I’m sick. That’s a word that most people use to describe having a cold for a week, or getting the flu. It’s not usually used to describe your perpetual state of being, especially when you’re a college student. But, for me, it is. I’m sick, and I have been for most of my life, and I probably will be forever.
Okay, to be more accurate, I guess it hasn’t always been like this. Flashback to freshman year—I was a normal college student. I drank with my friends on the weekends, I ate food that was terrible for me, I drank way too much coffee, and it was all fine. When you think of a Boston College freshman, I was probably somewhat of a stereotype. And I loved it. Yes, I had plenty of issues, but being sick wasn’t really one of them. I had what I always described as “a sensitive stomach” which, at 18, boiled down to taking way more Pepto Bismol than the average teenager and making jokes about my lactose intolerance. It was fine, really.
Now, jump to sophomore year. Again, I was fine most of the time. My friends and I took funny pictures of me holding the giant boxes of Tums I brought to tailgates and I renounced taking shots. But, generally, I was okay. Then comes the summer before junior year. (Apologies for the TMI; it’s necessary) I started throwing up at least once a week. Picture the flu, but make it every single week. I was losing tons of sleep, and still went to my full-time job every day. I started seeing a gastroenterologist and she put me on a low FODMAP diet, which stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols. That basically translates to “you can’t eat anything good.” And, regardless of the month I spent stressing over what I could and couldn’t eat, I kept feeling just as horrible.
So, junior year came around, and my GI doctor ordered me an endoscopy. For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it’s basically getting a camera stuck down your throat to see what’s going on inside your stomach. After getting my results back, my doctor determined that: 1. she still wasn’t sure what was causing all of this, but 2. I have something called chronic gastritis, which basically means that my stomach lining is inflamed and wearing away. She immediately told me I’d have to start limiting my diet. A lot. I don’t mean cutting out a few things here or there. I mean: no alcohol, no coffee, no dairy, no overly processed foods, no overly seasoned foods…pretty much just nothing. As a junior in college, this was absolutely not an easy feat. While my friends were excited about finally having our own kitchen in our apartment, I was eating plain pasta for dinner every night. While my friends were going out to brunch and getting mimosas, I was eating the simplest item I could find on the menu—usually scrambled eggs and dry toast. And while my friends were going to parties and turning 21, I was having to explain to everyone that I couldn’t drink anymore. Because, while I could sometimes cheat on my food diet, if I had just one drink I would end up throwing up.
That’s what it always seemed to circle back to: the drinking. Or, the lack thereof. Because when you’re 20 years old at a school like BC, everyone is always drinking, and no one understands why you aren’t. It started out as something similar to FOMO—I felt weird going to parties sober and was rarely able to match the energy there, but I felt weirder staying home alone. After a little while, it turned into embarrassment. It was going to parties and having friends casually offer me drinks and then ask, “why not?” when I turned them down. It was going to club pre-games where everyone questioned me when I couldn’t join in on drinking games, or when my roommate was drinking for me. It was the constant questions and my lack of an answer that didn’t feel like too much information. So the embarrassment turned into frustration, and shame, and lots of anxiety around going out. Suddenly parties weren’t fun, and tailgates weren’t fun, and dinners weren’t fun, and every normal college thing just wasn’t fun, and I started to feel like a constant downer.
It’s worth noting that, at the same time as all of this, I was going through a major depressive episode, which started in the spring of sophomore year. So put together never having enough energy to do normal things, and being too sick to do normal things anyway, and you end up with a pretty terrible combination. I started feeling like a burden. I had to quit my retail job, because my energy levels were nonexistent and my stomach was too unstable to handle long shifts. I considered taking a semester off of school, because I felt like I was falling behind both academically and socially. My friends tried to help, but no one could possibly understand any of what I was going through, and I wouldn’t want them to. It all made me feel so lonely. And in the back of my mind the entire time was the fact that I was supposed to be going abroad to Dublin in January. That meant a new home, a new school, all new people, and being thousands of miles away from my support system. All terrifying things when you spend every day just wishing you could go home and have your mom take care of you.
Eventually I finished out the semester, still on my restricted diet, still not drinking, but doing better mentally after starting antidepressants. Leaving still terrified me, but I went home and started preparing myself to move to another country. Before I left, I flew to Dallas to spend New Year’s Eve at my best friend Bridget’s house. This brings me to the moment of truth: trying to drink again.
After three months of sobriety, I’d decided with Bridget that I would try to have a glass of champagne. We both thought it was the perfect situation: I was in a safe place, surrounded mainly by people who knew me and my situation, and I could ease into it without worrying. Everything was perfect, right? But, in my head, I was still terrified. What if I took one sip and threw up? What if I spent my entire abroad program unable to drink, constantly explaining to everyone why? What if I could never drink again? But I swallowed all the nervousness and washed it down with a sip of champagne.
And I did it! I did it and I didn’t get sick! I felt okay! It was like a veil had been lifted from my world and suddenly everything was bright again.
The shift happened pretty quickly. I tried out a bunch of different alcohols and figured out ones that worked best. Vodka was, and still is, a no-go, but I could handle most others. I fully reverted to my old diet, basically just being cautious around fried foods and dairy. I still had to take lots of medications, but overall, I could act like a normal college student again.
From there, I took the next big leap: moving across the world. I won’t lie—I was still terrified. Sure, not having to worry about being sick took some stress away, but moving abroad was still very out of my comfort zone. The first week was full of anxiety attacks, homesickness, and trying to convince myself I hadn’t made the biggest mistake of my life. But with some time, and some new friends, I adjusted. And it was amazing. I felt like a brand new person—going out all the time, making new friends, drinking as much as I wanted to, and even getting McDonald’s on the way home from bars. It was like magic. Somehow, I’d gone from the girl with constant problems to an almost carefree version of myself, a word I’d never used to describe myself before. It felt like the last year of my life had never happened. I was riding the high of normalcy and I never wanted to come down.
Well, we all know what happened after that. March came, and with it the pandemic, and I was sent home to my small town. To add to the things I had to grieve that year, my health started declining again. It was a slow fade into reality. I came home feeling fine, eating and drinking like I had for months. But things kept getting worse. I started getting sick every time I drank again. Every food started to become a trigger. It was as if there was an enchantment to Ireland that I’d left behind when I came home.
That brings me to now…Senior Spring. I am officially back to not drinking alcohol, or coffee. I’m on new, stronger stomach medications and I’m seeing multiple specialists, but none of it fixes me. I spend most days in fear of my body. There’s no sugarcoating it. This sucks. Right now is supposed to be the best time of my life, and I’m stuck with heartburn, tons of prescriptions, and not drinking.
There are days when I’m fine, really. When I eat brunch with my friends and have ice cream for dessert and pretend my life is normal. And no one asks me about drinking anymore, because everyone knows. I’ve started getting more comfortable talking about being sick, even though I still get those twinges of shame. My current goal is to have a drink during senior week. And I don’t know if that’s possible, but it helps to have goals. The reality is that this is my life, and it might be forever. These cycles might never end. But if I don’t try to live my life with my sickness, I can never live it at all. So I’ll keep making sacrifices, and looking for solutions, and just living, in spite of, and with, my chronic illness.