Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unexpected Lessons


In the spring of 2007, I accepted a position as Senior Editor for a division of Time that created custom publications for clients. I was thrilled to be offered this full-time job, but one of the publications I was handed was on a topic of which I knew very little: Epilepsy. How in the world would I fill the pages of a magazine about seizures? "Okay," I told myself, "I can learn about anything." I would research and edify myself on this topic, just as I had learned about telecommunications, movies, personal finance, Latin-American cartoons for the assignments I received from other clients. I had some health-writing experience and I knew how to Google. How hard could it be to learn about epilepsy?
November is National
Epilepsy Awareness Month
  Epilepsy is a condition that's surrounded by a lot of stigma. Many people with epilepsy don't like to talk about it, let alone admit that they have seizures. For one, people with active seizures aren't supposed to drive. And there is this fear of the unknown that surrounds the condition. Seventy percent of all cases are idiopathic in nature, meaning there is no known cause. Epilepsy can literally strike out of the blue and transform someone's life forever. As many people are diagnosed with epilepsy every year as are diagnosed with breast cancer, but it doesn't get the play in the media, nor the dollars in research other more well-known diseases garner. (See, I have learned a lot.)
   As editor of this magazine, it was my job to develop stories of interest to people with epilepsy and those effected by the condition. So the best way to understand epilepsy was to talk to those who had it. Fortunately, I was given about fifty people with epilepsy who were the spokespeople for this magazine, and who were more than willing to share their stories. In fact, helping others with epilepsy and their family members was a way for them to make sense of their challenges. I learned through my journalism experience that I loved giving voice to those who might not otherwise have a chance to speak. I felt good providing a service to an underserved population, but I didn't realize (until later) how much I would by served personally by the people with epilepsy who informed every issue.
    During the height of my crisis in July, 2010, I assigned myself the cover story about a remarkable young woman named LaKeisha. I had spoken to her over the years, and was always impressed by her strong faith and optimism. Since this was a feature story, I spent more time interviewing her and learning about her incredible journey. She had almost died due to the sudden onset of her epilepsy. While recovering from her injuries, she lost everything—her home, her car, her job. At first, she felt that she'd lost all sense of who she was. All her dreams for the future were shattered, and she had to remake her life. But LaKeisha accepted help when it was offered, and found in helping others, she gained perspective. Although it took years for her to overcome all the set-backs, she never gave up faith. And that faith in something greater than herself sustained her, made her whole, gave her purpose and new direction. Her's was an inspiring story for someone like me who was embarking a Do-Over Life, but I was in such a fog, dealing with my personal dilemma, I wasn't able to apply the lessons she imparted to my life...not yet. At the time I was just grateful for the work and to focus on someone else's story rather than my own.
   The beautiful thing about lessons and the teachers who come into our lives to impart them, is that if you don't "get it" the first time, I believe God gives you another chance...and another...and another...to fully appreciate the meaning.
   Earlier this year, I was assigned to write a story about Chris, another person with epilepsy who had overcome a life-threatening illness, only to literally wake up a different person with a seizure condition. I'd known Chris for years and always admired his spirit and conviction. Not only did he find the strength to survive the illness and manage his epilepsy, but like LaKeisha, he's gone on to re-cast his life using his experiences to help others. I knew Chris's story but until I went to his home for the interview I didn't understand it fully, because that's when I met Chris' wife, Debbie.
    In our interview, Debbie told me about visiting Chris in the hospital during those first difficult days and discovering that the resilient, smart, confident man she married had been changed in an instant. They had three small children at the time and her role shifted dramatically as Chris made his slow, but steady recovery. As much as I was impressed by Chris, who is a scholar, teacher, counselor, motivational speaker and accomplished author, Debbie blew me away.
  When they met in college, Debbie was attracted to Chris' good-looks and his spiritual maturity. (According to her, in that order.) They married young and started their careers and their family, and they were enjoying the realization of their shared dreams when Chris became gravely ill. This was not what she signed up for, but she vowed to love him "for better or worse, in sickness and in health," and she was true to her word. And here I was, getting divorced for reasons I didn't quite understand. I left the interview that night wondering what it was that made Debbie so strong, and thinking perhaps I was just too weak.
   I pondered this message on the drive home and in the weeks and months that followed. What was it that Chris and Debbie had that I didn't?
  It took several more months to yield an answer to this question, but an answer did arrive. Chris and Debbie shared this strong sense of Faith and it was the foundation of their marriage, which is what brought them together in the first place—that and Chris' long, hippy hair, which Debbie loved.
   What buoyed up LaKeisha, Chris and Debbie was their Faith in a power greater than their own. And when things got rough, these remarkable men and women said to God, "Okay, I'm struggling here. I no longer have all the answers, but I trust You do. Please show me the way." In return, they were given the guidance they needed. I'm not saying it was easy for any of these folks, but all of them now say that epilepsy was a blessing because it tested them and helped them define what is most genuine and true in themselves. One might say this is just optimism, or a way of making lemonade from lemons, but I believe that they were all given great Grace to overcome their difficulties, and then, in finding inner-peace, they've each turned around to help others—including me.
   Although I am sorry that these amazing people (now my friends) had to endure what they did, I am so grateful to them for sharing these lessons with me. A few years ago I thought I was being offered a job...really I was being given these priceless gifts of clarity.

PS: To all my Epilepsy Advocate friends, THANK YOU for sharing your stories of hope.

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