Sometimes life just feels relentless. It feels like an endless sea of suffering, and you fight and fight the current to no avail. Maybe you finally learn to relax and surrender to the flow. Maybe you break the surface. Maybe you think the worst is over, just for a clean-up set to wash through and knock you flat again.
You feel like the lessons have been learned, like you’ve squeezed the lemons and made the lemonade. You don’t understand. Why now? Why more?
First – whether you believe there is a why or not, you don’t need to figure it all out now. You may look back and realize how you’ve grown or how it served you, or the knowing may never reveal itself. Right now, it is okay if it just sucks. Let yourself acknowledge that it is hard. Don’t diminish it or make excuses for yourself.
Then – think of the ocean. We describe ourselves as feeling like we’re drowning for a reason. Metaphors run deep with the ocean because we are so connected to it as humans. Many parallels can be drawn between our existence and the sea.
Waves are formed from wind in far off places. The energy of that wind builds into swell as it crosses whole oceans, the memory of a breeze crashing on our shores. Waves come in sets. Sometimes there is a lull between sets. Sometimes the period is long and we have ample time to catch our breath between waves. Sometimes there is chop and we can’t catch a break. Sometimes we know what weather system brings the biggest waves, and sometimes the cause and direction remain a mystery. We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water.
We all have different breaking points. We have different beaches and sandbars and reefs and rocks that change how waves affect each one of us. Our different circumstances determine how hollow the waves are that hit us, how dangerous they are, and how much havoc they can wreak.
Luckily, no matter how waves hit us, there are things we can all do.
We can learn how to surf. It takes time, and blood, and sweat, and tears, but we can learn how to ride the waves of our minds. We will fall and there will still be times when we feel like we are drowning. But we can lessen the impact of waves with healthy coping strategies, therapy, meditation and more.
When a big set washes through and we get pushed under the surface, we can remember to stay calm. When a surfer gets held under, staying calm and relaxed is the most important thing they can do. In a literal sense, it conserves oxygen, and allows your buoyancy to bring you back up to the surface. It works similarly in the metaphorical. Stay calm, breathe deeply, and the wave will pass. Trust that you will be okay. Trust that you will survive it.
Never give up and never lose hope. No matter how long you’ve been battling storms, you never know what is on the horizon. The ocean is ever-changing. Dozens of conditions are always in flux. And all it takes is a tiny shift of the wind, a few degrees, thousands of miles away, to change everything. A new ripple, compounded energy traveling across the expanse, gaining momentum to create new swell headed elsewhere, bringing you crystal clear waters and a lull to float on your back, sun on your face, smile, and take a deep, ease-full breath.
2022 has been a wild year for me. I’ve been at my most sick and had some of my physically lowest moments. But I’ve also had moments of the most true, profound joy I have ever experienced, made all the sweeter by the bitter times. This year was the year I got my Lyme/Bartonella diagnoses, found doctors I trusted, started treatment, and did a deep dive into healing. It has been a year of solitude and self-reflection. And I am so proud to say that I truly believe I have grown more this year than in any year before. (Read more about my health journey here.)
So here are 22 of the most important lessons I learned this year. I could not have learned these all on my own, so thank you to everyone who implicitly and explicitly guided me through this brutal, beautiful year.
1. Your path is your own. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to be right.
Going to a New England Prep school, everyone’s path was set up very similarly. But when we hop on this traditional escalator, we often don’t take into consideration what we really want. I’m 20 years old, on my second gap year, and expect college to take me five or more years. And that is okay. Taking time off is okay. Reassessing your priorities is okay. Your healing is also your own and can look completely different from anyone else’s. Whatever your path looks like, it is valid.
2. Feelings are not facts.
When we experience an intense negative emotion, it can feel like the world is crashing down. Feelings can be so powerful. But our thoughts and feelings are not hard facts. Just because we feel like the pain will never end or like we are not worth the effort, that does not mean it’s true. Our feelings are valid, but what they hold isn’t always. When you recognize this, it takes some of the power away from the feeling. Learning to become consciously aware of our feelings and think greater than we feel allows us to rise above our emotions.
3. Now is not always.
Just like how feelings are not facts, how you feel now and where you’re at now is not where you will always be. Just because it’s been a bad day, or month, or year, does not mean that every following day, or month, or year will be the same. Things change. Healing is possible. Internalize that.
