When Your Guts Take Precedence Over Glory

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It all started at around 7 p.m., a few days before my last final of the spring semester. I’d more or less aced the first three, and I had no reason to think math problems would be any harder. Even so, I settled into my desk with green tea, Little Debbie and a semester-tall stack of notes. I always strove to earn straight-A’s, more so now because I wanted to become an engineer. I pulled all-nighters, all-dayers and all-weekenders—no way would watch to let my 4.0 GPA slip through my fingers at the last minute. Then someone punched me in the gut.

Or at least, I felt someone punch me in the gut. I moaned and grasped my stomach, running over every possibility, from indigestion to aliens. I leaned back in my chair, just to curl inward again. Huffing and gritting my teeth, I slowly sat up straight. My final was in less than three days and I knew from experience that calling 911, or even my parents, would waste hours that I ought to use for studying.

Weird medical problems were sort of my thing, from the inexplicable allergic reactions that lasted from junior high to high school, to the random intolerances to strawberries, milk, chocolate and caffeine senior year, to the torrential nosebleeds and blurred vision in my first semester of college. I was a lot more cavalier about my health than most people, so I deliberated over the call for just a few moments.

This will pass, I told myself firmly. Let it be.

But by 3 a.m., the pain got so severe I could barely stand. My roommate insisted I call University Health Services, who ended up telling me to drop everything and go to the ER. While my roommate and I walked to the hospital slowly, shakily and painfully, we recited formulas to each other and quizzed each other on derivative rules. The intake nurse took one look at me—pale, sweaty and bent at a 90-degree angle—and whisked me into a labyrinth of tiny, curtained-off rooms.

I’d been to this particular emergency room a few times before, so I felt more irritated than afraid. I itched to return to my dorm so I could get back to work. Typical of ER visits, I was sent home with a wish and a promise. They said to see another doctor if the symptoms continued. Needless to say, I didn’t.

Lucky for me the pains were just a symptom of Celiac’s disease, a benign gluten intolerance disorder—but I didn’t know at the time. With three weeks of notes left and several boxes unchecked on my study plan, studies outweighed the possibility that I was going to die in my head.

So I continued to focus on school, even as I stumbled through my days grimacing and clutching my stomach. It was by far the worst pain I’d ever endured. Eating, drinking and even sleeping were out of the question. I huddled at my desk for three straight days, stuck between solving a few more math problems and dialing 911. It felt strangely satisfying to put up such a fight. But in the end, the stubbornness didn’t matter.

I sat at my last final in fetal position, breathing through gritted teeth, and finished less than a quarter of the problems. I could barely remember how to pick up a pencil—if I knew any national secrets, I’d have been spilling them. Somehow I still went home thinking I’d gotten at least a B, maybe a C at the absolute worst.

I got a D. I passed the class anyways, but I still shed some tears over the death of Renee the Good Student, and months of hard work down the drain. My life plan was torn to pieces, and I fumed over it until I finally realized the inevitable. Something insurmountable set itself in my path, and I still beat my head against it weeks after the fact.

I was in the middle of my success story, which was supposed to end with a summa cum laude—after flipping the middle finger to anyone who ever doubted me. The moral of the story was hard work and the inevitable payoff, and crippling pain just didn’t belong.

But as it turned out, life makes a terrible story. Insane plot twists, a distinct lack of narrative structure and the main character’s murky motivations make my life completely unreadable. On the other hand, things happen that I never imagined, both good and bad, because real life isn’t bound by our imaginations.

When I finally dealt with my stomach pains, I discovered that gluten was causing damage to my intestines, which in turn caused crippling pain. Cutting out gluten fixed the problem. Despite the adjustment, I learned a lot about the digestive process, cooked better meals and started to care what I put in my body. Now I’m the basic white girl at restaurants who “doesn’t do gluten,” but I still came away with a healthier lifestyle and a better strategy for facing whatever weird medical problems pop up next.

If you can’t roll with the punches, your story will end with a lonely control freak suffering serious intestinal damage. If you can accept the weird situations life throws at you, you may not get your ideal ending every time, but you might get the chance to accomplish something you never imagined. The inanities of real life reach far beyond our imaginations, so take a chill pill and discover something incredible. Case in point: Gluten-free donuts taste delicious.

Renee Jerome is a cat lover, an outdoorswoman, and a night owl. She's currently a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying chemical engineering and English lit.

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