Chronically Catherine: Moving in and moving forward

A drawing of a person with long brown hair and glasses sitting down and resting their hands on their forehead.
(Nora Miller | Daily Trojan)

Ah yes — the sweet smell of “Back to School” in the air. 

Parents profusely sweating while helping their kids move in. Goodbyes to family and hellos to new friends. Dad installing a handicap shower head while Mom battles insurance over the phone. Two cartfuls of medicine rolled into an open corner. Carefully transporting temperature-sensitive ketamine lozenges while a nurse named Brian schedules you for in-dorm infusions and transferring 20-plus prescriptions to the student pharmacy.

Oh sorry — your back to school doesn’t look like that? Yeah, I never thought mine would either. 

For some background, this is my second big move to college. My first move was across the country in 2016 when I was 18, able-bodied and not living with chronic illness. This time around — after a three-year medical leave of absence — I’m 23 and moving to a new college with a host of chronic health conditions and certainly not as able-bodied as my 18-year-old self.

In 2016, I had eager butterflies about moving in. This time, I had a nervous knot in my gut which made me nauseous.

In preparation for move-in at USC, I vigorously planned. For weeks, I coordinated to ensure I stocked up on all my regular, emergency and refrigerated medications, IV therapies, physical therapy tools and more. 

Oh yeah, and don’t forget all the other shit you need for school like a backpack, pens, books, chargers, glasses and more.

In all honesty, it was genuinely hard to get excited for my triumphant return to college. Everyone who cared about me and their mother was excited for me, so why couldn’t I flip a switch and feel as excited as they did? I was on the precipice of something amazing, right? And lest I forget my deep anxiety over the ever-presence of the coronavirus as it continues to take its toll.

Instead, I felt like I was returning to college in a new body, dragging all my trauma from the past three years behind me like another heavy back-to-school suitcase. 

I was so desperate I even genuinely tried to enjoy the back-to-school Target commercials which usually felt like nails on a chalkboard. 

All that said, I wasn’t surprised when I cried four times on the third day of move-in. It felt like my disability was standing in my way of experiencing all the hype. I was here physically, but I wasn’t here mentally. 

Or maybe I just didn’t want to be present because that meant I had to acknowledge and accept that I was finally taking a chance with my health. 

It took three long, painful and complex years to have crafted a delicate and manageable health plan. Now, I’d have to trust all the work I’d done — all the lessons I’d learned, obstacles I’d overcome, suffering I’d endured, compensatory strategies I’d developed — to start working toward my goals which had taken a backseat during this medically necessary pause in my life. 

Amid all the tears, I reached out to my support system and was gently reminded of a few things:

  1. Honey, it’s literally the third day of being on campus. You cannot expect to be a master of your space and of campus when you’ve only been here 72 hours. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Instead, speak to yourself the way a loved one would speak to you: with care, encouragement, and patience.
  1. It’s no secret that change is hard and, breaking news, you’re in a moment of massive change. Moving away to live on your own shakes up everything about your routine and comfort zone, and can often show you your areas of growth. But ultimately, change is good — it means you’re evolving, learning, broadening your experience, exploring your identity and deepening your purpose. In this case, moving to college is filled with so much excitement and anticipation, so if anything, cling to that feeling when it arises.
  1. Lastly, everybody has a right to be here. No matter the shape, size, skin color, cognitive or ability differences, all bodies are divinely perfect. Lest we forget the most important part, we are also our hearts and minds. And as far as your “right” to be here? I invite you to take to heart something School of Dramatic Arts Professor Anita Dashiell-Sparks said so aptly at Convocation, “Take your place here; own it.”

And as I write this through tears again (you’re welcome to join me) in a moment of catharsis, I feel as if I can see clearly now that the time has come to pivot from surviving to thriving. 

I’m also weepy because I know I’m not alone. We’ve all gone through so much trauma — collective and individual — in the past 18 months that in all my feelings of uncertainty, I know I do not walk alone in struggling with this transition, regardless of able-bodiedness. 

So to the people I’ve met so far who’ve embraced all parts of me — including my need to rest every little bit — thank you. 

To the people I’ve yet to meet who are feeling the same way: Girl, I see you and I can’t wait to meet you.

And even if you aren’t struggling and you’re able to feel all the excitement of returning to campus, I extend a massive thank you because feeling your energy lifts me and everyone up around you. Your joy is contagious.

Most of all, to the people who got me to this point — the ones who reminded me that although I haven’t used my wings in this way in a while, it doesn’t mean they’re not ready and ripe for flying — I thank you from the depths of my heart. 

So if you’re like me, and you’re feeling like you’re taking a big chance right now, I invite you to join me in taking the first step, because then at least we’ll all be walking forward together.

Writer’s note: Feel free to reach out to Chronically Catherine if you’re also a student of different abilities working to coexist with daily adversity without losing sight of your fabulosity – chronica[email protected] or @itschronicallycatherine on Instagram.

Catherine Ames is a junior writing about life as a young person coexisting with chronic illness. Her column, “Chronically Catherine,” runs every other week.