The Gap Year
10 months, 60 girls, one dorm building, and 0 personal space. Like many other Jewish teens, I’d been dreaming about my Israel year for as long as I could remember. In my family’s social circles, it’s basically a right of passage. You finish high school, you spend the summer breaking up with your boyfriend (because you want to “find yourself,”) you pack your lulu lemon leggings in the suitcase that your sister used, and you get on the plane. “This is the year that changes everything,” they tell you. “This is when you get to grow up.” So as you can imagine, despite having only been diagnosed in June, I was laser-point focused on that September 7th departure date. There was no way in hell I was going to let everyone I know go on their magical eat pray love journey in a beautiful foreign country while I read pamphlets about monthly colon screenings in the waiting room of my Rheumatologist’s office. I challenged those doctors to keep me away from the country full to the brim of waterfalls and mountains and eligible, cute, 18-21 year old guys that my mother would approve of. Staying home was not an option. As I saw it, it would completely derail my whole life. I was going. End of discussion.
Because of this desperation, I was willing to let the doctors try whatever they wanted to get me there. Doped up on high doses of Prednisone (little did I know…) and a prescription to start on Methotrexate (bad,) upon my arrival, I got the green flag. Despite my swollen eyes, tired brain, and lack of functional intestines, I was standing in that group of overexcited college kids at JFK international airport on September 7th. Now in my previous post, “What They Don’t Tell You But You Need To Know, AKA: The Golden Rules Of Badassing,” I mention a few things that the Doctors failed to warn me about upon my diagnoses. Being the autoimmune newbie that i was, there were some questions i had failed to think of until…well…my arrival.
Questions I probably should have asked PRIOR to leaving, that i instead only asked as the situations arose:
1) Wait, how do doctor appointments work here? What do you MEAN do i have my insurance card? I have insurance???
2) What the HELL am i supposed to be eating? (At the time, my system couldn’t tolerate gluten, chemicals, preservatives, dairy, or any form of animal protein. That diet is difficult to maintain when you live across from a trader joe’s and have a full kitchen at your disposal. Imagine living in a dorm building, that was located on a horse farm, that happened to be 45 minutes away from the nearest grocery store.) My fellow gap year adventurers were living off chocolate bars and Doritos…andddd i was screwed. oops.
3) Do i tell people that i’m sick? If i don’t, how do i explain away those days that i have to stay in bed? Or my random puffy face days, when i look like a sad bloated chipmunk? Or those times that i can’t play my guitar cause my fingers don’t bend? What do i tell the doe- eyed megahealthy blonde, who is supposed to be my peer, about my body’s internal functioning drama if she’s never even had a cold? Do people treat the sick kid differently? Holdup, am i the sick kid now? Is that a thing?!
4) Can i party? Will that work? Or like, do people with Lupus not do that? What do i do when everyone’s…well…being freshman in college? Like, do i just go to yoga or something?
All of these little things are second nature to us well seasoned autoimmune badasses, and before making a decision we calculate every little special thing we’ll have to do pertaining to our illness. Well, not newly diagnosed leah. Oh no no no. Newly diagnosed Leah DID NOT THINK THIS THROUGH. She had her glitter turquoise- lined eyes on the prize, and she would not waver. Silly little future badass. Didn’t see it all coming.
*As i’m writing this, i’m eating the most amazing Raw Paleo Brownies EVER that i made in like, ten minutes. Remind me to post the recipe. OhMyGoshSwooooon…*
Anyway instead of gracefully floating into my life the way answers sometimes do, the answers to these particular questions slammed me in the face like a ton of very unwelcome, methotrexate coated bricks. One month in to dorm life, and I had a very rude awakening. Here’s what i discovered, in order, pertaining to the questions i had failed to ask:
1) The answer to question one came from Darla. Ohhhh Darla. The lady on the phone at my new Rheumatologists office. “Yes, darling you have insurance. You also have a whoooole policy, dedicated just to the care of your Lupus. HOWEVER, being a grouchy, sadistic, angry insurance lady who you’re never going to meet in person, i’m not going to explain it to you. Oh no. Here in insuranceland, we just throw fancy pants terms at unsuspecting sickies until they break down and end up badgering Siri about tax subsidies with no pants on.” The terminology swirled around my head like a tornado. Factor in the brain fog, and i didn’t stand a CHANCE at keeping my own medical stuff together. But i was supposed to be a grown up now, and i wasn’t about to call my parents and ask how to book an appointment…so i just made my self look like an idiot repeatedly until eventually someone pitied me and gave me my weekly slot.
