2016-2017 has brought a lot of changes for me.
TL;DR, I graduated from college over a year ago, moved to Portland, Oregon, was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor, lost a major relationship, and moved to Colorado. Obviously all of these changes have made a profound impact, and I’ve needed time and space to process all of them. Here’s what I’ve learned.
The fine print:
I graduated from Azusa Pacific University in May 2016, magna cum laude, with a major in Biblical Studies and a minor in Youth Ministry. Obviously, my degree has helped tremendously, as evidenced by the fact that I’m currently living with my parents and am unemployed. (lol.) Let me tell you, the process of going from a college student with some independence and some adult expectations to a college graduate with a lot more independence and a lot more expectations is not easy. It’s exciting and I couldn’t wait to finish (mostly because I was tired of not sleeping), but it was also really stressful. I had to figure out what I was going to do after I graduated, and I knew graduate school was in my future although I didn’t know exactly what that would look like. At the time, I was thinking of a career in education as an elementary school teacher, and I had it planned: prerequisites before going to Cal State Fullerton and getting my teaching credential, working as a live-in nanny at the same time. Then, life threw me a curveball.
My boyfriend at the time and his family decided to move to Oregon, and my parents had already left California for their new lives in Colorado, so I made the choice to move to Oregon instead, knowing I could pursue my career in education anywhere. Plus, I was stubborn and decided I didn’t want to live with my parents again after four years of living on my own. Now, here’s the thing. I don’t regret that move at all because it brought some incredible people into my life, it gave me the opportunity to work at a fantastic chiropractic office with a great team of co-workers (plus, who doesn’t love free chiropractic care and discounted massages?), and it taught me a lot about myself and who I was and who I’m supposed to be. I don’t regret the relationship I had or the fact that it took up almost four years of my life, although I’ve had friends and family say things along the lines of, “that was a waste.” It wasn’t, because without it I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t know how to stand up for myself, I wouldn’t have the confidence to walk away from people and relationships that are ultimately toxic, even if they’re comfortable and I think I’m happy sometimes in them.
In hindsight, which is usually much more clear than present sight, I’d known for a while that the relationship wasn’t healthy. I’m not saying it was terrible and all bad and nothing good came out of it, because a lot of good things came out of it. I had a partner who was (sometimes) supportive and who knew how to cheer me up when I was sad. I had a pseudo-in-law family who encouraged me and gave me a foundation in Portland that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. But I also had someone who was critical, who didn’t support my dreams of continuing education, who didn’t like it when I was right and he was wrong (or even just when I was right). I was with someone who got progressively meaner as things stayed the same, who didn’t like to think I had other things to live for than him, who tried to control what I did and who I talked to and where I went. It culminated one night when we both lost our tempers, he did and said things I like to think he’d come to regret, and I made a decision to leave. After almost four years together, suddenly, it was over. My parents, of course, came to my rescue, putting me up in a nearby hotel for a few days while my dad jumped on the next flight to Portland, helped me sell my car (sorry, Shrimpy), and drove back to Colorado with me and a moving truck way too full of my stuff.
That night, my phone rang literally off the hook as I sent text messages to the people I cared most about and trusted the most in the world to tell them what had happened. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from this whole thing is who is really in my corner. I’ve learned who I can count on to really be cheering me on, encouraging me, and allowing me to angrily vent to them when it gets to be too much. I have had a difficult time in the past, believing in the worst of people and believing that people are going to leave. It was just a matter of racing against the clock, praying that every minute isn’t going to be the one when someone tells you they’ve had enough. This moment taught me that it’s not always that way. People are going to leave you, they’re going to disappoint you, they’re going to hurt you. But people are also going to drop everything to help you in the moment you really need it. People are going to surpass all of your expectations. They’re going to offer words and actions that start to mend some of the wounds, even if it’s just a temporary band-aid. It’s a start.
