“Don’t you want to go put on some more clothes,” my so-called best friend scoffed at me and laughed like a catty mean girl in high school. All of the other girls at the party laughed with me or at me—I’ve come to not even know the difference anymore. I self-consciously rubbed my hands across my exposed shoulders and down my back. I thought I looked good. “Shut up,” I retorted in the same snarky tone, yet inside I was fuming.
You don’t know what it took for me to look like this, I thought. You don’t know the hours of agony I endured just to put on this dress, curl my hair, and put on a face full of makeup. Yet my closest friend had the audacity to humiliate me in front of everyone by loudly pointing out that the only outfit that made me feel good about myself was apparently not good enough for her. She wasn’t aware that this night was the first time in far too long that I felt good about myself when I looked in the mirror—the first time that I looked in the mirror and didn’t stare back at a sickly person with sunken eyes and flushed cheeks. I felt like just another girl going to a party—even if I wasn’t, at least I could lie to myself just for one night. I wanted to scream at her, “You don’t know anything about me!” But I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut like I always do.
That night was important to me. I was finally able to drag my usually lifeless body out of bed and socialize with others. After days spent on the couch, I could finally be “normal.” I finally didn’t hate what I saw when I looked into the mirror. But my friend stole that from me with those few words. Without even knowing it, she took away all of the confidence I finally felt and the newly found normalcy that I discovered. I was no longer just one of the girls. I was again cast aside and set apart from everyone else.
What those girls didn’t understand is that I don’t need anything else to set me apart from others. My laundry list of chronic illnesses does that for me. What they didn’t see is that beneath meticulously lined eyes, there was pain. What they didn’t see is that underneath the form-fitting dress I donned just to make me feel good about myself, there was a body that changed form constantly due to my inability to eat. What they didn’t see is that beneath my smile I was cringing due to the pain in my stomach. What they didn’t see was that each step I took caused me tremendous pain.
While I laughed, while I smiled, while I made small talk, I was in pain. I was always in pain. But I had grown good at pretending that I wasn’t—pretending that I was just like everyone else. To those girls at the party, I was just a girl in a backless dress—a girl who maybe they thought put in too much effort. What they didn’t know is that I put in more effort than they could ever imagine not for their sake, but for mine. I wanted to believe that I could still look like everyone else even if I didn’t feel like them on the inside.
Something deep inside of me was begging to see if the girl I once was still existed. I wanted to know if I could still look fashionable, smile adoringly, laugh candidly, and talk confidently like I once could. I wanted to know if I could still hold my head assuredly, knowing that I was presenting the best version of myself. I wanted to know if my illness had taken me so far away from myself that I could never return. Even though I was riddled with constant pain and sickness, I wanted to find my way back to me.
For one night, just one night, I wanted to put aside the nausea, the pain, the agony, the tears, and the sickness to be just like any other girl in her mid twenties. Yet my friend took that away from me with her spiteful words.
When you are chronically ill, you will do anything and everything to make yourself feel better—even if feeling better means putting on your favorite movie or eating the most decadent chocolate. For me, to feel even slightly better about myself, I had to look better. I couldn’t sport the naked face, the messy ponytail, or the yoga pants. I was tired of looking back at a face that looked, well, tired. Frankly, I was tired of being me.
So that night, I promised myself that things would change. I promised myself that I would be proud of the person that stared back at me in the mirror. For one night, I was going to be someone that looked as good as possible. I was going to become me again because chronic illness steals the you that you once were. Slowly, painfully pieces of you are taken away. Chronic illness eats away at you until there is nothing left. So for this party, I was going to try and assemble the pieces of myself that had come unglued, to say the least.
What my friend didn’t know is that I eagerly tried on my dress for the party days before it even began. “Is this okay for Friday,” I self-consciously asked my husband, knowing that I wanted to look my best. “It’s perfect,” he had responded with a smile. He never stopped reassuring me that I am beautiful, even when I don’t always feel like it. But for this party, I didn’t just want to feel beautiful. I wanted to look beautiful. I wanted others to stop seeing me as the “sick girl” and to start seeing me as just another girl. I wanted to be seen for what I am, not what my diagnosis is.
What my friend didn’t know is that I planned this party for her despite feeling terribly ill.Yet I never even received a thank you. I never even received a positive comment or an ounce of gratitude. All I received was a hurtful comment that reminded me I will never be a “normal” young woman.
I learned that despite my desperate desire to be normal, I will never be normal. Regardless of the makeup I wear, the dresses I adorn, or the hairstyle I choose, I will always be that “sick girl.” I will always be that girl with gastroparesis and those other diseases most people don’t even take the time to remember. I will always be that girl who tries too hard not to get noticed, but to be normal. But I will always be that girl who tries. I will always be that girl who makes an effort to have fun, to enjoy life, and to find pleasure despite the pain.