This is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve had to learn at university.
I’ve always thought that the offspring of strong women- particularly strong single mothers- inherit a certain determination to never be defeated. We, I think, learn from an early age that there is no option but to get on with it, to survive and thrive at all costs. So when I started noticing a small twinge of pain in my side back in August, I paid no attention. Blessed as I am with a fairly high pain threshold and a stubbornness that often gets the best of me, I soldiered on. At university, I might have been spotted clutching my side in the lecture hall, but I was still making notes. By Christmas, I was convinced that what I needed was more vegetables and several naps. My weight loss, I insisted, was due to my mostly vegetarian diet. My exhaustion was normal. This is student life, right?
It was normal that I started missing lectures because it hurt too much to get out of bed. I should have cut down on socialising a long time ago- I was just being a good student. I was completely, totally fine. These were the lies I told myself.
When Mel came to the UK, I knew that nothing was going to ruin his trip if I had any say in the matter. For the entire week, we had a grand old time- and it was the happiest I have been all year.
During a visit to Borough Market we were given a sample of tea with spoiled milk. For the rest of the evening we both felt fairly queasy. By the following morning, Mel was fine but I felt violently unwell. With every ounce of will, I contained my overwhelming, hand-trembling desire to crawl back into bed. We were off to Essex to visit his cousin that day. There was no way I could leave Mel to navigate the tube alone- it felt like abandonment. So after a quiet moment in a cafe, slowly sipping an orange and ginger juice, we journeyed on. By the time we had reached Paddington, the hot, sick, swirling in my stomach, the stabbing pain in my right side, the clammy shivering feeling of “something is wrong, something is wrong” got too much for me, and I returned to the hotel. I do not remember the walk from the tube station to the hotel but I do remember stumbling into the lift, praying that I would make it to the room. I remember collapsing into the bed with its clean white sheets, and I remember that as soon as I pulled the blankets over my shoulders, my entire body began to shake. The violence of my body turning against me was terrifying: the entire bed was shaking with my convulsions. I have never been so bitterly cold, and yet my skin was hot to the touch. With every movement I heard myself yelp and whimper in pain, an alien sound to my feverish mind. I somehow managed to crawl across the room to vomit into the wastepaper bin. At some point, I remember dragging myself to the sink for water, but most of it spilled from the glass with my shaking hands. I do not know how long I lay there before Mel came back. I remember vaguely worrying that I might die, that he would return and be disgusted by me. Instead he returned terrified, carrying me to the bathroom to wash my face, tucking me into bed, begging me to let him take me to hospital. But still I insisted it must just be from the tea sample, that I would be fine by the morning, that he should sleep before his flight the following afternoon.
After a fitful night’s sleep, I lay there as Mel packed up our bags the next morning, weakly arguing that I did not need to see a doctor, that I would go back to Cardiff on the train (just to set the scene, I was at this point unable to sit up or roll over from the pain I was in). Five minutes before we were due to check out, Mel looked me in the eye and asked me how I was going to carry my bag. At this point, after seven months of gritting my teeth and smiling, I burst into tears- the heaving sobs that weak your entire body, and relented. An hour later, if been admitted to a&e. I was still insisting that Mel could catch his flight.
Within a few hours, I had been diagnosed with pylonephritis: a severe kidney infection. Since last summer it had slowly been spreading across my body, and by the time I got to hospital, I was supremely lucky to have not developed septicaemia or kidney failure. I was kept in hospital for four days.
Perhaps naively, I thought that I was home free. Three weeks later, I am infection free, but still in considerable pain. It takes very little to exhaust me. I am still learning to admit weakness, and writing this post has been incredibly difficult. There is still a part of me that insists that I am fine, but I’m not. It makes me angry- me, who is so passive to most things, angry because I want nothing more than to live a normal, healthy, fuss-free life at university. Asking for an additional extension for my coursework brought me to tears. I am not ashamed to be honest. The year and a half of writing this blog has taught me that my honesty resonates with others more than my attempts at humour or edge.
So being totally honest, these last few weeks have been incredibly hard. Being unwell at university is a very surreal experience: there is no Mum, no Grandma, no Boyfriend (anymore, at least). Every cup of tea, every shaky handed attempt at chopping/cooking, laundry and cleaning is still your responsibility. There is nobody there to look after you. This of course is my choosing: had I stayed in Canada, my huge array of loved ones would have been there. This is not an embittered entry: I am so grateful that I was so cared for in the hospital, for Mel, who would not leave my side, for Christine who came across London to spend a few hours making me laugh. But I wish I had learned this sooner: when it comes to health, when you think you can keep going, the hardest and best thing to do is just… Stop.