Thursday, July 02, 2009

When the Familiar Becomes Something New

We had a really interesting conversation in my writing group the other night. In sum, we discussed how when we’re younger (teenagers and young adults) we are often so willing to embrace—and actively seek out—new experiences. The older we get, it gets harder to break out of familiar roles and stereotypes; we cling to the routines and the responsibilities that define the lives we’ve been working toward.

But sometimes, isn’t it so great to experience something new, that adrenaline rush that signals we are leaving our comfort zone?

I’ve thought a lot about my friends’ comments the past few days. The night before we met up, I returned from a short trip to Dublin, Ireland, where I'd spent a year studying when I was in college. I was jetlagged but exhilarated.

Clearly going to Ireland wasn’t a “new” experience for me—I loved the city so much when I lived there, and despite changes in Ireland, many of its streets and pubs and quirks were as familiar to me almost a decade later as they were when they were my streets, my pubs, and my adopted quirks.

But in many ways, it was new.

You see, a lot has changed since I was a college junior. That was before I had my diagnoses of PCD, bronchiectasis, and celiac, before the failure of my adrenal system, before I really acknowledged the consequences of choices I made, before it got to be that literally every time I’m in a public place or a train, etc I get sick.

That year was sandwiched in between years of hospitalizations and trips to the trauma room or ICU, certainly, and I was definitely sick while I was there. (Backstory: after I was accepted to Trinity College Dublin, they required several doctors’ notes to prove I was medically stable enough to even attend.) I had a private lung specialist a few blocks from my apartment there, and I had my requisite infections. My backpack for a several-weeks’ sojourn across Europe was mainly filled with medications, and I got lots of questions at border crossings.

And being me, of course I broke my ankle and tore ligaments before my trek. I lost my cast and crutches the day before I left for Spain, and hobbled through Europe with a splint-type contraption that smelled terrible and made navigating hostel showers quite a production. (I had patient friends.)

Still, I went. Not just to Dublin, inhalers and pneumonia and all, but to many places in Ireland and Europe. I saw amazing things and became close to amazing people, many of whom I am lucky to have in my life all these years later. I thought I appreciated the experience fully while living it, and I think I really did know how lucky we all were.

Looking back through several years’ experience, though, I appreciate that year abroad so much more now. Of course there is the obvious reason—how often can you pick up and live in a different country, or pack a bag and see so many sights in so many different countries? It is the quintessential young adult experience.

But the patient in me appreciates it for deeper reasons. In the intervening years, I’ve said “no” to a long list of things: family dinners, birthdays, and holidays; weddings, showers, and baptisms; dinner plans, outings, and get-togethers with friends…and of course, travel. It seems almost every time I made plans or booked a flight I had to cancel because I was sick.

And so in the same ways we can get pigeon-holed by labels—“lawyer” or “student” or “parent” or “teacher” or any of the many, many roles we have—I too have felt pigeon-holed by “patient.” It was by necessity and not choice, but it still seemed to define so many of the choices and experiences I’ve had. My acute crises and in-patient admissions have calmed down, but often over the past several years it seemed I could hardly recognize the person who, despite some complications, could travel that much, could spend hours each day walking through the streets of Dublin.

(And certainly this past winterdidn’t help.)

Or, despite how naïve it may have been, I still trusted my body then, still depended on it not to let me down. For better or worse, I’m not as quick to say I do that these days.

And that’s where we get back to my recent trip. Yes, much of the trip was reminiscing and visiting old haunts (but so much better this time around because I was with my husband, and he could show me his old Dublin haunts, too) and most of what we did I’d done before. But it was new role for me, one I hadn’t been able to embrace in such a long time…and that’s why I appreciate that year so much now: being back in Dublin reminded me there is always the possibility of something new.

(Even if only for a few days.)


Audrey said...

I love this post. And I know there is a lot of exploring ahead of you Laurie!

Sara said...

Hi Laurie, I always enjoy your posts. You are a boon companion on this journey of chronic illness. I'm happy for you that you made your trip to Ireland, and I had to laugh at your description of your youthful trip and your backpack full of medications and inhalers! So familiar. I often wilt at the idea of traveling because of packing all those things...How worthwhile, though, to make the effort!

Helen said...

I really enjoyed this post, Laurie. It felt like so much extra work to prepare medications, medical records and everything else for my trip to Europe last year, but now I think it also made it that much more of an achievement!

I'm so glad you were able to get back to Ireland for a new adventure with your husband.

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