Ticking the boxes

I wrote this a couple of months as a submission for Issue 5 of the incredible Drawn Poorly Zine. Drawn Poorly is a Manchester-based project providing arts opportunities focused on chronic illness, disability and mental health conditions. Issue 5 invited people to submit words, art and photography that explored the theme of “FOMO” Fear Of Missing Out. Drawn Poorly is keen for access for all chronic conditions, disability and mental health conditions to be considered for everything. Their mission is to continue honest and important dialogues about chronic illness, disability and mental health through their work and supporting artists to do the same. Their zines and events have certainly helped me to navigate my own chronic illnesses and they provide a much-needed platform for other chronically ill creatives to get their voices heard. If you’re able to, please consider buying a copy of one of their zines, prints or postcards so that they can continue to do this incredibly important work.

My happiness used to be measured in A grades and textbooks – I wanted to be a doctor. Academic success was what I thought was best. It sketched out a pretty neat and linear life for me. Without me realising, I had subscribed myself to a belief system that centred on box ticking. I thought I would finish university and seamlessly transition in to a medical training programme where I’d be 100% satisfied with my job. I would meet someone, they would be amazing and things would be really easy.

Together, we would tick the mortgage box and maybe even get a dog. We would be married by 30 and I’d have an established career with a great circle of friends and fulfilling social life that I’d juggle effortlessly. I imagined that we would probably have kids. They would be so happy and loved. I might do parkrun on Saturday mornings and maybe even train for a half marathon. I would push myself physically and intellectually to stay rounded. I would shop locally and sustainably, cooking with fresh produce of course! I would see the world, learning from different cultures and soaking up everything it had to offer. I’d have a couple of hobbies, they would be low-key but worthwhile all the same. Maybe I’d learn to play a musical instrument but if that didn’t happen, I knew I would still go to loads of gigs and keep up with my love of music, making sure to seek out new bands and support upcoming artists. I’d sleep a full 8 hours each night and my hair would have a healthy gloss to it, everything would be dead easy. Relationships with my family would remain strong, we’d grow older together and our roles would change but it would all be okay because I’d be able to do it. I would handle things well and take it all in my stride, everything would be absolutely fine.

Of course, I know this was and is naïve way to view the world. I think I felt like this around age 14-18 because I was an invincible teenage, probably as a side effect of growing up with too many Disney films and the dreamy windows of opportunity wide open. I know now that nobody’s life maps out according to plan. It will never, ever be smooth sailing. It took me a lot of learning but I slowly realised that all this wasn’t really my checklist. Social conditioning had crept in – as it does with most people – to make me think that happiness could be measured arbitrarily according to just how many boxes had been ticked by a certain age. Similar to how many levels I’d completed on Crash Bandicoot but with slightly more consequences. It would be dishonest for me to say that I have shied away from every box completely, I don’t think I will ever be able to do that fully but life experience has taught me that there is far more important stuff than whether I have 2.3 children, a house with a garden and a car parked on my drive.

My grand life plan didn’t account for the fact that I’d tick 3 completely unexpected boxes containing some difficult chronic conditions. It didn’t bother to mention that some of my earlier goals would be almost unattainable due to not physically being able to make it to enough lectures. My body just couldn’t keep up with the pace of my ambition throughout my twenties. Sometimes, I can’t even make myself a cup of coffee, let alone do any running. I’ve missed so many weddings, parties and other fun stuff that I would love to be part of. Sometimes, even when I do make it along to events like this, I’m not fully present and can’t connect in the way I’d like to. Being unwell so often limits the fun stuff that I can sometimes find myself being really quite bitter.

Travel insurance is so expensive it becomes prohibitive, I haven’t seen anywhere near enough of the world and I’m not done exploring yet. It’s exhausting holding down a full-time job. My energy is spent on getting through the basics, I don’t have any reserves for cooking or those other ‘wholesome hobbies’ and maintaining the bare minimum is enough of a challenge.

I think now, my FOMO has switched focus. I no longer worry so much about achieving ’30 before 30’ or having a 5 year plan, or much of a ‘lifeplan’ at all. These experiences have helped to clarify a lot of things. Now, my measure of success is happiness. The friendships I do sustain have become so much more important and real. Valuable experiences and memories get me through the days when I can’t leave the house. I am no longer hell-bent on acing exams and I don’t set myself goals just for the sake of ticking a box. Chronic illness has made me think about what is truly important to me and what aspects of my life are completely non-negotiable. It’s taught me a lot about my personal values and sometimes the challenges it brings just make me more determined to live life in a way that works for me, not the way I felt I should live it. FOMO is real, I still want a dog and hope I’ll get married one day but I’m no longer in such a rush.

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