4. We must learn to love the parts of ourselves that we do not like.
Let’s face it — we will not always love everything about ourselves. But we must learn to embrace the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, whether we are actively trying to change them or not. I love how deeply I feel. I love how easily I trust. I love how empathetic I am. I love that I am a recovering people pleaser. I love that I am so hard on myself. When we meet the parts of ourselves we don’t like with grace and love, we can soften the judgement we self-inflict and deal with these difficult parts of ourselves much easier.
5. It is okay to outgrow people you still care about.
I believe that people come in and out of our lives to teach us things we need to understand. We all grow at different times and in different ways, and those times and ways don’t always align. It can be so hard and so painful to let go of people you love, but if they are no longer in your best interest, it is okay to take a step back. It is okay to still love them after. And it is okay to mourn their loss while still knowing in your heart it was the right decision.
6. Hope and realism are not mutually exclusive.
I am a realist. And as a realist, I’ve sometimes had a hard time being hopeful. But the two can be felt simultaneously. I can be realistic about where I am at in my health journey and the areas I am limited in right now, and still be hopeful that the little progress I’ve seen will blossom into more. I can be realistic about the state of climate and how much damage we are doing to our planet, and still be hopeful that we can turn things around. Hope is a feeling that you can attach to anything. You can look at things through a realistic lens, in which it may be unlikely that change will occur immediately, and still have hope that something will change. As long as you are not tied to the outcome of your hope, it is a powerful feeling to practice.
7. There is more to who you are than the things that you like.
Yes, the things we like are a big part of who we are. But they are not all that we are. This year I lost the ability to do a lot of the things that I like. And learning who I was when all of the superficial things were stripped away was hard. I felt lost for a while. And then I began to realize that there is so much more to me. I am sensitive and loving and silly, and no illness can take that away from me. In my lowest moments I didn’t have the energy to have much of a personality, but I was still determined and strong and resilient. All of these things are who I am in my truest sense. Everything else will come and go, but when you hold tight to who you really are at heart, you will always be able to find yourself again.
8. Progress is not linear.
There will be ups and there will be downs. That is just the way it is. The more you focus on the little wins, even as things may appear to worsen, the more you begin to see how much progress you’ve truly made. I may be in a very similar physical position to where I was this time last year. But I’m making this list, and I’m so incredibly proud of myself for growing so much in such a short time.
9. You can be going through hell and still have truly happy moments.
When we are suffering, it can be hard to allow ourselves moments of joy. As someone with an invisible illness, I often feel a pressure to not appear happy to those who already don’t see how hard things are for me. But when I have those moments — when I’m having a good day and dive in the ocean, or laugh with my family, or see a whale spout — I allow myself that contentment and happiness. I can also be happy for no reason at all. Having a moment of pure bliss does not discount all of the suffering you experience. It does not mean that things are not hard. It means that you are a fighter that recognizes the blessings in your life. It’s my story, and I’m not going to let anyone else make me feel bad for enjoying the beauty of life.
10. Music can be incredibly healing.
I was never much of a music listener, but this year that changed. I started listening to playlists and finding songs that spoke to me, creating my own playlists to boost my mood. Listening to uplifting music — whatever genre it is that brightens your spirit — is a very powerful thing. There are also certain frequencies of music proven to be calming and physically healing. You can look up healing hertz music or search for songs with 174 hz frequencies.
11. Self-care is a non-negotiable.
I used to always put others before myself. I had so much on my plate that I often forgot to take care of my own wellbeing. But we are not an afterthought. Our bodies are not afterthoughts. Our health is everything, and when we neglect ourselves physically and emotionally, we compromise our health, whether we recognize it or not.
12. You must nourish yourself first in order to give.
Connected to the last point about self-care, we must fill our own wells in order to give water to others. Picture that we each have a bucket. When we give, we give from our buckets. If our buckets are empty, we are giving more than we have. We are giving from ourselves. When life depletes our buckets, we can fill them ourselves through acts of self-care. We can’t give what we don’t have. So we must ensure that we nourish ourselves so that we may give instead of giving first so others will nourish us after.
13. Rest is productive.
REST. IS. PRODUCTIVE. Say it again. This is one of the hardest lessons I learned this year. For so many of us, myself previously included, our worth is tied to our productivity. Well, no more. Even when my body screamed for rest, I used to push through. A lot of kids learn this as athletes and never shake it. But our bodies need rest. Rest is when we replenish. Rest is when learning sinks in. Rest is when we heal. Allow yourself rest without guilt. You deserve it. Your body deserves it.
