Like a cupcake
I laughed and hurled my snowball. It hit the back of your dark PVC-woven coat and crumbled like a vanilla cupcake. “Rude!” You pitched your exclamation, hitting me squarely in the face. I was never good at dodgeball (before the school district overlords banned the sport, that is). You laughed. All formalities went out the metaphorical window — there was no one around to witness our tomfoolery anyway.
The snow was pristine, like the snow on your porch, the snow that landed on our froyo that night we drove down into the city for a stroll. I wish that everything could stay this way, frozen in a snowglobe: pristine.
My breath drifted away and faded into the overcast sky. The ice on the lake we’d just passed was frozen solid. I used to have dreams of skating as a kid, but now I fear the cold, the possibility of falling in, the possibility of drowning. But if I still had my childlike ambition, I certainly would’ve dabbled in skating.
When I still lived in Texas, my local mall had an ice rink, and every time I went, I’d sit in front of the glass and watch for hours while taking sips of free smoothie samples from the food court. Okay, I lied. I don’t think I would’ve skated. I probably would’ve made a living drinking smoothies or becoming a free samples foodie or something.
The ground hurtled itself at me. It happened so fast. I think I lost my vision, just for a second, but my senses quickly came flooding back. I felt dizzy with a faint but painful ringing in my head. You reached out a hand, a look of worry on your face. Man, the ice on this trail was thicker than I thought.
I’m fine. I’m fine. I reassured you. We took the rest of the trail slowly. I really do have two left feet, not that I’ve ever doubted being a lefty before.
The first few came that evening. I finished showering, making sure to get all the dirt out of my hair. A strange mosquito bite of some sort on my collarbone. No — there was another on my chest. I scratched at the one on my collarbone before deciding that maybe it wasn’t the night to give into the instant gratification of itch relief.
Morning came around, but the bites hadn’t gotten smaller, not even a little. By Monday evening, I couldn’t fall asleep. I finally gave up on the prospect and got up. To my dismay, these “mosquito bites” were everywhere. There were so many now that I lost count. As it turns out, they weren’t insect bites at all but rather a case of hives.
I went to MIT Medical the following day and was prescribed medication. When that didn’t work, I got a more prolonged dose of the same prescription. One month in, still no relief. The medication had seemingly stopped working, and I still couldn’t get more than a few hours of sleep at night. I also developed intense stomach pains that would last hours on end.
Today, I’m still suffering — now almost two months in.
But I can’t just take time off and take care of my health. How could I? I have commitments — I can’t drop the ball on my classes, my lab, my clubs. I still have to write all my essays and study for all my exams. I’m trapped in a room with its walls closing in and no way out.
My life is disintegrating like a cupcake right before my eyes. I smile sweetly to everyone I meet, but the instant my room door closes and the wrapper peels away, I fall apart.
Being at MIT is so often emotionally crushing as-is. So when I couldn’t rely on the wellness or consistency of my feelings, I always took comfort in at least being able to control my destiny, my outcomes, or at the very least, if only as a distraction, the amount of work I put into everything I did. Some called it workaholism. I called it dopamine and serotonin.
I’d been fueled by nothing but work for so long that the mere prospect of relaxation was a chore. A box on a to-do list to check off. I wanted to finish all my work, sure, but I also always wanted more work to do.
A few weeks ago, I felt so completely empty. I felt like my center had been scooped out of me. What remained was a scorched shell of pure apathy. I wasn’t even miserable. Life meant going through the motions each day until I inevitably passed out at 6 a.m and the pain faded away.
The tiny amount or illusion of control and power that I had over my own life was deteriorating between my very fingertips. And like a baker trying to rescue a crumbling pastry, the more I tried to hold it together, the more it fell apart. I was too weak. I hadn’t slept in over a month. I was overbaked.
How could I expect to keep up with all of my academic and external commitments when it was a struggle to simply stay alive?
But as easy as it would have been to let these thoughts consume me, they never did. You never let them. Neither did my other friends.
You were there as we drove to the emergency room; you were there when they admitted me into the ward where I spent the next few days; you never took any time for yourself, just stayed with me, even though I didn’t deserve it. I want to be as kind as you.
I am now on a new medication and seeing two specialists with a flashy new chronic diagnosis. I am far from cured, and the cause of my illness remains a mystery. But at least things are more under control, on a good day.
While this medical journey has been grueling to say the least and its end is unclear, I have realized that my deliberate avoidance of my own emotions in favor of exerting control over everything I did was unhealthy and ultimately, by even a small perturbation, unstable.
I’ve also gained a greater appreciation for the people around me as I continue to deal with my health problems. Most of my professors and mentors have been generous, my friends have been supportive, and you have been there every step of the way. I’ll pay it forward, I promise.
I sit here and actually enjoy a vanilla cupcake for the first time in a long time. It’s falling apart a little, but that’s okay. It tastes no less sweet.