I've been sick since I was 10 months old. I don't know anything else. I was born with a chronic immune disorder and then diagnosed with systemic lupus at 15. When I was diagnosed with cancer in college, the trauma of the illness just added another layer to something I already knew.
But until a few years ago, I had emoted approximately three times about the isolating cycle of doctors, specialists, hospitals and extreme pain. I just didn't cry. It wasn't allowed. I didn't even cry to the shrink my parents sent me to at 16, when they discovered pot under my bed. (I still maintain the marijuana was the dog's.)
Instead of crying, or showing normal emotion, I was a secretive mess of anger and sadness. I self-destructed regularly and spoke to no one about how I truly felt. Three cheers for healthy coping habits!
In 2008, I finished up cancer treatment. As soon as I could drink, I did so, and I drank a lot. I said and did stupid, mean things that I am still struggling to understand and apologize for. I nearly ruined friendships that took years to build. I was brutal to myself and I see now that I was brutal to others. I broke up with my boyfriend, choosing to forge this alone. In doing so, I was cruel and unkind, a sure sign of my own failure to cope.
I believed that stoicism equaled strength; that crying constituted weakness; that by divulging the secret that illness devastates, I would not be the Kelly everyone knew: funny, happy-go-lucky, strong.
It sunk me, this anger and depression. It affected my work, my relationship, my friendships. And my Duane Reade, who got a boost in Xanax sales.
I didn't believe anyone could understand me, and I isolated anyone who tried. When I was recently diagnosed with lupus, my mom took me to a support group. I sat in the middle, my hands stuffed into my hoodie, as I listened to women in their 40s and 50s cry about how hard it was to live with chronic illness. I scoffed and dug my toe into the thin carpet. I looked at my mom wearyingly and swore I'd never go back to another support group. Even though I knew there were ones for kids my age, I preferred to believe no one would get it. I stayed this way until I was 25, all while continuing to destruct. My early 20s consisted of partying with my friends, eating crappy food and then paying for it in hospital stays.
In August of 2011, I moved out of my apartment in New York and came home to recover from a recent hospitalization. One night, while battling the insomnia that has plagued me much of my life (thanks, prednisone), I read about a trip in Colorado for single cancer survivors called Solo Survivors. My interest was finally piqued, and I applied. I heard back the next day -- I'd canoe down the Colorado River at the end of the month. I remained aloof about connecting with strangers, and may have even rolled my eyes at the activities planned. I was a cool customer, and I was determined to stay that way. But my trip down the Colorado River opened me to the possibilities that connection with other survivors was a vital part of healing.
In June of this year, I had another chance to go on a trip, this time with First Descents, an organization aimed at pairing up survivors with adventure challenges. There, on a beach in North Carolina with wild waves and winds, we learned to surf, connect and share in meaningful and positive ways. The support group mumble and grumble I had experienced as a teenager was not present. Instead, I was met with vitality and positivity.
This trip with fellow cancer survivors quite literally changed my life. It opened me up to the possibility of living a full life with illness, without denying its existence. But most importantly, it taught me the value of connection.
And that changed everything.
Living your life twice is no easy feat. But that's what I am trying to do. To remove myself from the past me -- the Kelly who dealt with this illness in an awful way, the Kelly who used it as an excuse for bad behavior, the Kelly who hid behind a bottle of whiskey.
I found a good way to go down in flames and then I realized it was okay to stop. I am a better person for having gone down the Colorado River and surfed the Atlantic with strangers who somehow understood me in ways I couldn't grasp. I have stronger relationships now than I did before. I have opened my life up because I have opened myself up, to become a honest me. I have met someone to truly loves me and I am able to love him back, fully and completely myself. And I went home from each trip with a sudden interest in playing an active role in my own life. I partnered with Hairband, a fellow FD-er and ran the Rock and Roll Half Marathon Relay while raising $3,000 dollars for First Descents.
My friends joke that I'm Kelly 2.0 now. Getting there wasn't easy, but it was time I learned how to be better without ever getting better.
Into the brightness I go.
Follow Kelly Bergin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kellybergin