What It's Like To Be Chronically Sick in College

My freshman year of college was pretty smooth sailing. As I eased into summer, I got very into fitness. I was in great shape – I could lift more weight than I ever could before; I could run a 10k pretty easily. But then sophomore year started, and as I got busier and busier with my internships and classes, I started to neglect taking care of myself. At first, I attributed all my illnesses to stress and lack of a good diet. The next semester, I took easier classes but still continued working, but eventually I had to admit that it was getting worse and worse. I went to an allergist with no success. I cut dairy out of my diet and found that I was lactose intolerant. But yet the issues kept persisting. No one knew what was wrong with me.

On my last birthday, I went out with my boyfriend and a few friends. The next morning, I felt off, but I attributed it to a hangover. As the day went on and I measly tried to celebrate my birthday, an intense burning creeped over my chest and I couldn’t breathe. My boyfriend put me to sleep in his bed for the rest of the day, but when I woke up around 8 pm on a completely empty stomach, I realized that the intense ache in my stomach was still there. Out of concern for what was happening, we apprehensively decided to go to the hospital. I handed the ER receptionist my ID, and she laughed a bit before saying, “It’s your birthday TODAY? Why are you here?” I had no idea. I rocked back and forth in the waiting room for hours until a doctor could see me. Besides multiple exams and an EKG, I was given a disgusting concoction of “gastric medicines.” The doctors sent me home with what they presumed was a stomach ulcer and I was awake all night in pain. I spent the following two weeks living on a liquid diet and plain white rice and crackers.

But as is the trend with this story, it didn’t quite get better. An ulcer turned into chronic gastristis – inflammation of the stomach – which presents itself anywhere from multiple times a week to multiple times a month depending on what triggers it. I have a long list of foods and beverages I’m not supposed to consume, which includes everything from alcohol and coffee (yes, coffee!) to citric fruits, lunch meats, and tomato sauce. A combo of a glass of wine one night and a coffee the next morning can trigger an episode that will keep me up all night to the point where I get little sleep. I often sit in class with pressure and burning and aches in my stomach, and I try to pretend to pay attention. My illness has inhibited my academic performance so much that I sometimes miss days of classes. I used to be a straight A student, but now, when an “attack” comes on at any random time, I will be stuck in bed until it wears away. I pop anti-nausea pills at least once a day, sometimes twice. (And the prescription is so strong that it’s the same medicine they give to cancer patients going through chemotherapy).

I sometimes stand outside my lecture rooms trying to decide if I will go in and painfully endure the next two hours or go home and sleep. More than once I’ve had to duck out of a gathering early simply because I felt too sick to even be there. After all these months, I’ve seen multiple doctors and gone through multiple scary tests and exams, and still, no luck on an exact diagnosis. It’s frustrating beyond belief, and I no longer feel like I have control over my body. It’s sabotaging my life. In my most recent trip to a surgery center, an endoscopy revealed that not only was my stomach inflamed, but now my small intestine was damaged as well.

Many people don’t know I’m ill. A person who looks healthy on the outside can easily hide a sickness when makeup and medicine is at their disposal. I am extremely good at masking my illness – only a few close friends and family members can ever tell when something is up, and even then, I constantly try to act like nothing is wrong to avoid ruining their night. I carry on my daily life just as everyone else does, except everyday I’m struggling. Even writing this feels so personal that I can’t help but feel that I’ve released some secret into the world that no one was ever supposed to know. I complete my homework assignments on time, I attempt to go out with my friends, and I pretend to enjoy family vacations. No one who didn’t know me would ever guess the up and down rollercoaster that has been my body for the past year. There is never a right time to be chronically sick, but at the “prime” of my life in my early twenties, it’s certainly not ideal. A peak into my purse, and you’ll see an arsenal of pills that help me get through each day. I constantly feel isolated from everyone in my life because I spend more time thinking about how I’ll make it through the next half hour rather than thinking about my weekend plans, or where I’m going to dinner.

But at the end of the day, I don’t want this expose to seem like a cry for help. My battles are small compared to many others who have real, life-threatening diseases. More than anything, I just want people to know that despite all the wonderful opportunities and loving people I have in my life, my body has tried to ruin every experience for me, and that it happens to other people too. I want to reach out there to everyone who has to maintain a “normal” life every single day, and tell you there are others who fight like you too. And to everyone else…be nice to each other, you never know what is going on hidden beneath. My Instagram and Facebook tell the story of a pretty awesome life, full of beautiful moments. I won’t deny the validity of such moments or that they even existed, but the other half of the story? I guess my cover is finally blown.