Thursday, March 1, 2012

A sense of accomplishment: My take on a really generic essay prompt

Hey everyone! I have been busy busy this week applying for scholarships. Today, I completed a particularly difficult essay, and I would like to share it with all of you. Generally, I'm a very strong writer, but I struggled a great deal with this essay. I am often unwilling to use my arthritis to garner sympathy, pity, etc. but I feel that this might be a different situation altogether. Arthritis is a big part of my life right now, and I wanted to share that with the scholarship board, so they understand where I'm coming from and who I am. I would not be this particular version of Kathryn without my R.A.

Anyway, here's the essay prompt: Help us get to know you beyond what’s in your resume and transcript. Tell us about one or more instance when you felt a sense of accomplishment and discuss how or why it was significant. You may include examples from any aspect of your life such as academic, extra-curricular, community service, family, or work.

And here's my take on that...
Just a year ago, I might have written this essay with a particular work example in mind. I might have discussed, through my 4H experience, some notably difficult community service project. Instead, today I sit here, a little chilly, a little sore, and I look down at my puffy, weird finger joints. I think I know the kind of accomplishment I should discuss.
In August 2011, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I sat in the rheumatologist’s office, staring at my strangely swollen toes, while the doctor poked at my joints, peered at my test results, and frowned as he asked me questions about my pain levels. On that day in August, I didn’t know the first thing about Rheumatoid Arthritis. I thought the name sounded a little funny. I thought my primary care doctor had been particularly vague about my blood test panel results the week before. But still, when my doctor reached for a stack of pamphlets and said, “You do, in fact, have Rheumatoid Arthritis,” I wasn’t sure what to think, or how to feel. He read over each pamphlet slowly, with the tip of his pen primed over every letter like a teacher directing a student in a literacy exercise. In a way, I was a student there in the doctor’s office. I was learning about the strange, sudden diagnosis that would change everything for me.
It isn’t as if this is the worst diagnosis. I could have lupus, or cancer, or something else equally heartbreaking. For me, though, as a hardworking student, an avid equestrian, and a Boulderite in love with the outdoors around me, R.A. is pretty sad. The diagnosis broke my heart, slowly, as I did my own research and learned more about the disease filling my joints with fluid and incredible, inescapable pain. I leaned on my friends, my family and my professors, dependent on their support to bring me through the first part of living with a disability: acceptance.
I attended class regularly, took notes religiously, and studied my heart out until November. Slowly but surely, the arthritis crept into my knees, my wrists, my ankles, my hips. Slowly but surely, my balance faded away. Every morning I woke up and struggled more and more to slide out of bed, dress myself, and make the short walk to my bus stop. By the end of November, I couldn’t put my own jeans on. My stubbornly swollen fingers refused to tie well-practiced bows in my shoelaces. I stumbled on my familiar stairs. That seven minute walk to the bus? Twenty minutes or more. I found myself dreading the ends of classes, the attempts at a hurried walk to my next classroom.
Professors and TA’s understood, of course, and carefully orchestrated a schedule of e-mail turn in dates. I finished out the semester with grades that filled me with pride. (Two As and two Bs, thank you very much!) But this was not my biggest struggle. I am a strong, confident, curious student, and I always fight to do well. My grades were no surprise.
No, my biggest enemy, arthritis’ biggest ally, is shame. When my gait slowed to a painful, halting crawl, I flushed with embarrassment as other students hurried around me. Whenever the bus reached my stop, I lowered my head and forced myself to hop off like a normal person. I made myself walk as “normally” as possible. I could not deal, at all, with the idea that I was 22 and disabled. I could not begin to accept that, at 22 years old, I might need a cane, or a service dog, or even a wheelchair. When asked to work with classmates, I never shared my limitations. I was ashamed of myself, my misshapen, swollen joints, my walk, my pain. I was ashamed of the daily struggle that arthritis had forced upon me. As my shame in myself took over, I lost hope in my treatment options, and my recovery. I lost hope that I might ever feel better.
I am not sure, even today, what sparked my shame in myself. Perhaps I was ashamed to show others my vulnerability. Perhaps admitting my limitations meant admitting my disability. Regardless, shame crept around inside me every day, and every day I tried to pretend I was just like everyone else. But over the winter break, at the suggestion of my ever-supportive mother, I began to blog about my experience with chronic pain. I returned to my rheumatologist, who told me that I had one of the most aggressive forms of Rheumatoid Arthritis he had ever seen; he also told me that new treatments came along all the time, and his positivity was contagious. I slept in late, read books all day, and continued to blog about coping. I wrote about acceptance, forgiveness and taking care of oneself. Through my resting, taking care of myself, and my writing, I came to face the truth about myself: Here I am, at 22, with a disability. I am still alive. I am still thriving. I am so strong, that I am reaching out to others through my words. And with these simple truths, came acceptance. With these realizations, came my triumph over an all-encompassing shame. With my triumph came hope for a better life, with an absence of pain.
Day to day life is still a struggle. I am mostly unable to walk, use a pen, or dress myself. I have a cane, though I am still coming to accept its use. I can, though, accept myself and my limitations. I can share the story of my disability with others, because I do so every day on my blog. I am positive, happy, and always moving forward. I accept my treatments willingly, side effects and all. I overcame the greatest shame I have ever known, admitted to my disability, and accomplished something great: acceptance. I walk as slow as I need to, and I have hope.


  1. you are great. The very greatest. I hope they give you a billion dollars for this.

  2. Kathryn, you are truly an inspiration. Don't stop writing. Don't stop trying.