College | Coping | IBD
At the end of Year 12, I really felt that my whole life was in front of me. I was on the precipice of possibility, and I couldn’t wait to start university. Being an archaeologist had been my goal since I was 9 years old, reading books on mythology and everything ancient in the corner of my primary school library. Despite being so excited, leaving my childhood home in cold, rainy Albany and moving to Perth at the height of summer was a huge shock to my system. The nights were impossibly warm, and I was now living at a residential college with 700 other students from all over the world. The campus felt so big that I wrote myself instructions on how to get to every class so I wouldn’t get lost and embarrass myself. I remember walking into one of my first lectures and feeling like I really was in the exact right place. I was finally surrounded by people that were interested in the same weird stuff as me. I was on track to being who I thought I was meant to be.
As usual, life always has other plans. With the stress of doing final exams, I hadn’t really worked out that the odd stomach cramps I had started to experience at 17 were anything more than an anxiety response. It would come on suddenly, and I felt like a white-hot band was tightening around my middle. I’d have to run out of the classroom and find a bathroom, quickly. I genuinely thought I was just too stressed to function and that once exams were over, I’d be fine. The stomach cramps followed me to my gap year job and then on to the university campus. I kept thinking they would eventually just go away completely, but I was obviously very wrong.
By my final year of university, I was a total mess. My inflammatory markers were sky-high; my body was horribly skinny, and my swollen joints were so painful that I couldn’t walk without help. I slept in compression bandages and had to be carried around my apartment, but I was determined to finish my degree. I barely got my last few assignments in before I started the journey towards a diagnosis of what on earth was going on with my body. The doctors at the campus medical centre weren’t sure what they were dealing with. Most of my symptoms had presented separately, and I hadn’t been entirely honest about my bathroom habits because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what was happening. I went from a rheumatologist (who gave me corticosteroids to fix my swollen joints) to a haematologist that told me I either had IBD or lymphoma. It was a really scary time, and by January of 2016, I had finally been sent to a gastroenterologist who diagnosed me with Crohn’s Disease.
The move from high school to university is such a transformative time for a lot of people. It certainly was for me. I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to be when I got older. I was falling in love for the first time (and again a few times after that) and exploring a world that felt a lot bigger when I went out into it. Before I got sick, I’d walked cobbled streets in Italy and eaten gelato every day. I visited places that I’d only read about in books and embraced the sheer ancientness of Europe whenever I could. I was doing my best to live the kind of life that I had left my small country town dreaming of. When you throw a chronic illness diagnosis into that mess of self-discovery, things only get more complicated. I had just turned 22 when I found out I had Crohn’s. Within a month of that, I had my first surgery. It was all very fast and very confronting. Illness changes you both physically and mentally. I didn’t recognise my face in the mirror, and my body had been hurting for years without me knowing why. My dreams suddenly had cracks in them, and I didn’t know who I was going to be with a disease. I barely knew who I was without it.
Through a lot of experimentation, a failed shot at honours, and the support of my very patient family and friends, I started to figure out what being a sick human meant. I learned that while Crohn’s is hard to deal with at the best of times, it has made me who I am. I’m tougher than I ever imagined, and my chronic case of stubbornness has really come in handy over the last few years. I’m definitely still a dreamer, and I plan to keep exploring every possibility to live with passion and poetry. At university, I put the pieces of myself together. When Archaeology became too physical, I found a loving family in the corridor of the Italian Studies department and a home in the pages of Dante. I made friends for life at the residential college I lived at, and most importantly, I worked out that I’m both enough and entirely lovable, with or without Crohn’s Disease. The years between my late teens and early twenties were definitely challenging, but I needed them to forge the warrior I am today.