For this post we are rewinding three years to my freshman year of college. It’s time that I address one of my most frequently-asked questions: how did I adjust to moving away from home while bringing an illness with me?
The answer is not so well. It gets messy. Who could’ve guessed?
First, for this to make sense, we have to set the scene:
I am eighteen, about to turn nineteen. Super in love with a high school boyfriend who makes zero effort to talk to me. I meet Abby O’Connor on the first day of school and go on to live with her for the next three years, but at this moment, outside of Abby, I have made no new friends. My entire emotional burden is dumped on a collection of people I know from my high school and one potluck roommate. I have officially left home.
It is significant to note that I did not bring an official diagnosis with me to college– just a collection of complicated food allergies and a decorated medical history of gastrointestinal issues. More than learning to do laundry, make friends, or wash dishes, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to learn how to deal with my stomach on my own. But, full-disclosure, I had also never done a load of laundry.
You see, I have nice parents. Really nice parents. The kind that never forced me to get a part time job but still wasted the gas money when I found one I loved anyway– at the Renaissance Festival, four towns over. Supportive, genius-like engineer parents who retired extremely young and only occasionally cry about the fact that I chose to study theatre.
This is the exact type of parent you want if you are chronically ill. Up until I left for college my mom scheduled all of my doctor’s appointments (she still schedules some, but not ALL. Maybe a third. The occasional important one. And dentists). My dad learned all of my allergies and sacrificed his culinary talents on low-fat, dairy-free, gluten-free, oil-less meals. The man can make anything out of lean turkey.
My friend group consisted of a tight-knit bunch that I had met between kindergarten and middle school. They had all been around forever and were forced onto my couch and handed the TV remote while I had diarrhea in the downstairs bathroom at more than one sleepover. We didn’t have a lot of secrets. I didn’t need them.
I was also dating my longtime high-school crush, and was more than happy with our arrangement of sitting in Chipotle after school while he ate a burrito bowl and I ordered nothing and lovingly pointed out the lettuce in his teeth. My purse was always full of extra snacks and I’m not prone to grouchiness when hungry, so it was never much of an issue.
Besides, I’d arrive home to a full cooked meal of “Shannon-friendly” foods with no concept of how difficult cooking for an individual with severe gastrointestinal distress really was. My life was nice. I was happy, the kind of easy-happy that can envelop you when everyone else in your life does everything for you.
Cue graduation. I went to Austin for college and Boyfriend did not. But we didn’t break up! Because we were eighteen and in love and we had it all figured out!! And breaking up is not what happy people do!!!!!
I cried like the world was ending while my mom drove me and a car packed with my stuff the three and a half hours to campus. I looked out the window with my headphones in, playing Regina Spektor’s “Somedays” on repeat while pretending I was in a movie and theaters full of people all across America were looking at how sad I was. I cried more and my mom didn’t. She was far too dry-eyed. She and my father were planning a trip to Europe.
My parents left me two days later all moved in on the eleventh floor of a dorm. There was a sign outside of my window that read Thai Spice. It lit up at night and made my room green and red. I felt so homesick I thought I would simply stop existing.
Real life hit really fast. Enter Kim.
What you need to know about Kim is that she was my first ever roommate, and also probably a ghost. I say this because in all of the time that we knew each other we never once touched, and she was great at giving advice. She also liked to keep the room very cold. I think those are the only three requirements.
Kim and I had never met. We were matched together by an online quiz which must have been bogus because we were nothing alike. In all the ways that I am bright and cheery she was broody and sarcastic. The juxtaposition of our sides of the room was laughable. I loved her immediately, in a desperate and lonely way, and then later in the way you love someone who is your perfect antithesis and also happens to be there when you wake up every day.
We had one teeny tiny mini fridge. Everyone in the dorm was on a meal plan, including myself, despite my attempts to weasel out of it. I had calmly explained my situation to the head chef, who had then explained to me that the meal-plan was non-negotiable. I told her that I couldn’t eat anything if I didn’t know exactly how it was prepared. She told me that they had apples.
So the mini fridge. It was more like a plastic box full of crusty ice. It was about two shoeboxes tall and one shoebox deep, and I had to fit all of my groceries in it each week.
Luckily, since Kim was a either a ghost or a figment of my imagination, she didn’t have any use for the fridge and graciously allowed me access to all of its space. The next matter was getting to a grocery store.
