Expect The Unexpected: Coping With Life's Challenges

Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.

Life can be unexpected and chronic illness may be among them.

Sometimes life throws us a curve ball. For some, one curve ball after another seems to come their direction. That's me. Maybe it was my happy childhood that led me to believe that life was going to be easy. Maybe it was that I'd never really known pain up close and personal. No obstacle was too big to overcome. Life was beautiful and full of opportunities.  And it was... until a series of unexpected pitches came my way that shattered my illusions.

Like some of you, I've sometimes struggled to put the pieces of my life back together. My story isn't unique. For many of you it may sound all too familiar. It is what it is. I hope by sharing it I can lend some hope and insight for dealing with the unexpected challenges that arise in our lives.

I was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in college. I chalked it up to too much stress, a poor diet, and too little sleep. I wasn't going to let this "distraction" get in the way of living a full life. And for the most part it didn't. I managed as best I could. At graduation I married my college sweetheart and we looked forward to a happy life together.

A few years later in graduate school I awoke one morning to a burning pain and stiffness in my hands and feet. Gradually it spread through my entire body.  I was certain a diagnosis and treatment was just a matter of time. I sought out the best specialists in the country and no one could give me any answers. It took almost 15 years before I was finally diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and later Sjogren's Syndrome.

At the same time I was rear ended in a car accident, causing irreparable damage to the nerves at the base of my skull. I underwent a 6 hour surgery on my spinal cord in a failed attempt to resolve the trauma induced pain, known as occipital neuralgia. When my first son was born I greeted him with a neck brace, feeling more vulnerable than ever. This wasn't how I pictured my life turning out. What should've been a joyful time was one of the darkest periods of my life.

Four years later, after the birth of my second son, I fell and shattered my left leg. Two years of surgeries, 8 screws and 2 rods, and months of physical therapy left me with chronic arthritis in my knee. By this time I had learned to tolerate a lot of pain. But I couldn't get used to the darkness that accompanied it.

Gradually light returned to my life. I was blessed with a steady career to support my young family who continued to offer love and support to see me through the rough patches. Exercising faith, my eyes were opened to the tender mercies God had sent to help see me through. My health didn't change, but my capacity for enduring it well did.  I discovered new sources of strength, including becoming more mindful and open with others about the challenges I faced.

Last year I started a new treatment for Fibromyalgia that relieved some of my painful symptoms.  I felt as close to normal as I could be for the first time in 20 years.  I started running and it was so wonderful! With each step my soul healed. I was free and unbound. I found such joy in having a relatively healthy body again. The "runner's high" and feeling of accomplishment I felt was indescribable. It was inspiring to others, but more importantly to myself.

Then life pitched me another curve ball. This year while doing some relatively light running I felt a sudden pain in my right knee. I brushed it off as a minor pulled muscle. It didn't get better. In March I ran a 5k race and couldn't walk after crossing the finish line. An MRI revealed a fractured femur and avascular necrosis. My bone was dying and with it my hopes of running again. Initially I felt betrayed by my body. I was in the best shape since my early twenties and was finally doing something proactive to get healthy.  How could my body do this to me now?

Today I'm starting my second week of 3 months on crutches of no weight bearing, accompanied by a regime of supplements designed to strengthen my bones and heal my leg. If it shows signs of healing, I will be on crutches for another 3-6 months of partial weight bearing. If it doesn't heal, I'm looking at risky bone surgery or a full knee replacement.  Either way, I'm not letting this stop my return to an active lifestyle.  Check back with me in a year.

Amid these challenges I try not to focus on what tomorrow brings. For now I focus on getting across the room on my crutches without losing my balance!  I try to stay in the present. With my slower pace (given I have no choice!) I try to notice the little wonders around me that I normally overlook. I spend my time having more heartfelt and earnest prayers with God. I think our relationship is improving. I think about how this episode of suffering can help me empathize with and help others coping with pain. I try to express my gratitude more often to my family who unfailingly continue to love and support me through each new trial.  I take heart in the quote by Kahlil Gibran, "Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls".

The dark clouds are still not far away and some days are better than others, but I don't linger there. I've learned to expect the unexpected. Life is not meant to be easy. We all have our challenges. It's how we respond to them that really matters. I don't want to just sit on the bench, I want back in the game.  As John Fogerty said in his song Centennial, "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play."

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