Ever have your parents make you stay at home to watch your younger sibling? Ever fail an exam, breakup with your boyfriend and get your period all in the same day? Ever feel like being alone and not talking to anyone? If so, chances are, you’re an average teenager. And chances are if you shared some of your daily drama with a friend, they may have responded: OOF.
Oof, That’s Tough: My Responsibility, My Fault
In her own words:
Not that I want to complain, but I want to complain. No, complain is the wrong word. Rant seems so much better. Let me just rant for a second. So, I know that everyone on earth is faced with their individual hardships. Granted, some may be comparably worse than others, but each challenge is every bit as real as the next one. Later in life we are met with some of these challenges, which we have to overcome in due time. Other circumstances however, we are just born into and have a very slim chance of changing, and have to deal with right off the bat.
There are about three of these pre-established situations you can be born into. One is economically disadvantaged. Poor decision-making on capitalism’s part. Second, could be living in an unsafe area or country, in which you have no other option but to stay there. The last, and coming close as one of the worst, is being the first-born child of your mother. Which, oh so luckily for me, I myself have been a victim of.
I’ve always been the oldest child, my whole life in fact, believe it or not. So after 14 years of doing this, I figured I was qualified enough to talk about it, and share a unique experience of mine.
As I imagine, many, many people in this world can align with the title of being “the eldest”. But I don’t mean to talk about my story and use it as an excuse to pay myself on the back, but rather as an opportunity to just share some things about my individual position, and hopefully help people gain some insight of what it means for kids and teenagers essentially being our parent’s right hand men [and women].
This story really begins with my mom’s unexpected move to UAE (United Arab Emirates) when I was about 8 years old. I lived with my whole which included myself, both my parents, my brother (who was 3), and my sister (who was 7, just a year younger than me. We all lived in Nigeria at the time, and my mom planned on furthering her education with a master’s degree in Architectural Engineering. Which she planned to complete at the Heriot Watt University, which was in Dubai.
I thought it was all fun and great, like really, how often do people’s moms get to live in one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world, especially coming from a humble country like Nigeria. But it wasn’t until I soon realized that mom moving would leave me responsible for a lot of what my siblings did, and as they put it “grow up”; that I really began to despise my position as the oldest.
To my 8-year-old eyes, this sudden move to a foreign country in the name of “education” and “bettering oneself”, honestly just looked to me to be false advertising. While it is always triumphant when a woman, especially from the third world, goes to school to gain higher independence and education, it still came at the price of my childhood. Which may sound selfish, even to my own ears, but I would argue that childhood is very expensive and only comes once.
I learnt a lot about responsibility. It was the start of a new chapter for me. Doing chores, making the bed regularly, and making sure my siblings did the same. Now that I’m a little older and I look back on it, I realize that this phase of my life came as a blessing in disguise. Now my family and I are in the States, this time without my dad, and I’m the second in command, helping my busy mom maintain order in our chaotic household. So, the span of a year that we spent without my mom really prepared me for this time, with her being a single parent and all.
One specific example of a time when I really had to step up as the assistant commander in chief was when my mom was preparing for her defense. Which is a really big presentation all PhD. students have to do in front of their committee in order to graduate. Of course this was a very stressful time for my mother, as her entire four years at Penn State had led up to this moment. The road to get her degree included early days, late nights, and hardly a spare moment.
Well lo and behold, Nadine was there. So there was no need for her to worry. Right?
I would presume so. Since I knew how important it was for mom to have as best of a defense as possible. In my mind, I put two and two together, and figured that if she wasn’t able to spend more time working, than being at home taking care of us, cooking, and making sure we were OK, then the quality of her presentation would decrease, and then where would that lead us? Back to Nigeria? Oh, no thank you.
At 13-14, with the reasoning I had created in my mind of my contribution to helping her equaling our entire future, it was really really scary. Will it be my fault if she doesn’t make it? Will my lack of contribution mean more stress for her? These were all the questions I needed to ask myself for self-motivation. At 14, of course all I wanted to do was watch Youtube and think about myself, but because of our unique situation some action needed to be taken.
