This body, my body

A reflection on life with a chronic illness

This body, my body

The sun hung heavy-lidded in the sky as I rested on an outcropping of rock overlooking one of the shallow valleys that dimpled the woods outside the ancient village where I’d been staying. I’d sprinted through the vineyards outside the house, chasing a runner’s high over the steep and twisted hills surrounding our small corner of the world. But something in the air had told me it was time to stop, time to rest for awhile.

Fifteen years old, a year from high school graduation, two hours outside of Paris, and 6,000 kilometres from home, I turned a corner and came up short. Tentatively, I explored my mind, coming up with something unfamiliar: freedom. I had finally managed to outrun it all: the father who told me I’d only ever be loved if I made myself small. The mother who seemed to be fading into black and white. The sense that I was destined to disappoint and to be disappointed.

It fell away — all of it. All that was left was peace, clarity, the beauty of the dusk-painted valley, and the exhilaration of a reckless run through an unfamiliar forest that just as well could have ended in a broken limb.

As I sat there, two simple truths settled over me: I was grateful for my body, and I was grateful to be alive.

The pain arrived nearly four years later.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

As the snow retreated and the wind blew more kindly, agony hit me like a hammer. It fell upon my joints, neck, limbs, and hands in unpredictable, asynchronous beats. There was fatigue too: a heaviness I couldn’t shake. Suddenly, this body, my body — this thing that hurt and protested and was both me and not me — became an enforced horizon, an inescapable vantage point on the world. This pain — what causes it, worsens it, calms it — has come to shape every facet of my life and my thoughts. It ebbs and flows, but even in its absence, its echo is resounding.

I have fibromyalgia. It’s a chronic disorder characterized by widespread muscle and joint pain, fatigue, cognitive issues such as ‘brain fog,’ and, although their exact source isn’t known, depression and anxiety. Most people with fibromyalgia have a litany of symptoms; no two people experience it exactly the same way. For me, I have a lot of the usual suspects: widespread pain that oscillates chaotically between dull, localized aches and lightning-fast lashes of agony that splinter across my body; extreme fatigue, as though I’m swimming through Vaseline in a space suit; and a wooly mental fog that descends at random.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic illness; it persists over time and has no known cure. There are only ways to manage and minimize the symptoms. Like many other chronic conditions, fibromyalgia is an ‘invisible illness’: its impact typically isn’t visible to the naked eye. All else being equal, sufferers tend to look perfectly healthy; there is nothing visibly amiss.

Though every person experiences chronic illness in a different way, I hope that my experience can shed some light not only on what it’s like to live with a chronic illness, but also on a deeper issue. Most of us, especially at a competitive university in precarious social and economic environments, are terribly unprepared to treat ourselves with kindness. At the end of the day, we all have to ask ourselves this question: are you ready to love yourself when everything, including everything you think you are, goes to hell?

I wasn’t. I’m still not ready.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

When it comes to fibromyalgia, the idea of living ‘with’ a chronic illness can get quite literal. It’s hard to explain, but it’s rather like sharing a body with another person. There’s me — the reasonably well-adjusted, high-achieving, and with-it student — and the other one, my illness. It’s far from an even balance. I’m stuck in my body with something like an apocalyptically emotional two-year-old who’s prone to random meltdowns which rival the dynamism of unstable nuclear reactors.

A simpler metaphor: living with this pain is like being on the wrong end of a voodoo doll.

One way to think through the constraints of chronic illness is by looking at the number of ‘useable hours’ a person with a chronic illness has in a day. Before I got sick, I’d say I had between 10–12 usable hours total each day. These were hours in which I could study, attend classes, see friends, take care of myself, make food, read books, or exercise, with energy to spare. This was the time I had to live the way I needed and wanted to, effectively and healthily.

Now the number of usable hours I have in a day is unpredictable and, typically, fairly limited. On an uncommonly great day, I’ll have eight. On a normal day, I have six. And on my bad days, I have anywhere from two usable hours to none at all. Exceeding this vague limit every day has a ratcheting effect, decreasing my baseline of health and charging interest on the time I spend trying to function as a human in this world.

I often wake up with a sense of panic, wondering how on earth I am going to get through the day. Having a chronic illness involves making an unexpectedly high amount of mathematical calculations, though none of them are precise. My already-depleted energy minus class, readings, work, meetings, human interaction, getting from point A to point B and back again, equals an emphatically negative number.

Sometimes it is possible to take a step back and rest. Within the intense, demanding, and often de-personalized environment of this institution, I have often had to make a conscious decision to push myself to a place I know will cause me days of pain.

