Tuesday, July 24

'other people'

We read about life changing illnesses and calamities happening to 'other people'. This person lost their home in a fire, that girl was raped, this kid has leukaemia.  But these things don’t happen to us. Not to me, we think. Never did I imagine my life changing paths, without a decision on my part – "those things don’t happen to normal girls like me, they happen to 'other people',” I thought.


One day I was the girl who was sure life would follow a predictable path, the next, I discovered that I had limited control.

The day my body began unravelling...

I wasn’t feeling good about returning to school after the summer break, which was strange. Usually I was rearing to return to the friends, the music immersion, and the flute lessons. It had been a dream when I was first accepted into the VCA Secondary School, and I’d worked my butt off since arriving.

“I think I’ll be fine once I start,” I told mum.

I hoped the old me would kick into gear as soon as I was surrounded by inspiring people, by the VCASS environment. 

The first day back, I woke up early to catch the train to Melbourne, and it was hard. At school, they were gearing us up for our final exams, spiel after spiel about how hard we would have to work. I felt daunted; usually an A student it was odd for me to be overwhelmed about working hard. I went up to a practice room at lunch time to get some tone practice in.

In there something strange happened. I was looking over the VCA buildings as I started struggling for breath. I couldn’t breathe – I had to drag the air in, and I became afraid. I was worried I’d faint, or worse still, die. My extremities tingled. 

Alarmed, I returned to class – yawning every few seconds and looking gray in the face, according to my teacher. I had arranged to study psychology at the Centre for Adult Education due to a timetable clash with French at school. It was a 3 hour evening class in Lygon Street. Mondays were going to be long. I felt bad, felt like I couldn’t do this anymore, like I would break. Where had my enthusiasm gone, my vigour? I stumbled in the door at 10.30 pm, having made it through my first day of school, and feeling like I’d just survived a marathon.

A week later my dad was bringing me home from school as I lay lifelessly in the front seat with a pillow he’d brought along. It was abnormal for Dad to drive up to Melbourne to get me, but I was a wreck and the relief was immense. I could collapse all the way home. My parents knew I was not well.
I’d told mum about my breathing issues that week.

“It sounds like anxiety to me,” she replied.

“But I can’t breathe. It’s physical. I’m not anxious about anything. Why would I be anxious at school, when I love it there?”

Mum had been an aid to a friend with anxiety, a friend who had hyperventilated so badly that she’d fainted and they’d called the ambulance. I was relieved to hear I couldn’t die from not breathing, I’d just faint and then my body would kick back into action automatically.

I struggled to breathe in the train, at dinner time, in class. I lost weight; I looked emaciated on stage under the bright lights in my performance blacks. My teachers told me over and over that I looked gray as I rudely yawned my way through their classes. They said, “Sorry Danielle, am I keeping you up?” too many times. I had a perpetual headache and had to will my limbs to move, to walk. I cried like an over sensitive child. My world was gray and I felt no joy. My school friends couldn’t grasp this – and as I had no proper diagnosis yet, they thought me grumpy and ‘over it.’ I couldn’t verbalise the overwhelming fatigue I felt. Everyone in Year 12 was ‘tired’, and I sounded attention seeking for claiming that my tiredness was in some way worse than theirs. “We’re all tired” they would say, and it was true, we were all working hard. I withdrew from people because that too used up precious energy. I spent more time with the school counsellor, having blood tests and at home. My doctor has said I was anxious, depressed and tired from the depression.
How could I keep rising at 6 am, practicing for hours and studying, when each waking moment was an incalculable effort? And what the hell was wrong with my body, and when would it stop letting me down?
But I limped and hobbled my way through, at great cost – much greater cost than I realised at the time. I was fragile, I was delicate. This was something that school holidays couldn’t fix, nor wishing, nor pushing through, nor defying.

I received a score of 98 despite the gruelling year and it felt good, but not very good. Who cares about being in the top 2% when you are a gray shadow of your former self? It was a high score yes, but hollow because my health had left me. All the success in the world couldn’t take away the pain of a broken body.

In the face of sickness, I could see clearly what actually mattered to me. I knew then good grades and a great career is not much of a life if your health is gone. Life had to be more than that. I also knew that people who suffer aren’t a different kind. They’re normal, they’re going about their life and then hard times come.  They can let it embitter them, or they can change and adapt and grow. That first day, I didn’t realise how much my life was going to change. But I’m not fighting change anymore, I’m trying to embrace it and I’m walking along knowing that while I have breath, each day matters as much as it did when I was well. 

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