I Glorified the Grind in College, But Chronic Stress Broke Me Down

Read how college stress broke this author down.

Ask me what I think about suffering, and I will tell you that it is overrated.

I realize that my younger self, as recently as two years ago, would answer this question in a drastically different way. Before college, my first instinct might have been to talk about how suffering builds character or gives us room to grow amid discomfort. Maybe I would have even used the cliché of the privileged: “Everything happens for a reason!”

But that was before I had any clue what it meant to suffer.

My college experience unfolded with a massive twist: I learned that I’m living with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, a debilitating autoimmune condition in which the body mounts an allergic response to things it shouldn’t, like eating, exercise, sleep, medicines, and stress. Particularly heartbreaking is the way my illness attacks my brain. I suffer panic attacks every time I eat, and the rest of the time I’m left foggy and forgetful.

In short, I am allergic to everything, all the time. This has proven problematic, to say the least.

I have lost everything. Twice. In July of 2020, I had my first allergic episode while driving to Chicago to celebrate my birthday. Within a month, I was so sick I was forced to make a decision I’d never dreamed of making: I dropped out of college.

I fought like hell over the next two months to find answers, and after I got a diagnosis, I endured a grueling regimen of medications that left me exhausted and foggy. The treatment worked, and gradually, my ability to sleep and to eat normal foods returned.

Nearly a year later, I was finally in remission. I felt like a little kid. My joy was endless; everything delighted me! Each meal left me grinning and making chef’s kiss gestures to express my satisfaction. I could lift weights and enjoy the rush of a good workout. I could stay out late without worrying about crashing the next day and feeling terrible. Each moment was a dream come true.

I remember standing on a rooftop bar in Chicago, looking out over the river, drinking my first cocktail in 12 months, and feeling like the king of the world.

I made big plans for the coming year. I was going to do everything that I couldn’t do before. I would be unstoppable. I went back to school and started a new job as a resident assistant. Classes began, and I had my schedule triple booked. I was invincible, and nothing was going to slow me down — until I got sick again.

I made it to the end of the semester hanging on by a thread, but all my MCAS symptoms returned, worse than the first time. My heart broke as I filled out the paperwork to withdraw from college again, this time during my last semester as a senior.

As I write this, I would have been completing my last final exams. My classmates are taking graduation photos and preparing for their new jobs. I am facing the reality that I will never go to school with them again — they’ll move on, and I’ll eventually go back to finish my degree on my own.

Leaving it all behind has taught me a lot.

I’ve learned that most people around me do not know how to deal with suffering. Many people try to justify my pain or tell me it can be “redemptive;” others shy away from talking about it — or shy away from me altogether because of their discomfort. Believers try to explain what has happened to me as if their job is only to defend God and not to help me.

I’m strengthened the most by the few people who will just be with me — those who sit in the worst of it with me, not trying to fix or deflect or run away, but who just stay and say, “I’m here and I love you.” It takes courage to simply sit in discomfort with someone who is suffering, even if you cannot do anything to fix it. Because problems of this magnitude can’t be fixed, that compassion is what is needed most.

I’ve learned I was using my busy life to hide the fact that deep down, I don’t feel worthy. We glamorize “the grind,” working ourselves until we drop, never pausing to rest, running ourselves into the ground, and bandaging our wounds with our accomplishments. “Workaholism” was the tool that I used to avoid looking inward at the parts of myself I didn’t like so much, and it cost me dearly.

People like me are often called “canaries” by the medical community because we serve as an extreme warning that a lifestyle built around chronic stress is deadly. It’s estimated that 90 percent of chronic illnesses are stress-related. Spending your whole life trying to escape yourself with your foot on the gas takes its toll, and the body always keeps the score. If you cannot learn to love yourself, your health will grow to reflect that. I’ve learned that the hard way.

I still don’t accept and love myself anywhere near as much as I thought I did. Do you know that you are deeply loved, just as you are? Do you know deeply that you are someone deserving of love, especially from yourself — no matter what you can or cannot do? If the answer is “no” to any of these — even just uncertainty — stop running in search of the next thing. Sit in front of a mirror for 10 minutes and try to love what you see. Start doing the dirty work.

I’ve learned how important it is to rest. Rest allows me to treasure my body, remembering that it is the only vessel that can carry me for the rest of my life.

Finally, I’ve learned that all things pass. If you’re suffering right now, yourself, I won’t tell you about the light at the end of the tunnel when you’ve still got miles left to climb. But I will remind you that you are stronger than you think. Keep climbing.

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