Bad days can happen at random, but they tend to cluster in periods of high stress. Indeed, almost all my symptoms are tied to stress, both physical and emotional. This is, of course, highly inconvenient; ‘stress’ is the university’s unofficial slogan. The periods with the highest stress of the academic year coincide almost perfectly with the periods in which I am least equipped to handle them.

Now, every semester, I play chicken with my body. The goal is to reach the finish line, in an ever worsening state of health and morale, without falling apart entirely. It’s not a very fun game, and it can’t go on forever; one day, I know I’ll lose.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Before I developed fibromyalgia, I had internalized all the worst ideas about personal value and success that advocates of mental health reform at U of T, myself included, critique as emblematic of our toxic campus culture and academic environment, not to mention our society and economic system at large.

I worked for the sake of working and I wore my exhaustion proudly, habitually pulling 12-hour work days. I stuffed my résumé with commitments and achievements in the hope that, one day, I’d look in the mirror and see someone I thought mattered. I sacrificed relationships, activities, and experiences for my GPA, waiting for a payoff that, it turned out, would never come — not like that.

I thought that if I pushed myself hard enough, I’d finally be happy. And not only that: I’d finally deserve to be happy. And then I got sick.

If I’d gotten 50 steps down the path, it isn’t that I’ve gone back 51. It’s just that I’ve been suddenly transplanted — quite violently, and with no small amount of protestation — to a different path entirely.

The achievements I’ve earned at university still matter; I just can’t cash them in. I can’t continue to push myself like I used to. But that’s the thing: I was pushing myself. I was harming myself, in a way, because I was convinced that it was what I had to do to earn the approval of others, this university, our society, and ultimately myself.

Now, I have to slow down. Indefinitely.

Slowing down, however, is far from easy — not in this society, this economy, or this mind.

We live in a world that prizes and rewards productivity and individual achievement, regardless of the cost. There are no institutionalized accolades to be won for treating oneself with kindness. A body that cannot meet the demands of the current system is, we are told, a body without much value.

The story of my illness is in many ways a struggle against a system that hasn’t made room for bodies that need rest. This also applies to essentially every other kind of body that isn’t white, able, neuro-typical, cisgender, thin, straight — need I go on? It is also a story of my own struggle to resist the ways in which I’ve internalized these ideas. I’ve long decried the way in which neoliberal capitalism and a world centred around work demand inhumane things of our bodies and minds. I’ve long held that a person’s value is intrinsic: it has nothing to do with what they can produce.

I was, however, saying these things from the privileged perspective of an able-bodied person. I still hold these convictions — more strongly, now, for having directly experienced a very visceral physical manifestation of the negative effects of the way the present system values productivity. Yet, actually applying my convictions to my personal circumstances has proven difficult to say the least. I have been routinely enraged at my body for its refusal to do what society demands of it; I have called myself worthless more times than I could count.

Overcoming this paradigm, however, is an immensely powerful act, both personally and politically. Or so I hope. In all fairness, my body hasn’t really given me much a choice.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

I often hate my body. This hate is more than the passive and socially mandated displeasure I’d so far learned to feel as a woman. It is not me saying: “I hate my thighs,” or “I hate the shape of my eyes,” or “I just hate my right earlobe.” No, this hate consumes me, directing itself toward everything I am. It is also hopeless: the force of my anger only causes more hurt. And in any event, how wrong and pathetic — how small-minded and mean — is it to rage against something whose only crime is sickness?

I often hate my body, but I am learning to love it, too, like a child learning to walk: often falling and failing, descending into tears, perhaps feeling too scared to try again. And, yet, instinct drives it to do just that. Though I typically fail, I am likewise driven to treat my body and self with kindness by an instinct — a memory of a time before.

Before bodies — whatever they happened to do or not do — were something to be ashamed of. Before I expected anything more of myself than what I could give. Before I learned to see my body as my enemy, as something to be managed and overcome. What I wouldn’t give to be six years old again, tracing the lines of my palms with wonder. Or 10, cross-legged beside the soccer pitch at half-time, tearing into orange slices and letting the juice slide down my fingers in small rivulets of invitation for waiting honeybees. Or a baby, flexing my fingers and toes with a curious joy.

I remember what it was to be friends with this body.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

In recent months, this illness has become less of a novelty in my life. The scars are turning to birthmarks; it has begun to grow with me, like two trees pressed together from the roots. Over this time my thoughts have often strayed to that day in the forest, nearly five years ago. In my worst moments, I have wished for nothing more than to return to that time, that place, that feeling of comfort and camaraderie with my body. But I cannot go back.

And there is good in this, I think, even though it came at an unfair price that I shouldn’t have had to pay.

I am learning a new language of success. It no longer means only a perfect GPA or being ‘busy.’ Each time that I rub my aching muscles without frustration, without anger at them for their pain, is a victory. I am learning to tell my body that I know we are both hurting, and that it’s all right. “What can I do to ease your way?” I ask. “I don’t blame you,” I say. “I’m going to do everything I can to not hurt you.”

