I was a precocious child. I skipped the first grade, read “Don Quixote” in the fifth and, in high school, took courses at the local college. As an undergraduate, I weaseled my way into graduate seminars. I was always advanced, ahead of my time. Moreover, I was keenly aware of my precocity and wore it like a badge of honor. I graduated from college a semester early.
I’m not sure what happened after that, but either time sped up or I slowed down, because I didn’t write a novel at 21, found a company by 23 or make my first million before 25. In fact, one morning, not long ago, I looked at myself in the mirror, noticed five silver hairs glinting off the fluorescents, and realized I wasn’t a wunderkind anymore.
I wasn’t even a kid. What I was was 26 and working for a dot-com. True, I did have a post of some responsibility there, which in other industries might have constituted a senior position for a person my age (and might have even merited some of those coveted raised eyebrows of admiration and jealousy). But this was the Internet. My cube mate had just turned 21. My boss’ boss’ boss was 27.
I spent a lot of time in those days thinking about the twilight of my youth, bemoaning the loss of my precocity. It was gone forever, I realized. No matter what I achieved, I would never be ahead of my time anymore. Then I was laid off.
Suddenly I had lots of free time. I also had pretty decent health insurance as part of my severance package. I realized I hadn’t been to a doctor in years--and my lower back had been hurting in a remotely nagging sort of way for a while. I went to see a doctor in Santa Monica.
He diagnosed a mild degeneration of tendon between two vertebrae in my lower spine. “It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “Just try to stretch in the mornings and that should help us decelerate the degeneration.”
“Degeneration? Stretching?” I said, horrified. “Can’t you fix it?”
“There is no fix for osteoarthritis,” the doctor said with a thin smile, “but yours is a mild condition that should be relatively easy to manage.”
That took a second to sink in. I had arthritis? At 26? Sure enough, soon after this disconcerting diagnosis I started noticing increasing stiffness in the mornings and when it rained. During one particularly stormy winter weekend, my back practically buzzing in harmony with the humidity, I felt a newfound kinship with my grandfather, whose own sensitivity to cold causes him to walk around his cramped apartment with so many hot water bottles strapped to his body he looks like a suicide bomber en route to the mall.
As it turned out, this was just the beginning of my medical travails. About a month later, still unemployed, I noticed a yellowish bubble forming in the white of my left eye. It looked like a pus-filled sty oozing a web of bloody veins. Besides being revolting, it gave me headaches and prevented me from wearing my contact lenses. Naturally, I thought it was cancer.
I returned to the doctor’s office, where he kept me waiting for 45 minutes with nothing to read but a year’s worth of Modern Maturity. When he finally got around to seeing me, the doctor performed a cursory examination and pronounced me afflicted with pingueculitis. “Caused by exposure to the sun. Not a huge deal,” he said, stifling a yawn.
“So it’ll go away,” I sighed with relief.
“No, they usually stick around forever,” he said. “But unless it develops into pterygium, I wouldn’t worry about it.” Pterygium, he explained, is when the eye becomes covered with a thick growth of tortuous, inflamed tissue. “That’s when you want to come in for a surgical resection,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do in the meantime?” I stammered.
“We’ll manage the condition with some steroid drops for a week,” he said, removing his prescription tablet from his breast pocket with an elegant doctorly flourish and scrawling something on it. “Let’s just wait and see, eh?”
The doctor had collected his clipboard and was on his way out of the examination room, when I stopped him. Actually, it was my burp that stopped him. It was a loud, textured and impressively long burp. Back at the office the guys would have called it “robust.” (The office, alas, is closed. Something to do with revenue.) He turned and was about to say something, but I burped again. The air between us was suddenly scented with the sharp smell of salami. His hands flew up in fear.
“How long have you been doing that?” he cried, still covering his face.
“About a year?” I guessed. “Mostly after meals. Just had a sandwich, sorry.”
“Often,” I admitted. I had recently invested in my first roll of antacids.
“Mr. Dechter, you have gastroesophegeal reflux disease, popularly known as GERD,” he intoned gravely, “Nothing serious if properly maintained, but still ... ,” he added mysteriously, scrawling another scribble on my prescription note. “I want you to stop drinking alcohol and caffeine and take one of these a day. And whatever you do, do not lie down for at least two hours after meals. Understood?”
I must have looked faint, because he wrote something else down on the prescription stationary and left the room with a sly wink. Xanax.
That night, I went to my parents’ house for dinner. While waiting for my father to finish a batch of his famous “Potastries” (Dad’s got this dream of marketing knishes to the masses), I went online to get some background on my new afflictions. It didn’t take long to discover a disturbing pattern in my newly diagnosed disorders.
Osteoarthritis: “Degenerative joint disease is a function of advancing age. The risk of having osteoarthritis increases as people get older.”
Pingueculitis: “Pinguecula formation is typically seen in the older population and is considered by most researchers to be a conjunctival degenerative process.”
GERD: “Believed to be caused by hiatal hernias. Many otherwise healthy people age 50 and over have a small hiatal hernia, considered a condition of middle age.”
In the space of six months, I, an otherwise healthy 26-year-old, was diagnosed with three diseases of middle age.
Words like “degeneration,” “maintenance” and “the importance of daily exercise” kept coming up with alarming frequency in my research. I felt a mounting panic, so I dry-swallowed two Xanax. I wandered into the kitchen, where my parents keep the medicine, and started rifling through the drugs drawer, comparing its contents with my prescriptions.
“What are you looking for?” My father asked, looking up from his pot, where he was elbow-deep in paprika-spiked mashed potatoes and flour.
“My GERD is acting up,” I explained, holding up a bottle of expired Aciphex I’d just found. “The doctor prescribed these.”
“You’ve got the GERD?” he cried. “I’ve got the GERD! Your mother has the GERD!” He did a little dance of familial pride around the kitchen island.
“When did you first get GERD?” I asked him.
“About two years ago on my 50th,” he said. He popped the Potastries in the oven, settled into his seaweed-colored La-Z-Boy and promptly fell asleep.
And that’s when it happened. As I listened to my father’s gentle snores and watched the knishes rise slowly in the oven, I experienced a strange satisfaction wash over me. Sure, it could have been the Xanax talking, but I really felt that old rosy glow of premature accomplishment: I have arthritis, heartburn and the ocular equivalent of liver spots. I have the body of a 50-year-old at 26.
To some people this might be cause for panic, prayer or even exercise. Not me. I’m precocious again! At this rate I’ll be demented and incontinent before I hit 30.
That’s got to be a world record or something, right?
Gadi Dechter is the editor of Tragos, an online magazine. He lives in Los Angeles.