Let’s grab coffee

It's a Chronic Thing

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I love coffee. I grew up waking up to the smell of it swirling through my house. My parents would always have a cup or few to start their days — accompanied by hot chocolate for me and, of course, pancakes, Sunday mornings when I was younger. I started drinking coffee in middle school as Starbucks became a frequent spot to hang out in my suburban town. My adolescent relationships were built around coffee and window shopping at the mall. At 13, we couldn’t do much else.

By sophomore year of high school, I perfected my coffee order depending on the place. Dunkin’: large coffee, cream, no sugar; Starbucks: large latte, unsweetened. Getting my driver’s license meant drive-thru stops on the way to school, mornings marked by coffee and conversations in various friends’ cars.

While I’ve always enjoyed coffee — the taste, the possibilities, the caffeine-induced buzz — there was a period of time in which I thought it was the source of my chronic illness. For about a year, my order became decaf: something nearly sacrilegious to coffee snobs and sleep-deprived college students alike. 

I thought I had a caffeine intolerance. You can imagine my devastation when I discovered that was not the case and that I had wasted almost a year avoiding caffeine — something as familiar as my friend’s car winding down back roads at 7 a.m. or the smell of syrup on Sunday mornings.

The food I can eat is unpredictable. I have a few safe foods that have never made me sick, but for the most part, eating is a coin toss. This means I don’t necessarily have any explicit intolerances to food, which is a positive. But it also means that my chronic nausea is yet another unexplained phenomenon, likely linked to lupus but also maybe not. 

Living in a dorm has simultaneously added a level of unpredictability yet one of predictability to my eating habits. On one hand, the dining halls provide consistency in when and what I eat. On the other hand, I share a minifridge with two other people. I’ll admit, I rely on microwave macaroni and cheese and ramen when leaving the room is going to take away precious study time. It’s a careful balance. Any one thing can throw my body off course for a week. 

But the dining halls have provided more than just a much-needed consistency in my diet. They’ve become integral to my social life on campus. Most of my friends live in a different building or on a different floor — when roommates are around or we just want to get out, the dining halls are the go-to rendezvous. I’ve spent almost three hours in a dining hall before just chatting with people, our food long forgotten. 

It’s always an easy suggestion when I meet people: “Great to meet you! We should grab lunch or coffee sometime!” Relationships are forged around oat milk lattes and croissants. Food brings people together, whether it’s for the first time or the 100th. 

Unfortunately, my unpredictable reactions to food can take that spontaneity out of my day-to-day life. If my friends decide they want to get takeout at the last minute instead of going to the dining hall, I’m always happy to tag along — but I have to tread very carefully. I start by weighing my options: Go with them but don’t eat, go with them and get food or just stay home. 

Making the decision to stay home from anything, whether it’s class or going out, is hard. Staying in makes me feel like I’m missing out on important moments with my friends. Missing class makes me feel like I’m falling behind and will never truly catch up. 

I’ll admit, I often fall victim to the fear of missing out. Suggesting a quick lunch to get to know someone better could become something I regret; changing plans, even if it’s because I can’t hear my own thoughts over a pounding migraine, isn’t the best first impression. Sometimes I end up pushing myself to do things even when my gut is begging me to stay home. I walk a thin line between running myself into the ground and making sure I still experience life.

There’s something to be said about learning about someone else and yourself in the process over a cup of coffee. Dining halls and coffee shops are interwoven with the meaningful connections in my life, but each time, there’s a nagging reminder that one wrong bite or sip could send me on my way back to my dorm, apologizing profusely to the person I’m leaving at the table across from me. 

It can be exhausting constantly toeing the line between living and avoiding things just in case something bad happens. 

But, just in case I make a connection that lasts a lifetime, I continue moving forward — one cup of coffee at a time.

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.