14. Putting in the work to better yourself always pays off, no matter how hard it is.
Bettering ourselves is not comfortable. But few things worthwhile are always comfortable. Going back into your past to heal, confronting hard truths about yourself, beginning to exercise — whatever avenue of self-improvement you go down, it won’t be easy. But trust that it will be so incredibly worth it. Remember that it is perfectly okay to ask for help. And be proud of yourself for taking the leap.
15. Follow your joy.
The things that bring you joy? Chase them. If something is no longer bringing you joy, whether it be a person, a place, or a job — maybe it is time to reassess. You don’t need anything superficial to be happy. But when you follow your heart, you put yourself in a position of contentment where joy flows more easily. Trust that feeling, and see what amazing things it leads you to.
16. Let yourself daydream.
Dreaming is so powerful on every level. Not only does positive visualization improve your mood, it also triggers neuronal pathways in the brain, helping the neurons fire together that would fire in the real life scenario as well. This can help with improvement in sports, presentations and more, as well as actually changing the neurochemistry of your brain for the better.
17. Setting yourself on fire to keep others warm is not noble.
When we put others before ourselves at our own expense, it is not honorable. Sure, maybe we’re honoring the needs of someone else, but we are certainly not honoring our own needs. This quote — “Stop setting yourself on fire to keep others warm,” hit me hard. I always thought that it was the right thing to do to keep other people warm no matter what. I didn’t even realize that I was on fire until the damage had been done. But while sacrificing yourself may be the noble thing to do in the movies, doing it again and again in real life is not the righteous thing to do. It is just hurting yourself.
18. Your body is so wise. Listen to it.
I don’t think I would be sick if I hadn’t ignored the signals of my body and pushed through for so many years. When we say yes to everything, pushing through our own boundaries and compromising ourselves, our body eventually says no for us. And some of us get very, very sick, myself included. I am learning how to listen to my body and how to trust her again. Our bodies look out for us. They tell us when it is too much, when we need to step back to protect ourselves, both physically and emotionally. Listen to your gut feeling. It will pay off.
19. Vulnerable is the strongest thing you can be.
In our society we are taught (especially men) that emotional vulnerability is weak. And sure, in survival of the fittest, the physically vulnerable animals are more at risk. But that’s not so relevant in our advanced, evolved state as humans. And yet we are taught this anyway, and people put up thick walls. In a world where few people are emotionally vulnerable, I truly believe it’s the strongest thing you can be. Sharing your hardships and innermost feelings is far from easy. Putting your heart out on the chopping block is scary. But it is worth it if you can help even just a few people survive their own struggles. When we are vulnerable, we show others that they are not alone in their silent battles. When we bring the dark into the light, it loses it’s power. And all who put themselves out there in this way should celebrate their strength.
20. All your emotions need to be felt.
Suppressing emotions is not healthy. Lashing out is also not healthy, nor fair to the people around you. But feeling your emotions and acting on them are two different things. When we suppress our emotions, we do not get rid of them. They find ways to resurface, either emotionally or physically, and they wreak havoc. When we feel our emotions, acknowledge them and sit with them, we can process them. Anger, resentment, guilt, pain, despair — these are all okay to feel. In fact, when they arise, you must feel them. Listen to them, sit with them and then find a way to irrigate them. Write, exercise, wiggle, sing, draw, color — let them leave your body.
21. Asking for help does not make you a burden.
The thing I am most proud of myself for so far in my life is admitting that I needed mental health help and finding a therapist. As humans, we can’t go it alone. We need community. We need each other. Asking for help is never something you should be ashamed of. Whether it’s help with mental health, or your homework, or any other number of things, the right people will not make you feel guilty for it. The people you love don’t want to see you struggle. Anyone who cares about you wants to see you succeed. You are not a burden for needing support. We all need help at some point.
22. It is okay to mourn the person you used to be, even as you’re proud of who you’ve become.
Over time, we grow and adapt and change. Our beliefs may change, our hobbies, the people we hold close. There is a lot of loss in growing up and moving on and healing. It is okay to feel that loss. It is not wrong for you to feel grief for your old self, even if you are glad you are no longer that person. I feel a lot of grief for the little girl who had no idea the roller coaster that life had in store for her. But I wouldn’t change the lessons I’ve learned and the person I’ve become through it for anything.
