The average life expectancy for a Canadian male is 80 years. Considering my medical chart is as thick as copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I doubt I’ll make it to that age. Nor would I necessarily want to. Being over the age of 60 seems, based purely on my observations of people who fall into that category, rather shit. I’d rather live a decent 60 years and conk off than live 20 years beyond that and have to suffer with a degenerating body and mind.
So let’s just say that I’ll live to be 60. That might even be optimistic target, but let’s say I’ll live to be 60. That means as of today, at the age of 30, I’ve lived half my life. Great math skills, eh? That also means I’m in prime mid-life crisis territory. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m having a mid-life crisis.
Who am I living for?
This mid-life crisis seems to be exacerbated by my concurrent identity crisis. In addition to feeling as though I haven’t been able to show my genuine self to the world, I feel now that half my life has been wasted trying to live up to others’ expectations of me. Halfway into the only ephemeral life I get, I’m failing miserably at making something meaningful of it. That’s partly because I’ve spent too much time caring about pleasing other people, which I see now is an exercise in futility.
You might expect that as you get older, it would become easier to accept that sometimes you’re going to hurt other people. It’s easy to have that expectation when your friends on social media share images of people sitting in front of sunsets captioned with the unattributed quote: “The older I get, the less I care about what people think of me. Therefore the older I get, the more I enjoy life.”
But just how did buddy sitting on his cottage dock develop that brand of self-preserving callousness? It seems evident to me that it’s not gleaned unconsciously over time, but rather actively learned over time. Learned by having the balls to disagree with other people, to cause disappointment, to cause heartache, and to get over the feelings of guilt and shame that come in the aftermath. If that is indeed the case, then I need to have those experiences and learn from them.
Can my body ever be what it used to be?
All too often, I remember what my life was like before I knew anything about ulcerative colitis. I remember running for an hour and half without the slightest blip in my bowel functioning. I could go on long walks (like the one that resulted in the photo above) without any consideration of where bathrooms were located along the way. I could eat and drink without worry. Those were good days, and I’ll never get them back.
Even after my UC diagnosis, I had good stretches. Stretches where I felt normal. And not just a “normal for someone who has IBD” kind of normal, but normal normal, if that makes sense. I remember one day coming home from a run. I took off my neon green adidas Adizero Adios sneakers and caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror on the door of the coat closet. I stopped for a moment and took a few steps back. I had longish black curls held in place with a white headband about as thick as a shoelace. I wore a mint green Werder Bremen jersey with white sleeves, white shorts, and low cut black socks. I stood up straight as though I was a Werder Bremen player posing for the team store’s catalogue. I puffed out my chest and raised my chin and clenched my fists. I liked the way I looked. I felt athletic. I haven’t felt that way since.
My body isn’t the train wreck it was after my first surgery. I have made progress, and just last weekend I managed to run 7.2 kilometers quite comfortably. But it’s not the same, and when I was running before my diagnosis and on that day I wore my Werder Bremen jersey, I felt as though I was working towards better things. Towards longer distances. Towards shorter times. Now it feels like I’m working just to regain the ability I used to have.
The internet is full of stories of people with IBD who have gone on to accomplish amazing physical feats. There are marathon runners and lake swimmers and body builders, and they’re all spectacular specimens of human beings. But to reach their levels of athletic ability takes an incredible amount of dedication, work, and perhaps most importantly, time. I know it’s a lame excuse, but I feel like I don’t have the time to put in the work required to attain those sorts of accomplishments.
What’s more, your body wears down as you age. There are ways to slow down that degeneration, but knowing my body’s crap track record, it’s easy to worry about injuries and setbacks and more months on the sidelines. I suppose I have to work first at setting my mind on the belief that I can be better, and setting aside time to work on making my body better.
What’s my next assignment?
I thrived in school, especially in college and university, where grades made up so much of my sense of self. I had the drive to put in extra effort in order to earn those As. I did all my assigned readings, I ventured to multiple libraries to acquire citations, I made sure my essays were done ahead of time, I never pulled an all-nighter. I had easily identifiable benchmarks to aim for, and when I did reach them, I could feel superior to all the students who didn’t. I honestly didn’t try to garner better grades to show up other people, I did so to could reassure myself that I was capable of exceeding the average.
All those quizzes and midterms and essays and exams provided continuous feedback. They let me know I was doing well. That I was good at something. That I was better at that thing than most other people. Now I feel like Lisa when the teachers at Springfield Elementary went on strike, yearning to fit into some sort of ranking system to know and justify my worth.
I have a full-time job, and I’m grateful for it. I am evaluated for my work, but it isn’t the same as school. My “grades” are subjective, and I have no one of similar standing to compare my work and my abilities to. Let’s say I design an event guide. It will be acceptable for its purpose, and I might even like the look of it, but then I browse design websites and see the marvelous creations from real artists and graphic designers and I feel insignificant. I can be easily replaced, and not just by someone else on my level, but by someone better.
Throughout college and university, I felt as though I had something, dare I say, special about me. That feeling came from the good grades and the academic achievement bursaries and the Dean’s List certificates and my place among the high distinction graduates at convocation. I thought I could carry on that something special beyond graduation, but I haven’t. Not by a long shot. I suppose I need to assign myself something special to do. Something that matters really to me.
The hardest part about any sort of mid-life crisis is the feeling that the time that lay ahead will be nowhere near as good as the time you can never get back. That’s often how I feel. Instead of looking forward to my future, I keep looking back longingly for what used to be, and for what used to make me happy. It’s not easy to shake that mindset either.
Compounding that longing for the past is a deep sense of regret that I didn’t utilize my youth as I could have. I should have exercised more. I should have learned to drive sooner (I first got behind the wheel when I was 20). I should have asked more girls out. I should have been more outgoing when I lived in Halifax. Maybe I never should have left Halifax. I spend too much time thinking about what could have been. And you’d think that sense of regret would drive me forward to be bolder in my actions now, but I’m not. I’m still scared and sad. Torn and indecisive.
~ ~ ~
“I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by things for a while. I feel like I’m expected to live in a certain way and do certain things, and the thought of doing those things… honestly… it repulses me. It scares me. The life goals I’m supposed to have just seem like impediments.” I bowed my head. Tears blurred the anatomy posters on the walls of the exam room.
“Impediments to what?” my doctor asked.
“To living the way I see fit, and to doing something really worthwhile with myself. But I’m afraid of telling people that because it’ll let them down.”
“Do you feel guilty?”
My doctor wheeled her stool closer to me. “It’s hard when you’re in a society that stresses the importance of being an individual, then you find your individuality isn’t being validated.”
I put my hands on my knees and nodded with my eyes closed.
“Overall would you say you’re more happy or more sad?” she asked.
I came to my doctor for a referral to a counsellor I spoke with about two years ago when I was still struggling after my first operation. My doctor, to her credit, took the time to speak with me and get to know just what brought me to her that day. She was courteous, caring, and in no hurry to pin a diagnosis on me. My voice cracked a few times during our conversation and I fought back more tears. Still, it felt good to let out a lot of what I’ve either held inside or expressed only through writing.
Our conversation revealed what I’ve known for a while but could never admit: I struggle with anxiety.
“Do you feel like you need medication?” my doctor asked.
My firmest answer of the day. I don’t want medication for this. I want to regain more control of my life and my future, and to accept the fact that I’m going to hurt other people in the process. Cognitive behavioural workshops, meetings with my counsellor, and the rigours of another recover period lie ahead.
I have a framed print hanging above my bed. It’s a photograph of waves and sky with a quote from Danish author Isak Dinesen beneath it that reads, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”
Sweat and tears are coming. The sea? We’ll see.