The transition to college, a rite of passage for many, represents the final shedding of the vestiges of childhood. Teary parents deposit their progeny in an alien environment teeming with ice cream socials and deluges of information sessions. These teenagers, equipped with their smartphones and freshly minted student IDs, must navigate a novel social atmosphere and learn to coexist with a campus full of similarly displaced individuals.
I, personally, dreaded abandoning my old lifestyle. Despite my anticipation of joining what I perceived as a diverse and vibrant community of intellectuals, some aspects of this change disagreed with me. Maybe it was my aversion of communal showers. Maybe it was my unprecedented distance from my parents. Maybe it was my fear of academic inundation.
Maybe it was my Crohn’s disease.
The day after my sixteenth birthday, my gastroenterologist gave me the best gift of all: the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. Better than a car, right? You may expect that my heart sank at this tragedy, but no. Just like any other label, it didn’t change who I was.
Admittedly, it felt strange to put such a dramatic name to something that I perceived as only an inconvenience. My mother, a chef rivaling the greats, ensured that I could maintain the strict diet that kept my Crohn’s at bay without sacrificing the joy of eating. Since I already suffered from a host of food allergies, this escalation of dietary blockades didn’t devastate my daily routine. A regimen of good cooking, sufficient sleep, and tender loving care kept me virtually healthy through the latter part of my high school years. The support of others helped me maintain normalcy.
With the college student’s free trial of “adulthood” comes a forced independence. For most, that entails remembering to set the alarm each night, doing basic chores, and enduring constant socialization. As a freshman, I face these challenges as anyone else does—with a sense of hesitancy and dread. Frankly, it sucks not to be a child anymore.
But my illness prevents me from truly standing on my own. I don’t begrudge the accommodations that Accessibility Services organized for me: a single room, a meal plan exemption, two fridges, and a legal microwave, and I appreciate my mother’s commitment to driving up to Massachusetts bi-weekly to drop off meal-size packets of food. I’m not afraid to take help when I need it, but I still regret that my atypical lifestyle bars me from a traditional college experience.
I will never have a roommate to bond with. I will never suffer a dining-hall meal. I will never even get to taste Antonio’s pizza. Still, outsiders easily list the upsides of my living situation; they express their frustration at having to endure living with a stranger and waiting in long lines for dinner.
I admit that I enjoy certain aspects of my solitary life: the peace of studying in my dorm, the control I have over my food. The thing is, I want to shoulder typical college problems. If only I could moan alongside everyone else! The social isolation resulting from my disconnection from these tropes has distanced me from other freshmen, whose experiences of the first weeks of college only vaguely resemble mine.
And honestly, my food situation isn’t so great. Analogous to the invisible stresses that accompany a chronic illness, having to manage my microwave meals comes with its encumbrances. Did you think of all the space wasted not just on the fridges and their contents, but the plates and cutlery and cleaning supplies? Did you think of the pile of dishes that I have to do every day? Did you think of the forlornness of eating a soggy piece of salmon in my dorm room?
I gave up on trying to package my meals and carry them to Val after the first week because there is no correcting this divide between me and the rest of Amherst’s student population. Having to repeatedly explain my bento box—“yeah, it’s just my special Crohn’s diet, no big deal,”—exhausted me.
Whenever anyone has any sort of issue, be it physical, mental, or emotional, society pressures them to downplay it. See if you can open a dialogue with an acquaintance about your aberrant bowel movements (best way to kill a conversation, trust me). It’s hard to express pain or vulnerability when reason dictates that conforming in- volves maintaining an image of stability and health. Voicing a problem just seems like a plea for attention.
And this mindset disservices everyone, especially those who have major health issues that they feel the need to sanitize for discussion purposes. I blame many of my insecurities about my new role as a college student on my Crohn’s disease because my condition makes me feel different. I suppress my issues and avoid ostensibly able-bodied acquaintances whom I could isolate with a confession of how I really am.
I forget that we all have our own daily burdens which endow us with a feeling of isolation. Mine just happens to be a bit more visible. I shouldn’t lament my atypical college experience, because, really, how can we define a “typical” college experience? This, in my view, holds especially true at Amherst College, an institution which strives to integrate students from all over the socioeconomic and cultural spectra.
While I still hope that graduating to an upperclassman dorm where I can cook in a real kitchen will ease my perception of my glaring abnormality, I feel that opening up about my struggles and finding others who endure similar challenges will aid my social integration far more. If I lower my self-imposed boundaries and accept that I am as valid a part of the Amherst community as any other student, I will better be able to coexist with my chronic illness.
Besides, as I write this, it isn’t my Crohn’s that physically ails me; it’s the severe cold that I’ve contracted.