Growing up as a privileged, white female in Georgia, I didn't really know what it meant to suffer—at least not yet. As a child, I’d talk to my American Girl dolls about people who had lives entirely different from my own; people like Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom, Rosa Parks, or Holocaust survivors—or at least what little I knew and could try to understand about them at the time. But I had never experienced the kind of hardship I explained to my toys—or anything close to it. I was just a Pollyanna-type girl living a happy life.
But, my blissful, happy-go-lucky world all came crashing down when I was 26 years old. On April 21, 2008—just six months after safely giving birth to my first child—I suffered a massive brain stem stroke, caused by a rare congenital defect I didn’t even know I had. An arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels in the brain, had suddenly ruptured, and luckily my husband, Jay, happened to come home soon after it occurred and was able to call for help. After being rushed off to the hospital, I underwent 16 hours of micro-brain surgery, a minimally invasive procedure in which half my cerebellum (the part of the brain that’s responsible for motor skills) was removed damaging many vital nerves in the process. (Related: Why Are More Young People Having Strokes?)
In a single night, I went from being a “normal” aerobics instructor and catalog model to a stroke survivor who can’t move half her face—or walk, drive, use her right hand, or hear out of one ear, for that matter.
As you can imagine, the first five years after my near-death experience were terrifying, to say the least. I spent the first 40 days on life support in the ICU and the following two years in rehab full-time. Whenever I had to endure another painful surgery, I'd have total nervous breakdowns and panic attacks until the moment I went under. My body would try to fight the anesthetic to keep me awake, just like a scene straight from your worst nightmare. I had this deep, unwavering fear that if I lost consciousness, I'd never wake up again. And with each passing day, I continued to feel crushed thinking about my new normal. You know, we're told that we're equipped to handle these difficult and painful challenges in life, but I think instead of focusing on being strong all the time, we need to give each other permission to not be okay for a while when terrible suffering happens.
When I needed relief from this incessant hardship, I didn't pretend my feelings weren't there or become numb to them–that's was key. Instead, I let the highlight reel of all the good moments in my life roll through my head. And once I finally re-learned how to talk and eat, I woke up to the reality in front of me: A life in a wheelchair wasn’t the one I had dreamt of as a kid or could ever even imagine as an adult, but this was suddenly the life I had. I was going to somehow accept and come to love it. By shifting this mindset, the panic of going under during yet another surgery started to go away too. I survived a near-deadly stroke, why wouldn't I make it out alive this time?
My optimistic perspective is largely driven by my faith. Ever since I was a young Christian girl going to summer camp, I’ve believed that the situation in front of me isn't the whole picture and that there’s so much more to life that’s unseen. But my positive attitude also comes from my penchant to re-frame the narrative. I’m not denying the bad—I still have moments and hours where the suffering is just overwhelming—but I’m not focusing on it, either. Instead, I’m leveraging it with what I do have. I’m alive, surrounded by people who care about me. I’m not “wheelchair-bound,” rather, I’m “wheelchair-free,” as it enables me to get where I want to go. Even with the long list of things I have to be upset or angry about, it’s so good to be me. (Even Selma Blair has looked to Wolf to find hope while battling multiple sclerosis.)
From all the initial tragedy and 11 painful surgeries I’ve since endured, I’ve come to learn a lesson of my own that's worth sharing with my American Girls—and anyone else who needs to hear it: When you’re experiencing these periods of intense suffering in your life story, there’s a deep trove of treasure to be found at the center of it all. You learn the ability to persevere and endure whatever wrench has been thrown in your plan, you develop a new perspective on the world around you, and you gain depth and richness that changes who you are as a person. Of course, no one wants to go through hell, but when you do, you get a bunch of tools that you can put in your backpack to inform the rest of your life—and that is game-changing.