This new language I am learning? I think it might be called kindness, or what Sonya Renee Taylor calls radical self-love: a return to our original state, before we were taught otherwise, of open and loving companionship with our bodies and selves. And although I am by no means an expert, I’d recommend you try to learn it too, or at least pick up a few phrases.

Now, as I write these words, my mind returns to that day in the forest once more. I cannot go back to that time. The place itself still exists, though, and there are many others that are equally able to touch my soul. Next time, I may take a bit longer to get there. I may have to rest on my way up, and maybe this body will hurt. Perhaps I’ll have to ask the people with me to slow down, to walk with me at my pace.

But I’ll get there. I know I will.

How to cope with feelin’ SAD

Can a pair of red cowboy boots override the effects of daylight saving time?

How to cope with feelin’ SAD

This time of year I always try — and fail — to swallow my annual monologue about the ridiculousness of daylight saving time. The sun setting later and the general dreariness of winter has always disturbed me, and as I’ve grown older, the winter blues has only grown harder to ignore.

Despite this hatred for ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back,’ I know in my heart that, even if it was abolished, this would only mean that the sun would start setting at 5:00 pm instead of 4:00 pm. Sadly, this small jump in time would do little to cure the weird dark cloud over my life.

During a blizzard last year I came dangerously close to screaming at the wind because I was fed up with frigid air being rapidly blown in my face. After being helplessly knocked over several times, I wanted so desperately to assert my dominance and yell into the universe, “I am not your chew toy!” It had been dark for days and my moody, pathetic nature was palpable. Essentially, I was angry and sad, and then angry at myself for being sad.

At the end of the day I was left wondering: who do I curse for this? The world? The winds? Myself?

My body has always been resistant to change, both seasonal or situational. I typically begin to feel strange in November when I can feel the sun tauntingly wave goodbye mid-afternoon.

This peculiar feeling eventually subsides to sadness, which normally takes the form of hyper-fixating on myself and my shortcomings. I tend to channel my negative energy into tangible — but mostly invented — problems. Increasingly exhausted, I feel lazier, less excited, and more hopeless.

So how do I cope with the winter blues, aside from regularly calling my mom and crying to her over the phone? The simplest answer is that I do not and cannot feel 100 per cent better during this time of the year. I have accepted that a bit of sorrow nudges at me during the winter. However, there are methods I can adopt that keep this prodding light, rather than have the full force of sadness punch me in the face.

Most of these suggestions deserve an eye-roll. I still want to smash my head against a wall every time a pretty woman tells me that working out changed her life. Although, I must admit that my mood is more stable when I do work out. It helps me relieve the built-up tension and negative energy that has been sitting in my body throughout the day.

Another cliché suggestion is to laugh as much as possible, whether with friends or by binge-watching John Mulaney’s comedy specials on Netflix. Getting good sleep and waking up earlier also allows you to be generally less exhausted and have more time with the very little sunlight available.

I also want to stress that filling your sadness with consumer goods does not work. I’m still trying to climb out of the self-destructive rabbit hole of finding temporary happiness in materialism. The “Pawnee Rangers” episode of Parks and Recreation has influenced me more than I expected when I first watched the show. For those who have missed out on this iconic moment in pop culture, characters Tom and Donna dedicate one day a year to spending money on whatever ridiculous, gluttonous items they desire — called ‘Treat yo’ self.’ I believe in the ‘treat yo’ self’ mentality — but only when you’re not using it to fill a void in your life. After all, life would be a lot less fun if we refused to allow ourselves moments of unearned, spontaneous hedonism.

With that being said, if you feel constantly sad the worst thing you can do is continuously make unhealthy and self-indulgent choices to make yourself feel temporarily better. I have tried eating chocolate for days and I guarantee that I always feel like a pile of garbage in the aftermath.

The times that I have gone shopping for hours, looking for that perfect pair of boots to define myself and give my life some meaning, only make me feel hollow and empty when I come back home. Instead of feeling fulfilled, I’m left staring at a pair of ill-fitting red cowboy boots that soaked up my money and will probably sit in my closet until I eventually give them away because — let’s be real — I’m never going to wear red cowboy boots. I ultimately feel guilty for spending recklessly, and shallow for seeking happiness in superficial products.

The only way I can actually feel better is by being productive and making up a sense of purpose even when I feel stagnant. However, this is easier said than done considering seasonal affective disorder often makes people less energetic, less interested in activities, and worsens sleep habits.

My main point is to be kind to yourself if you’re sensitive to the winter glum. A lot of people experience intense mood changes in the colder months and it’s not related to your personal strength or character.

