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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Making the Most of Being a Risk Taker

August 2022

Way down in the dumps one day in 1977 I wrote a list of my pleasant feelings and positive thoughts. I started with nine feelings and twenty-four thoughts. In the list of positive thoughts, I wrote risk taker, gutsy. Almost all my life I’ve made the most of being a risk taker, but I never appreciated so much till last week when I talked to some friends. I mentioned a couple of things I’ve done, one of which was that I had lived in Scotland.

What’s risk taking about, I wondered. I had finished my bachelor’s degree during which I’d worked full-time for three years at a residential school for children with emotional and learning disabilities. I probably could have gotten a job based on a bachelor’s degree and job experience. A blue notice on a university bulletin board caught my attention though. British Universities Summer School: Oxford, London, or Edinburgh. Given the topics offered at each university, I chose Edinburgh. I’d also been to all three cities, so none would be a surprise, or a risk. Edinburgh sounded fine. I applied, was accepted, and went for two years.

Spending half my childhood in New York City sounded much riskier to me. One year we lived in a hotel where my room was on the third floor in the back and my parents’ on the second floor in the front. If I had a nightmare, I had no choice to go run to their room. Tough it out, I told myself. Even when I was sick with the flu for two weeks—tough it out. Of course, they brought me food and came to check on me before and after work. Probably Sadie or Anna brought me some broth for lunch. After moving to Maine for three years, which I thought was heaven, we moved back to Manhattan—The City.

Even with the two private schools I went to, all The City’s cultural opportunities of museums, concert halls, and five movie theaters within walking distance of our apartment, living in The City was never a comfort zone for me. I felt a couple of exceptions as I wandered the galleries of various museums. The Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) became my sanctuaries. I also liked the inside of Grace Church and of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Nothing would happen to me in any of those places. The streets? Even crossing a street with the light, I took a risk. Would I get to the sidewalk before a bus, taxi, delivery van, or private car hit me or someone grabbed my arm?

It wasn’t till four days ago that I really felt I was a risk taker. What made the recent comment different was that this person knows what taking a risk is. To me, now and all my life, taking a risk is going out in public to a party, a social event, grocery shopping, a solo hike in the woods, to my everyday job and not knowing if I will pass out, fall, get dizzy, hallucinate, or some other weird behavior of mine that’s associated with epilepsy. Yes, being in public involves taking a risk.

What I learned to do was imitate my relatives and friends as well as the people on  sidewalks, busses, or the subway. I pretended everything was normal and behaved as they did. That should do it. No one would find out that something about me was off. I had all kinds of excuses—I tripped, stubbed my toe, turned my ankle, etc. Someone bumped into me, I wasn’t looking, I was thinking about something else. Those responses seemed to satisfy people.  

The real reason could be an absence seizure, a tonic seizure, or some other kind I don’t yet know the name of. Between their onset at age five and the diagnosis at age seventy-three, I had all kinds of excuses. One time I had four days of being “out of it.” How I drove to work, ran a school, conducted meetings, I don’t know. I even spend the weekend at home doing routine things. How? I’ll never know. Other than me, no one seemed alarmed by my odd behavior. Again last week, someone asked why I didn’t call in sick on such days. My good reason was that this happened to me so often, I couldn’t call in every time I felt like this. Anyway, I didn’t think my thinking and behavior were so abnormal. Don’t you, the person reading this, have this happen to you often? That would have been my question three years ago. Now I understand it is not normal behavior.

These days, medication helps immensely and I know if one such situation overrides the medication, I should stop what I’m doing, sit down and relax, or go take a long nap.

How does all this relate to risk taking? I took up mountain climbing to get rid of vertigo. That didn’t work at all, but the beauty of hanging out at high altitudes was worth it. I hiked the Scottish Highlands, the woods of Alaska, and the desert mountains of eastern Oregon alone. I learned not to be afraid of saying something out of the ordinary, bizarre even, when lecturing or giving a talk. I learned to touch walls, desks, stoves, counters, parking meters, or trees, you name it, when walking. That helped me keep my balance and I did it in spite of my mother constantly telling me Keep your hands off the walls, doorways, china cabinet, or whatever it was. It wasn’t till I was in my seventies and walked without touching things that I heard my mother’s voice again. I wanted to tell her why I kept grabbing hold of things, but she was thirty years long gone at that point.

I learned to be a risk taker to keep my unknown problem the secret it was. Sometimes I felt and behaved as normal as the next person, but other times, I just behaved as normal as I could even when I knew I felt extremely off kilter. It was the rare person who asked, are you okay. I’d lie and say, I’m fine.

Risk taker—to go to work when I felt terrible—dizzy, high not on any drugs, having multiple illusions and hallucinations. That was my normal. Therefore, going to work, or taking a train ride from Boston to Nova Scotia at age thirteen, or a plane from New York to London and then a taxi to the station, a train to Sevenoaks, and a taxi to my relatives whom I’d never met, alone at age fifteen, I just had to pretend it was all normal. I had to pretend the same way I did, when I was somewhere and so dizzy I could not stand. I guess that’s how I learned to become a risk taker.

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