Monday, November 20, 2006

Invincibility and Illness

One evening last week, I noticed a girl doing something I would never do on that particular stretch of urban street: walking alone in the dark. Granted, it wasn't extremely late and there were lots of cars and buses on the street. But it was a poorly lit section of road in a pretty tough area—one where a gang of children (children!), ages 10-14, had nearly stabbed a man to death around 9pm just a few weeks ago—and with lots of dark alleys and shadowy hills, it wasn’t exactly a welcoming area once the sun went down.

I could tell she was a college student: she looked about 18, she was wearing a sweatshirt with the insignia of a university just a few blocks away, she had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and like many of the students I see on my campus, she had iPod headphones in her ears and Ugg boots on her feet.

Beyond these telling details, there was something else that told me she was in college: her air of invincibility. She strolled down that dodgy, dangerous street confidently. I admired her for this, but I also worried about her on account of this.

I think it’s an almost universal experience, that sense of invincibility and fearlessness so common during the college years. We’re insistent that we can work hard and play hard; we take challenging courses as we balance campus parties and social events. We stagger home from bars late at night, usually without worrying about if this is safe. We pull all-nighters to cram for finals without considering what this does to our bodies. We eat unbalanced meals at ungodly hours, we think coffee is an equal substitute for rest, and we think because we are young, we can get away with it.

In college, I may just have been foolish enough to walk alone in a city at night. In fact, I know I did this on more than one occasion, buoyed by the false notion that because I was in a “good” area that guaranteed nothing bad could happen. But for me, this air of invincibility was even more pronounced when it came to my health. In addition to the typical age-related tendency towards taking risks, I had to contend with my innate response to the interruptions of chronic illness—the harder it pushed me, the harder I pushed back.

I over-extended myself largely to prove that I could do whatever I wanted despite being sick. I took on too many extra-curricular activities, I spent far too many nights at the newspaper till 6 am, I hated to turn down plans with friends. Each time I went into the hospital, I came out of it with an even more relentless attitude towards taking on too much. Did I ever really think taking such risks with my health would work out favorably for me? Did I ever really believe that none of this would catch up with me in the end?

Of course I didn’t. But that didn’t stop me in those days.

My belief in my own invincibility is much more muted these days. Now I am the one reminding my young students not to roam the city streets alone. Between my vigilant attention to local news and surging violence and my evolving realization that none of us are untouchable when it comes to taking risks, I’d sooner spend my last few dollars on a cab then put myself in a potentially dangerous situation that is both completely predictable and avoidable. I am not ruled by fear, but I think about safety much more than I did when I was in college.

In terms of my health, the gradual progression of my conditions has forced me to abandon the notion that the choices I make don’t have consequences. I spend far more time and energy trying to prevent symptoms from worsening and trying to maintain a balance between what I want and what my body needs than I do in trying to “strike back” at illness or prove that it can’t stop me.

Part of this transformation is simply the maturation process all young adults go through, and part of it can be attributed to the fact that at some point, we get too sick to be able to pretend we’re otherwise any longer. For me, this all happened at the same time.

I watched the young girl disappear into the shadows as my bus pulled away from her somewhat wistfully. Sometimes I miss that invincibility, that ability to take such risks without worrying about the consequences—but such nostalgia is fleeting. I may not take the same kind of risks, but I don't pay the same consequences either.

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