In defence of video games

The AGO, the MOMA, and the National Portrait Gallery have had their day — modern art is now digitized

In defence of video games

Heirlooms are curious things — nostalgic bits of personal history that rarely mean much to those unfamiliar with their context. Coins, trinkets, baubles, artifacts, and amulets of possibly cursed origins: the stuff of personal legend, meant to be passed down from generation to generation.

Yet, the world has become a lot less physical over the years, and heirlooms have followed suit. I used to watch my dad traverse pixelated worlds in the darkness on our old living-room MacBook, the low-resolution screen painting both of our faces a pale blue. I hid behind his back on a stool, looking on as our afternoons and evenings passed slowly into the night.

On one occasion, I watched him take on hellspawn of all sorts, crowbar his way through portals to hell, and save innocent civilians and Earth from certain disaster. I would come to know this as the plot of Doom, an eventual classic. Of course he knew how to navigate this world — he’s Dad.

Over his broad shoulders, I would come to this viewing party many times, each time visiting a new locale, a new story, and a new plot. All the hits of the ’90s took place in my home theatre: Tomb Raider, Half-Life I and II, Diablo, Unreal Tournament, Myst, and the aforementioned Doom. I was too scared to play the games, of course, but my dad could kick demon butt, so with him behind the keyboard, I had nothing to worry about.

I became so comfortable watching that I actually neglected to ever play video games myself. My childhood best friend used to play Sonic Adventure 2 on the GameCube for hours while I sat on his bed, content to watch from the sidelines. I would pick up the controller every now and then when he asked me to, but at that time video games were a spectator sport to me.

By the age of 10, the only games I played were online and very superficial. Neopets, Toontown, and FusionFall kept my boredom to a minimum throughout my childhood as a digital native, but nothing made video games especially stand out, save for the soft spot in my heart where I held the time with my dad.

I didn’t know it yet, but my dad had already decided what his heirloom was going to be. As a portly four-foot-11 sixth grader with no fashion sense, I think he sussed out the necessity of a hobby for his lonely little son. That same year I entered middle school, I was gifted The Sims 2: Deluxe and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Both boxes contained multiple CDs, both took hours of time to set up and play, and both ignited a part of me that continues to burn brightly today.

Before The Sims and Star Wars, the world of video games for me was all first-person, focused on running, shooting, and fighting. The games of my dad and my best friend had movie-like linear plotlines and, just like films, they were a joy to watch. But I seemed to be missing out on the operative part of a game, video-based or not: participation.

Now that I had been suddenly thrust into two genres which I didn’t know existed, casual and role-playing games (RPGs) turned my world upside down. They engrossed me like nothing ever had before. And from there it snowballed into the intersection of all of my interests.

I picked up the indie-legend Minecraft a year later, which flexed my creative muscle in unimaginable ways. With a near-infinite world at my disposal, and countless available modifications to tailor it to my choosing, my penchant for meticulous design shown through for the first time in my life.

Later games in my repertoire included RPGs such as Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas, both of which became decade-defining in their own right. These games ask players to navigate civil wars, negotiate difficult ethical dilemmas, and discover on their own terms what it means to be a saviour.

As I grew up, video games became the glue that stuck so many of the best parts of my life together. Mini Metro added to my already-astounding adoration for public infrastructure design. Stardew Valley tied my friends together over shared custody of a family farm, bonding us over chicken raising and crop sales. Animal Crossing taught me the importance of patience, of planning ahead, of simple beauties in little things.

It became increasingly clear to me that what made video games special was not simply their gameplay — which, in the end, is just a gimmick. Video games are just like paintings, sculptures, drawings, and the other media I would end up studying. They are, in fact, pieces of art.

Video games carry with them a message, a theme, an idea. They are, just like any work of art, ultimately vectors for the humanity imbued in the project. Video games, however, have the benefit of near-universal application. Unlike oil paintings, sculptures, or figurines, you don’t need to step into a museum to experience them; you just need a computer, and the price of admission. The rest is up to you.

There’s a video game for every person, for every purpose, and for every genre imaginable. Video games can be beautiful, breathtaking, or downright vapid, but so can all forms of art. They are all equally important, and equally necessary, in a world teetering on the edge of the unknown.

My dad gave me an heirloom I had not been expecting. A holdover from his dad, who apparently gave him the same thing. He taught me to appreciate art, in his own way. To watch, to speculate. To observe and eventually take part. To digest the medium and make it my own. A skill you cannot learn well by yourself, and one that comes best as a gift.

Video games can do that. They can bridge the gap between what’s there and what hasn’t yet quite arrived. Music, visual art, and participation — all in one package. Our age is one of anxiety: focused on wrongs, focused on fixing, focused on looking outside ourselves. Yet we have to look inward every now and again.

