“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” ~Bernice Johnson Reagon
At the age of 37, my beautiful young mother, who I considered my best friend, crashed her car in light rain just around the corner from our home. We will never know what really happened because she woke up from her brain injury a very different person from the one who drove away that morning.
The experience of suddenly becoming a caregiver at the age of 16, along with my 13 year-old brother and the rest of our family, could fill the pages of a how-to manual. I could have benefited from reading something like that during those long years, when we all struggled to adjust to our new reality.
Five years into this new life, our mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, something that she did not fully comprehend because of her condition. Of course it was all too real for the rest of us, and, despite her continued resistance to the cancer, it eventually took her from us.
The ability to look back on a tragedy, a loss, a challenge of any sort and see through eyes that have healed, a heart that has been broken and patched up—this is the ability to grow and become a person who is shaped by the darkness.
It is hard—so, so hard. At times we may want to swat the well-meaning reminders of life like an annoying little insect in our face, close our eyes and our hearts to the new possibilities, and just sit in our paralysis. It’s certainly much easier to do that.
As we know, though, it is not the easy path that leads to the great discoveries.
We discover our real selves on the frightening, unknown path that pushes us outside of the places that feel safe and familiar.
It was a path that I resisted and resented for so long. Brain injury, cancer—it was all too much for me to really comprehend when all I wanted to do was fit in with everyone around me and live the life of a normal young adult.
Looking back I can see the stages of grief so clearly. I ached to stay in the place of denial for as long as possible because I found some comfort there.
The hospital visits, chemo, surgeries, and watching on as the person who’d taken over my mother’s fragile body was slowly fading away—it was like I was walking in a dream most of the time, watching on from far away as my family fumbled through all of this.
I managed to resist the new reality for many years. My body was there at the appointments, in the house cooking meals, and trying to help where possible, but my mind was somewhere else.
Finally, with acceptance and detachment, came the first timid steps toward growth and healing. Looking back now it’s clear that the path opened up for me at just the right time. If I had not been able to let in that light when I did I am not sure where I’d be now.
For many years I escaped to weekend long parties with my friends, drowning out my adult responsibilities with mind numbing music and other activities that allowed me the complete and utter cocoon of a temporary existence far away from that house.
Although I would change so many things if I could, there are pieces of the picture that I would hold onto with all of my might.
But we do not have the luxury of simply extracting the lessons and leaving the pain behind.
It’s through this complete process that we have an opportunity for self-discovery, if we are ready and if we are willing. How do we know if we are ready?
It is at that moment when we are presented with the absolute ultimatum, and this is different for every single one of us. It’s something that some will miss or ignore. For me it was like standing on the edge of my life and realizing that I was not ready to let go of it.
Self-discovery came at what can sometimes feel like an incomprehensible cost to me; but finding the light in the midst of my darkest moments gave me a chance to step up and discover who I really am.
I am constantly evolving, shaped by the tragedy in every moment and in every decision that I make.
My ability to care and my strong sense of compassion seem to have become the most obvious legacy of this experience. I am far from perfect and still human just like everyone else. There are scars and sometimes the anger rears its ugly head when I am least expecting it.
On the other hand, I ache to share and support others with the most burning desire. I have learned about family, with all of its rich imperfections and individual elements. Our little family now shares some of the most heart breaking memories, yet we also share a new appreciation for each other.
Despite the many years of confusion, blame, and uncertainty there is an unspoken respect that we were all doing the best that we could at the time.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to be shaped by pain, but it’s not okay to be defined by it.
I am no longer bitter, angry, or looking for answers. I have found that all of these things are ultimately futile and they chip away at the progress I am making each day to walk a path that gives me a sense of purpose.
My career reflects my experience; through my work in the charity sector I have been able to turn my experience into my existence in a positive way.
I have been able to share my story with other caregivers, coordinate programs to support cancer patients, and also spend time applying my life experience to many projects that have allowed my story to become one of hope for others.
If we are able to discover a calling that has come from a tragedy then we are blessed beyond measure.
Every day I learn more about myself. Through tragedy, healing, love, and now motherhood, I am opening to the discovery of me.
If I could speak to the young woman that I was back then, or anyone else who is going through a tough time, or adjusting to a new reality, I would say that it is so important to remember these things:
It’s okay to ask for help.
Oh how I wish I had known to just ask for help. Holding onto our fears and our questions only keeps them burning inside. There are so many people and so many resources now that are available to us as we enter times of sudden change.
There were many times I could have spoken up from my place of denial and waved my hand for help. My own family and my friends may have seen things differently if I was able to speak up and admit that I was drowning.
Take care of you too!
Self-care has become my number one priority. It is absolutely essential, for caregivers especially.
At the time of my mother’s accident and during the 11 years that our family cared for her, I don’t think that any of us ever consciously thought about taking care of ourselves—or each other, for that matter.
Since we now all live with the ongoing impact of our anxiety and depression we have been awakened to the power of self-care.
You are not alone.
It was the most isolating experience, to be at school one minute and then in the hospital intensive care unit the next. It was a routine that none of my friends shared.
Just to hear someone say that I was not alone would have been such a huge relief. Thanks to the power of the Internet we are now only a few clicks away from someone else with whom we can share our experience.
After all of the loss and the indescribable sadness, I find myself more able to find the lessons in the challenges and move on. I hope that by sharing my story I am helping others in need.
Know that you are not alone. If you feel overwhelmed, remember that some of our greatest discoveries come from those times that we would sometimes prefer to forget.
Photo by iamuday