Living with an autoimmune disease is terrifying

The last day I lived as a normal college student was March 13. My day consisted of coming home on the train, getting Starbucks, going to the grocery store, eating at a restaurant and hugging my grandparents. Today it is hard to imagine how I could participate in these simple tasks without severely risking my health.

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis (RA). There is no cure. Nothing I did brought on this disease, and nothing could have prevented it. Still, I am forced to live the rest of my life with the pain and consequences of the disease. 

Other autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, Hashimoto’s disease, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and lupus, some of which are caused by the body attacking its own tissue and cells. Autoimmune diseases do not weaken the immune system, but the immunosuppressant drugs that are given to fight them do. According to Healthline, a mental and physical health information website, “... the immune system attacks the body’s own tissue. Because immunosuppressant drugs weaken the immune system, they suppress this reaction.”

For many, a large part of college is making friends, having fun, exploring who you are and living your life to the fullest. COVID-19 has slightly changed that, but most students are still able to maintain some form of normalcy. I cannot.

With treatment, RA does not inhibit my day-to-day life or my ability to be a college student. When COVID-19 began to spread around the nation and NAU went online for the remaining semester, my autoimmune disease became the central focus of my life. 

Since then, I have not left my house unless necessary. All shoes are kept outside the house. I immediately shower when returning home. Everything we eat or drink is wiped or sprayed with a disinfectant. I do not eat at restaurants, and all interactions with family or friends take place outside, six feet apart, with masks. 

The families of immunocompromised people and those who live with us are also forced to live as if they are at high risk and take extra precautions. 

As the nation and the world are lifting restrictions with rising cases, I still cannot participate. My friends are back at college, living in apartments together. They go to restaurants for birthdays, sit at coffee shops, go to the mall and live their college life with little concern. 

To put it simply, it sucks. I am forced to choose between my health and my social life. In the end, I know I have to choose my health — and it is what I have been choosing — but it is hard. Campus clubs and extracurriculars are meeting virtually, but still host activities outdoors. I watch them via Instagram Live while sitting on my couch. 

Overwhelming anxiety and fear accompanies this constant state of missing out. Fear of getting COVID-19 and having to come off my medications, resulting in so much pain. The fear of not knowing what will happen if I catch the virus is omnipresent. The fear of knowing that COVID-19 symptoms look similar to rheumatoid arthritis, which includes fatigue, muscle aches and swelling, lingers in my mind. 

To give perspective, I contracted a cold last year. Not the flu, but a simple runny nose and a sore throat. This sickness depleted my already-low energy  due to arthritis. I was out of commission for two and a half weeks because of a runny nose! I had never before been that sick, and I could not even imagine how my body would react to a virus that has attacked and ravaged people who do not have a compromised immune system.

Watching my university open up for in-person classes and normal operation terrifies me. There are many more cases than when schools closed last spring and there is still no vaccine. These cases are rising and create more of a threat to me and others. I am the one who is missing out on football games, concerts, guest speakers and hanging out with friends because my school prioritized reopening over the health of their students. 

I feel unimportant. I feel I am not cared for or listened to. But I am not the only one who is suffering. In 2012, the Hospital for Special Surgery reported more than 50 million U.S. citizens live with an autoimmune disease.

There are immunocompromised college students all across the nation. People with autoimmune disease are at risk, but so are those who are HIV positive, have cancer or have undergone organ transplants. The immunocompromised are often overlooked, but now hundreds of college students across the nation are having to pick between their social life and their health. 

The most helpful thing for me and others that are immunocompromised is the next time you go out, think about us. We appear to be healthy and in a normal world, we would be living our lives just like you. Be aware of who you are spending time around and if they are being safe as well, and finally, always remember to follow your county’s health guidelines.