We all deserve a place and time to give our heirlooms away, even if the future seems muddled. Who’s to say whether video games will change your life like they have mine? They are simply one more avenue to feel human, which means one less chance to slip through the cracks.

If you’re unsure one day, pick up the old mouse and keypad, the joystick, or the controller. Figure out something that makes you happy. You are art — you deserve a medium that corroborates that.

Ending my varsity career — on my own terms

I didn’t want an injury to be my final moment of varsity athletics, so I switched sports

Ending my varsity career — on my own terms

Crying and clutching my coach’s forearms as I staggered to the bench was the moment I thought would mark the end of my varsity athletic career forever. In a 2018 pre-season match for the Toronto Varsity Blues women’s field hockey team, an errant elbow walloped my skull — leaving me with my second major concussion in less than a year.

I missed every game of my fourth-year eligibility season and, after five agonizing months of headaches, dizziness, and vision problems, my doctor told me I could never play the sport again.

In the weeks after my doctor delivered the life-changing verdict, I spent a lot of time contemplating my last moments in a blue-and-white uniform. It hit me that I’d never get another chance to end my career: to play with the awareness of my last home game — the last game with my parents in the stands and my last time as a varsity student athlete. Almost every varsity athlete experiences that. It was all I wanted.

Eight months after my injury, I stopped waking up with daily headaches and was eager to compete again. Field hockey, and most other territorial sports I’d enjoyed throughout my life, were no longer an option for me. So I turned to running. I started slow, really slow. During those first few weeks, I was just happy to be active.

It was then that I realized I couldn’t sit and torture myself watching a field hockey season where I couldn’t help but picture myself on the field. As a UTM student, I decided I’d try out for the UTM Eagles cross country team.

I thought that with three more months of summer running I could surely get myself fit enough to make the training team. Maybe they’d even let me race an invitational or two. I had to do something, and running was at the top of the short list of sports that I could still compete in.

Three months later, as the field hockey team was opening their regular season, I tried out for cross country, made the development team, and raced my first Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) six-kilometre race. I loved it. I wasn’t sure if it was running, being part of a team again, or having something on my mind other than missing out on field hockey, but I knew I wanted this feeling to continue.

Around this time, a lot of people in my life imposed narratives on my running success. They’d tell me, “You’re so strong” or “what a comeback.” I’ve definitely said this to other people, but it took me being on the other side of these comments to see why they’re problematic.

I’ve always appreciated the positive sentiment, but I wondered what people would have thought if I responded to my career-ending concussion in a different way. What if the best thing for me was to leave athletics completely? Would that have made me weak?

I didn’t start running to assert my strength over my life-changing injury. I ran cross country not only because it was the best decision for me, but also because it was the best way to get what I believed I needed: a new conclusion to my varsity career and an opportunity to occupy myself with something athletic that wasn’t field hockey.

As a member of the UTM Eagles, I raced three college invitationals, OCAA provincials — where I ran my personal best time of the season, faster than I ever imagined I’d run in my life — and Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association nationals in Grand Prairie, Alberta.

Cross country gave me another chance to pursue achievements that I believed were out of the question for me. I was UTM athlete of the week, my team finished on the podium at provincials, and I competed at one more national championship. But there was a catch: I only did all of this because I loved field hockey, and I lost field hockey.

Cross country never helped me get over field hockey. Running is something new that I can only appreciate because of field hockey. I take issue with people who congratulate me for ‘moving on’ after my injury, because it implies that my field hockey experiences were just moments I should probably leave behind.

When my concussion abruptly ended my field hockey career, my life didn’t immediately split into ‘before’ and ‘after’ field hockey. I still love field hockey and I still miss it. Running cross country didn’t erase the pain of losing field hockey. In fact, I cried over field hockey more than once while I was reaching major milestones with running.

I’ll never move on from it, and now I’ll never move on from cross country. I’ll carry both of these experiences with me forever.

If I’ve learned one thing from this experience, it’s that I am owed nothing. Just because I thought I’d end my varsity career with anticipation, awareness, and appreciation of my five years as a field hockey player, and just because most varsity athletes get that, doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed. If there’s something I want, I need to make it happen.

After I crossed the finish line at nationals, I turned around and scrambled to catch one of my teammates wobbling through the snow and over the finish line until she collapsed into my arms. Race marshals rushed us into the crowded medical tent, where we were joined by the rest of our team as they staggered to find seats and began to wrap themselves in space blankets.

I had no idea what place I got, how well our team did, or what was going on outside that tent. All I knew was that we did it. We just completed the most successful women’s cross country season in UTM Eagles history. I did it. After eight months of sitting in the dark and only four months of running training, I raced with the best college runners in Canada.

