We’re stopped at a gas station somewhere right outside of Georgia. I’m fourteen and my dad is talking on his phone. I step out of the car and throw my empty Gatorade bottle away before heading towards the restroom. I have always had the bladder of a newborn infant, so peeing is a constant demand my body puts on me.
I peed and quickly return to my father’s Jeep where I find him pacing back and forth in front of bumper.
“Where were you?” he asked me, relief and anger radiating out of him.
“The bathroom,” I answered.
“Do you know the kinds of creeps that hang out in rest stop bathrooms? What if someone crazy had been in there? What if he had cut your throat and you had bled out before I even knew where you were? It happens. Oh, it happens.”
I sat in silence the rest of the trip, my father muttering about news reports of rest stop bathroom crimes.
“You could’ve been like any one of those people,” he said, glancing out towards the road.
That was always the thing with my father; he was always assuming that the worst would happen to me. Picturing the most grotesque scenario that would never plausibly happen, he would proceed to go into painful detail describing my potential fates. He ran the gamut of impossible situations, from being attacked by wild boar while walking down my street at night, to flesh eating viruses caught from not meticulously washing your hands.
Being raised in this fashion, I learned to fear the world. I knew the dark realities of it long before my peers had a chance to fall victim to them. I knew how dangerous things were, and I knew to respect the things that could hurt me.
Even though I knew the dark truths of the world, I never had anything particularly serious happen to me, so I floated through life fairly confident I would remain unscathed. I made it pretty far, too. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I was slapped by the backhand of reality.
The first sign I was sick was that I had dropped 10 lbs in a month without dieting or working out and that I would sleep 13 hours a day. I had just suffered from a heartbreak, so at first, I attributed these changes to that. I started to always look exhausted with dark circles under my eyes. Not tired like “I missed a few hours of rest” but tired like “I’m Edward Norton in Fight Club.” My friends would mention to me in passing that I seemed a little out of it, but I was. I brushed off these comments because it seemed to me that the reason was obvious: I felt depressed.
It wasn’t until an hour before an English exam that things drastically escalated. Walking past the library, I noticed my vision blacking in and out. Feeling weak, I sat down on a bench in front of a sorority girl bake sale. I’m not sure what the sorority girls were raising money for; maybe it was for all the fashion victims out there. I do remember, however, throwing up right in front of their stand of cookies. I managed to maneuver myself back onto a bus and to my apartment before throwing up three more times.
The next day, I was in the doctor’s office, ass in the air on a table being examined. I didn’t realize this at the time, but this would become a common occurrence in my life. My condition seemed to confuse medical professionals. There was a few fun weeks where I had to systemically cut out certain foods from my diet, trying to figure out what was causing me to get ill and my bowel movements to feel like I was giving birth to Satan’s baby.
There was a week where it was a gluten allergy. There was a week where it was excess gas. There was a week where it was colon cancer.
Eventually they would determine it to be ulcerative colitis. Which could simply be described to someone not versed in the medical field as: your intestines are seen as foreign, so your body is trying to fuck them up. The doctors told me I would take six pills a day (not including the steroids prescribed to me) and would be on my way, thank you very much.
However, as anyone with a chronic illness will tell you, it doesn’t end with the taking of a pill. Or with a surgery. Chronic Illnesses will stick with you always. It goes on dates with you; it sits with you in the dark at the movies. Always omnipresent, always reminding you that you’re mortal.
I went home from the day I was diagnosed and began the steroid treatment, which was meant to get my condition in check. I went from losing ten pounds to quickly gaining fifteen. I began to Google how this condition could affect my quality of life. The horror stories I read involved people’s condition escalating so intensely that they had to have their intestines surgically removed and had to be rolled around in a wheelchair with a bag of their own shit attached to them. Some of these people eventually died due to the disease. If you’re ever sick, never go on the Internet to research your condition because you will end up in the shower sobbing, hoping that your roommates don’t overhear you.
I began to make meticulous lists. Lists of things I needed to do before I would stop being able to walk on my own. Lists of people I needed to tell I loved them more often. Things I needed to do before I died.
In retrospect, I was very melodramatic with these lists, but they brought me a sense of purpose. Over the next few months, I began to slowly recover and take back control of my body. However, I still lived in constant fear that a flare up would land me in the hospital.
It wasn’t until I was driving home from college for an extended weekend that I stopped off at a rest stop to pee. Checking to make sure the stalls on either side of me were empty and free of serial killers like I had become so accustom to doing in, I went about my business. While walking out of the bathroom, I noticed a Jeep much like my father’s parked. I felt a sense of relief wash over me. I was still alive, I was still fighting. My parents had always taught me to expect the worst, because I think they also expected that the worst would never come. By feeding into my neuroses they raised me to be strong and prepared. They knew that it was better to be aware of the horrors that could come your way, because it makes you all the more grateful when they don’t.