Eleven years ago today I was sent home from college with a virus that would change my life forever.
It was the second term of my second year of university. I was twenty years old and had just returned from spending a weekend with family, to celebrate my brother’s eleventh birthday. The Monday after I got back, I woke with a stomach-ache that got progressively worse as the morning went on. By the time I reached my afternoon seminar I looked so ill my tutor propelled me out of the door with strict instructions to get straight home to bed. I made it only just in time and spent the next two days while my housemates were at work, on a makeshift bed on the bathroom floor, rather than drag my exhausted frame back and forth to the toilet.
By Thursday, the symptoms (of what I assumed to be gastroenteritis) had started to subside, and I made it back to college for the end of the week. My plan for the weekend had been to do some housework, visit my grandparents, teach Sunday school and have lunch out with friends. Instead I spent a quiet weekend at home, too wiped out to make it further than the corner shop. I planned to use the time to catch up on the work that I’d missed, but when I tried to sit at my desk, my muscles screamed for me to go and lie down. Even curled on the sofa or propped up in bed my eyes struggled to focus and my brain just refused to take anything in.
On Saturday evening friends came round for dinner and though I attempted to be sociable for a little while, by the time my housemates were plating up the meal I’d excused myself and was back in bed. I intended to watch a film before going to sleep, but I never even got so far as choosing one. It was rare for me to fall asleep before midnight, let alone sleep right through the night, and any sounds in the house would often wake me, so I was astonished to awake to bright daylight having not even heard our visitors leave.
Our house was always busy on Sunday mornings as we were all involved in a local church and had to be there at different times for our various activities. I concluded from the silence in the house when I woke that my housemates must have left for church without me. I was surprised when I looked out of the window however, to discover that the street was almost completely devoid of cars; the road was usually full of cars till gone lunchtime on Sundays as most of the residents enjoyed their weekly lie-in. Wondering just how late I’d slept for my neighbours to all be up and out, I checked the time on Ceefax only to discover it was gone midday, not on Sunday but on Monday. Somehow I’d slept through an entire day without any recollection. I suppose I must have got up at some point on Sunday to go to the loo if nothing else, but if I did then I have no memory of it.
That should probably have set the alarm bells ringing, but knowing it might take a week or more to get over a virus, I assumed it was nothing to worry about and tried to carry on as normal. My symptoms however, failed to go away. For the next eight months I went down with virus after virus, never fully recovering from one before developing another. I had daily headaches and muscle pain, felt dizzy and sick if I stood still for too long and had flu-like symptoms after any strenuous physical exertion.
The fact my housemates worked in the day made it easy to hide just how bad I was feeling. They had no idea I was coming home between lectures instead of staying on to study, and as they were often out in the evenings they didn’t see me resorting to more and more shop-bought meals rather than managing to cook fresh food. I was no longer meeting with friends during the day, and was skimping on my personal laundry and housework in order to keep up with my share of communal tasks. I still made it to all my lectures and could walk up to a mile at I time if I didn’t have to rush, but my social life dwindled and although my workload stayed the same, I was struggling to get through it like I never had before. Despite struggling to do only a fraction of what I should have been managing however, I still didn’t realise there was anything serious wrong. I assumed that I was just a bit run-down and if I kept on going I’d be alright in the end.
I friend and I had been planning to have a joint party for our twenty-first birthdays which fell on the same weekend. The closer came though, the more I realised I was simply too ill to go ahead, opting to have a family meal at my grandparents’ house instead. Having to cancel my twenty-first was the shock I needed to finally seek medical help. I’d been in denial for months about just how serious my symptoms were but I could no longer ignore the fact that I hadn’t felt well for a single day in almost a year. As one friend put it: “you’re only twenty-one once [despite popular claims to the contrary] so you’d have to be dying to cancel your party, and if you were dying, you’d have nothing to lose by going ahead.”
So I made an appointment with a doctor, and was assured by a locum that there wasn’t anything medically wrong with me. Students are always getting ill because they drink and smoke and party too hard, and though I didn’t drink, or smoke, or party hard, I wanted to believe that there was nothing wrong, so I pushed my worries out of my mind and carried on as before. The following January, a massive relapse pushed me to the point where I could no longer live in denial as others couldn’t fail to notice my symptoms, but that is a story for another day.
It ultimately took just over two years, and a dozen health professionals, to diagnose my illness. The treatment I was offered triggered further major relapses and I was bedridden and jobless by the age of twenty-three. Now in my thirties, doctors tell me I will never be able to return to work, may always depend on carers and will never live anything close to a ‘normal’ life again. I intend to do everything in my power to prove them wrong, but in the meantime, I take life one day at a time, and try to celebrate the things I can do, rather than dwell too much upon the things I can’t.
On Monday 10th March, 2003 when I woke up with a stomach-ache, I never for one moment imagined the road that it would lead down.
To all the friends and family who still walk this road beside me, I can never thank you enough. Your support has got me through the last eleven years; I have no doubt it will get me through the next eleven too.
I couldn’t do it without you.