As I surveyed the post-race chaos, holding my faint teammate with one hand and my soggy gloves in the other, I started sobbing. I got the moment I really wanted: my final competition in a varsity uniform. It wasn’t anything like I imagined, but it was everything I needed. It was messy and complicated and heartbreaking and beautiful, just like my varsity career.

Summer everlasting

Reflections on time and its flashes

Summer everlasting

On my last night at home, walking up the street with my sisters, I felt the air turn. It rained earlier that day; the storm drains were thick with bloated apples and poached leaves. In this way, the end-of-summer shift came and then it stuck. 

For the past few days I’ve acted like an idiot, going up to people and saying, ‘It’s all over, I can’t believe it, I blinked and it was gone!’ But I mean it every time. Summer ends and everyone fakes bemusement. We love to tell each other about it, commiserate, look at each other and throw up our hands: how did this happen! How did we let it happen, again?

In early August my family drove over to Prince Edward Island, as we’ve done for over a decade, where we prostrate ourselves under the red sun and eat shellfish. I wrote in my journal every day, sitting on the beach. I recorded minutia: woke up (okay sleep), made coffee (bitter), went swimming (cold but no jellyfish), ate peaches (ripe). When I read the entries now, sitting on my bed in Toronto, I can close my eyes and feel it — the security of a routine with only good steps, the sanctity of unconditional time. But then I’m back in my apartment, my roommates are playing Red Dead Redemption 2 in the living room, it falls away again. 

I stayed at a friend’s cottage for a few cold days in June. It sits on a Québec lake, rimmed with pine trees and rich liberals’ summer homes. We sat on the screened-in porch every evening, candles melting down to the table, bugs humming dumbly beyond the light. For dinner, we made zucchini peeled off into long, aquatic strands; corn, peaches, and cheese tossed in a wide bowl; and fresh pasta inlaid with tiny tomatoes and showered with green herbs. I ate it all and hardly felt fat after. Drunk in a wicker chair, I remember thinking: if I have kids, they won’t have this. 

Last December I applied for an academic excursion to Germany, when my hair was still falling out and my life felt very narrow. In May, I sat on a plane beside strangers and woke up in Frankfurt. We went to learn, so I listened in community centres, felt engravings on synagogue walls, and walked with eyes up. We ate Friday dinner at a Chabad house and I listened to the Rabbi’s daughter speak five languages through her tiny mouth. Then everyone got drunk and we struggled home. Was that me? Walking around Berlin with wet feet?

This July I turned 21. I went to Halifax to see my friends from high school: a splintery group of girls-now-women with boyfriends and jobs and vague plans. They live in lofty student houses that make my Chinatown bedroom seem small and mean in comparison. The heat slouched over us all weekend, so we slept with the windows open. Everyone goes to the same bars in that city, where unwashed girls in barrettes sit pressed up against one another in booths, eyes blurry. I see myself there: opening birthday presents beside a lake, wearing a bathing suit in the backseat of an ancient Volvo, flinging myself into people I love… somehow it happened and then didn’t. 

Walking around the neighbourhood I grew up in feels like pulling weeds from a vegetable garden. One pull: this is the store where someone, who in joyful delusion I loved, works. Another: this is the church where, in a white dress, I took first communion. The minutes all roll together and over themselves. I look up and the sun’s moved, look down to more green. Time isn’t graceful but nor is it cruel; it’s an endless, uncaring unfolding. Is 21 too young to feel swept up? 

I spent my last June and July in Israel, trying to learn Arabic. My dorm room had metal shutters and a special area with a blast-proof door. On Saturdays I walked to East Jerusalem, where the shops stayed open, and I drank orange juice in cafés cornered by electric fans. I took a bus to Bethlehem and felt despair eat into my feet, my breastbone, my hips. If you stood in the right place, the horizon never ended — but if you stood in the wrong place, it never started. All I saw everyday was the same beige-brown landscape over and over. Looking at it made me panic. The heat made me panic. I stopped eating and started running. I changed my flight, I left early, I still dream about it. 

When I got back from Israel last August, I spent most of my time on my mom’s front porch. I drank wine out of plastic Ikea cups and slept during the afternoons, curled up on a tiny chair like a dog. I tried to wash it all off me, spread out my hair and pick out the rotting strands. My skin, tanned and freckled from the desert, flaked off. And my hair did eventually fall out that winter anyway, from what my doctor called a “latent trauma response,” what my hairdresser called “too much bleach,” and what my mom called “well, what do you expect?” But everything else stuck. 

It’s tempting to put bookends on things, keep the unruly standing straight, etc. While I know anyone can turn a few flashing moments into a line, forcing teleology onto my life doesn’t make me feel more secure about it. Did May lead to June? Did Frankfurt lead to Summerside? Masada to Tel Aviv? Try all you want, but I’m not believing it, Bibi, baby! 