2) What will you eat, you digestion- challenged celiac? You will eat gluten free oats, sparklemouse. 3 times a day. If you eat anything else, you will projectile vomit. And being the big baby you are, you will then cry, because you HATE throwing up. Good luck fueling your workouts, sunshine. Woohooo. Oats.
3) Should i tell the other people in my program that i’m sick? Will that be a stigma? Being the open person i am, it took about 4 seconds (upon someone asking me “what was up with the pharmacy,” in my carry on,) for me to casually say, in the tone that one might admit to ADHD, “Oh, i have lupus.” By some weird, evil, karmic miracle, all 60 of my fellow travelers decided to tune into my conversation at JUST that moment, and proceeded to bombard me with the largest group of pity-swollen Bambi eyes i have EVER seen. EVER. It was like this was the hunger games, and they all just realized i was definitely dropping first. The odds were not in my favor, and the deemed Katniss of the group (the healthy, annoyingly gorgeous girl with the yoga mat strapped to her side and upper thighs that are so far apart they’re probably INCAPABLE of touching each other,) instantly responded with, “Oh you poor thing. My uncle died from that. Can you like, be here?” ……..Thank you Katniss. No really, that was helpful. Thanks.
4) Can you party? Later on in your life, partying will be an option. But for now, HELLS TO THE NAW. Take a shot of tequila. See what happens. (the answer was fainting in the bathroom, by the way. One. Shot. Out cold and woke up shaking like a leaf.) Didn’t work? Well why don’t you go check out that awesome music festival at the dead sea? (Oh, um, because you’ll get hit on by a GORGEOUS, toned, tanned soldier, but your brain fog will take over and you’ll end up FORGETTING YOUR CELL PHONE NUMBER WHEN HE ASKS YOU FOR IT. YOUR OWN NUMBER. Anyway after stammering and trying to explain how you forgot your own number, he will see Katniss, and he will be gone with the wind. (* Insert mockingjay whistle/hand signal here.*) Ohhh fine. Well if you can’t drink, or rave (neither of which are really my scene anyway, by the way, i’m more of a red wine, netflix, sweatpants kinda chica, ) why don’t you just go to that really upscale black tie roof party? because if you do, you will sweat through your dress (thanks, prednisone,) lose a clump of hair DURING A FLIRTING SESSION (thanks, methotrexate,) and look like a chipmunk in every. single. selfie. that. you. take. the. whole. night.
After a little bit though, i got my footing. I was loving my classes, i was running six miles a day, i was doing yoga every morning at dawn, and people started coming to ME for advice on adjusting to being in a new country. I felt pretty badass. All was well.
