I really hate to do this, but

It’s a Chronic Thing

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Hey. I’m really sorry to do this again, but — 

I’ve become accustomed to canceling on people. Whether it’s because I’m sick or because I have so much work to do from when I was sick, canceling is a common occurrence.

Grappling with the intense guilt that comes with telling someone for the 10th time that month that I just can’t make it has been difficult, to say the least. 

Coming to college was scary for so many reasons: moving across the country, meeting new people and having to explain that sometimes I just get sick. Back at home, my two best friends are used to it by now. They’ve had time to expect unpredictable plans, and we’re all able to support each other.

Something I did not prepare for was teaching new people that I can be unreliable — or rather, that my illness can be unreliable. 

The timing of flares can sometimes be predicted. A small headache indicates something worse in the next few days. I know my symptoms could flare if I’m dehydrated. But mostly, they come out of nowhere and in many forms. 

Sometimes, two spots flit across my vision like dancers, occasionally meeting one another in a hold. Occasionally, a sharp pain positions itself behind my eye and at various spots around my head. Stomach pain; vomiting; exhaustion.

Physical pains are the easiest to explain; I can simply say, “I just have a migraine and can’t make it, I need to lie down. So sorry!”

The smaller things are the most devastating, such as noticing my hair is falling out because of medication. Or when I need two more hours of sleep — yes, I know I already got 10, but I physically cannot climb down from my bunk, let alone go out. I’m just overwhelmed. 

I often resort to describing a physical ailment to someone I’m canceling on rather than telling them that I mentally just can’t do it today. It’s easier to send a long-winded apology and chalk it up to another migraine than it is to explain that I lost so much hair in the shower that morning and am currently mourning the loss of my curls. It’s easier to say I have a stomach ache than it is to explain how crippling the realization of lost time is. Missing a class means catching up on lecture notes, which means less time to finish the readings for next class, which means even less time to study for that midterm coming up. 

Sometimes, I miss things because I am just so worried I can’t fit everything in and make everything up on time that I end up losing even more time. I spend time feeling guilty for canceling or agonizing over the fact that I missed class yet again — time I could have spent actually doing something. 

It feels like a waste of energy.

The mental aspect of chronic illnesses is often as debilitating as the physical ailment itself. Pushing yourself to the point of burnout seems to be an expectation in college. I mean, we’re all consuming copious amounts of caffeine and running on no sleep, right? Sometimes that burnout hits too hard, and the balance between pushing yourself and taking a break topples. 

With this collective experience of burnout, you would expect a little more open conversation around the struggle. But sometimes it seems like pushing yourself to the brink is part of the competitive fun. 

Who’s in more clubs; who’s taking the most units; how much homework do you have? And so on. What about who’s in therapy? Did you actually eat today? Have you left your laptop at all in the last 10 hours? Did you sleep? Are you OK?

I understand the romanticization of the struggle. It can be seen as a measure of working hard, a result of the college we’re all so lucky to go to. But when does it end? When do we forgive ourselves and each other for taking a breath?

If I thought explaining my illness and cancellation frequency to new people would be hard, I’ve faced an even harder task this year: learning to forgive myself.

Maybe I missed two lectures this week, canceled on dinner plans and had to ask for an extension on homework. But I got up. I did my dishes. I finally cleaned off my desk. I did what I could and what I had the energy to do. 

I think it’s time to retire the long winded explanations for canceling things or missing them. I’m not saying it’s OK to flake on people all the time — their time is just as important as yours, and being unreliable is not a good look. But when life and circumstances are unreliable, you can forgive yourself. 

What I’ve learned to do is accept “I just can’t” as a valid reason for canceling plans, and I think this should go for everyone. The fear of missing out can be crippling, but depleting your energy when you barely had any to begin with is worse. 

So, I’m really sorry. But I just can’t.

Kathryn Conley writes the Thursday column on living with a chronic illness. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.