For all the times I felt trapped in between the Georgian houses, wanting to be somewhere warmer, somewhere closer to home, somewhere easier, you gave me something Dublin. Something I need to say thank you for.
It started on August 5, 2013. I woke up that morning with a Urinary Tract Infection, my third of the summer. If you’ve never had one, imagine peeing needles. Imagine the sensation of peeing needles even when you’re not peeing. It’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt. I went to the doctor and took my antibiotics for the next week, as I’d done each time before. But this UTI was different; it didn’t go away at the end of the 7 day antibiotic run like it was supposed to.
I watched as doctors pulled diagnoses out of a hat like magicians trying to guess which card was mine. Bladder infection. Diabetes. STI. Yeast infection. A UTI that defies logic and refuses to show up on the tests. By the end of August, I was still in soul-crushing pain, no closer to any answers. I made the trek from Virginia to Vermont for college, hoping that I would wake up one morning and the whole nightmare would have passed like a stubborn cloud over the sun.
Unfortunately my life is not a movie. The pain persisted, and I settled into a routine at college. I would wake up, cry, go to class, bite back tears while the teacher droned on oblivious, eat, go back to bed, cry some more. I called my mom everyday, but made no new friends. It’s hard to do much of anything when you have a knife lodged between your legs. I watched as my plans to take college by storm slipped through my fingers.
It wasn’t until the end of September that I got a diagnosis, and even then it came from a hostile ER nurse who refused to believe I was any real pain at all, since it was invisible. In passing, she said, “Well maybe it’s Interstitial Cystitis” before kicking me out of the hospital. But it was enough. I went home and did a Google search. I found out that my pain has a name, and that other people – men and women – feel it too. The deeper I ventured onto the website, the harder I cried. As far as surprise illnesses that launch a full-scale sneak attack right after your 18th birthday goes, Interstitial Cystitis was not a good one to have. No effective treatments are available and most scary of all, it’s chronic. Incurable. This was a nightmare I would never be waking up from. I remember shutting my laptop and laying down under my desk, where I stayed for much of the next two days.
Adjusting to my new reality required a total remapping of my life. Every few months or so, I would have to cut out more and more foods, until I stood where I do now, with twenty foods in total that I can eat. I have eaten these same twenty foods on endless loop for over a year now. Throughout my three-year-and-counting battle with IC, I have fought cravings off like Andy Dwyer fought off adulthood in Parks and Rec. These cravings sneak up on me from all sides. Someone opens a bag of chips in class and the smell tries to strangle me, or I walk past a cafe that’s baking fresh donuts and that smell tries to strangle me too. The cravings find me when I’m lying in bed trying to go to sleep, and the urgent need to no longer be trapped in a body that can’t ever find a single thing on the menu that it can eat hits like panic. No amount of kicking at the bed sheets will allow me to eat a chocolate chip cookie. The cycle of desire and disappointment is endless in a world that centers on the pleasures of eating.
There’s another side of the struggle too, a battle that has been far more intimate. People can see that I have to eat plain oatmeal for breakfast every single day, and I’m always contending with the sad puppy dog faces of people who are hellbent on finding that one magical food I have neglected to realize I can eat, which will miraculously solve everything. But no one can see that my body confidence was shattered on August 5, 2013. No one can see the self-doubt that sits on my shoulders and tells me that every mountain is too tall, every walk too far. In a single day, I went from believing that I could do absolutely anything, to doubting that I could walk fifteen minutes down the road to Rite Aid without causing a bladder flare.
Most of the time, I don’t live with the soul-crushing pain of feeling like a small knife is trying to birth itself out of my uterine canal. As I was adjusting to my new diet, continuing to cut out trigger foods, I had frequent flares. When I’m flaring, I pace pant-less around my room for the two hours it takes for the fire to subside. But as I grew into a more stable diet, slowly the flares began to become less common, and now it’s been a year since I’ve had one. I still feel pain every time my bladder is full, or if I don’t drink enough water, or if I get so stressed my bladder grows tender as a result, but I’ve grown used to these pangs. They are the new normal for me, and I get concerned when I don’t feel them.
Truthfully, flares are not the worst part of my disease. It’s the fear of having a flare that gets my muscles clenching as though they’re expecting the sudden arrival of the fire at any moment. It’s the fear that made room for the self-doubt, and since my infallible body proved to be quite fallible after all, there was suddenly a need to doubt everything I’d once accepted as fact. I would pull myself out of bed to walk the fifteen minutes to Rite Aid, but the whole time, there was a voice in my head that said, “You can’t do this, you can’t do this” on repeat. And even though I always made it back home and never flared afterwards, my brain was never appeased. Just because you didn’t flare doesn’t mean you won’t next time. Because I was using that logic, there was no clear way to prove to myself that I could do any of the things I used to do. Again, I was trapped.
