The Girl That Was Before
Four Years Ago – Age 19
It was 2013 and the lights were flickering too fast for my liking and everywhere smelled of the closeness of warm bodies. Sweat and warmth. In the nightclub light, we all glimmered. The music that played was a repetitive, lyricless beat but still everyone was dancing. Under my Converse I could feel the crunch of glass. From where I stood, at the edge of the dance floor with my two best friends, I could breathe a little easier. Even then, even when I was glittering just as much as the most beautiful girl in the room, I could not seem to remove my inner set of glasses that meant my eyes honed in the sticky floorboards or the fallen speckles of mascara under every girls eyes. I have always seen too much detail.
The Abbey, in Tralee, was one of my first stomping grounds as a sometimes underage attendee of the average teenage thronged nights out. My group of friends, all eight of us, were celebrating the Rose of Tralee in August 2013, and it was nearing two o’clock in the morning. It was the summer after we’d finished school and I already felt a huge distance between myself and our ankle length tartan skirts. I’d been wishing for the night to end for sometime and I could not even fake a smile when I spotted my friend lifting the tie off an Longford escorts neck and placing around her own.
(This is me and one of my best friends on that CAO night in August 2013).
I had turned nineteen two weeks beforehand on the night of our Debs ball. The clammy Sunday night that had morphed into a Monday morning, was the day that our college offers (CAO) were being released at 6 AM. During my leaving cert, I got glandular fever and staph infection in my throat which meant I spent the entire exams period in a drug-fed haze. It had been nearly eight months since I had last felt well.
Whilst nowadays I acknowledge time as my greatest asset in achieving my ambitions, four years ago, I had a warped view of self-worth. Nights out only reinforced my inability to enjoy myself during crowds, and I spent much of any night wondering if was a burden on my friends. That particular night though, when the floor seemed to rise up to meet me and my chest felt like it was full of drying cement, I found my sister and her trusty inhaler, and went home. Between the hours of 2AM and 6AM, I could not sleep. Instead, I watched footage of the past three Olympics whilst my mind whirred with the knowledge that 50’000 students sat the Leaving cert every year and my writing course had only fifteen places.
When I read my email at 6:01 AM, I fell off my chair, entirely literally, with happiness before digging my nails into my knees and crying so heavily that I developed a headache that lasted three days.
Two Years Ago – Age 20
The house smelled of smoke and the carpets were covered in glitter and UV paint. Over the fire place, make shift bunting was strewn and a playlist of Disney songs blared. It was Halloween and two pumpkins were propped near the couches. In the tiny sitting room, my friends were glittering once more. Dressed as Disney princesses, the playlist was obligatory listening for all present. People were crammed into every little nook of the house. I was Cinderella, but I’d spilled some of my drink down my dress.
University was the cure for the venom that my life had become. I was a second year and was now studying words in every form – literary and linguistic. Here, I met friends who bring such light to my life that I count my blessings that I was late for my first class and the only remaining seat was the one behind my now best friends.
Everything would have be ideal – perfect even – if it wasn’t for the ‘health thing‘. I’d only been in college for three months, when I developed the energy and general health of the average ailing eighty year old. It was okay then, though. It was still new and undiagnosed and there was hope in every new medication I took or vial of blood I gave. I didn’t know then how long it would be and how bad things could get.
Over the next few years, I lost myself in who I wasn’t. I had never been inactive, yet I couldn’t play badminton anymore, the only sport I have ever loved or excelled in, or walk around town without needing to sit to recharge. I has never been lazy, yet one hour’s work now equalled over four hours in bed. I wasn’t a picky eater, yet now my stomach hurt every moment of everyday. I wasn’t queasy, yet now I would faint or lose vision after every time I’d stand up. I became what I wasn’t and within the grey areas of my anxious past and now horribly ill present, I was finding it harder and harder to define myself.
