I assured myself, “then it will be their loss. I wrote the unrefined truth.”
After months spent in the purgatory of waiting for news, I received my first notification. It was an invitation from an amazing school to be evaluated for a different Master’s degree, but rejection from the doctoral program — far less than I wanted, though a possibility I kept open.
A week later and I received an email with a subject line reading “Congratulations!” My hand shook as I opened it. Then my eyes blurred as an overwhelming surge of excitement overtook me. I couldn’t read past the first two sentences. I shouted my wife’s name, and she came running, thinking something was wrong. I wrapped my arms around her, repeating in near disbelief, “We did it! We did it!”
I’ll be attending my dream school this fall and researching an area of health care I feel is of the utmost importance to many of us: mental health and how it is affected by chronic disease.
I am proud that I did not hide having rheumatoid arthritis in the hopes of being a stronger candidate. I took a big risk despite my feelings that having RA is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Graduate school is incredibly demanding and the pool of applicants is so highly competitive that such a disclosure could have closed doors that would have otherwise been open. Yet, to my deep appreciation, I received compliments on having written a heartfelt and honest personal statement. Such a welcome is a tribute to the fact that though stigma and stereotypes exists about the chronically ill, there are people who see through them.