There was a song that was popular when I was in high school called “What’s My Age Again?” by Blink 182. I’ve always related to that question: what IS my age?
It’s mostly because of my rheumatoid arthritis. First off, there’s always been an issue with my actual diagnosis: yes, it WAS “juvenile” rheumatoid arthritis, but now I’m 34. Yet, some of my doctors still call it “juvenile” — very frustrating!
Then, there’s this weird conundrum: because of my multiple illnesses, I feel both way younger and way older than my age.
When you’re diagnosed with a fairly-serious illness as a child, it changes you. My middle school and high school and college years were not the same as a healthy, “normal,” or average person. In some ways, I had to mature more quickly than my peers. I got used to needles whether it was blood draws as a kid or self-injecting a biologic medication in my early 20’s. I quickly became confident in talking with doctors, even as a teenager — this is a skill that some adults don’t even possess yet. And I got used to doctors and hospitals, in general. Medical stuff became routine, and normal for me. The idea of doctors didn’t really scare me, and I didn’t think it was a big deal to have to get an MRI or a CT scan or even a minor surgery.
In college there were many times that I had to forego going out or even watching TV shows with my girlfriends because I needed time to rest or sleep. And while I, like many, made other questionable choices in those years, I was forced to also make responsible choices too: getting a special parking pass on my college campus, making ADA arrangements with my high school so that absences and tardies were excused, taking a medical withdrawal from my university when I had to, and quitting sports or activities that weren’t cooperating with my body. In those ways, I grew up very quickly.
I also learned about perspective very quickly. Even in my most selfish and silly teenage and college years, there was a part of me that always recognized that the petty stuff, the catty stuff, and the drama didn’t matter. There was always a part of me that was an old soul, who wanted to capture memories with my photos and journaling, who treasured good moments and fun times. I knew, on some level, that good days and feeling carefree were not permanent or guaranteed. I mourned the things I missed out on, like having to quit cheerleading and softball, and not having the ideal college experience. I accepted that some relationships and friendships were doomed to fail because of my medical conditions and the fact that I was still learning how to navigate them and cope with them properly. But I did pretty well in just sucking it up and being a “grown-up” about it.
Even last week at physical therapy, one of the employees told me that I was an old soul with a good perspective about my illnesses and my limitations. But, I definitely didn’t feel like a wise old soul: I just felt OLD. After all, at age 33, I got a total knee joint replacement. (I turned 34 the next day in the hospital.)
In some ways, though, I still feel like a teenager or a kid. Having an illness that makes you even somewhat dependent upon others robs you a little bit of your independence, and it messes with your sense of self and your sense of self-esteem. As I recover from my total knee replacement, staying with my parents in my childhood home, I still feel a bit like a kid. For the first week my mom literally had to bathe me. It was somehow comforting and completely humiliating at the same time: comforting because it reminded me of childhood, humiliating because I am a 34-year-old woman who is married with a life and a home of my own. Plus, it’s embarrassing to have ANYONE else bathe you. (*Although having your hair washed by someone else always feels good.) For my parents to be my caregivers makes me feel like a kid again: the home-cooked meals, the dad-bringing-me-home-my-favorite-candy. I don’t dislike it, but there are times when I feel so much younger than my peers. Even though I know it isn’t the case and that most of us are just stumbling through this “adulting” thing, it just SEEMS like everyone is a few steps ahead of me. It’s in part because of my illnesses, it’s in part because of my eclectic interests and sometimes trendy/younger-skewing tastes, it’s in part because of my nontraditional career path. But, yeah — it’s mostly because my illnesses have just changed me a bit. I kind of liken it to the Michael Jackson/child star syndrome LOL: I never really had a normal childhood or teenage experience. It was pretty good, it was pretty normal, but, there was always something different: added pressures/added worries/added stress and problems.
So, I’m just trying not to compare myself to others. While I may just be adult-ish, I’ve done and accomplished a lot in my 34 years, and for that, I can be proud. My joints may be 90, my tastes in music and TV and pop culture may be 17, and I may still need help from my hubby, mommy, and daddy at times, but I’m still just me: Ashley, aged 34, dealing with multiple health problems — and everyday life — as best I can, one day and one year at a time.
I think I’m somehow young at heart and also that “old soul” that I keep hearing about. I don’t think either of those is a bad thing, and when my mom bought me this “adult-ish” shirt, I wasn’t the least bit offended by it. Firstly, because, well … it’s cute … but also because I don’t know that anyone ever really feels their true age, or knows what their true age is “supposed” to feel like. I don’t know that anyone has everything all together — healthy or not. And I think a lot of people look in the mirror and, on some days, think “wow! where did the time go? I feel like high school was just yesterday. Who is this person?” and, “damn! looking pretty good for my age,” on others.
But maybe I’m wrong. I’m wondering if I’m alone in this feeling: has your illness made you feel older or younger than your age? A combo of both? Has it affected your sense of self or independence? Your self-esteem? I’d love to see your comments.
Oh, and okay, maybe I am a bit immature: I named my knee implant BritKNEE Spears. Get it? 😉
Have a great evening!