* I'm posting this for a personal narrative assignment for my multimedia storytelling class.
The day I got sick was just the first domino. Four years later, the last one fell. Over the last few years, I have travelled a fifteen-hundred-mile road to recovery – a chain of events that tested my emotional resilience and helped me turn the tables on my anxiety by accepting it as an ever-present challenge that I could adapt to, rather than conquer.
In the Fall of 2014, I suffered an adverse reaction following routine surgery. I woke up in the middle of the night with chronic, head-to-toe hives. The prescribed steroids didn’t help, and I was sleep deprived to the point of complete irrationality and delusion. I convulsed on the ground and shook uncontrollably for hours on end. I couldn't leave the couch because the bottoms of my feet were tender with hives, as if I was walking on shards of glass. I took shockingly cold showers to numb my whole body and laid ice packs directly onto my skin, which melted within minutes. It felt like there was a scalding hot cauldron inside of me and the only way to release it was to itch the skin off until nothing remained. I thought it couldn't possibly get any worse.
In the midst of this nightmare, I developed an autoimmune disease called reactive arthritis. I remember sitting on the examination table, waiting for the doctor. Suddenly, I looked at my mom, horrified. I tried lifting my arm and it wouldn't move. A weakness fell over me and a sharp, sudden pain shot through my shoulder with the surprise and intensity of a bullet. These debilitating “sneak attacks” proceeded to ambush my joints without warning, creating a war within my body. The unpredictability made me scared to move at all. Doctors told me that I could potentially be in a wheelchair if the pain escalated.
After implementing special diets to reduce inflammation and prevent further damage, my symptoms started to subside, and the doctor said I could be active again if I could handle the arthritic pain. Before all of this happened, I was a former three-time national champion in cycling and in training for a big year of national and international races. When I was given the green light, I eased back into my exercise routine. The residual arthritis affected my grip on the handlebars because my wrists and fingers were weak and achy, but nothing was going to keep me off my bike. I had work to do. Just when things were looking promising again, my family suffered a life-altering incident.
My mom had a bicycle accident and our lives changed in an instant. She suffered months of excruciating nerve pain and temporary paralysis. Tensions were high because of my mom’s condition, but my parents continued to support my racing. I was given the opportunity to represent the United States, which was something I had been dreaming of for a long time. I was glad to have something positive to focus on, but I never could’ve anticipated the many dominoes that were still ahead.
Long story short, I had a terrible race. Something just wasn’t adding up. I put in way too much training to be performing so poorly. I went home to have my blood tested, fearing that I would have to skip Nationals. The phone rang. My mom picked it up and listened. She hung up, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You have mono. No nationals.” I burst in tears as soon as I heard “no.”
It wasn't necessarily the news at that very moment that broke me, but the collective weight of every fallen domino crushing me all at once. I was so busy training and racing that I didn't have time to dwell on things or feel sorry for myself. But this time around, life came to a screeching halt and I couldn't rely on those things to distract me from how I felt. I was afraid to set my dominos back up, out of fear that they would just get knocked down again. It ultimately took two more years to fully recover, but when I was finally in the clear, new challenges arose yet again.
I had a clean bill of health for the first time in years, but I wasn’t jumping for joy like I thought I should be. The shock of life hitting me all once was like a blinding light at the end of the tunnel. The loss of time and identity left me disoriented and I began experiencing psychosomatic pain that felt just as real, if not more painful, than my disease. To ward off suicidal thoughts, I started listening to comedy albums, which became a vital part of my recovery. Stand-up is all about finding humor in shared experiences, even dark and painful ones. There are jokes to be found in adversity, and comedians have the flashlight to reveal the invisible ink. As the saying goes: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”
There’s a quote by James Joyce that reads: “Your battles inspired me – not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.” On my bike, I’ve had plenty of battles on the race course, but treating and managing my PTSD symptoms has been my greatest battle of all – one that was fought and won behind my forehead. I’m incredibly proud to have travelled a fifteen-hundred-mile road to recovery from my home state of Pennsylvania to college in Colorado. Every day, I remind myself: “If I can put in years of work in an uninspiring, pain-ridden environment, just imagine what I could do in a place where I’m thriving instead of surviving.” And that place is at Colorado Mesa.
I recently read a short story for my AP Literature and Composition class and, long story short (no pun intended), I have never felt so understood in my life. Who knew that a piece of literature written in 1905 could be #RELATABLE? And that got me thinking: If this story is in a high school curriculum 112 years later, then I’m not the only one who can relate.
The story is “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather. Here’s the lowdown: Paul works as an usher at a theater after school. Unlike his classmates, he has a passion for the theater and an appreciation for art and creativity. The world of the arts offers him something he can’t find at home or in school: a sense of belonging.
I'd like to relate a few excerpts to my own life because they're relevant to anyone who has felt like a square peg in a round world. We tend to think we're alone in feeling this way, but that's never the case. I hope that you'll be inspired to be undeniably YOU by the end of this.
Regardless of what happened in Canada, I didn’t scratch my original plan to fly to Missoula, Montana for another junior UCI race. I woke up at 5am eastern time and waited for my flight to Minneapolis.