So this is all I can say of the past four months: I spent a lot of time in my underwear, I felt devout joy and divine sadness, I would not do it over, but I know I will live it again. 

Summer’s nearly here — let’s look for love!

Let’s talk about sex for the last time this school year

Summer’s nearly here — let’s look for love!

People talk about getting to the various ‘bases’ of sexual interaction as if just anyone could waltz onto the field and pick up a bat. Chuck the ball, go the whole nine yards or so. But not everyone’s a star pitcher or batter — they may not even have tickets to the game. No — some of us need directions to even find the stadium.

If you’re like me, someone whose experience in the field begins and ends on the screen, at best you’ve watched a game or two in your free time. Maybe even watched a few plays before bed — or, let’s be honest, more than a few if you’re feeling festive.

Either way, there’s a solid chance, even from an outsider’s perspective, that despite lacking experience, you do know how the game works, whether you believe it or not.

See, everyone exists as a node in a network that connects each of our intricate relationships with one another. But certain relationships, because of pesky human society, become something beyond just another connection — they become a symbol, an image.

Virginity, marriage, and even the idea of being exclusively committed to another human being exist simultaneously for ourselves and for others. And as if we were chefs looking for seasoning in the pantry, the keen of us might look at this and say, “Ay, there’s the rub.”

That’s the crux of the issue with not getting into relationships: thinking you can’t play the game. Putting up walls, relying only on yourself, overly depending on a partner — they are all symptoms of attachment to a prescribed image.

I would wager that a significant part of feeling apprehensive about relationships is not your fault in the slightest. Because in most cases, a truly good, and dare I say, healthy relationship, romantic or not, begins with believing that you’re worthy of one. Not in fitting some image of what a relationship ‘should’ be.

And I’ve found that the moment you realize this, you start giving yourself opportunities to get in base and give it the ol’ college try. You play the game at your own pace, in your own league.

In the end, who cares what the professionals do?

It only matters what you do.

This new year, resolve yourself to get into a game or two. And if you’re scared, just know, dear reader, that I’m in the same boat, striking out more than I’d like to admit.

So come take a few practice shots with me. Slap on the equipment even if it doesn’t fit perfectly. Probably lose a few here and there, but eh, who’s counting? Play your cards right, and kid, you might just hit it out of the park without ever having touched a damn base.

My career-ending injury

How I — sort of — cope with being forced to quit the sport I love

My career-ending injury

Think of your favourite thing, the thing that you love most in the world, that you look forward to every day, and that makes you feel like the best version of yourself. Now, think of what would happen if you were told that you could never do that thing again. Ever. How would you feel? 

I used to be a varsity athlete — I’m still getting used to saying that. 

I was a fourth-year field hockey player and captain of the Varsity Blues field hockey team. I was also a member of the Canadian National Indoor Field Hockey Team. Everything I did in my life revolved around field hockey: when I slept, what I ate, when I studied, and who I spent my time with. All of that changed, though, following a 2018 preseason match, when an elbow smacked my skull and I suffered my fourth concussion. 

Nobody thought it was serious. My prognosis was that I’d be back on the field in a month or less. However, dark-room recovery days turned into weeks, which turned into months. Before I knew it, the 2018 field hockey season had ended without me ever stepping on the field and a month later, I had finished my fall semester the same way I had started it — with a headache. This concussion was serious.

I had spent the fall contemplating my future with field hockey. I always figured that I’d recover, even if it wasn’t as quickly as I wanted, and eventually return to play. My plan was shattered during a routine doctor’s appointment this January. I sat frozen as my doctor repeated, “You can’t play field hockey anymore.” 

I don’t remember much about that appointment or the days that followed. I was numb. Conflicting emotions of relief and misery clouded my consciousness. I felt free without the burden of field hockey but I was also gutted because my life as an athlete — the primary way in which I had defined myself since I started playing competitive ice hockey in third grade — was over. 

My life was irreversibly changed, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. At first, I didn’t tell anyone the doctor’s verdict — not even my parents. Whenever I ran into someone I knew, I would pretend that everything was fine and that I’d be back to field hockey soon.

Then I got anxious. I had to tell my coaches, my teammates, then eventually, everyone who knew me as ‘Julia, the field hockey player’ that I couldn’t play anymore. Informing my team was the hardest. I knew the concussion wasn’t my fault and that I couldn’t do anything to change my situation, but something about writing my retirement email made me feel selfish. Was I letting my team down?

