Ariel Yong Hydrocephalus Association Teens Take Charge MentorThere’s a whole laundry list of things I can’t do.

I can’t go scuba diving. I can’t play a wind instrument. I can’t go horseback riding. I can’t hang upside down for too long. I can’t play football. I can’t lift heavy things. I can’t do headers in soccer.

And for those of you with hydrocephalus, maybe you’ve heard these things, too. But I’m here to tell you that our lives are not defined by a list of “I can’ts.” It’s not always easy to see it this way (especially in the wake of a hydrocephalus diagnosis), and it took me a while to figure this out.

When I was younger, any time a classmate noticed my shunt protruding from my neck or the large scar on my stomach, my heart started beating one thousand miles a minute. My body temperature spiked and my palms got sweaty while I tried to think of an explanation. Oh, it’s just a vein. Appendicitis. I fell and cut myself. Basically, I’ll tell you whatever you want to hear and will believe, so we can stop discussing the main reason why I’m so different.

And for the few close friends I did share my big secret with, I didn’t go into details. I didn’t explain that I have hydrocephalus, an incurable neurological condition where I had surgery to have a tube put in to drain the excess fluid in my brain. I would simply describe it by reciting the list of “I can’ts” that I began this story with.

But here’s the thing. We’re really not that different. Looking back, I wish I wouldn’t have rattled off all those “I can’ts.” It was hard for me to accept my condition and still feel “normal.” But I’ve learned. And I’m still learning. And one place that helped me see myself as just a “normal” girl is sports.

Now, you might be thinking, “Sports are definitely on the ‘I can’t’ list!” I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a risk playing sports with hydrocephalus. Both my parents and I were aware of possible head injuries, and the minor ones I received were treated with extra, over-the-top care. But I learned that there’s a line between mentally pushing yourself and putting your foot down when your body – or your brain – is telling you you simply can’t do it. The trick is balancing between pushing yourself, yet listening to your body and knowing how close you are to the line so that you don’t cross it.

I made the sophomore basketball team when I was a freshman in high school. After serving as captain of the team my sophomore year, I decided I wanted to dance on the Pom Poms squad. So I tried out and danced on the team for two years. And my best friend made me run track, which I thought was the worst idea at the time, but couldn’t thank her enough when I was named one of the captains with her my senior year.

So to all the people who told me I wouldn’t play sports, I did.

And if you want to play, you can make it happen, too.

It wasn’t always a walk in the park, however. As track captain, I wanted to lift in the heaviest lifting group for strength training because I thought that was one of the only ways to show my leadership. There came a point when the weight put too much stress on my head, and I got headaches and occasionally felt dizzy. So I dropped down to a lower weight group because, while I can lift weights, I can’t lift that heavy of weights. And I figured out different ways to be a leader for my teammates – helping with core workouts and other drills. This is an example of the sometimes tricky balancing act I referred to earlier.

If you choose to play sports, there will also be some obstacles. One time, I got hit hard in the head with a basketball, and although any other athlete might not think twice about it, my parents woke me up every hour that night and quizzed me to make sure everything was okay.

So, is all the balancing and extra caution worth it? When your team or coach elects you to be captain, or you hit the winning shot, or you run that winning relay, I promise you it’ll all pay off. I participated in the Doug Bruno basketball camp in Illinois one summer. I was far from the best player there, but I did win the “Kate No Retreat, No Surrender, Never Give Up” Award out of all the girls in the camp. And if I had to choose, I would’ve chosen this award over most valuable player (MVP) any day. At the bottom of my trophy, it reads, “One cannot always control circumstances…One can and must control their attitude regarding their circumstances…”

I didn’t choose to live with hydrocephalus, and it still doesn’t define me. It’s simply a condition I’m living with, and sports helped me see this. Sports taught me mental and physical toughness to never give up when life throws obstacles and lists of “I can’ts” at you. So if you have hydrocephalus and you want to play sports, do it and do it with all your heart. Push yourself mentally, but listen to your body. Don’t let fear of judgment keep you from playing the game. Because we are different. You know why? Because we never retreat. We never surrender. We never give up.

Do you want to talk about this blog? Join me on Facebook and Twitter. Use #TalkTTC. Let’s start a conversation!

Ariel Yong, student athlete, hydrocephalusAriel Yong, student athlete, hydrocephalus