If I was healthy, I would be unstoppable.
Or “In defense of the eternally tired”, or “The one where I talk about my Mysterious Illness”.
I was 15. It was summer. I had spent nine months studying ten hours a day every day in order to excel in all of my classes. I was ridicolously stressed and burnt out, but most of all surprised by the overwhelming tiredness that had hit me just after the end of term.
After spending a week in my bed, I confided in my mother and told her that I was completely exhausted. Suspecting of anaemia, we decided to get blood tests done to establish how to move forward. When they came back normal, she attributed the cause of my suffering to stress and pushed it aside without a second thought.
“Nothing is wrong with you”, she said. “You’ve been on the edge for nine months. Relax, and you’ll see how it goes away.”
I spent the remaining weeks of that summer resting and trying to avoid stressful events, which would only worsen the situation.
The tiredness, however, along with the feeling that something was wrong, did not disappear. They were haunting me like dark clouds, constantly overlooking my shoulders, growing angrier and mightier every day. Stress was always around the corner and my ability to fight it was gone. The same body that kept me alert, up and running during all those hours of revision seemed to have slipped from my fingers. I turned into an older, frailer version of myself. I was unrecognisable and stunned by the difference between the Aurora I knew so well and this worn out, foreign face I was looking at in the mirror.
Over the years I became an expert at hiding all this exhaustion under a façade of content. Growing up with a doctor in the family, the physical ailments that were presented to my dad were quickly dismissed with a simple “It’s nothing”. So I grew weary of opening up for fear of judgement. I was hostile to anyone who asked me how I was, knowing that they would not be willing to listen but, at the same time, craving to be understood and properly treated for an exhaustion that felt as real as the solid mattress underneath me and the walls of the room I spent so much time in.
A year later we moved from Italy to the UK. I thought that the pain of having to leave home, coupled with the difficult task of surviving in another country, would make my nervous system a giant mess, but I passed my GCSEs with flying colours using the last bit of adrenaline and stamina that my body could produce.
During Year 12 (Junior Year in America) it all came tumbling down. Armed with the ambition of gaining entry into the top universities in the UK, with my sights on either Oxford or Cambridge, I was accepted into one of the best sixth forms in the country. I was also more tired and burnt out than I had ever been. I quickly realised that my body could not fulfill my ambitions.While my peers could go to school, revise in the evening, sleep and wake up refreshed to do it all again day after day, I struggled to survive and needed at least two hours of sleep after lessons in order to recover from the school day. That’s when I knew that it wasn’t in my head.
I was the only one who needed a two, sometimes three-hour nap to survive school. I was frustrated and on the verge of a mental breakdown. I remember crying my eyes out to my therapist, grieving the body and the energy I used to have. I remember her asking “Well, if you know it’s real, what do you think it is?” and I remember answering “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”.
The situation got out of hand when I almost fainted in the middle of a park in Central London. But still, nobody knew about me and my Mysterious Illness, which became a fundamental part of my character and the only thing that defined me.
I almost failed my end-of-year exams, getting grades which were considerably lower than what I was expected to get. Then, instead of resting and doing what normal 18-year-olds do during the holidays, I visited my GP in the hope of getting a diagnosis and I revised in the hope of doing well in the next round of exams.
I started the new academic year with a newfound motivation to do well and a brain supplement I had discovered while browsing the shelves at a local pharmacy. Knowing that my grades were not high enough to apply to the universities I wanted to go to, I decided to take a gap year after college, my only chance to slow down and take care of my body.
The tiredness was still there, but I did not feel the need to sleep after school anymore, except for certain days. I went to the doctor almost once a month to talk about my physical condition. They would order some blood tests, which would always come back normal, but they were not willing to explore this further. I was striken with anger and frustration for not having any proof that could explain my symptoms, but determined to keep going until the end of college. I glued a revision timetable and a picture of Elon Musk with a motivational quote to my wall and kept going.
I was determined to get A*AAA in my A Levels. I got AAAB instead. Tears streamed down my face when I opened the enveloped. I was filled with regret — “I could have done much better” I told my mum, despite knowing that I gave it my all. I cried in public whilst drinking tea at Costa and she cried with me.
While I was stuck in the past, I failed to acknowledge how much I had grown and improved in the last year. A nice word from a close friend was what I needed to bring me back into the present and silence the perfectionist voice in my head. “Remember when getting AAA seemed like a myth last year? And now look at you. You’ve achieved that and much more.”, she told me.
She was right. I had achieved what seemed unconceivable in the midst of my crises and my exhaustion. I had overcome what I thought would keep me tied to an invisible chain for the rest of my life. I had given my blood, sweat and tears to these exams and I should have been nothing but proud of myself for getting through A Levels.
I am not finished fighting, though. Whilst I might not need my afternoon “naps” as much as I used to, the dark clouds are still following me everywhere I go.