It was Oct. 6, the day before I turned 20. Suddenly the urge to do something crazy, something teenager-y, came over me. I think what’s odd about how I felt in that moment is that I was mourning something I feel I never had.
I’ve never felt like a teenager, or at least what I think a teenager should feel like. I’ve had too much to worry about.
When I was 13, only weeks away from my 14th birthday, I was admitted into the hospital with a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away. I’d always had a bit of a funny stomach growing up, which is why I think neither me nor my parents were too alarmed by the intermittent stomach aches I’d been having all of August. That is, until one of them wouldn’t go away.
I ended up spending nearly five and-a-half weeks in the hospital. It started with six surgeons walking into my tiny hospital room, never a good sign, and telling my parents and I that my test results were alarming and they would like to do an exploratory surgery that evening.
I ended up losing half of my small intestine that night.
My aunt laughs when I say that. “Lost it, like misplaced it? Where did it go, Julia?” She was my favorite visitor, always bringing with her six magazines because she got too excited in the gift shop and couldn’t decide which one to buy.
That night, I also lost my teenage years. It soon became clear that my friends just didn’t get it. They couldn’t comprehend how I had changed as a result of my time in the hospital. I don’t blame them. You’re not supposed to have to come to terms with the world as simultaneously beautiful and cruelly unfair when you’re 14. You’re supposed to worry about your geometry test and if someone cute will ask you to Homecoming.
I left the hospital with a PICC line, a peripherally inserted central catheter. It provided me with the nutrition that my compromised small intestine couldn’t give me for the time being. With a PICC line comes great responsibility. Making sure you’re available every Monday afternoon to get the dressing changed. Watching out for seventh graders sprinting blindly around corners who could potentially hit your arm and break the line. Becoming versed in what an upstream occlusion is and how to fix it. Explaining to those brave enough to ask why you have a sock on your arm.
My eighth and ninth grade years were defined by monthly drives to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, weight checks, dressing changes, random days my jeans wouldn’t fit because I was so bloated, remembering to take medications, calling the pharmacy for refills, charting my symptoms to gauge if I was on the right medications, eating frequent small meals, remembering not to eat spinach, trying to not eat chocolate, and fatigue. A whole lot of fatigue.
It was only in tenth grade, once my health stabilized a bit, that I could let myself comprehend what had happened to me. I think this is common. I couldn’t process the emotional impact of my experience until my body was physically okay again. It was at this point that it hit me how much I didn’t feel like a teenager.
I was a camp counselor this summer, and my first group of girls were 14. When I told a friend about my summer, he said counseling 14 year olds must have been such a powerful experience, to recall the nervousness of entering high school and making friends and shepherd a group of girls through those feelings. Instead, I found the experience anxiety-provoking. It reminded me how much I never felt 14.
What does it mean to be a teenager? What does it mean to be an adult? Is there a line you cross at some point in the transition from one to the other?
I mourn the teenage years I never had. I wish I could have been the person who could agree to a spontaneous road trip and not spin into a fit of worry about where I would use the bathroom and what I would eat; the person who could go to the grocery store and eat an entire container of cookie dough with my best friend without thinking about the ramifications it would have on my body the next day. I wish I could have gone to a high school party, just once, and had a beer. But I couldn’t drink. The antibiotics I was on, one of which they give to alcoholics to make them ill when they drink, made sure of that. I wish I could have still believed that the world was a simple place.
Teenagers think they’re invincible, and I clearly was not. I struggled to come to terms with the fact that life was capable of knocking me completely off my feet and forcing me to clamber to regain my footing. I had to work on trusting life again. It’s something I still struggle with.
I am reluctant to spin my experience into a sunshine and rainbows tale of overcoming struggle, because it neglects the moments throughout the past few years when I’ve thought to myself, “Wow, this freaking sucks.” The moments when I had to politely explain to the person in front of me why I needed to cut them in the bathroom line or when I felt a twinge in my back and the fear that followed that I might have another kidney stone.
In a strange way I’m glad this is part of my story. I can’t imagine who I would be without it. I have the perspective that few things are the end of the world. I love my parents in a way that I wonder if others do: not just in a “they’re my parents of course I love them” kind of way, but a way that reflects the nights they spent by my hospital bedside sleeping on a cracking plastic couch. And I choose people.
“Choose people” has been my New Year’s resolution since I was 14 years old. It means to never let life get so crazy that I let connection take a backseat in my life. I had to learn way too young that each of us will fall, whether through illness, a parents’ divorce, failing a class, or the death of a family member. I know I’ll fall again one day, and I’ve learned the way to get through it is to have people to hold onto when I do. Regardless of how overwhelmed I feel by life’s daily commitments, I try to remember to choose people, to care for people when they are low so hopefully they will do the same for me. I’m okay having lost a few years of teenage naivete to gain this outlook. It guides me as l step into my twenties.