I was voted most likely to succeed as a high school senior. Like so many things in my life, it surprised me. I thought I understood success, but I was wrong.
My first year at Ohio State, I fell head-over-heels in love and married the next summer. A month after my wedding, newly 19, I started my first full-time job as manager of a group home for men with developmental disabilities.
At 23, I was officially diagnosed with depression for the first time, but the doctor didn’t tell me. He wrote it down instead. Maybe I wasn’t ready to hear it yet. I certainly didn’t understand it. When I read the diagnosis a few years later, I thought the doctor was wrong. Depression seemed to label me weak and ungrateful. And I really was grateful. I loved being a new mom.
At the time of my 10-year high school reunion, I was a stay-at-home mom with three young children. The reunion booklet included bios. For mine, I wrote something a bit defensive about the value of being a mom, since I certainly wasn’t successful in any traditional way.
At 30, I experienced daily headaches for the first time. I tried natural cures and refused all medication, even over-the-counter ones, while the headaches progressed to a constant mild level. I kept up with 3 busy kids, taught literacy to residents with multiple disabilities at an institution, and barreled on. I thought I understood challenges.
At 40, my depression flared when my oldest was a senior in high school. At a pain clinic, I was diagnosed with a mental illness, again, and this time it made sense. Still, I rationalized it away. Which came first, the depression or the headache? It was the headache’s fault. I tried medication for the first time. Eventually, two anti-depressants controlled my depression. Until . . .
In the year 2000, I fell asleep at the wheel with my youngest daughter Beth in the passenger seat. She sustained a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the chest down. I quit my job at the institution to be her caregiver.
Beth was only fourteen, yet she carried me forward, since between the two of us, she was the emotionally stable one. She focused on regaining her independence, despite her quadriplegia. She led and I followed. Sometimes we need someone strong to lead the way.
Every day, every hour, every minute of our new life felt impossibly uncertain. New guilt and anxiety merged with my old issues of chronic pain and depression. Increased doses of my anti-depressants did not prevent me from spiraling. I suppressed my feelings. I didn’t want to give the people I loved more to worry about, especially after I accomplished that spectacularly well with the car accident. I worried that if I acknowledged my emotions, I wouldn’t be able to function. And I desperately needed to help Beth.
I started counseling several months after the car accident. At the first session, I thought I would find a little peace, with more ahead. It wasn’t that simple. I felt like a failure and thought I failed at counseling, too, since I didn’t improve for some time. I should have reached out for help right after Beth’s injury.
Weekly counseling for three years gradually helped me, along with the support of my family. Beth helped me find hope again, something she had from the start.
We shared unexpected adventures, from our small town in Ohio to Harvard and around the world. She is a swimmer, a Paralympian, and a health policy lawyer. She’s planning her May wedding. From her wheelchair, Beth embodies every kind of success, and loves her pro bono work for businesses and nonprofits in the disability community.
I discovered that success means so much more than I originally thought in high school. It includes things like being married for 41 years to my best friend. Raising three great kids. Working meaningful jobs and helping others. Volunteering and mentoring. Publishing 50+ articles about disability and mental health. Finishing my new memoir, Struggling with Serendipity. And learning meditation to better cope with pain. Today, my depression is controlled with prescriptions, which also feels like a kind of success.
Writing my memoir has been a learning process. It’s difficult to re-live the pain, but I gained some healing along the way. My goal with my writing is to connect with others in crisis, as a fellow traveler who’s been there. I eventually found a way out, even though I didn’t think I could.
Watching Beth tackle her challenges, I also learned something else. Hope is an incredibly powerful thing. And if you never give up? Hope wins.