Story #3: Sorority Rush

Welcome to the Invisible Stories Project. I’m Liz Allen and this is Story #3: Sorority Rush. If you’re the type of person who likes to get the overview of my full story and the background of my illness - check out Story #1, then come back and listen to this. Here we go….

When I came back to Dartmouth after holiday break of my Sophomore year, I thought that the only way I would make it through school was to get into a sorority. If that sounds too intense, let me explain: Dartmouth was INTENSELY Greek. Two-thirds of students were in a fraternity or sorority, and the majority of social life of the campus took place on Frat Row. Every Friday, roving bands of freshmen walked from one fraternity to another, drinking free beer, and oogling at cool upperclassman playing beer pong.

And there was one sorority that rose to the top for me: KDE. It was where the athletes went, the cool girls. KDE was a local house, which meant it didn't have to play by the rules of a national organization. While most sorority houses forbade parties, pushing women into fraternity houses if they wanted to socialize, KDE threw its own parties.

There was just one problem: Even the women of KDE had to look good. As in, they needed to know how to do things like put on makeup, wear high heels, and flirt with men. Sure, they wore jeans, but the designer kind. And, well... that wasn't me. I didn't own a blow dryer. I didn't even know designer jeans existed. My favorite pair of shoes was my hiking boots.

So, when it came time to enter Rush – the grueling process through which sororities choose new sisters – I needed some help, and my roommate Chelsea was there. She wanted nothing to do with sororities, but she was supportive of me, so she stood next to me as we examined every item of feminine clothing in my closet: exactly two skirts and one dress.

“At least you have a great body!” Chelsea said.

I was in prime shape from my training as a Division 1 athlete. My stomach was flat. My arms were toned. At least on this count, I looked like a woman who belonged at KDE.  But as we discussed the merits of wearing a skirt while everyone else wore a dress and how to stay warm in the vicious New Hampshire winter while wearing tiny clothes, my voice moved up in the register, words spilling out, laughter in too many places.

But while my body looked enviable on the outside, on the inside, an unwelcome bacteria had started banging on my immune system. I didn’t know it yet, but I’d contracted Lyme disease. I still had the body of a swimmer and a climber, but the truth was, at this point, I could barely walk up stairs. And, I’d recently had to add an ugly appendage to my figure: A heart monitor called a holter monitor.

Back in 2003, a holter monitor was a rectangular box (about the size of a small cracker box). It attached to different parts of my chest with wires. The box itself attached to my waist with a simple, scratchy black velcro strap. Five wires spring from the box like an octopus, snaking its tentacles all around my body. The wires attached to small nodes on a thick white sticker. The top two stickers came very close to my clavicle, the others snaked around my sides.  

I tried on my best “sorority” outfit for Chelsea – a little black dress that fit me like a glove. Which sent us into hysterics because the rectangular monitor poked right through. Wires stuck out in three places… I looked bionic, different, difficult.

“Sweater,” Chelsea declared, “It’s the only option.”

I found a bulky wool sweater with a high neck. It hid the heart monitor, but I thought it made me seem tubby and conservative. We tried it with both of the skirts. They looked weird with the sweater, so I put on a pair of boot-cut jeans. My heels looked weird with the jeans, so out came the hiking boots. I’m just kidding. I didn’t actually wear hiking boots to rush.  But I knew I was going to look totally out of place among a sea of sexy sophomores, no matter how much makeup I wore.

Nonetheless, I packed a Red Bull, and headed off with a good-luck wave from Chelsea. I was going to need it. For months, I had been unable to walk down the single flight of stairs from our dorm room without taking breaks. My plan for getting through the night consisted of FOMO and a chalky mix of sugar and caffeine. Not exactly great for my heart, but it was exactly what my heart desired.

My baggy sweater and I walked from house to house between shiny-lipped women teetering on heels, perfect curls falling down their shoulders. I did my best to show off my…. Charming personality. I wanted to be breezy and confident, but I knew I looked like a 50-year-old mom-hiker. As the night wore on, I got tired. My personality struggled to hold up under the strain. And KDE – the house I really wanted – was my last stop.

As I walked up to KDE, my heart was racing. It might have been the Red Bull. It was definitely the anxiety. It was also my damn heart, barely keeping up with my demands after three hours of glad-handing, fake laughter, and loud basements. I went up the four stairs to the house and got immediately herded into the staircase of the infamous party basement.

At the bottom, I stood, shallow-breathed, in the middle of a pack of 30 girls whispering with excitement. Their energy was light. My body felt full of cement. I pressed my head into the dirty wall to keep it upright. I thought I was going to pass out. My mood got heavy along with my legs.

I grumbled to the woman next to me, “God I hope they let us in to sit down soon. This is torture.”  She stared at me and snipped “We will let you in soon, things aren’t ready yet. Don’t be ungrateful.”

She then pushed through the crowd of sophomores to get to the basement door to open it and welcome us to her sorority.

And then I realized: I had complained about KDE to the president of KDE. Great.freaking.start.

As we streamed into the basement, the music got turned up and the beats reverberated through my body. It was a dance party - loud and electric. I instantly started sweating in my sweater. I made my way to the drinks, asked for water, and stood by the one open window, moving my hips awkwardly from side to side.

A year ago, I would have ruled the dance floor - but now I could only notice that there wasn’t a single chair in the basement. I felt frustrated, caged, angry. Like illness had forced my hand.

I wished I hadn’t let it. At that moment, I wished I had worn my little black dress. So that the president of KDE could see my heart monitor. So that I could explain that this was all temporary. That I loved to dance. That I belonged here. That I wasn’t ungrateful, just hot, and miserable, and about to collapse.

But I didn’t. Because I felt I couldn’t. Because I was trapped. I was trapped inside an outfit that was too hot for a sweaty basement and not sexy enough for a sorority girl. I was trapped inside my desire to be a sexy sorority when in reality I was an outdoorsy chick who loved sweats. I was trapped in my fear of being found out as a person who was sick, and I was trapped in the lie of pretending that I was not sick. I was trapped in clothes that hid my sleek, athletic body and I was trapped in a body that was fatigued by a raging battle with a bacteria under my skin. I was trapped in my desire to find acceptance in a community that I thought would require me to hide the parts of me that I most wanted somebody to accept.

(pause)

I survived the night. And well, All’s well that ends well. I got accepted. Into exactly one sorority. (pause) No, not KDE. But Sigma Delta. It was also a local sorority that threw its own parties. The girls drank hard, talked real, and didn’t put up with bullshit. They were feminists and queers who had no problem with my hand-me-down sweaters and hiking boots.

But, hilariously, I wasn’t a very committed sister and almost completely stopped going by my senior spring, opting for time with my besties over loud impersonal nights of drinking… it’s funny how sometimes the things you want most become irrelevant as you grow up and into yourself.

You know, the sorority system calls its application process RUSH. I think they call it that so it seems urgent, competitive, like you have to get ahead of everyone else who’s trying to get in. It is a game, and you have to win.

I lost. I fell behind. I learned that there was nowhere to hide. A heart monitor, you can tuck away. An ugly sweater, you can play off with a charming attitude. But illness isn’t just a bunch of wires poking out of your skin. It’s a constant fight that gives you battle fatigue. It’s an irritability that pokes out of your mouth just when you need to be the most gracious.

But it also stops you from pretending to be someone you’re not. You just can’t get away with that anymore.

In the long run, that’s not a bad thing; wanting to be someone else is always a trap. But at moments like that, at 20 and all you want is a place to belong, it’s hard not to wish that it was really as simple as throwing some fabric over a little black box.