I had three calendars during high school: one specifically in my book bag for classes, another on my desk, and one I kept near my bed that I could review when I woke up.
Thanks to a colossal scholarship, I was a wide eyed new sophomore at Saint Paul’s School, a private boarding school nestled in New Hampshire. Although I was still in state, during those first few months, I had never felt further from home. The adjustment was hard, but I eventually made friends, and began to find my footing.
Shortly after starting my sophomore year, I suffered a concussion. It happened during a football game when I made a tackle and was hit hard from behind. Nothing out of the ordinary.
I took a concussion test, and failed it. I got some Advil, the recommended bed rest, and took it easy for a couple of days. Then I failed 10 more concussion tests over a two-week period. I started to get migranes. I became sensitive to light. I started to forget where I was or what class I was supposed to go to. I couldn’t recall things I had just heard, and I had unexplainable mood swings.
I went to get a CAT scan. Nothing showed up. Finally I was referred to a specialist on head injuries, and he discovered that my ‘mild concussion’ was actually sustained semi-permanent brain damage. I didn’t know what that meant exactly, until he told me that some things I used to do well, might be “more difficult” and my short term memory, was “ heavily affected.”
Everything started crashing. I felt like I was letting every single person who invested in me down. I had the biggest opportunity of my life, and I felt like I was going to miss out on everything I left home to do. Then the pain started to make sense.
I used to be afraid that if I fell asleep, I’d forget even more of who I was, and not know how to get it back when I woke up.
At the end of my sophomore year, I petitioned to repeat. I was unhappy with my performance, but even more than my academics, I saw an opportunity. I was young, so taking another year with different classes and added experiences, would only serve to help me. It was the most important essay I’ve ever written.
When it was time to apply to college, I knew that I needed to tell this story. While a lot of people dreaded the Common Application, it became my solace. Those spaces and character limits were freedom. When I first lost my memory, all I could do was write. It started off being cathartic; I found that the words I couldn’t say, I was able to write. Other people hated essays, but I felt like it was my opportunity to paint pictures that only I could see. Remembering numbers and equations were a nightmare, but playing with words was where I felt the most at home.
I knew, just like Viola Davis did, that the only thing I needed was an opportunity. I was going to college, it was just a matter of where, not if. Just get to the interview, was what I told myself. You have a story to tell. Anyone who has had to bootstrap specific parts of their life, usually has a great narrative inside them. The trick is find a way to get it out.
A college adviser mentioned to me that I had “too many reach schools” on my list, and I should focus more on “staying closer to home”. While they meant well, they were unaware that me getting into Saint Paul’s was where I started to reach. I didn’t know how to stop. I still don’t. I’m not supposed too.
I’d love to tell you that things got easier; that after I regained my memory, everything returned to normal. But that’s not true. College forced me to create new systems to help myself succeed, but high school prepared me for that. I didn’t have a blueprint. I had to create that in real time, and amend it as I went. That’s what #hurdles are. Temporary setbacks that ask a singular question:
What are you going to do about this?
Today, if I’m stressed, haven’t gotten enough sleep, or don’t prep myself correctly, I forget things. Some of that is simply nature, but I can’t always tell the difference, and it scares me.
My career, and my life are always going to be a portfolio, not a resume. If you turn the pages, you’ll see tears, rips, frayed edges, missing pages and a lot of burn marks. But it’s mine, and I’m fortunate enough that I am still here to add new pages, and refer to the old ones when I need too.
What I learned from that ordeal and subsequent recovery process, was that I owe it to myself to get every inch from every opportunity. It’s not about accolades or recognition.
Every meeting, every training session, and ever interaction is a brand new chance to do something different and get better. I used to write post-it notes to remember important dates and people. Now I’m starting to chase dreams I didn’t know I had.
Spoiler Alert: things do not get easier, you just get tougher (and your circle might get smaller).
You’re either in a storm, exiting one, or running directly into the fray. Those might be professional, personal, or in my case, they can easily blend together. But it’s all training.
Bad day? Unless it’s a migraine I can’t open my eyes from and the inability to remember how to get class, it’s nothing to fret over.
Tough meeting? Unless it’s someone telling me I should “consider an easier high school” and maybe “transition back to my hometown where I might be more successful”, I’ll be ok.
Difficult interaction with a colleague? If they aren’t giving me a diagnosis that I might never be the same person again, it’s not that serious.
Learning who I am required being stripped of what I thought defined me, then building from the ground up. This happened earlier than I might have liked, and the conditions were less than optimal. I’m nowhere near done that process, and as I grow, it becomes more visceral. But that’s the difference between a passive existence and an active choice to decide what happens next: if I let life happen to me, I wouldn’t be here.