I say all this, but it doesn’t mean I enjoyed my newfound responsibility for the house and my siblings. If say, for example, my brother didn’t wake up on time for school, or dinner wasn’t made before six, even though it was my sister’s turn to make it that night, guess who the blame would fall on. Oh yeah. Right here. Nadine would take the heat.
Everything in me would want to complain, and sometimes I did.
“Mom, I told him multiple times to do it”
“She never listens to me! It’s not my fault!”
My mom would just look at me tired, but sympathetic. “Don allah ki taimake ni.” “Please help me,” she would say in Hausa. Which actually I think is her first language. “Don allah,”she would say.
“You know you’re my first born right?”
Yes mom, I know. But of course I would help her. Of course. So that when she comes home after hours and hours of studying, she would see fed children, a clean house, and homework done. Y’know all the embellishments. So that she’d smile and not have to worry about a thing. All she had to do was take a shower, and get to bed. So she’d come to my room, give me a hug, and whisper “Na gode” [Thank you].
Well guess what, it all paid off. When in the summer of 2018, she graduated, and was deemed “Dr. Mom”.
Now, I’m not exactly sure if this was even a complete or proper rant. Sorry to disappoint y’all waiting to hear some tea. But as I’ve gone along, I went from completely despising who I was born as, being “the first child”, really holds a lot of weight. But if I’m being completely honest, it really is worth it if I’m the one responsible to easing some of the stress off my mom. If I’m really stepping up, and being her right hand man, making her proud and all that, it really isn’t that bad. Being the eldest isn’t all that bad.
It’s a blessing, and y’know what, I’m thankful. I really am.
Oof, That’s Tough: Selectively Mute
In her own words:
I have struggled with social anxiety pretty much my entire life. From ages 5-9 I wouldn’t even call it social anxiety, just being severely shy. It only became a problem when I was about 10. I didn’t know what caused it to get so bad until March of this year.
What caused the switch from being shy to having a mental disorder was bullying. When second graders bully it’s usually harmless teasing, but as in the teen years, the bullying got worse. Since I was already really shy, and it was one of my biggest insecurities (plus I’m really emotional, and take things way too seriously), it wasn’t long before I just stopped talking completely at school.
I’m the type of person that just ignores problems until they grow out of my control. A couple months ago if someone approached me a normal encounter would be me getting a sharp pain in my side, freezing up, my mind going blank, stuttering, and thinking of the worst possible outcome of that conversation. So basically I would have a panic attack every time I had to talk to someone outside my immediate family. My teachers just thought I was really shy, so they tried to put me in as many uncomfortable situations as they could. My family just thought I would grow out of it, and I thought I was choosing to be this way and I could snap out of it whenever I wanted.
Social Anxiety by definition is the ‘intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.’ At its worst, my social anxiety took over my whole body. If someone would try to talk to me, I wouldn’t even have to say a word and they would see I’m very visibly uncomfortable/scared. Sometimes I couldn’t speak, and people thought I was being rude.
On the severity scale of SAD (social anxiety disorder) I used to be very severe. Now I’m in the mild section. I don’t freeze up anymore, I look calm and relaxed. I used to isolate myself as much as possible, but now I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and approach people.
I ended up going to a Behavioral Health Inpatient hospital for almost 2 months because of some other mental health problems. That forced me to be around strangers 24/7 and interact in group therapy. Also not having my family there helped me to no longer “hide” behind them. Immediately after coming out of the hospital I was given a speech therapist who helped me so much with learning how to speak to other people again. For example, since I had really bad panic attacks, she taught me some coping skills to use when conversing.