At the Halloween party, half of our friends hadn’t even arrived when I was readying myself to go upstairs to sleep in my friend’s bed. I’d spent the night trying to dance and having to sit and monitoring my pulse when I thought no one was looking. These few hours were going to cost me heavily in pain and energy tomorrow, but fear was the fuel of my life now. I was forever fearful that I would lose my friends or my then boyfriend by missing out on too many of these parties or opportunities they suggested. I fell into bed upstairs with my body on fire from exertion. I wouldn’t make it til tomorrow without crying.
(I’m not quite sure what I would’ve done without the kindness of my friends as I slept on every available surface, even mid conversation…)
Now – Age 22
There is mud everywhere. It is in my ears and under my toenails. I don’t have time to stop and check if it’s inside my nose too because I’m only 2km in the 11km total and I keep waiting for it to happen.
‘It‘ is such a perfect, small, all-encompassing word for the overwhelming swell of dizziness or exhaustion that would give me the sensation that my whole being had been robbed of blood, oxygen and life. After ‘it‘ I would collapse, as I had been doing for nearly five years. After ‘it’ I would be the Jen Who Is Never Able again.
Yet ‘it’ has not happened in a long time – months, even. In truth, I am entirely, absolutely happy beyond expression with my life right now. It seems that all good things that happen to me now come from my improving health. Nowadays, I am as normal as my behaviour shows because I am healthy enough to exercise, study and be social in the same day. I am only building back my reserves at the moment, and yet if I was only ever ‘building‘ for the rest of my life, than I would love in a state of absolute happiness.
For the first time in five years, my mental and physical health have aligned and I am well in every sense of the word.
By being well these last few months of final year – such a convenient time to be well – I have learned as much about myself as I did whilst I was ill. Through my illnesses, I learned empathy first and foremost. And now, by being whole, I am realised how much being healthy impacts the level of determination one can employ for their ambitions. There is such a difference in wanting to work hard and your body failing on you, and simply wanting to succeed but never to work hard.
I have my life back. If you have never lost yours, entirely and indefinitely, then I do not think I could make you understand the glory of this feeling. These past five years of my youth have been the slowest drowning a person can experience. Little by little, with every event you miss or friend or boyfriend whom you disappoint, your lung capacity shortens. Soon you cannot breathe in more than small wheezes and you lay in bed for the majority of everyday. You will learn to flinch as you look at your phone in fear of the social invites that you will have to decline. Worse still is the fear that they will stop coming – which they do.
Reading has always been hand in hand with writing for me and so I thrust myself into fictional worlds, despite the effort reading became. Game of Thrones took me over a year to finish as a book series purely because of the mental concentration it took to take it all in. And yet, in my reading, I grew such an affection for those characters who were physically active – the sword fighters and warriors.
Now, my life is a photograph developing in rainbow tinted water. Everything is brighter and more beautiful, including those around me. I feel everything more forcefully and more genuinely. My hunger pains are now palpable to a sharpened degree and the laughter of my grandparents is loud against my eardrums in the most beautiful way.
Yet, with this new life comes a downside I never foresaw. With having an alertness, a sharpness, I have an unquenchable desire to do everything, so much so that I find myself overwhelmed at the sheer wealth of tasks I can achieve in a single day. Oftentimes I will find myself climbing into bed early in the evening out of habit rather than necessity, yet I will lie there wide awake lest a relapse hunt me down if I spend too much energy. There is a huge disparity now between who I was for five years, and who I am trying to be now.
The girl that was before was a tax payer in her town life, always the tenant and never the landlord. Now, I am in ownership of my everyday with an innate knowledge of what it is to be unwell and incapable, so much so that I will never take this joy for granted.
And so, I crossed the finish line of an 11km struggle. After spending years on my knees, wishing for a wheelchair at times, I crossed the finish line and I burst into tears. A passing man asked me had I injured myself and I just mumbled incoherently in response, looking at the blue sky, my mud soaked legs and the beauty of my friends – who saw me achieve something so momentous. Even when the tears and mud had long since left my face and I was in bed, warm and dry, I pinched the inside of my arm, wondering if it had all been a dream – and if it had, I was hoping I would never wake.