I was speaking with a friend on Sunday when she asked how I was doing. It’s a question asked so often of us that we rarely give it a thought before offering up the standard answer. Great. Good. Fine. But there was sincerity in her voice that caught me off guard and it left me with that stomach-in-your-throat kind of feeling.
“Good,” I said too quickly. It’s like a reflex.
She rolled her eyes and gave me that “Oh, please” head nod.
I let out a deep breath.
“Okay, honestly? I am good. Happy I did it. Relieved I didn’t pass out or forget my lines or completely freeze up. Truly, it was a great experience. But, now that it’s over, I’m exhausted! All that nervous energy just crashed. And it’s deflating in a weird way. I can’t believe it came and went and now it’s over.”
She laughed. “Of course, I totally get that. It always happens after big days. You’re riding the wave of excitement and then all the sudden it’s done and you’re left alone to look around and it’s like ‘Now what?’”
And she was totally right. I was thinking, “Now what?”
The day before I participated in the “TEDxGeorgetown: Risk Takers” event and had the opportunity to speak on Gaston Stage during the “High Risk, High Reward” portion of the afternoon.
I decided that I would tell a story that I rarely (read: never) talk about. It’s the story of how I got to Georgetown. It’s about the risk I took in coming to this school. I decided that if I was going to tell this story I would tell it honestly — in all its tumultuous and frustrating and empowering truth.
It starts in April 2010. I was a senior in high school and soaking up every minute of those last few months. Right when I was at my happiest point, relishing in the pride of a recent acceptance to my dream school, Georgetown University, my life changed overnight.
Ten days after I received my acceptance letter, I woke up with the most intense pain in my back and struggled to catch my breath. With each passing moment I lost sensory and then motor control down my whole body. Within 15 minutes I was paralyzed from the chest down. Just like that.
I had acquired an autoimmune disease called Acute Transverse Myelitis, where my own antibodies attacked my spinal cord and first caused swelling and then demyelization of my spinal nerves. Essentially, the “messages” from brain were not being carried anywhere below my chest and the “messages” from below my chest were not being carried up to my brain.
End of senior year celebrations and preparations for a new life at Georgetown became distant dreams. As time encroached upon their impending arrival, I was only moving further and further away from their realities. I spent eight months between hospitals and physical rehabilitation centers in an effort to reteach my body how to move and adjust to my new life in a wheelchair.
After two years of fighting my way back, I was finally in a position to embrace a more independent life. I was far from being the girl who was originally accepted to Georgetown, but I maintained my will and determination to go to school, and, against a lot of common sense, decided to come to the Hilltop.
I wish I could say I was okay with it all, but I was neither cool, calm nor collected during my first few months here. I was completely overwhelmed and desperately lonely and I didn’t know how I was going to survive the first semester, let alone the next four years.
The one thing I struggled with the most was being honest if and when anyone asked about why I was in a wheelchair. I usually chalked it up to a “weird autoimmune disease” but was always quick to assert how much stronger I was compared to when I first got sick. And I was always sure to mention that I really was doing “just fine.”
The denial of any struggle my life had or does include was at the heart of why I wanted to share my story at TEDxGeorgetown. Over the last three-and-a-half years on this campus I’ve come to realize that in that denial I feed into a culture that dismisses feelings of disappointment and failure. There is a tendency to present ourselves as these people who have our lives totally figured out, who know where we are going and who will succeed in our quest to get there. I felt like I couldn’t let others see the truth that I might actually be the one person who doesn’t know it all.
But, the harsh truth is that when we don’t admit the risks we take — including the struggles, challenges and potential failures those risks include — we undercut our accomplishments. We reduce the joy and pride of what it means to succeed in the face of adversity and come out on top against all odds. Because, if we never feel the hurt of failure then what measure could we use to feel the fulfillment of success?
Speaking at TEDxGeorgetown on Saturday gave me the opportunity to share my story and in doing so celebrate the fact that, with a lot of determination, faith and guidance, I have made it to senior year. The hurdles of my life make the accomplishments that much sweeter.
So, with TEDxGeorgetown behind me and that nagging question of “Now what?” on my mind, I’ve realized that I do actually know what is coming next. Now, I get to move forward, unapologetic about my story and about any struggle I have faced in my life. I get to embrace the risk I took in coming to Georgetown and love every last minute I have here. I get to celebrate where I am today, because I know I’ve worked my way back from near defeat.
And I get to hope that in hearing my story someone else has decided to reconsider how they approach the risks they take and celebrate their choice to acknowledge how those risks have and will forever change the discourse of their life.
Margot Keale is a senior in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.
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