Sometimes I forget to breathe… so taking deep breaths takes me out of my thoughts and clears my mind. Tapping my arms brings me back down to earth. “ I’m still here… I’m ok. “ I also have a smooth rock that I keep in my pocket. Slipping my hand in my pocket to fidget with the rock gives me something to do besides judging myself, or panicking.
SAD makes me feel so frustrated, because when I see people with my sense of humor, and my personality I hate myself for being the way I am.
I’m 14 heading into 9th grade and my mom has decided I needed special treatment, so instead of sending me to the public high school that everyone goes to, she wants to send me to a really small christian private school.
A smaller school, she says, would force me to interact with people more. Talk more. A smaller school, she says, is where I would be included. But I would prefer a larger school… where you can be forgotten.
I don’t understand why she completely ignored my SAD for 4 years, but when I’m finally getting better she decides I need special consideration.
I know better than anyone how I act in situations… and the size of the school matters. For example, I went to two different middle schools. In the smaller school .I sat alone at lunch. During group projects, I would convince the teacher to let me do it myself — and people noticed me more.
When I went to the larger middle school, there were more people, and more people like me… so it didn’t matter and no one cared.
If someone approaches me, and I’m really awkward and I don’t keep the conversation alive, they’ll know to keep their distance next time. In a small school if that keeps happening, I’ll run out of people to talk to very quickly.
Despite this major inconvenience that is school, my mom has been a huge help when it comes to my mental health (even if she ignored any signs of SAD or depression for years).
Since I’m still not completely over SAD, I’m not a good person to ask for advice, but I can give some. There are four kinds of comfort zones. The dead zone, comfort zone, growth zone, and panic zone.
The dead zone is where I was for years. Refusing to try anything new, repeating the same patterns over and over, having no personality or life, and life being stagnant.
The comfort zone is where I’m at most days. Still not trying new things, but not being a zombie. Instead of school, eat, sleep, you can kind of change it up, and add things that you’re comfortable doing.
The growth zone is somewhere I try to be in as much as possible. This zone is the best by far to be in. A Little after I started therapy, I put myself in the growth zone by starting a conversation with someone that always tried to talk to me and connect with me. By putting myself in the growth zone just once, I was never lonely again for the rest of the time I was in that school.
The panic zone is where you put yourself in a situation that you’re totally unprepared for, and overwhelmed by. I (thankfully) have never put myself out there that much and entered the panic zone.
I’m still not fully recovered, but at least I’m talking… For now.
Oof, That’s Tough: Invisibly Ill
In her own words:
When I was 10, I won the Pennsylvania State Swimming Championships. But that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be an olympian. But now I want to be the best for a different reason. When I tell my story I want people to listen. I’m not the best yet, but I still have my story, and I am going to tell it.
I’ve been diagnosed with Dysautonomia. In laymen’s terms, anything automatic for most people, from the dilation of the pupils to blood pressure and heart rate, my body struggles with regulating. It might not sound bad, but it forces people to quit jobs, home-school and give up athletics. Some people are even hospitalized. It takes over lives, and it took over mine.
It started the winter after I won States. I was full of confidence and ready to prove myself. I came back and worked harder than ever. I started practicing twice a day with an older swimmer, and I loved it. I was standing on the top of the world, and yet something still managed to knock me down.
I started cramping up in practices. I went to a nutritionist, yet nothing changed. Sometimes I would get headaches, and some days I would be so fatigued I could barely go to school. But I wasn’t concerned. I thought that I could deal with it. And I could, and I did. Until I couldn’t.
I was doing an easy practice, a set I had done many times before. After finishing, I became extremely dizzy. I got out of the pool and collapsed immediately. The next thing I knew I was shaking uncontrollably. I was fully aware of what was happening but had no ability to stop it. Everything hurt; my head, my hands, my legs, my stomach. I was screaming in pain. And then I was loaded into an ambulance.
At the hospital, I was told I had pneumonia. I was treated with antibiotic and an inhaler, as well as being put on bed rest for a few weeks. The next day I went to school like any other day. Almost nobody had noticed that I was gone.
