As of today, I joined ‘the real world’ - aka started my first real-world-full-time-look-I’m-an-adult-honest-to-goodness-getting-paid job. Today went as follows: 1) I ran into the PI of the study (who’s the head of the division, and who I’ve worked for the past couple of summers) and he gave me a hug (the day was off to a good start) 2) Got my ID badge which officially says “Jennie David, Cardiac Surgery, Research” - AWESOME 3) Found out that my ID badge gave me access to the OR (unnecessary, but totally cool nonetheless) 4) Geeked out with a co-worker over the research studies 5) Nearly drooled on my computer at an abstract that’s being presented at an international conference in a couple of weeks where I’m listed as a co-author.


Graduating from college is more or less synonymous with the phrase, “Here comes the real world!” To paraphrase a speaker at graduation, if this is the real world, where was I living for the past 21 years? The dictionary defines real as, “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” I would therefore like to argue that my entire life has actually existed and occurred in fact and has neither been imagined or supposed - so I would like to believe it’s all been quite real. The question becomes - what does joining ‘the real world’ mean?


For those of us living with chronic illnesses, we joined ‘the real world’ a long time ago, often years before our contemporaries. I would gander to think that ‘the real world’ refers to a certain consciousness, when you are acutely aware that your actions have consequences, that things matter, that responsibilities have weight, that bills need to be paid on time, and that if you put dark jeans in with white laundry you will dye all of your underwear blue. To quote Joan Didion in ‘Goodbye to All That’, a favorite essay of mine (that I highly suggest you read if you find yourself entering ‘the real world’), “That was the year... when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”


Definitions are, in virtually every way, relative and changing. Entering adulthood is different for everyone, just as living with an illness is or even a person’s preferences for candy. ‘The real world’ - or the awareness that you have a choice in making things the way you want them - isn’t something that’s prescribed only to the cohort of recent college graduates, it’s something that can happen at any time to any of us. For me, I was 12 and newly diagnosed and began to realize that I had the ability to define what Crohn’s meant for me and to defy what others thought it meant.


There is a difference between being chronically ill (a physical reality) and living with a chronic illness (the emotional experience). Today, in the midst of loving my new ID and reading over papers, I was temporarily bothered by the psorasis sprouting along my arms and legs and the ache in my abdomen compliments of my inflamed guts grumbling. Does it mean I didn’t enjoy my first day? Does it mean I can’t be successful at my job? Of course not. I’m just a girl who has a lot of goals and dreams and will work my butt off to get there - step one, doing my best at my research job, step two, getting where I want to go. I’m someone in my own right, and my Crohn’s fits in, but it does not define me in and of itself.


I remember the first time I ever heard the term ‘glass ceiling’ and thinking it was a funny way of talking about limitations. After all, even if it’s a glass ceiling, you can see the sky, so is it really that bad? But I think that’s the point - you can see what’s out there, but you’re boxed in and can’t get out. We all have preconceived notions about what it means to live with a chronic illness - we might think it means we can’t have a job, or a significant other, or move away from home, and so on. But at the end of the day, we are free to choose our own definitions - and they can change - and we are free to defy the expectation that a life of illness is a life of suffering.


So go ahead - defy expectations, define yourself according to yourself, shatter those glass ceilings. You’re already living in the real world, so go out there and do a downright gutsy job of it.



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