My day began at 6:30 a.m.
It smelled like latex and rubbing alcohol as the lab specialist slid the needle into my arm. I winced and closed my eyes.
“Do you want to lay down, sweetheart?” she asked.
I shook my head and flinched again as the needle slid out. She pressed a cotton ball firmly on the incision, covered it with tape and warmly smiled at me. I turned my head and saw four test tubes filled to the rim with my dark, red liquid. I’ve had blood drawn too many times to count, but the sight of it never fails at making my head spin.
I was escorted to the neighboring office where I was asked to lay down and to pull my shirt up and my pants down. Another woman with a similar warm smile and kind eyes, squirted a cool gel just below my belly button. She slid the camera around, sometimes pausing to screenshot the images on the computer. I counted the dots on the ceiling until she told me to clean myself up and get dressed. She stuck her head out of the door and yelled, “Put a rush on these results, this girl has a plane to catch!”
I did have a plane to catch. Exactly 12 hours from the time I arrived home from the hospital, I would be boarding a plane to Israel.
I was mostly packed, probably over-packed. My suitcase was stuffed with t-shirts for the scorching heat, long dresses for Shabbat, my barely-used running sneakers for the hike up Masada and jackets for the chilly nights in Tel Aviv.
I grew up in a town heavily populated with Jews in which traveling to Israel in college is basically a right of passage. Going to Israel was considered normal and I wanted nothing more than to be normal.
In high school, I was diagnosed with Crohns disease, and later I was also given the label of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS.) During high school and the beginning of college, I just told people that I get bad stomachaches sometimes. That was usually an acceptable answer and no one questioned me further.
The diagnoses didn’t affect my life too much until the second semester of my sophomore year of college.
My stomachaches were becoming more frequent. I went from having severe pain once per month, to once per week, to once per day and then eventually after every meal. I began eliminating foods from my diet. Too much food to where I only trusted a couple of different items. I became so fearful of eating because I was so terrified of getting sick that I would avoid it as much as I could. I only ate in the safety of my dorm room because of the private bathroom in close proximity since I knew that I would need it. And I was right. I always needed it.
I began to isolate myself socially. My friends would invite me out for dinner and I would decline because the restaurant was beyond a one block radius from my bed. I would turn down invitations to nights out, day trips around New York City and even to the movies because I knew that I would feel sick and I would be stuck.
The pain was so crippling I could barely hold myself up and I would want to scream. People didn’t understand because everyone gets stomachaches and stomachaches are a common excuse. But my goal was to make it through the day and if that meant being alone, then so be it.
The anxiety I felt from mundane activities like eating, going to class and social interactions because of the possibility I may get sick was so unbearable that I would have panic attacks and wake up in the middle of the night with my mind whirling unable to breathe.
I allowed the chronic stomach pain to take over my life, but in the midst of all this, I wanted to so desperately to be normal. So while my friends were all applying for trips to Israel, I applied too.
My trip was scheduled for the end of May, a couple weeks after the semester ended. I was traveling with a good friend of mine so some of the initial nerves were alleviated.
When I returned home from school and my parents saw me, they were incredibly concerned. My mother did everything in her power to convince me to cancel the trip knowing that she couldn’t really forbid me to get on the plane, but she pushed me to stay until the very last minute. The decision was mine and when I looked in the mirror I saw a determined girl who wanted to see the world.
What my mother saw was a sickly figure.
We had an argument one day and she made me step on a scale. I did, in order to prove her wrong. But the thing is, mothers are never usually wrong. I had lost about 18 pounds in the span of a few months, but I was still denying that there was a serious problem.
I thought I could hike up Masada, but the truth, was that I barely had enough energy to walk around the block.
When the doctor called that day with my results, he said that he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. I was relieved, and I actually began to feel excited for the trip.
I was okay.
I was jittery in the airport, as the other 40 new faces probably were as well. We went to get our plane tickets and check our luggage, my friend and I going through an extra process in order to sit next to each other. We stood on line at security, chatting and catching up.
I remember telling him how thankful I was that he was there with me and that we decided to go together.
After we made it through security, my friend and I walked toward our terminal, but we had a lot of time to kill. He was hungry and was pointing out places we could get something to eat before the flight, but I started to get this gurgling feeling in my stomach.
The gurgling intensified dramatically with each step.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said.
I nearly ran when I saw the sign for the restroom. The second I locked the stall door, I exploded. Before I could even process what was happening, I was completely doubled-over, clutching myself in pain, and tears were streaming down my face.
Everything happened to fast, it’s difficult to recall. But I remember calling my parents from the bathroom stall. And I remember feeling like I couldn’t get enough air.
My friend let me drink his water so I could swallow some pills, but I ended up right back in the bathroom. My trip leader wouldn’t let me leave until she called headquarters to confirm that I would be allowed on another trip on the future.
The airline had to remove my luggage, which was already on the plane, a process that took approximately two hours.
I remember limping down the stairs to baggage claim feeling as if I would collapse any second from the intense pressure on my stomach and the pain shooting up my back. I remember some kindhearted strangers who looked into my bloodshot eyes and asking me if I was okay. I remember smiling and nodding. I remember my mother showing up with open arms and holding me, whispering that everything would be okay.
I felt like a complete failure in the days following. Crying into my tea and drafting future responses to the question, “How was Israel?” while my peers were off exploring the world.
The embarrassment eventually faded, and I received the help I so desperately needed. Life got better and then worse again and then better again, because life is funny that way.
Everyone has their “something,” and chronic stomach pain is my “something.” It’s about accepting that the “something” may hold you back sometimes and learning how to deal with your normal.
It’s been over a year and no, I have not made it to Israel… yet. But as someone who was so proud of herself for having her first bite of pizza in over a year without running to the bathroom, I can say that I’m confident that I will get there. This is my normal.
So in the meantime, all I can do, is write myself free.