As a college student, you have long nights. You know the ones. The pre-games, parties, late night pizza/taco truck/whatever-is-open desperation. Maybe you get dolled up and go clubbing with friends, or maybe you like to rage with your frat or sorority. Maybe your thing is to go to Coachella, or Lollapalooza, or Burning Man, and when your favorite band plays your song and you sing the chorus with complete strangers, you are the happiest you’ve ever been. Maybe you play a sport for your college — say baseball, and the nights after you pitch, you go out with the boys to celebrate.
For many of us, these kinds of experiences define our adolescence. And by extension, for many of these activities, so does alcohol. We feel this is how it will be forever. That’s the beauty of youth; it will never go away.
That is, until you’re in the doctor’s office because you’ve been feeling weird lately.
I’m too young
I’m 23. A month ago, I felt normal. It’s that sudden. Turns out, I’m in the process of being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease. My doctor tells me that typically, RA affects people older than 23 — but still, I have it. So basically, autoimmune conditions are big anomalies to begin with, but as a young person with an autoimmune condition, I’m even more of an anomaly. I’m special.
While I’m getting used to all these new changes in my body (new meaning excruciating pain when doing very average things, like tying shoes, turning keys in ignition, holding cups of water), here is something else that I’ll have to get used to as a young person: No more booze.
Because now that I have a disease, and diseases require medication, and the drug I’ve been prescribed is called methotrexate — the name sounds so sinister, like the chemical in a movie that bad guys threaten to wipe out all of humanity with — I learn that I can no longer drink alcohol. Why? I learn this side effect of methotrexate:
Methotrexate may cause liver damage, especially when it is taken for a long period of time.
And of course, alcohol is already hard on our liver. So I ask my doc: “Do you plan for me to be taking this for ‘a long period of time?’”
My doc: “Yes.”
I’m in pain, and I’m coming to terms with having all this pain and all of these physical limitations and terrifying medical side effects for the rest of my life, and I’m thinking: wow, I need a drink.
I’m 31 now, and I’ve had RA for eight years. My memoir, Hard To Grip —on being a pro baseball player whose career ends at the hands of RA — has just been released.
With my book out, I’ve spent more time on social media. Scrolling through hashtags like #RA or #spoonie or #chronicpain has revealed thousands of young people with autoimmune illness, some younger than me now. I can feel their pain, literally and emotionally. I remember those times I felt old before my time. I remember those times I felt ashamed of this disease, of having to explain again why I couldn’t have that beer, why I couldn’t stay out late, why I couldn’t play harder. I see their hardships on Instagram — the bruising, the wrist braces, the methotrexate IV’s, the patches where hair once was.
I feel that posting on social media is a way of spreading awareness, as well as normalizing to the world these new realities that appear so bleak and queasy. It is also a way to rationalize this abrupt stripping of our youth that is an autoimmune condition.
It is very hard to feel young with an autoimmune condition.
This means physically, as well as socially. And one way our youth is severed, which I don’t think is talked about much, is that drinking is suddenly forbidden (or when we do drink, we feel the guilt of killing ourselves slowly). Consequently, our social lives must take new form. Perhaps the activities that shaped our youth — and I’m not saying drinking solely — but the fun times of which alcohol was a part, are suddenly out of the question, or forever different. Of course, the easy answer is: learn to have fun without alcohol. And yes, I agree. And yes, I did. Maybe you’re thinking, wow, this guy really liked his alcohol! Or, oh, woe is him, at least he still had his youth. And OK, you can think that. But I’d like you to think of all the times that social drinking was so common-place, so normalized in our mainstream culture — especially in your youth — and reconsider.
It wasn’t that I loved booze; it was that I loved being social, being with friends, hanging out and taking part.
For instance, consider this scenario. You’re with your friends — maybe at a concert, or a club, or on a road trip, or watching sports. One asks, “Who needs a drink? You, you, you,” and the finger points to you. He quickly says, “Oh right, my bad,” and moves on. It is a subtle, but awkward — and stinging — reminder.
You have a disease that strives to rob you of your youth, both in body, and in spirit. But you are young, and this, in and of itself, is an impenetrable, beautiful thing. Time is on your side, you have a dog in this fight, and as far as I know, autoimmune illness can’t ruin your smile.
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