After quitting the team, I completely removed myself from all things field hockey. My wound was too fresh and I knew that any reference to field hockey would send tears streaming down my cheeks. During those weeks, I felt the void that field hockey left behind — I had free time and no way to fill it. Sometimes I’d break down. One night I dreamt that I was sprinting down the field, and when I startled awake in the middle of the night, I realized that my dream was as close as I’d get to the real thing ever again. Another night, I found myself deep down an internet rabbit hole of concussion horror stories and I panicked thinking that my symptoms might be permanent. I cried myself to sleep. 

It’s been three months since I was told that I’d never play field hockey again and I still struggle to navigate the awkward in-between condition of remaining an athlete on the inside while adopting the lifestyle of a non-athlete. Sometimes, talking about field hockey is too hard, but that doesn’t mean I never want to talk about it. 

As I write this, half my team crowds my living room. I chatted with them for a while, but they’re preparing for an upcoming tournament and since I’m not on the team anymore, I feel uncomfortable participating. There’s no handbook on how to do this. All I can do is what feels best each day. Sometimes that means being around field hockey, but sometimes it means pretending I never played at all. 

More than anything, this experience has been extremely isolating. My team, my community, and my home were ripped away from me in what felt like an instant. I was alone. 

I know that other athletes go through this, but I don’t know any personally. I couldn’t shake the feeling that nobody understood what I was going through. Everyone reassured me that I was doing the right thing — easy for them to say — but I struggled to believe them. How could quitting field hockey possibly be the best thing for me?

I think it’s the “never” part of the doctor’s verdict that frustrates me most. I have more free time than I’ve ever had, but I’d give it all up to play in one more game, one more practice, or even one more drill. I spend a lot of time scrutinizing the decisions I made throughout my injury, torturing myself over the ‘what-ifs’ and trying to come up with a scenario where this all didn’t happen. I wonder about what the rest of my field hockey career would have looked like, but since everything I had hoped to achieve is now certifiably impossible, I often feel like my inability to achieve my goals diminishes the success I did have throughout my athletic career. It makes no sense, but sometimes, that’s just how I feel. 

Having said all this, I still struggle with concussion symptoms every day. Even though it feels like the end of the world now, I know picking my stick back up would mean risking lifelong damage. That doesn’t make it any easier. I have no future plans to play and maybe that’s a good thing. 

Before my injury, I had planned to play my fifth season for the Varsity Blues and then continue to train with the Canadian Indoor National Team to qualify for the next FIH World Cup. All I know now is that I have to return to school to complete my undergrad next fall. Maybe by then, I’ll figure something out, or not. We’ll see. 

My field hockey career may be over, but the rest of my life is just getting started.

How to put your life together in seven easy steps

Shine, thrive, and be your best self

How to put your life together in seven easy steps

On several occasions I have been called out for doing “the most” when it comes to school. I take a full course load and I am involved in extracurriculars and volunteer activities while somehow managing to have friends, get a full eight hours of sleep every night, and maintain a 4.0 GPA. Sounds impossible, right? Fear not, you too can have it all — it only takes hard work and seven simple steps.

1. Overthink everything. Break down every idea you have until you hate it and move on to the next until you have exhausted all other options and go back to your original idea.

2. Make time for a weekly existential crisis. What is all of this for? Is U of T worth it? Should I have gone to Ryerson? Will I need to cure cancer to get into grad school? Should I join another club to make it look like I’m a well-balanced student even though I’m already on the brink of collapse? Probably.

3. Make coffee one of your main food groups. My preferred type of coffee is iced regardless of the weather, since it wakes you up and gets you ready to go instead of making you want to curl up into a ball. Also, something about coming to class every day with an overpriced cup of iced coffee just gives off a Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada vibe.

4. Live at the library. I really have brought a blanket to Robarts before. I genuinely don’t understand people who study at home — I still think this is a myth. Surround yourself in the monstrosity that is Robarts Library, with its grim interior and fluorescent lights — it’s just awful enough to make you work extra hard so you can leave as fast as you can instead of watching pointless BuzzFeed videos all day.

5. Learn the art of making lists. I make lists for my lists. I have two calendars in my room — plus an agenda that is colour-coded and organized by type of activity. School gets a section, friends get a section, and even going to buy toilet paper gets a pretty glittery pen colour in my agenda. This way, when people in class look over at you, they think you’re just a busy queen who had no time to waste.

6. Be impatient in every moment. There is always something more you could be doing — and should be doing — to get to whatever goal you’re trying reach. Half the time, you don’t even know what that goal is, but the long line to your aforementioned Starbucks coffee from Robarts between classes is definitely directly hindering your dreams.

7. Do one thing that makes you feel like you have your life together. Even if everything else is a mess around you, if you feel like you’re a boss, you’ll give that energy to everyone around you. I must have my life together if I have a fresh set of nails done, even if I haven’t washed my hair in a week. Life is, after all, about balance.