Suffering is a part of life. We all learn that at some point or another. Often times we ask God, “Why me?”
I’m immensely blessed. And I know for a fact that I have it better than most. But I’ve borne my share of crosses, and I consider them blessings as well. Enduring these sufferings were the hardest things I’ve ever been faced with, but they’ve brought me so much closer to my Father in Heaven than I ever would have gotten without them.
You wouldn’t think by the time someone is sixteen years old that they would have had countless MRIs, a spinal tap, kidney surgery, been looked at by a famous brain surgeon and been diagnosed with a mysterious autonomic disease.
Well that’s me.
It all started back in seventh grade. I came down with a serious case of mononucleosis. I missed a couple weeks of school and was never the same after that. It took about a year of extreme exhaustion, dizziness and frequent sickness for us to get me looked at.
Towards the end of my 8th grade year, we were referred over to Blank Children’s Hospital to be seen by a Dr. Elliott, an older guy with a great sense of humor. “Books not boys,” he’d always say to me. His lightheartedness made the pokes, prods and stick much more bearable.
After a series of testing, he concluded that I had developed POTS, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, (a form of dysautonomia) from the mono. To put it simply, I am susceptible to minor headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations (especially when changing positions), fainting, suppressed immunity, CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) and many other exciting side effects.
Everyday it was a struggle to simply get out of bed and make it through the day. I was seen by a pediatric cardiologist, who experimented with a series of medicines to regulate the palpitations. Long story short, I was having some crazy hallucinations, so we decided to go another route.
I was put on a cocktail of other crazy medicines (some trying to counteract the side effects of prescriptions I was already taking) in hopes of letting me live like a normal kids. (If you consider taking more pills than all your grandparents COMBINED “normal”.)
My morning dosages felt like this:
One day I decided to go cold turkey and see how I felt without the meds. Magically…
I FELT 10 TIMES BETTER.
Bam. Freshman year hits. I’m having a blast in high school with band, show choir and everything. I’m not nearly what I used to be, but I was feeling way better. We get to homecoming weekend with a jam-packed schedule, and I wake up the next Monday with an excruciating migraine.
We didn’t think anything of it. I was run down, tired. I’ll pick back up in a day or two. Besides, the fun I had just had at my very first high school dance was totally worth it.
(Yeah, that's me on the far right. Working that freshman brace face!)
Boy were we wrong. For the next 6 months, every single day was accompanied with a headache. Most of which were migraines that made me vomit and gave me trouble seeing. I missed forty percent of my freshman year.
I was referred, by Dr. Elliott, over to one of the two pediatric neurologists in Des Moines, an older, short, dry Indian man named Dr. Tripathy (whom we actually grew really close to by the end of it all). Again, we went through a series of tests, including MRIs, eye tests, going to the University of Iowa to be seen by a neuro ophthalmologist, and even got in to see a world-renowned brain surgeon.
The brain surgeon thoroughly examined my MRI results and concluded that the blood flow on one side of my brain had been cut off, but, by the grace of God, had rerouted itself. This still wasn’t the answer they were looking for.
He ordered a spinal tap, on Good Friday of 2012, to find out about the pressure readings in my cranium. Let’s just say that the procedure didn’t go as planned, and I was lucid for multiple stabs (literally) at getting a reading. And, of course, the reading came up negative.
Here comes the big shocker. The migraines stopped on a dime that day. And I was like:
PRAISE THE LORD!!
(insert Hallelujah chorus here)
Little did anybody know that this victory was for much more than my physical health. Amidst all of these physical sufferings, I was suffering inside just as much, if not more.
Having to miss out on so many events, classes and rehearsals really set me back in school. My grades dipped, my relationships weren’t as strong and I started to lose faith in myself and in God. My already low self esteem took a nosedive.
Then the thoughts came. Bad thoughts.
“What would it be like if I were gone? Would anyone care? I’m so much more of a burden than anything.”
I felt like I was in a dark, endless tunnel of physical and emotional pain. Would I ever feel better? Did anybody love me? I started to shut people out and my attitude grew sour. I felt like life wasn’t worth living.
I sat in the bathroom one night with an old bottle of heart medication. I stared at it, trying to muster up the courage to open it and chug. Something stopped me. Not tonight.
This went on for a few months, intermingled with cutting my ribs with shaving razors and growing further from my faith.
One particular day will stick with me for the rest of my life. My alarm went off. My head was pounding, as usual, and it was going to be a long day. I knew I needed to try to go to school so I could make all my rehearsals for upcoming performances. I laid in my bed, unable to move, and incredibly drained, both emotionally and physically. For the first time in months, I prayed. I prayed harder than ever before.
God help me. I just need to get through this day.
It was the most raw moment of my life. I had a huge revelation. I could almost hear the Lord speaking directly to me. It totally overwhelmed me and I broke down. I had been neglecting the relationship with my dear Father for so long, and He had finally come to my aid.
Happiness is a choice. I was choosing to let the suffering drag me down, instead of rising above it all and accepting the suffering as an opportunity to grow closer to my God.
From that day forward, everything seemed easier. I was able to find joy in every aspect of my life. I went into everything I did with a sense of tenacity and excitement and my life was filled with such beauty. I could see the Lord in everyone and everything.
Going to Mass on Sundays was no longer a chore, but rather an incredibly moving experience. I looked forward to that beautiful time with my Lord every week. And I still do. I thank the Lord for coming in when he did, because I wasn’t out of the woods yet.
During all of this, I had experienced intermittent back and side pain. It got increasingly worse during the summer before my sophomore year. I would wake up writhing in pain, puking, clenching my sides, unable to move.
It was back to urgent care for me. The doctor first told me I had a kidney stone, but after some imaging tests, I was referred to a urologist for a second opinion. My doctor, a short, dry, older man (yes, another one) gave us the news that I had a birth defect that caused a blockage in my ureter (the tube that drains your kidney to your bladder). And it had been backing up my kidney for sixteen years. We had two options: to medicate the pain for the rest of my life, or surgery.
Since the first option sounded slightly ridiculous, we ended up opting for surgery. Of course, we were a week out from my first day of school. So I spent four days in Blank Children’s Hospital in recovery, and missed my first day of school. I had so many great friends visit me, and I had such an incredible support system. My family was there every step of the way, helping me with whatever I needed.
The recovery was rough, but I finished the last stage of it the day before homecoming of sophomore year. And I had the time of my life.
(I'll bet you can guess which one is me.)
So, in some ways, my suffering actually saved me. Yes, as an imperfect human being, I asked God why He was putting all of this on me. But it taught me to really put things into perspective. I’m alive. I have people who love me. I have a good relationship with my Creator. What more could I ask for?
After these experiences, I’ve been able to face the trials of life with greater ease and faith. And I no longer let them drag me down to that low place. I am thankful that I have been through all of this, because it made me who I am today. God has given me the incredible gift of using my rocky past as a way to help other people bear their own crosses.
I can honestly say I am happier than I have ever been, and life gets better by the day. Thank you God, for this beautiful gift of life!