I got back in the pool a month later. I started training again and even though I didn’t feel great, I was determined to be great. So I worked even harder, which lead to me falling even harder.
This time I stayed overnight in the hospital. I was diagnosed with myocarditis, or swelling caused by a viral infection of the heart. This diagnosis didn’t even make sense as the doctors had no evidence to base it on. Yet I still wasn’t allowed to swim for another month.
I got back in time for district champs. I only qualified for states in one individual event and a relay.
Three days later I was in the ER again, my mom standing at my bedside refusing to leave until they told her what was wrong with me. A week before, a doctor had refused to offer me medication for a minor flu, claiming that I was a perfectly healthy kid.
After that my doctors finally did something. I was referred to a heart doctor, lung doctor, brain doctor, and an (auto-immune and musculoskeletal doctor).
The heart doctor looked me in the eye and told me I was on drugs. I assured him I wasn’t, but he referred me for testing anyway.
The lung doctor finally told me something that made sense. A breathing disorder called Vocal Cord Dysfunction. When someone with VCD breathes in, their vocal cords constrict so air catches in their throat every time they breathe in.
The brain doctor finally treated me for my migraines. I had had a migraine 24/7. For 6 months.
My auto-immune was my savior. She was the first to tell me what was really wrong with me. She diagnosed me with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or POTS. POTS is actually a cardiovascular disorder that falls under the category of Dysautonomia. It has nothing to do with the doctor’s field of specialty.
It took 6 months to finally get help.
For those 6 months, I was almost completely disabled. Yet no one in school noticed because I “didn’t look sick.” I would be in the hospital one night feeling miserable and then come to school the next day feeling exactly the same way. Dysautonomia is considered an invisible illness. It’s more like an invisible wall.
I couldn’t compete at states that year or a zone championship I had qualified for that included 7 states. I didn’t truly train for another year, and when I did, I felt awful. The same things would still happen to me. Some days I can’t even get in the pool. But every day, I keep trying.
Going through this as an 11/12 year, it was hard to comprehend everything. The isolation I felt was so intense. Getting anyone to listen was so hard, even my doctors were difficult to convince. I would walk around in a daze because of all of my symptoms, and I just didn’t feel connected anymore. Hanging out with my friends was so fatiguing that eventually I just stopped. Even now that I feel a lot better, it is still hard that my illness is invisible. I used to be the fastest in the pool, but with so much to deal with now, winning is a lot more complicated as I hardly ever feel well in a race. But to everyone else, I look just like a normal girl. Some handicaps are very visible, such as an amputation, but mine is invisible. Some of my friends didn’t even know I was sick until I told them a year later.
My teammates always ask me why I still swim even though it makes me feel so terrible. I don’t say this, but it is because I want to be an example. I want to show all of the girls like me that I can overcome, and so can they. We don’t have to give up what we love. We need to fight for it. We need to fight for ourselves. Because illnesses like Dysautonomia often go ignored, 1 out of every 100 girls will develop some form of Dysautonomia but the average diagnosis rate is 6 years. It is one of the most ignored disabilities. Doctors who do know about it often think it is fake. But if I wanted to fake an illness I would choose something that people would believe. And I definitely wouldn’t have chosen to endure 4 ambulance rides, many medical different tests and see 10 different doctors. I also wouldn’t have chosen my daily routine of taking medicine four different times a day and drinking around 300 ounces of water, which converts to about 9 liters or 3 ½ gallons.
But someday, people with Dysautonomia won’t have to go through what I and so many others have to go through, because I am going to change it.
I am going to be a biomedical engineer, and I am going to make things that help people with chronic illnesses. Everyone has a chance to do something, and I am going to take mine.
Dysautonomia took – and still takes so much from me.
But I am going to make it pay.
And not just for me, but for everyone who has been affected.
I will fight for them.
Watch Kate in a swim meet. Kate is the third one down from the top: