Recently, I’ve been thinking strongly about my past with chronic illness and how it spanned so many years of my life. More so, I’ve been thinking about my gratitude at my health! For the first time in two years, I could face these memories and write them down.
I don’t remember the first time I thought that I would die from this sickness. But I do remember the first time I hoped I would.
Winter had come with hail, sleet and strong winds that blew away all of the cobwebs of autumn. I fought through Galway’s deary winter days to my university each day, feeling the rain soak my tights and knowing that each step cost me something integral. Something that might not be worth the cost.
I’d been sick for five years, visibly and publically unwell for three. In my twenties but still just a slip of a girl with no reserves left. I was running on fumes and without hope of any resources. I crossed over the Samon Weir Bridge, the rain beating against my rain jacket and legs quivering.
Already, I remember thinking with a groan. I’d barely been awake an hour and I was already shaking.
I rallied the troops in my mind, the positivity that came staggering and scattered as battle-weary soldiers. Just four classes today, I jollied. Just four.
I’m an adept liar and an actress in more ways than one as I present the world, my friends, my family with what they need me to be. Surviving, that’s what they need me to be. But today, I wasn’t cutting it.
The water under the bridge was thrashing and wild. No fishermen out today, I realised as I paused atop.
I watched the water for awhile and for the first time but certainly not the last wondered what it would be to simply let the water annihilate me. I could swim, but I surely wouldn’t beat that current. It had been years since I’d had the muscle to stand a chance. Frail was a word a consultant had slapped me with a week before as he stripped my facade bare.
No, I could not let this water kill me. But a flicker of hope that this illness would do the job sparked to lift within the depths of my mind. I wished it was cancer over and over again. Each thought chased away by another, berating myself for the ingratitude that it was not cancer! At the insult I threw at every cancer patient by wishing that this chronic hell was a terminal one.
Grudgingly and with little interest, I put one foot in front of the other and pulled myself from that bridge.
I was fine. My aching limbs, my thrashing heart rate, falling blood pressure and too thin body was just fine.
And I pushed the door of the classroom open with a smile.
‘I think it might just be post viral fatigue syndrome,” My doctor said to me on the other end of the phone.
My eyes began to prick as I made myself swallow.
‘I guess’ I answered a little thickly.
She hung up shortly after. God, even she sounded weary. My GP. Maybe not just weary. A little sad too, for me.
I sat on the bed in my room. Perfectly dressed, room hoovered and dusted. Even I was out of my pyjamas. It was summer after my first year of college. Dropping my phone, I wrapped my arms around myself. My hands automatically cupped my elbows, rubbing the protruding bone as I looked out my window at my mom’s garden. In full bloom and looking beautiful.
She was outside, tending to her flowers out the back. And I was glad. I didn’t want to have to explain yet that the doctor had no answers, that my bloods were normal. That I healthy with a capital H.
My chest raised up and down so rapidly I knew if had the energy, I would have been crying. The exhaustion, the nawing endless fatigue that was bone deep, perhaps soul deep, was untreatable. The fluttering heartbeat and consistent near-fainting experiences would likely never end. That I was now labelled as chronic. A sorry case for a silent illness with no chemo or dialysis.
I was destined to continue to miss parties, to leave class to go and sit in the college bathrooms and cry or worse, fall asleep on the floor. That my boyfriend would have to continue to listen to my joints snap and make allowances for my tears. That all hopes of that summer job, nights out where I could let loose and be just nineteen were decimated.
I knew this because of the evidence. I knew this because of the Facebook groups filled with people who had been chronically ill for six, seven, forty years. My year was but a drop in the ocean.
When my mom eventually did come back inside, her hands tinged green from the chlorophyll of the weeds and her sunglasses sitting a little crookedly on her nose, she took in my expression.
‘What did she have to say?’
‘Post viral fatigue’ I murmured, hugging my water bottle to my chest.
I wanted to crawl back to bed. But this was the routine my mom had made. To keep me sane, to give me a paper thin purpose. No naps after four. No pjyamas once I was up.
She fixed me with a stoney expression full of hidden determination.
‘Then we talk to someone else.’
And she meant it. The ends of the earth and beyond. She had no limits in her love for me.
Tears welled in my eyes but I didn’t look at her. I stared at the wall over her head.
‘For now, it’s something to tell people.’
Something to give people a reason to believe me. That’s what she meant. And maybe it was true, maybe hunting for other answers was futile.
In one year, my sixth year of school, I had contracted a staph infection that decimated my throat and all but rid me of a functional immune system. Within three months, I contracted strep throat and glandular fever.
I’d done the leaving cert anyway. I’d worked myself to the bone and maybe this was my thanks for being too determined, too dedicated. Maybe all the people who called me obsessive about my studies were right and I’d brought this on myself.
Sure, I’d gotten my place in college. But within a few short weeks, the exhaustion began. The burn outs regular and my feeling, my knowledge that something was very seriously, physically wrong with me began.
But I’d finished first year and was now back home.
Mom walked forward and put a hand on my shoulder. Tears slipped down my cheeks in steady streams now as I cried in utter silence.
‘Put on Grey’s and I’ll be in in a minute.’
I just nodded, grateful that at the very least, my mom believed me.