There I was, sitting in the middle of a team meeting with blood pouring down my face while teammates ran frantically to gather ice and paper towels to stem the bleeding and swelling. I was completely embarrassed. In the midst of the chaos of the moment I staggered to an empty chair in order to compose myself. Immediately it became clear that I was not going to finish this meeting, so I began planning my exit strategy. By the time I’d arrived home and gotten patched up by my wife (fortunately her day job as a nurse practitioner comes in handy), I was completely spent. I decided to sleep the evening off and by the time I woke up the following morning I was prepared to reexamine exactly how I’d gotten here.
Coincidentally a few weeks prior, I sat in the living room of a friend I’ve known for some time, but not well, and shared my lifelong journey with my own health struggles. He’d just been diagnosed with a life altering chronic illness and in hopes of sharing what I’d learned myself, I offered my advice. I was about 15 years old when I had my first grand-mal seizure. My mother says that I also had one as a baby, but none since then. But as a teenager, I had a series of seizures over a span of a few years and it prompted my family to take me to a neurologist. After a battery of tests, including sleep tests where I had to spend the night hooked up to machines, I was diagnosed with epilepsy.
From then on, my life began to change. Compared to my older brother, the star football and basketball athlete, I was already the weak one. Now I was the frail one, with an uncertain future. Would I ever be able to drive? Would my illness become debilitating to the point where I couldn’t live on my own? Determined not to let my sickness define me, I learned how to cope. By the time I left for college, I knew my triggers and how to navigate them. I was taking medIcine, and I’d managed to go long stretches without what my doctors called “break through seizures”.
Here’s what I’ve learned about managing chronic illness: it never happens at a convenient time. After years of being seizure free, I had one in the fall of my junior year of college after getting my wisdom teeth removed. The way my then girlfriend, now wife Samantha took care of me durning that tough period was a clear signal of just how lucky I was to have her in my life. Two years later, I had another in the fall of my first year teaching (I could have seen that one coming. I was battling both the flu and my own incompetence as a new teacher). Five years later, I had another one as I transitioned into my dream job. Everything in my career seemed to be riding on the success of this new venture, and besides, it was my dream job! I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. Five years later, I had another one, in the middle of my first campaign for public office.
That was two years ago. I’m older, and in some ways a bit wiser. As I got older I realized that the biggest barrier to successfully managing my own health was my own stubbornness. It’s been hard, but I’ve had to learn how to listen and respond to my body. I can tell when I haven’t been listening to my body because things go haywire. That’s basically the crux of the advice I offered as I sat the living room my friend, dealing with his own diagnosis. Don’t let it define you, but embrace it. In some ways, epilepsy has been a gift because it has forced me to pay attention to an area of my life (my health) that I otherwise would have taken for granted.
Which brings me to today. Usually, I exercise regularly, eat like a rabbit (true story), practice mindfulness, and sleep on average 7.5 hours a night all because I’m cognizant of what happens when my rhythms get out of wack. I clearly didn’t get it right this week. Fortunately I didn’t experience a full seizure, but these types of tremors are warning signs. I’ve heeded the warning. It’s interesting that my most stressful moments come at seasons where I’m also my most fulfilled, because I’m coincidentally pursuing some kind of big dream (college, marriage, teaching, building a career. public service). Right now I’m in the midst of such a season. I have the family life we’ve worked so hard to build, while doing the work I’ve always dreamed of. It makes sense that staying in synch is my central task to keep the train moving.
That’s why I’m here, at the basketball court. I haven’t played basketball in about a week and it’s been a part of my relaxation regiment for as long as I can remember. When I was in high school my grandfather restored my uncle’s old basketball goal and I would go to that court as my place of refuge, day or night. The basketball court was and still remains my outlet. It’s where I find my rhythm and work out all my issues along with my writing. And now I find myself back here, at my resting place. Hopefully returning to this practice helps me get back in synch.