Graduation was just around the corner, and I had one thing on my mind—to move to the city and become a hairstylist.
It was a dream I had since I was 5 years old. I’d spend hours giving my mom “free hairdos” in my imaginary salon. Then I started experimenting with scissors on my dolls, and then my own hair, and then my most forgiving friends and family. My ultimate goal was to become a runway stylist in New York City. (Yup, this country girl who barely runs a brush through my hair).
Everything was going as planned. Almost.
I still felt constantly queasy, and I kept getting sick with what felt like the flu every two or three weeks. By the end of the year, I had missed 28 days of school. I wasn’t worried at the time, because I was still passing all of my classes—or so I thought.
Two days before graduation, I found out I failed Advanced Typing by 2 points, and I wasn’t going to graduate with my class. I was shocked and heartbroken (and every other feeling you can imagine).
My parents called for a school board meeting, which revealed the real reason I wasn’t graduating. My teachers didn’t believe I was sick, and holding me back was their way of making a statement for future “school skippers.” This came with a cold warning that I was in for a rude awakening in “the real world.” There was nothing we could say to change their minds.
I might not have worn a cap and gown or received my diploma with a handshake, but they didn’t hold me back. I made an appointment to take the GED test so I could begin cosmetology school in the fall. In the meantime, I took a couple of correspondence courses (Drawing People and Drawing Animals) to make up the missing credits.
Two years later (you’ll see why in the next section), I got my diploma in the mail. Not how I imagined it, but I officially graduated.
The queasiness and frequent “flues” continued throughout the summer.
The doctor informed me there was nothing wrong with me, and that it was all in my head. I don’t think he used those exact words, but that’s the message I walked away with. Trouble is, I started to believe him.
I figured if I was imagining this sickness, all I needed to do was push myself harder. So that’s what I did.
I waitressed in the morning and cleaned cabins in the afternoon. I stayed up late with friends and went camping and hiking on my days off—all while feeling varying degrees of horrible.
There was one thing I couldn’t do anymore though, and that was drink. My consumption had already dwindled to an occasional regretted beer, but that still wasn’t enough. On my 18th birthday, I ditched alcohol and cigarettes for good.
I tried to still be a part of things for a while, which was awkward, to say the least. I remember playing a memorization-based drinking game with my friends called One Fat Hen. Instead of taking a swig of whiskey when I goofed, I choked down a bite of plain, unsweetened yogurt (which Mom heard was good for digestion). I still remember every word of that game to this day.
Unfortunately, yogurt wasn’t enough to heal whatever was brewing in my gut…
That fall, I packed up my car and headed to cosmetology school in Portland, Maine—caravanning with “Brad,” my best friend since the second grade.
Brad was always incredibly talented and stylish and in my opinion, destined for hair fame. He also never approved of anyone I was dating and was usually right. Despite our differences, we shared a close bond and a lifelong dream of becoming a hairstylist.
We rented a 2-bedroom apartment together in what was then called the Sonesta Hotel in the center of town. Our apartment was an old, barebones hotel suite with a kitchenette that closed up like a closet. The best part was that it was right across the street from a funky little dance club called Zoots.
Two or three nights a week, Brad and I would line up outside the club with a small group of local teens in baggy jeans and Doc Martens. After last call at 1:00 am, they’d let us in to dance our underage hearts out until closing. Sometimes it was just for an hour, sometimes a few if we were lucky.
Needless to say, this did nothing for my health.
My symptoms were getting worse, and I could no longer hide the fact that I was sick. My skin was sallow and pale, and my eyes were sunken with dark circles. My hair was shaved in the back at the time (remember, it was the early 90’s), so whenever I wore a cap, someone would usually look at me sympathetically or ask if I was on chemo.
The foods I always loved felt like poison to me now. Ice cream, hot dogs, pancakes, even lobster sent me straight to bed with debilitating nausea (which made eating in public incredibly anxiety-provoking).
I heard about a local MD who was famous for her holistic approach, so I made an appointment. After answering a handful of questions, I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and was given a prescription for antidepressants.
I took this as confirmation that my sickness was all in my head, so I pushed myself even harder and got a part-time job on top of my 40-hour school schedule.
I made it through 10-strand braids and buzz cuts (about 6 weeks) before it all came crashing down…