CUE THE METHOTREXATE. *Jaws theme music*
Despite my perceived thriving, my bloodwork wasn’t showing up quite right. So my international doctor, who barely knew my case at all, decided to up my dosage of the metho. Two pills, once a week, he said. You’ll barely feel it, he said. Did anybody else have the HELLACIOUS experience that i did? Theres something about the outside of your body not reflecting how you perceive yourself that can drive you crazy, you know? I didn’t look like the smart, put together person i was trying so hard to be. I looked puffy and swollen, and my metabolism had slowed enough to spark a little weight gain, despite my eating almost nothing. It was really alienating, to see all of my friends pass out at 4 am, wake up at 7, eat dorritos for breakfast and look like beautiful, toned, tan supermodels while i was spending my entire day working on my body’s health, and looked like i wasn’t taking care of myself at all. It made me insecure (NOT an emotion i was previously in tune with, i’m what some might call delusional- confident. a few extra pounds? whatev man. I like this bikini and i’mma wear it allllll day.)It made me jealous. It made me all the things i always loved myself for NOT being. Approximately ten minutes upon swallowing, i was a vomiting, shaking, crying mess. My chemicals were so wacked out that i literally couldn’t listen to music because of how emotional it made me. My stomach was hard as a rock (not like, sexy toned hard. Like dead, bloated goat hard. Not cute, not comfy,) and my previously, thick, caramel main was dwindling faster then you could say “Tresemme.” Also, it made me mean. Like really mean. My poor unsuspecting roommate would cough, only to have me respond with something along the lines of “WHY ARE YOU SO LOUD YOU NARCISSISTIC PSYCHOPATH KEEP IT TOGETHER FOR ONCE IN YOUR SORRY PATHETIC LIFE.” (It was actually her who ended up sitting me down and telling me to listen to my body, because “these new drugs are eating your personality alive.”) She was right. After calling my Rheumy (crying, actually, and telling him I would stop taking it myself if he didn’t agree to wean me off safely that day,) they began the process of getting me off of the Metho, and slowly but surely i became normal again. And i had another healthy few months. Thanks to CraneoSacral Therapy and acupuncture, my roller coaster was at an all time high. I felt like Beyonce, i looked like me, and finally, FINALLY, i was thinking like me too. I hadn’t even realized the anxiety and probably depression, in retrospect, i’d been experiencing the whole time.
On top of all that, i really didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. I didn’t want my new friends worrying, or the staff of my school panicking, or anything like that. So i hid it. I wore big sweatshirts (during a little weight-loss spell that had me lookin kinda bony,) and sunglasses (to hide the puff,) and drank green tea all day to trick people into thinking i had food. I lied. I lied SO much. I told everyone i was feeling great, pushed myself to hike when they hiked, told them that the stomach pain was PMS. The highs were high, but the lows were LOW. Certain days i would just hide in my stuffy dorm room and PRAY that nobody would come looking for me.
So how does the story end, you ask? During one of my higher highs, (think teaching a daily yoga class and essentially being the school therapist,) i felt a crash coming on. A big one. All of a sudden my mood swung Miley Cyrus style, full on WRECKING BALL. I was throwing up somewhere near 5 times a day (whenever i tried to eat,) and waking up in the middle of the night from uncontrollable twitching. I tried to laugh it off, but my parents could tell from phone calls that something was off. It was soon discovered that i had what my homeopath called “an accumulative overdose,” on the prednisone. I had been on too much for too long, and it was getting dangerous. I needed to start the weaning process ASAP. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing my American doctor was comfortable conducting from overseas. So 6 months in, starving, tired, but very emotionally fulfilled, i booked my ticket back early. It was hard, and i knew i was going to miss those huge Saturday night jam sessions on the beach, but every muscle in my body relaxed the minute i clicked “book ticket.” It was like my immune system knew it was going back to my blender and whole foods, and i felt the adverse effects of the drugs winding down. Its funny how your body sometimes knows what you need better then you do. I feel really satisfied with that time, anyway. I learned a lot about myself, and accomplished what i went there to.
So that’s where i am now, dolls. Still unpacking my suitcases, I’ve just gotten home and am currently in the beginning phases of the coming off the steroids process. Sweating? yes. Crying? yes. Shaking? ohhh yes. But at least i have my easily accessible, bountiful organic produce, my yoga studio, my car, and my American doctor. Commence operation get strong and bendy again. Plus, in my free time, i started this blog and met my currently 37 (and growing,) devout, glittery badasses. And for that, i am uber thankful. *sniffle* You guys are totally worth the Prednisone drama. A little autoimmune- driven fate, perhaps? 😉
Stay badass & stay tuned,