Biting my nails, tapping a foot, shoving unruly hair behind an ear. It was the end of spring semester and I sat, sandwiched between my parents, as my academic advisor asked me one last time if I was sure.
Was I sure? Was this the right decision?
All I knew was I could not keep on going this way. Two years of college had flown by in a blur of sleepless nights and groggy days. Miraculously, I had made it through four semesters, but I knew in my heart that carrying on like this was not sustainable. It was time for me to step back, take a break, and give myself the time to heal by taking a medical leave from school.
Making the decision to take time off was not an easy one. I was wracked with guilt about falling behind my peers, disappointing my parents, and the overall feeling of failure. Expectation dictates that we are supposed to go to college, have the time of our lives, and graduate in four years with new perspective and life experience.
The first two years of my college career had been spent with a constant weight on my shoulders, and so I was unable to take full advantage of experience.
What I did not know when I moved down to D.C. for university, was that I was suffering a combination of invisible illnesses.
An invisible illness is an illness that impacts a person’s ability to conduct their own life and function normally, and it is something that you can’t see. Most people with invisible illnesses experience subjective symptoms like extreme fatigue, joint and body pain, and headaches. I had been dealing with my symptoms for years, but the transition to college exacerbated my conditions. Upon giving myself the opportunity of a medical leave, I discovered I was living with multiple autoimmune disorders coupled with severe OCD, general anxiety, and depression.
Day in and day out I suffered from debilitating symptoms that seriously impacted my daily functions. I dealt with overwhelming fatigue and joint pain and I was frequently getting sick.
No amount of tea or coffee could fuel me throughout my classes and by the time my head hit the pillow it was impossible to sleep. I existed in that foggy state that comes with being constantly tired but being unable to rest. Not only was I feeling physically weak, but I barely had the mental capacity to focus on my school work. My pain – physical and mental – might not have been visible, but I sure could feel it.
Whenever I sought out medical help I was told that I was just a normal teenage girl dealing with anxiety and depression, and while that certainly was part of the problem, it was only the tip of the iceberg.
Having a medical professional relegate all of my symptoms to something going on in my head was infuriating and invalidating. When I finally did take a medical leave from American and pressed my doctors to give me proper testing, I was so relieved to find out that what I was experiencing was something real and tangible.
Being able to put a name to all of the things I was suffering from was a long time coming, and it was so gratifying. Unfortunately, invisible illnesses and conditions like mine often go undiagnosed. Our symptoms can be vague and complex, and they often are down-played, misdiagnosed, or ignored by medical care providers all together. Diagnosing an invisible illness can be like piecing together a complicated puzzle, but the more pieces you gather, the more complete the picture becomes.
My medical leave enabled me to discover what I was truly dealing with and I am so much better for it. I am now in a much healthier place and I am able to share what it feels like to look healthy on the outside while navigating everyday life with a serious physical and mental condition.
Imposter syndrome can have serious negative effects on someone with invisible illness. Others may assume your struggles are all in your head because they can’t see them, and unfortunately, it can make us question if that really is the truth. In response to this, I have learned that constantly doubting yourself gets in the way of actually healing and benefiting from treatment or medication.
Invisible illnesses can have life-threatening consequences if left untreated, and so, the best thing a person can do for themselves is listen and show compassion to the needs of their body.
Keeping your struggles a secret can be so tempting. I was afraid to open up to my friends and even some family about why I wasn’t attending school as usual. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I was not keeping up with society’s expectations for me and my own expectations for myself.
It took time, but I have realised that I am too young to feel like I am running out of time. Life is not meant to feel like a race to keep up with our peers and it was an effort in empathy for me to acknowledge this. I have found that when it comes time to tell your friends, family, peers or coworkers about your health, it is best to have those conversations face-to-face. Being able to open up and be vulnerable about what is hurting you is a strength. We cannot control what other people think but we can educate them and offer to answer their questions.
I feel extremely fortunate to have had my parents and sister in my corner as a support system when I went on medical leave. They were there to root for me when I had no faith in myself.
While I was anxious about telling my friends the truth, it was extremely liberating when they responded with warmth and understanding. I also found that it is worth connecting with people who understand your experience without any explanation.
To anyone else who is suffering from an invisible illness, I would highlight the importance of finding communities around your condition, because just interacting with people who understand can be incredibly empowering and inspiring.
Adversity allows us to understand our own resilience. It is only when you are put under pressure, and face obstacles and stress that resilience, or the lack of it emerges. To anyone considering a medical leave, I would tell you that you didn’t go through all you did for nothing. Taking a leave of absence can be a time for growth and exploration and I can honestly say that mine made me a better version of myself.
By: Hannah Brennan