Austin has no shortage of health food stores, but finding one within walking distance was a bit of a trick. I looked up bus routes to see if I could take public transport there and back, but it turns out that I am unable to read bus schedules so that was an entirely unhelpful endeavor. Finally my too-nice parents decided to rent a parking spot in a garage next door and let me bring my car up to Austin just so I could drive around to find myself food. Suddenly I was not only the only freshman on campus without a meal plan, but I was now the only one with a car.
And if you think that helped my popularity, then you my friend, are wrong!! In fact, I had four whole friends, three that I had known since childhood and only one that I had met in class, and my main subject of conversation with all of them was how to hide the deterioration of my relationship.
Boyfriend had started icing me out. This was not conducive to our previously well thought-out plan of being together forever!!!!! So I was starting to worry. The phone calls dropped out, the texts turned monosyllabic, and still I hung on just waiting for things to get better. I was not smart, but I was loyal as hell.
I would travel home via bus to see him on the weekends, and my parents would load me up with frozen meats to bring back to school with me. I would then have to eat these meats within the week because our mini-fridge didn’t have a proper freezer. Still, I was getting by with expensive weekly trips to the health food store and a series of ridiculous bowls that allowed me to make noodles using just a microwave and a lot of steam. I washed my dishes in the same sink we used to brush our teeth. It was gross and efficient.
Kim and I also had our own little bathroom for just the two of us. It was sort of situated in our closet, and backed right up to Kim’s bed. There was no fan system and you could hear everything that went on in there. We got very good at pretending the other was not pooping.
There was some weirdness to sharing a tiny bathroom. I’m not one to get embarrassed about poop talk easily, but when your stomach starts cramping and your brow starts sweating and that feeling of doom overcomes you the last thing you want to be worrying about is if your roommate can hear you. In those extreme cases I would take the elevator downstairs to a little restroom tucked away in the lobby. This trick worked well for crying, too.
Once I was officially diagnosed with Crohn’s I was able to register as a student with a disability and get a little extra leeway with my teachers and classes, but in those first three semesters I was really on my own. I am a firm believer that honesty is the best policy when it comes to stomach issues. If you have to leave class early or arrive late due to some extra time spent in the bathroom, just walk up to the teacher after class, politely apologize and inform them that you had diarrhea. No one will ever challenge you on this, I promise.
Eventually I got used to living away from home. It wasn’t the easiest transition, and even once I felt I got the hang of it I headed straight into a flare up the next year and didn’t have a solid poo for four months. Crohn’s is unpredictable and messy and it was affecting my life before I even knew I had it.
But that first year of college was the most jarring. A few months into that first semester Boyfriend dumped me over the phone. It was horrible, it was messy. I was sadder than I’ve ever been. It took an excruciatingly long time, but I got through it. I leaned on my friends, on Kim. I wrapped myself in my blanket and sang sad songs until the wee hours of the morning. They gave me attention when I needed it. They gave me their patience when my heartbreak took too long to heal.
With time I made new friends who learned about my stomach issues. They learned my allergies, learned the things that made me laugh and made me playlists to get over my sadness. I felt more and more at home.
I even discovered a place on campus that made sandwiches with gluten-free bread if I asked for it, even if the workers were incredibly grumpy about the inconvenience.
My first year of college taught me how much I could miss my parents (who did end up touring Europe while I studied for science exams). It taught me how to search out the quietest bathrooms on campus, and that it’s okay to be an inconvenience to someone if I’m doing it for the sake of taking care of myself. I learned how to cry my way through a long bus ride and cook anything using just a microwave and I even learned how to get along with a ghost.
And more than how to deal with my illness, my first year at college taught me how to be okay with not being at my happiest. Transitions can be tough. They will always be messy. What I really remember when I look back on that year was being the most in pain and the most myself that I have ever been.
If you’re heading into college or making any sort of big life change in the next year, you are going to bring baggage. It doesn’t matter if that baggage is a broken heart or an undiagnosed disease or the simple fact that you have never made a meal for yourself. Embrace it– it’s not going anywhere, but you still are.
The first year of that transition will be shocking, but you will learn so much about yourself. You will look back on pictures and ache with how much you miss that version of yourself, the one who was scared but did the scary thing anyway. Keep your chin up and your heart open.
And for goodness sake, learn how to do your laundry first.