On Control (or lack thereof)

Our brains are pattern recognition machines, fine tuned to process our
surrounding stimuli and create predictions and respond appropriately. When
we are given stimuli A and B, we are inclined to respond with action C, as
opposed to any other letter. We are constantly intaking, analyzing, and
synthesizing, all faster than a supercomputer and on less energy than it
takes to power a lightbulb. But, sometimes, our brains are wrong. Sometimes
we come to incorrect conclusions, or misinterpret the evidence we’re given.
Sometimes we consistently come to these incorrect conclusions because we
have been proved correct just enough to convince ourselves that we’re
correct. Sometimes we’re just wrong.

My brain is wired to expect for illness to lead to catastrophe. This
probably occurs for a multitude of reasons, but the most prevalent one is
that in the winter of my freshman year of high school, I got pneumonia. I’d
been sick for a few weeks, a common cold or maybe a touch of the flu, but
two days before winter break was over I was rushed to the ER for an asthma
attack that my inhaler couldn’t fix. After some chest x-rays, the doctor
came into the room and informed us that there was fluid buildup in my lungs
and that I needed antibiotics. I cannot tell you what the worst part of
this was. Maybe it was the isolation (I was essentially quarantined for
weeks), or the anxiety of missing so much school at such a critical time.
It might’ve been the fact that I was cut from dance pieces in our February
show because I missed so many rehearsals. The consequences of this illness
felt like punishments for getting a sickness I never asked for. A sickness
I couldn’t control. And for someone with an ongoing struggle with anxiety,
the notion of being out of control is paralyzing. It is the ultimate
trigger. Since then, more than ever, I expect for common colds to become
life-threatening illnesses, for small health problems to be death
sentences. This is, quite obviously, a flaw in my wiring. A pattern for
which my brain has assigned an incorrect outcome.

Naturally, the first time I got sick in Ecuador was terrifying for me. In
September, I got a cold that developed into a little bacterial throat
infection, nothing serious. I went to the local clinic, a doctor that comes
to an empty room near the church every third Sunday, struggled through
trying to tell him about my symptoms in my terrible spanish, and got some
antibiotics. Yes, I missed a few days at my new apprenticeship, but it
wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen to me. The next two times were a bit
harder. The first was an intestinal infection (which required some pretty
harsh antibiotics), and the second was a viral throat infection that I just
couldn’t seem to shake. In January, I started to feel a little sick, just
some stomach problems here and there. But nothing was consistent and I had
some good days mixed in with the bad, so I assumed all was well. About a
month ago, I started to only have bad days. After five visits to the doctor
and two rounds of antibiotics, I’m left feeling about the same.

I’m frustrated. I’m exhausted. I feel so utterly out of control. And I’m
fighting myself, trying to balance taking my health seriously and spiraling
into hypochondriacal madness. But, I feel like I’m doing what I came here
to do. I’m wrestling with discomfort. I am usually uncomfortable, either
physically and mentally, but I’m living through it. I’m finding joy, I’m
learning, and I’m growing. Maybe this is despite my illness, but maybe it’s
because of it. I’ve been thrown a lot of challenges this year, and I’ve
lived through them all. Every day, I prove to myself that I’m stronger than
I ever thought I was. I’m living my life, I’m not in control, and I’m fine
with that.

The human brain is astounding. We often hear the phrase “hard-wired” to
describe our minds, when in reality that isn’t the case. We’re soft-wired.
We’re malleable. We have the capacity for change. This concept is generally
referred to as neuroplasticity. When we take advantage of it, we can pull
ourselves out of depression, re-train obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and
recover from brain traumas. I’m working on altering my response to
vulnerability and lack of control. I’m learning to be patient with myself,
and to deal with things as they come. It took getting sick in a foreign
country (four times!) for me to get here, but I think that’s worth it in
the long run.

Chao for now,

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