Four Years After the Myth

Four years ago this month, this profile about me ran in the student newspaper.

I was really proud of it. It made me feel important. I mean, I wasn’t crazy about the profile image, but I chalk that up to my own need to criticize every single goddamn thing about my face (itself a symptom of intensive steroid treatments as a teenager).

I was most proud of how I was portrayed. It was the final step in the successful cultivation of the myth. I went to a small liberal arts college in a small east coast city, and I wanted to be a myth.

In a very un-journalism-like stance for a then-journalism student, I got editorial approval over the article.

I remember showing up to the interview that morning, at the campus Tim Horton’s (the only restaurant on campus back then) with my ceramic travel mug that was undoubtedly filled with Starbucks VIA Instant, which would also be my breakfast. I had spent the previous night in a minidress, handing out tequila shots at the bar on the other campus down the hill.

I’m described as “unflappable.” I have my hair tied back, but only because I was working until one in the morning the night before. I made a point to mention that. Look at how many things I can balance!

It was the first time I said anything public relating to my Crohn’s — I had a blog, which the article does mention, but it was so underpublicized that I might as well have been writing under a pseudonym. Of course, the article itself is necessarily vague on what Crohn’s actually is. I had an operation, but I certainly wasn’t about to say what it involved (it involved intestines and actual shit).

“She wants to offer support for young people living with Crohn’s and other inflammatory bowel conditions in the most graceful way possible.”

I’m graceful. I’m confident. I’ve overcome my illness. I’m proving everyone wrong.

The myth.

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I look back at this article and laugh at how it’s become a permanent memorial to the most toxic period of my life. I had built up my myth so well, determined to be as unflappable as the author believed I was.

I was not.

I was having panic attacks and headaches and I was also shitting blood all the time. Nobody knew that.

They saw the person in the article, the person who buzzed around campus with a coffee in hand and organized yoga classes and clothing drives while also keeping a 3.9 GPA. Who spoke of hollow female empowerment, which really just meant working yourself into the ground so that you don’t have time to think about systemic discrimination.

The same person who took a medical leave of absence five months later, accompanied by a letter from the doctor stating “patients with inflammatory bowel disease appear well physically, but can experience significant symptoms.”

The myth was killing me.

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My myth was pervasive and toxic. I look back at it now, with four years, one degree and two and a half surgeries between it and just feel sad for that person (and a little bit cringey when I read the first paragraph).

I think about how I fed into all of the narratives I’ve come to view with such disdain. Overcoming illness is easy. Eat coffee for lunch. You have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé.

Overcoming illness is a process, and you’ll never quite be done with it. Coffee for lunch will make you weak and tired and you’ll lose so much weight that the thought of choosing an outfit for the day — you know, that thing you loved doing so much that it’s the headline of the article — will fill you with dread. Beyoncé? She has a multi-million dollar support system to help her achieve it all.

Myth-making, in a local paper, on social media, on your blog, helps no one. It didn’t help the people who read it and believed it. It didn’t help me when I had to take the leave of absence for treatment and could only think about breaking my perfect attendance record and jeopardizing my GPA. It didn’t help get rid of the internalized stigma I carried about my illness.

If I was an inspiration, as the article tried to make me out to be, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t real. I wasn’t real.

That same year, my myth came crashing down involuntarily. Four years later, I’m all the better for it.

Freelance writer/comedienne with mixed results. Personal essays, pop culture and lukewarm media criticism. www.emmachapple.com