The therapist at Counseling and Psychological Services asks: “And how are you coping with all this while being a student?”
I tell her I manage, because I do. I tell her the obvious: that it isn’t easy, but Columbia isn’t meant to be easy, right? I tell her I want to move away from Columbia and the stress to someplace green and open and quiet, where seeing the stars at night is a sight I can rely on. But Columbia and stress go hand-in-hand; one cannot exist without the other, and on this campus you accept these difficulties and deal with it, or you sink through the cracks. Even if you have a chronic illness.
The stress of coping with an illness is what has brought me to the eighth floor of Lerner Hall. Given the choice, I’d probably deal with it “in-house” like I usually do. I give advice far more than I seek it and rarely accept it when it’s offered, and maybe that’s because I’m a stubborn know-it-all who always thinks she’s right.
But ever since I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in July, dealing with things in-house has no longer been an option. After struggling for ages with chronic pain and fatigue that I could no longer ignore or chalk up to poor diet choices and lack of sleep, I finally admitted that I needed help. There was something wrong with me, and six days in hospital later, that wrong was given its name.
Fibromyalgia is incurable but not progressive. It has no known cause or wholly effective treatment. It behaves like an autoimmune disease: a debilitating flare-up of one of 200 possible symptoms may happen at the drop of a dime, whether I spend the whole day in bed or try to be active. Some days, the pain is in my back, or my hips, or my stomach, or my sternum, or my head, or my ankles, or my elbows. Other days, a combination of two or three or all of these leaves me in such severe pain my inflamed brain goes foggy.
Coming back to campus after being diagnosed as a Sick Person has made senior year strange and exhausting. In previous years here, I admittedly relished the grind. I used to feel a very particular kind of satisfaction in suffering for weeks with deadlines and astronomical amounts of work, and then coming to the end where I’d hit the final out of the park and see those delightful A’s appear in the grades section of SSOL. If doing especially well on a paper or a test meant sacrificing a few hours of sleep and rest, so be it. I was a Healthy Person—what did I have to worry about?
Now I have to worry. I worry and worry and worry. Not clocking a full night’s sleep almost guarantees a flare-up, which almost guarantees I’ll have to miss class or be unable to do homework and reading, which means I’ll fall behind, which means I’ll have to work overtime to catch up, which means I’ll send myself into another flare. The cycle never ends, and neither does the list of things I need to get done before my next incapacitating flare-up, always around the corner, waiting to ruin my day, week, or month. This has been my senior fall so far. Fear of flaring up has prevented me from taking part in anything fun, lest it bring on one or many of the dreaded symptoms, for which I see five different specialists: a rheumatologist, a neurologist, a pain management specialist, a chiropractor, and a therapist.
None of these specialists has helped so far.
When you’re sick, taking care of yourself is a full-time job. So is being a Columbia student. Coping with the extra pressure means lowering the expectations I’ve tended to set for myself; from accepting that I won’t get an A on every single test to allowing myself respite from joining each and every club I’m interested in. It means taking it easy when my body tells me to, even if it means not getting that extra hour of studying for that midterm in.
And that’s okay. I tell myself over and over again, it’s okay. I tell myself that I’m excused, that I’m allowed. The grimiest part of me reminds myself that I’m not some slacker like all those other underachievers, I’m not being lazy like them, I have a legitimate reason for not taking the internship or the sixth class. But I don’t believe it, as much as I want and need to, not for a second. Three years as a Columbia student has made the rest seem like a personal failure.
But being sick has shown me just how toxic this mindset is. It’ll take time to actually do it, but I know now that I need to unlearn the unreasonable expectations I’ve placed upon myself and combat the normalization of suffering as part of the Columbia experience. We are not lazy or slackers for needing moments to focus on ourselves and enjoy some quiet time—we’re human.
Just as our time is up, the therapist apologizes for not getting to anything that therapeutic, says the first session is mostly about getting to know the patient, but gives me this parting advice:
“Do something nice for yourself today.”
As banal as it sounds, her words stick with me throughout the day. I decide to buy myself sushi from the expensive place I like but rarely go to and watch a comedy special that night. Doctor’s orders. I’m afraid that same advice is all I can offer those of you who are reading this.
Do something nice for yourself today.
The author is a senior at Columbia College studying history. She’s a member of the First-Generation Student Advisory Board. She enjoys embroidery, sewing, reading and writing. Her post-graduation plans include becoming a teacher and procuring the meaning of life.
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