So thank you, 2022, for the tears cried, the laughs shared and the lessons learned. Here’s to a new year of more growth, more healing and more vibrancy. Happy New Year everyone! Wishing you all of the health and happiness.
On this day six years ago, I got my first concussion playing middle school soccer. Little did I know at the time how it would change my life forever.
Today is my 6th concussiversary (a word I created to mark my concussion anniversary). This time of year is usually quite hard for me as I look back on all that I’ve suffered and lost since that fateful day. It is a day usually surrounded by feelings of grief and a level of helplessness — helplessness at the lack of understanding, the lack of answers, the lack of forward progress.
The brain is a very complicated organ. While there are a number of brain-related specialists, they all deal with small corners of the greater picture. Concussion specialists deal with acute injury and inflammation, neurologists with permanent structural alterations, and chronic pain specialists with managing symptoms.
The Western medicine route did not work for me, and alternative medicine did not provide me enough relief. My concussiverary marked simply time passing — sure, an homage to my continued strength, but it long ago stopped feeling like a reflection of healing. Until now.
This year, there is a flicker of hope amid the grief. For this is the first year that I know the full story. This is the first year I have answers. I now know that my concussion likely triggered underlying Lyme disease and co-infections. I was continuously told by doctors that “sometimes concussions just take a while to heal,” month after month, year after year, with no forward progress. I am now filing in the gaps of all of the symptoms that never quite made sense back then, that I attributed merely to the fact that our brains affect so many of our bodily systems.
I now understand that the persistent low-grade fever that spikes during migraines, the extreme heat intolerance, the face rash, the night thirst, the blood sugar swings, the easy bruising and the inability to heal were all manifestations of these underlying illnesses. For years I would try to explain to people how my pain sensitivity would “cycle” to the point where at it’s worst I couldn’t even hold a hot cup of coffee. I now recognize these as small flareups of my underlying conditions.
I’ve found that many “survivor” communities across a variety of illnesses and traumas tend to be quite niche. Having originally been diagnosed with a minor concussion, I never really felt quite like part of the hardcore TBI (traumatic brain injury) community, even as I found myself in a similar rehab position five years down the road as someone with a potentially more serious original injury.
And just as I began to accept my post-concussion journey as a TBI, I learned that tick-borne illnesses played a major role in my story as well. At first, I felt pulled and pushed in my mind between the two communities. I felt self-outcast, like I didn’t really “deserve” to be part of either. I didn’t feel like part of the TBI community because it wasn’t just a brain injury that upended my life. But I had (in my mind) only been truly “sick” for less than a year at that point. I felt like the two were mutually exclusive, and therefore felt excluded from both.
But I soon realized that it doesn’t have to be this way. I had a brain injury. I struggled (and still do) for years with post-concussion syndrome. I also have had Lyme and co-infections at least since that injury, probably dormant for many years prior. I can allow myself to be part of both communities for the full six years I’ve been fighting both. It doesn’t need to be one or the other. Plus, it is not uncommon for a concussion or another trauma to trigger underlying Lyme.
At the end of the day, I believe that while it is nice to connect with people who have parallel stories to ours, our experiences on this planet are all so unique, and yet in essence all very similar. Similar perception, similar feeling — that’s what we connect over. Emotions tie us together, and the emotions experienced across many illnesses and traumas can bond us in this shared human experience. Chronic illness, autoimmune disease, tick-borne illness, brain injury and more — we can all find value in connecting with each other and finding parallels in our stories.
Today, the constant headache I have still spikes into the worst pain I experience. And I may be more unwell now that I have been on any past concussiversary, but I have fought my way onto a road to health. I am no longer sitting in a field, search desperately for wildflowers. There is a path forward. There is still grief for all that I have lost and suffered. But the hope is there, burning low and persistent. Sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. And with my support system behind me, I will continue to put one foot in front of the other towards reclaiming my health.
We can all grow and improve and heal in some way, even just in micro amounts. I believe that an additional aspect of the hope that I am feeling this year has to do with the emotional healing I have done, and continue to do, over the last year.
If you have a brain injury with no underlying conditions, I want you to know that there is hope to be held in your heart too. Physically speaking, our brains are beautiful and neuroplastic and we can heal for longer and far later than doctors once believed. Keep pushing, keep searching. Even if it is just our outlook on life, we can improve our own lives. Don’t give up on yourself. You are worth it.
If you would like to know what I tried along my journey, please reach out and I am more than happy to share.