I was ten when I was hospitalized for a strange illness that wouldn't go away. To determine its cause, I wasn't allowed to eat. Naturally, this made me very upset. I was angry at everyone around me, angry at the world, angry with a bitterness that didn't belong to a child so young. And I was constantly harping to myself -- why me? What did I ever do wrong? I was suffering and wanted everyone to know it and feel it too.
I was a real monster. If anyone asked me how I was feeling, I would bark back, "Hungry!" "Awful!" "How do you think I'm feeling?" If anyone came to visit, I would sulk and talk in short, irate monosyllables. I would cry bitterly during any procedure. The nurses weren't left unscathed either. At 10 years old, I was bitter enough to outdo a woman of 80. I thought of dying daily, and wished I had never been born.
Then one day, everything changed. I was in one of my most belligerent moods when Cindy, the nurse on staff, came in. She was blonde, pretty, and outgoing. I ranted again how hungry I was, and when she asked me how I was feeling in that upbeat, friendly tone of hers, I yelled back, "Terrible!"
Then she let me have it.
"All the kids in this place are suffering. You are not the only one," she laced into me. "None of them are here for fun. You can continue to go on this way, but you are making it very hard for everyone around you. Soon, no one will want to visit you, no one will want to be with you, and you won't have any friends or even nurses that will want to help you. It may be hard for you but you have to learn how to change your attitude and be a better patient. Otherwise, it will only get worse. You are making yourself suffer more than you really need to."
I was embarrassed and very hurt. At first I didn't want to hear any of what she said. What does she know of suffering? She's healthy and pretty! But after thinking it over, I had to admit she was right. I needed to change, and fast. I hated who I had become.
I started the very next day. A mother of my one of classmates was worried that I wouldn't have a social life if none of the girls visited me. I don't know how she managed to convince them, but she got the school to give permission for two girls from the class to visit me during school hours every day. I didn't realize it at the time, but it made a huge difference. I was alone, hurt, in pain, and my self esteem took a very deep plunge.
The girls were afraid of me; I had been so bitter and so impossible up until then. But Cindy's words still rang in my ears.
Two girls from my class came in, Melissa and Estee. As they hesitatingly peeked into my room, I looked up and spotted them. Before they could say anything (or run away!) I said hi really cheerfully, offered them some sucking candies (the only thing I was allowed to put into my mouth besides water) and invited them to sit down. I told them I was happy they came and the time flew by.
I discovered what it means to be strong, to smile in spite of the pain.
At the end of the visit, Melissa, whom I wasn't particularly close to in school, said goodbye and in a moment of complete honesty she gushed, "It was so much easier to be with you this time. You've changed so much. I was so afraid to come in here because of what happened last time, but you were so friendly and happy. Thank you for being so nice to us."
I walked them all the way out the door and to the elevators at the end of the hall, and we said goodbye. I went back to my room, to my little private bedside TV, my homework from school, my IV pole and my pain. But inside I knew Melissa was right. And I knew that I had to keep up this new attitude.
Slowly, as the days and the pain went on, I tried to be a 'trooper', as my doctor put it. I put up with everything with a smile, and started thanking the people around me. It was refreshing, it was invigorating, and in a way, it was even liberating.
At that young age, I discovered what it means to be strong, to change yourself, to smile in spite of the pain -- to persevere. I learned that being in pain doesn't mean you can force it on everyone around you. You can smile in spite of the pain, you can think of the other person in spite of the pain. I learned that being happy had nothing to do with exterior circumstances, but everything to do with inner motivation.
In short, I grew up.