It’s been a long three-year battle to regain my body confidence. It started with walks that got longer gradually. I made a mental pact with myself that I would say yes more often than I said no. I sucked up all my courage and went to a yoga class for the first time; I still remember the flood of tears that released when I got back to my dorm room, a mix of pride and emotional exhaustion from the constant weight of my fear. I went back to yoga the next week. I went to a museum with my sister, taking frequent rests on the benches along the way. I went to an amusement part and rode a roller coaster. Everywhere I went, I worried about finding bathrooms. My biggest fear was that a flare would hit while I wasn’t home and there would be no bathroom nearby. My trusty refillable water bottle, which I carry everywhere with me, has become a physical reminder of the courage it takes just to get out of my bed in the morning.
Every single step of the way, my mind was there to tell me that I couldn’t do anything, things would never be as they were, and I would never be happy. I danced my way through a My Morning Jacket concert and I drove the twelve hours home from school and I held a full time job and I ran through the ocean waves and I took moonlight walks around the lake and I ran down the path with my dog beside me so we could feel the illusion of freedom for just a moment. But. But the voice was always there. The self-doubt was always there weighing down my shoulders. I lived in a constant state of emotional exhaustion, and sleep became a reprieve from the stress of daily life.
This is where you come in, Dublin. It took me the first two and a half years of my disease to fight the voices that told me I would never be able to study abroad. You’ll never be strong enough, they told me. You’ll never be brave enough. It took two and a half years of slow and steady work, pushing my boundaries further and further until I had enough courage to believe in the possibility that the voices might be wrong. I signed up to come to Dublin without letting myself think about just how much of a challenge it would be. I didn’t think about lugging my bags through the airport or the plane rides or the fact that I would have to feed myself in a foreign country with insane dietary restrictions. I didn’t consider the long walk to the academic center or how tired your body gets after a weekend of traveling. I figured I would deal with it all when I had to, otherwise I would chicken out.
Walking through the airport in Richmond brought me back to Aiken Lawn during freshmen orientation, when President Finney told the parents that it was time to go home. The person hugging my mom goodbye in the Richmond airport was so much stronger than the scared one that hugged her goodbye at the very beginning of it all. I’d come so far, and I knew that this trip to Dublin would be huge in my battle with IC. I needed it to be successful more than anything.
Sitting on my bed, the sun setting on the last Monday I’ll have in this place, I can say that this study abroad experience was more than I could have ever hoped for. It wasn’t easy, especially not at first, to fight the voices of self-doubt that told me I couldn’t go anywhere, do anything. But my desire to make the most of my time in Europe was stronger than my fear, and my roommates gave me the courage to stick to that pact I made so long ago, to say yes more than I say no. The woman who will get on the plane home to the US is someone that the old Sarah never thought she could be. I’m living my life, and that’s more than I let myself hope for in the beginning.
Perhaps even more incredible than that, I’m living without fear. I don’t wake up in the morning afraid that the knife is going to be lodged between my legs. I’ve stopped telling myself that walking across Dublin everyday is impossible, because it’s not. Every single thing I set out to do here, I have done. The evidence is indisputable: I can, I can, I can. Yes, I can walk around the museum without needing to rest on every bench. Yes, I can hike up Bray Head and feel the sun smile on me at the peak. Yes, I can get on a plane to Belgium, Italy, London, The Netherlands. I can spend day after day getting up early and staying up late, walking around entire cities in a day. I can walk through the tulips in Holland, climb to the top of the Duomo in Florence, walk from one side of Italy to the other side when the trains go on strike, tour all the main sites in London in a whirlwind two days. I can confidently feed myself in foreign countries with my rice cooker, which can be carried onto airplanes as long as I’m willing to weather the baffled looks from security officers. I can live my life without constantly wondering where the closest bathroom is. I can live. I can live.
My body is strong enough.
I am strong enough.
I am enough.
It took 3 years, but finally, I believe in myself again. Thank you, Dublin, for the rebirth of my body confidence. You’ve taught me that I can do anything, sick or not. The world is once more full of opportunities, and I’m brave enough take them. To the young woman who was so scared of her sickness that she hid in her bed and cried herself to sleep for months on end, I have something to say, a message from Dublin: