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Undiagnosed by Ashley Wylie

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

The background photo shows colorful watercolor paints in an abstract design, colors in yellow, blue, purple, red, orange. Black text over top the image says Essay Undiagnosed by Ashley Wylie.

When I was 14, I shaved one of my eyebrows off.

In an impatient attempt to become beautiful, my hand slipped. After blinking a few times in the three-way mirror, my mother came to rescue me with eyebrow liner, squirming guiltily with laughter. The drawn-on brow she granted me only lasted part of the day. In English class, my friend/not friend Mckenzie was the first to publicly announce my missing half-eyebrow. She wasn’t the first to tell me that something about me wasn’t right.

When I was born, I was dead.

My skin was a deep blue for 3 days. The cord wrapped around my neck and I‘d been deprived of oxygen. The ultrasound hadn’t revealed any dilemmas. The doctors wheeled me away to a private room for about thirty minutes.

My mom thinks the cord twisted about two months prior to my birth. She was walking around our circular driveway when I began doing donuts in her tummy. Then, no more donuts for the rest of her pregnancy. Either that or it was all the spaghetti she ate that day. We have a Polaroid of her and two of her sisters, pregnant with children that were born a month before me, and my mom’s belly was twice their size.

Everybody thought I was twins. But it’s not that I wasn’t, it’s just that my twin was a softball sized tumor on my mother’s ovary.

Now I’m 26 and my boss has concerns about the monotone tendencies of my voice.

He has made several attempts to thwart my ability to answer the phones. When my direct supervisor unwittingly put me on the radio, they had to have a meeting so he could be reminded of my good qualities, and the one that should be hidden. When I went to work last night I ate chicken, despite it being one of my known allergens, because it was all that was available to me. I didn’t have time to pack a lunch. Now I am hoping that the allergic reaction won’t make my intestines bleed, as it has the last twenty or so times. This is what concerns me.

I’m not always an illness.

Sometimes I get ridiculous and sob frantically while playing “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” on the piano. Sometimes I go ice skating or to the coast or eat chocolate chip cookie dough-crust cheesecake. I throw up at least two times on the drive, and maintain a fever on the ice. But I do things.

Solar flares that fail to light up the sky still register on our nervous systems. When I am left alone with my nervous system, I read self-help books. They often tell me that my poor health is a result of negative thinking. I tend to think books like this suck and replace them with books like “The Devil’s Dictionary.”

My family had a friend named Douglas Myles who was a great writer. He was also a former CIA agent. His historical fiction novels were largely formed from his real life adventures. Coincidentally, he died on September 11th, 2001, in the unrelated throes of something else tragic. The last time I saw him he was in bed and I was too young to understand an illness of such severity. Everything I knew about illness before that time simply involved throwing up, Saltines, and being unsure if I was hallucinating those Planet of the Ape marathons my dad watched.

Doug called me some other girl’s name and told me to come closer so that he could squeeze my tush. My mom sent me out of the room. Before he became very ill, whenever he came into our home he would close the curtains and say, “No matter where you are, the government can see and hear you.” I think about this every time I close a curtain. My grandpa had a rocking chair of his own, but it wasn’t as sturdy as Doug’s. His would creak and it was less enchanting because he was always in it.

One time my sister threw up in a flower pot at my grandpa’s house because she witnessed grandma touch her feet and, without washing, continued to shape the sugar cookies into snowmen.

My grandma continued to eat spoonfuls of sugar after her doctor’s warning that she was going to lose her foot. She informed my mother that she would, “rather die than diet.”

I was reminded of this when I watched Mad Men’s Betty Draper. Her story parallels many realities, continuing to smoke cigarettes after receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. I always knew if it went this way for me it would be via white cake. Simple but sentimental.

On a seemingly trivial Tuesday in March of this year, I had another appointment with my neurologist. He informed me that my liver is below 70% function and his level of stress emphasized the need to change. Rounding out this great conversation, he concluded that there is no action I can take to compensate for my body’s inability to function. After this appointment, dancing around the idea of liver disease for the last 3 years, and being 25 and never having alcohol, I thought I’d finally try my hand at it. My friend who had been abstaining from alcohol, due to her alcoholism, joined me.

I bought two large fishbowl wine glasses at Grocery Outlet and four bottles of wine. Growing up in a Mormon family that thought drinking caffeine was a sin, I had little experience with booze.

This was a short lived month. I quickly tired of being unproductive and watching my niece’s cat consistently eat so much that she threw up in various inconvenient locations several times throughout the day. This, combined with her caretaker’s decision to continually refill her bowl, left me feeling like I’d had enough.

I normally have a haughty lead foot with decisions. If my boyfriend stares at another woman, I heavily consider my other options. If my only friend and roommate keeps her lack of income a secret, leaving me either homeless or covering her share of the rent, I consider life without friends.

I’ve heard that the more magnetic the person, the more attractive they are, and the later in life they find a partner. That they are simply overwhelmed with all of their options for partners and won’t settle on something because they want to see what else is available to them.

It’s kind of like how Advent calendars are failures because children are too curious to wait and see what candy is under the next day’s door. To the opposite effect, many of us make the decision to obtain keepsakes we don’t use or touch. In all parents’ homes there at least one glass cabinet that holds music boxes, fine china, Precious Moments memorabilia, or other items that cannot be paired with peanut butter and jelly hands.

As an eight year old, I firmly believed in using my hands to determine the worth of anything. I snuck down the steep hill into our neighbor’s shed while my cousin kept watch at the top. We’d grab plaster and wood and make forts out of our findings. We didn’t feel bad about stealing because our neighbors were gone for months, and we weren’t sure if they were ever coming home. This seemed like solid reasoning to avoid guilt, especially because I had already been baptized and the church told me I was accountable for my sins now. It suddenly became important to measure them out and allot them where deemed most advantageous.

When I was not yet eight, and in the first grade, my teacher Mrs. Margeson handed me Sammy the Snake. He was a three foot long stuffed green felt noodle with yellow spots. I was supposed to take him home and bring him back the following Monday with a written story of our travels and time spent together. I had so much anxiety about the thought of bringing him back damaged and being reprimanded, that I left him in my backpack for the whole weekend. By the time Monday came, I had fashioned enough tales about our time together that my teacher was none the wiser. This was the first time I remember lying.

I now lie on a daily basis, usually in the form of a greeting. When I reflect on it, I learned to lie because of school. That and church.

Sometime after age eight, I replaced a portrait of Jesus that sat on the glass display case in the living room with a picture of Billy the puppet on his tricycle. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was to determine how long it would take someone to notice, which was longer than I thought. Of course my mother was the first to say something, as it was her portrait. It is likely that my dad saw it and, instead of saying something, devoted his attention to a box of caramel turtles and picked at that. He goes to church every Sunday with my mother.

My mom is very intuitive. When I was about 6 years old we had one of the biggest thunderstorms I’ve ever experienced. We stood in the kitchen talking in the dark. My mom yelled at my sister to close the refrigerator door to keep the cool in. I sat on top of the sink, peering out the window. Without warning, my mom ran from the other side of the room, grabbed my waist and sprinted, while carrying me, about five feet away from the window before lightning struck our yard. I never asked her if the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Mine feels like it always is.

I wonder who loved him, that 70 year old chemo patient in his fading brown chair.

I couldn’t remember his name, though he sat across from me in big blue Lazy Boy for four hours twice a week, our right arms tied to bright yellow fluid that exited the same color that it entered. He always seemed so eager to talk and I couldn’t help but feel this desire should be contrary to his state of being. It was contrary to mine, so he resorted to reading his magazines.

National Geographic made me angry, so did Woman’s Day. Instead of reading, I’d stare at the map of South America on the wall, and wonder why there was a map of South America on the wall. Or I’d wonder about people swinging babies on their hips and smoking cigarettes. Or if my handshake would be limp if I ever met the president.

Back in 2009, my mom spent about forty-three dollars on a pizza with no wheat, sugar, cheese or meat. This was right before the huge uprising of allergen-free products to enter the market. She gathered each ingredient separately and found a sideways recipe she thought would suffice. The pizza was essentially corn bread with a tomato paste frosting. It took her about three hours to make. We both agree that is the worst thing we have ever eaten.

But we ate it because it was made out of love and desperation, just like children. And we all know how precious they are.

Stores now sell fraudulent health foods to those in need of bettering their health. They market bone broth as a nutritional panacea so that they can sell it to people who are hurting. Which is great for profits because that’s a huge target audience.  However, the broth typically found in stores lacks the gelatinous healing quality present in homemade broths. I have two crock pots that I keep on rotation so that I have a constant stream of bone broth available to me. 

I drink it before the magic of the night when everything rots that wouldn’t have had the same hours been spent in daylight.

Today, ten years after the big blue Lazy Boy, I head straight for the bakery section, with pouches of Ashwagandha in my purse. There is a shorter Asian woman in front of the cake display, she sees me coming and smiles. She then continues staring intently behind the display case. Strolling behind her, I look at the cakes they have to determine what I think might suit me.

A pink and brown striped zebra-ish strawberry torte rests next to an aptly named “elegant white cake” that has a bow across the top like a present. Because a cake isn’t good enough if it looks like a cake, it now has to look like a present or be at least two things in one.

A couple minutes go by and I consider how chocolatey they can make a chocolate cake, when the Asian woman screams “Can anybody help me?” I turn to look at her. She is already looking at me, her shoulders shrug along with her hand as she smiles and throws in a little scoff laugh. Not a genuine smile nor laugh, but one that follows an action that someone is sheepish in undertaking but commits to anyway due to its necessity to their desired outcome. Her outcome being fried chicken wings.

I clearly missed her frustration when I first met her. I should have known she had a short temper, she was wearing plaid. There is a worker that looks at me from behind the case where everything undone is kept. She looks ordinary. Her lips tighten and smash together so that they disappear completely for a second like people do when they feel they should smile but that’s all their genuine discontent can muster. She rolls the bread shelf over to the see-through case where they are to begin their job of lulling people in. She sidesteps and glugs, “Can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m thinking about ordering a cake.” It’s so obvious that I have never done this before. “I’m curious about the ½ sheet cake size.” Leaning against the display, in her white coat, she pendulums down and points with her pencil to a space in-between the other cakes. “It was right here in this empty spot.” I look at her face to gauge if she thinks that this is adequate information she has given me. It looks like she does.


Ashley grew up with worsening symptoms of autoimmune disease and no label to attach it to. She now lives on a farm in Williams, OR, where she has a painting of a pig on her wall.

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