What happens when your world stops turning? When your highly plotted propulsion into adulthood halts; the door to the working fantasy realm is slammed closed for the foreseeable future.
Your head splits in two.
The sterile brick walls of the dorm room you refer to as “home” visibly melt around you as the hallucinations take up residence in your brain. Disoriented, limp on top of the XL twin sheets as you close your eyes for what you accept will be the last time.
As I entered the fall semester of my junior year of college, I was plagued with all that comes with the high-tasking environment of the average 20-something student: anxiety, fear of the future, permanent dark circles under the eyes and a near permanent shake in the hands due to an addict level consumption of caffeine—preferably in the form of black coffee. I was working too much, saying yes to too many commitments and putting everyone’s needs/emotions/deadlines before my own.
And I was okay with that. Even as I maneuvered through my days from sun up until long after sun down with a constant throbbing in my head. I just popped some pills, ordered another grande black iced coffee and moved onto the next draft under my to-do list.
I managed. I told myself that this is what a dedicated student/worker had to deal with in order to succeed. “Let’s get this bread,” am I right?
The grind never stops.
That is until the so called “grind” turned my slightly unsteady hands into a quicker heartbeat, an increase of breath and my entire world collapsing onto my chest as I experienced my first panic attack.
My hands scrambled across my body trying to find a crevice, a crack in the exterior for me to escape from. I wanted out of this tornado of emotion that was now running the show but the longer I failed to find an opening to leap out of, the faster the wind churned. I was trapped in the storm I unknowingly conjured in myself.
Nearly twenty minutes before the storm retreated, I was left open on my overly pink rug surrounded by deathly silence—the slight shake settling in my fingertips. My head throbbing in time with my heart; a continuous punching in one location at the wall of my skull demanding to be felt.
Looking back now I view this moment as nothing more than the beginning of the end.
I continued to work harder, selling myself to those in need of a set of fresh eyes or a shoulder, maybe an ear in order to propel their work and life forward. The more I revved my engines, willing myself to continue just one more page, one more response, my health pushed back even harder. Panic attacks broke through my façade at least twice a week. Watery eyes added themselves to my list of facial features. And the daily headaches climaxed once a week with a migraine that overtook the entire right side of my head; leaving me both motionless yet with the need to rip my skull in two—an action that would hurt far less than the migraine itself. Fifteen hours later I would awake from a sleep closely resembling that of death and begin the cycle once again.
The seasoned auto-immune disease patient deep inside me knew that something was wrong.
Something that resembled the symptoms of a previously discussed worst case scenario for my disease: lesions forming on my brain. But the determined student—the bleary eyed English major that didn’t know what they would do with themselves if they didn’t succeed—pushed these worries to the bottom of the to-do list.
I couldn’t let myself be afraid for my health at a time when my world was telling me to be the best. I didn’t have time to take a break. I wasn’t allowed to feel overwhelmed with the four jobs I was working on top of being a full time student. I couldn’t tell others that I often imagined a morning when my best friend would open the door to my room and find my vacant eyes staring at the ceiling after my Scleroderma had decided enough was enough.
Being human—let alone a human with an auto-immune disease—wasn’t allowed if you wanted to reach the metaphorical ‘top.’
This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of every that’s occurred within the past nine months—physically, emotionally, mentally. I didn’t just wake up one morning and suddenly be okay with the idea of me taking a break for health reasons that—if progressed—could’ve left me living in a hospital free of any blinking exit sign (as being the most optimistic outcome).
Reading this you may be thinking if you were in my position, ‘Of course I would stop! I’d be taking an entire YEAR off to restore my health, no questions asked.’ But for me, hitting the ‘drop’ button on three out of my four classes, sending the leave of absence emails to both internships and agreeing to weekly appointments with a therapist wasn’t just me ‘taking a break to heal.’ It was admitting that I wasn’t strong enough to endure.
Even today I struggle with the fact that I’ve done nothing but lay in bed, binge countless shows on Netflix, go to doctor appointments and read the occasional book the entire semester. In those deep 3 a.m. thoughts that I’m forced to battle in my head, I still hear a voice saying, “But what if you’d sucked it up and powered through the migraines, popped another pill to read just another twenty pages of your assignment…” My answer today: I probably would’ve ended up surrounded by white coats with an IV strapped to my arm like a handcuff for one reason or another.
I am sharing my experience in order to come to some grand revelation; to pronounce that with time I have now somehow learned through the process of losing myself in a check list. Because undoubtedly I may return the label of hypocrite promptly to my forehead as I fall out of my practices once again.
I am writing to acknowledge the pain that I went through—that I’m still navigating through. And to validate my limitations and say that it’s okay to tell myself and others no.
I write to those on the other side of the screen whose only moments within the past week that even vaguely resembles human interaction has taken place through the thousands of pixels bringing shadows between the newfound wrinkles lining your forehead.
You’ve pushed yourself onto a road that leads to a cliff. That same drive that others admire has placed you in the driver’s seat and a brick on the gas pedal.