Coming to a Head

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’d had since I was five years old. I’d spend hours brushing and braiding Mom’s hair in my imaginary salon.

Here’s one of the many promotions I made (before I discovered spellcheck).

Translation: “You will like my hairdos, but you will love my price! Come on! Get ten hairdos for only $2. Wow!”

It wasn’t long before I was cutting my dolls’ hair, and then my own, and then my most forgiving friends and family’s. My ultimate goal was to become an avante-garde runway stylist in New York City (Yup, this country girl who barely uses a brush).

Everything was going as planned. Almost.

I still felt queasy and kept getting sick with what felt like the flu every couple of weeks. By the end of the year, I had missed 28 days of school, but I wasn’t worried because I was still passing all of my classes. Or so I thought.

Two days before graduation, I was heading to my locker for the last time when a teacher stopped me in the hallway. She told me I had failed Advanced Keyboarding by one point and I wasn’t going to graduate with my class. If any other words followed, I couldn’t hear them. I just stood there with my jaw dropped and tears streaming down my face as students walked past me in slow motion.

I felt heartbroken and humiliated, and I couldn’t understand how this happened. Aside from woodshop, typing was the only subject I did well in!

The next day, my parents called for a school board meeting, which revealed the real reason I wasn’t graduating. The administration didn’t believe I was sick, and they were withholding my diploma as a punishment and to make a statement for future school skippers. This came with a stern warning that I was in for a rude awakening in “the real world.”

There was nothing we could do to change their minds.

I didn’t get to wear a cap and gown or receive my diploma with a handshake, but they didn’t hold me back. I got my GED so I could start cosmetology school in the fall, and I enrolled in a couple of art courses (the kind you do through the mail) to make up the missing credit.

When push comes to shove

The queasiness and bouts of “flu” continued throughout the summer.

The doctor told me there was nothing wrong with me, and my symptoms were all in my head. I doubt he used those exact words, but that’s how I interpreted it. And the trouble is, I started to believe him.

I figured if I imagined this sickness, all I needed to do was push through it. So, I waited on tables in the morning and cleaned cabins in the afternoon. And I stayed up late with friends and went camping and hiking on my days off—all while feeling varying degrees of horrible.

I even went as far as crawling up the final stretch of a rigorous hike, thinking I’d feel better when I got to the top. I was wrong, but that didn’t change my mind. I was convinced that ignoring my discomfort was the only way I was going to feel better.

Little did I know, my theory was about to be put to the test.

The city

That fall, I packed up my Chevy Cavalier and headed for cosmetology school in Portland, Maine—caravanning with my best friend, Ryan.

Ryan and I bonded in the second grade when we put on our first impromptu puppet show with a disco theme. From then on, we were inseparable. Unlike some of my other social circles, we didn’t get into trouble together. Our friendship was based on creativity, self-expression, and the shared dream of becoming a hairstylist.

We rented a 2-bedroom apartment together in what was then called the Sonesta Hotel in the heart of downtown Portland, just a few steps from our school. It 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.

A couple nights a week, Ryan and I would line up outside the club with a group of local teens, sporting our best baggy jeans, tight shirts, and Doc Martens. After last call, around 1:00 AM, they’d let us come in and dance our underage hearts out until closing. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes a few if we were lucky.

As exhilarating as it was, those late nights didn’t help matters.

The flu-like episodes were becoming longer and more frequent, and it was getting progressively harder to eat. Foods I always loved (like ice cream, burgers, and pancakes) left me nauseous for days, and even light meals landed like a brick in my gut.

Mom told me about a women’s health clinic nearby that was well-known for its holistic approach, and I decided to check it out. After asking a handful of questions, they diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and gave me a prescription for antidepressants. I took this as confirmation that it really was all in my head.

Determined to push through it, I picked up a part-time retail job on top of my 40-hour/week cosmetology school schedule. I made it through 10-strand braids and buzz cuts (about six weeks) before it all fell apart.

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Hey there.

This post is part of a series called “Peeling the Onion” about my adventures healing from life-threatening digestive issues.

To view the full story, click here.