So, like I said, I moved to Colorado, back in with the parents. Let me tell you, the change isn’t easy to adjust to after five years of living, for the most part, on my own. But I’m grateful for a beautiful home, for my parents who offer support and the occasional twenty-dollar bill for food, and obviously, my dog, whom I regularly force to cuddle with me and whose love I buy with treats. I have three of my siblings in Colorado nearby (one living just upstairs), and while it’s nice to hang out with your siblings every once in a while, generally a person needs friends who maybe weren’t around during your diaper years. I’ve been fortunate to have a friend down the road that I’ve known for a while, but otherwise, I’ll be honest – making friends has been hard here. I’m social and I’m good at talking to people, but when you’ve been hurt and your life stops looking like how you want it to, it kind of puts a damper on the friendship-building thing. It makes the “getting to know you” portion of the conversation kind of difficult, because who wants to start it with, “Well, I was recently abused”? (I did this exact thing one time when I first moved to Colorado and it was really awkward. I don’t recommend it.) It makes people look at you and treat you differently.
I’m a planner. I like organization, I like schedules, I like knowing where I’m going next. Recently, I really don’t have any of those things set in stone, although I am planning on getting a Master’s in Occupational Therapy. I think one of the best remedies for feeling helpless, to get rid of that feeling of grabbing at loose strings, is to help other people.
Now, at the beginning of this post, I casually mentioned that I have a benign brain tumor. I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma on my left side in December of 2016. Basically, an acoustic neuroma (or a vestibular schwannoma if you want to be fancy/possibly more correct) is a benign tumor that grows on the sheath protecting the eighth cranial nerve, or the vestibulocochlear nerve. This nerve connects the inner ear to the brainstem and transmits sound and balance information (thanks Wikipedia). The acoustic neuroma is benign, meaning it won’t spread anywhere else, and it is usually slow-growing. Good things to hear, according to my neurosurgeon. The drawbacks? I’ve lost most of my hearing in my left ear, have tinnitus almost constantly, and frequently suffer from dizziness spells and vertigo attacks. An MRI scan found the tumor in December 2016, and specialists here in Denver recommended an observation period of 6 months. Since I’m a master procrastinator, I waited 8 months before getting a follow-up MRI, which showed significant growth and pushed the medical team dealing with my case to recommend treatment in the form of surgery. I’m in the process now of meeting with more specialists and getting that surgery scheduled for hopefully the end of October/early November.
Here’s the thing. Even though it’s benign and won’t spread and it’s not too big and the prognosis seems pretty good, the word tumor freaked me out. I’ve had family friends die from tumors. I’ve seen people suffer tremendously from these little clusters of cells that don’t know how to be normal. I’ve felt some of that pain myself. There’s no reason the doctors could give as to why I have this thing growing inside my head. I’ve had a lot of medical problems, from eye surgeries to major reconstructive foot surgeries (which consumed a lot of my childhood) to problems with my sinuses and being sick almost constantly. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which contains a whole host of issues that I don’t have time to dive into in this post. I have depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve had more than my fair share of hospital stays and visits to the operating room, as my neurosurgeon pointed out a few weeks ago. So, when my doctor’s assistant called me back in December 2016 with the news that the MRI came back and showed an acoustic neuroma chilling there, my thoughts instantly jumped to one question. “Why me?” I’ve asked that question a lot of God recently. I’ll be honest, it’s put some distance.
Why, when I already have fifty other things on my plate, would a tumor need to be added to that heap? I’ve had some people say things like, “Well, it’s because God knows you can handle it and wants to work through you.” Okay, yes, I’m relatively emotionally strong, but I’d like to stick to the things I’m already dealing with, if you don’t mind. There’s truth in that God works in and through us and through our circumstances, but if I’m brutally honest, I’m getting tired of feeling like a show of sorts. I still don’t really have an answer to the question of “why me?”, but one thing I’ve had God teach me over and over again is that I don’t have to have answers to everything.
The beautiful thing is that, just like the night when I lost my relationship, this experience has taught me about the trustworthiness of people too. It’s taught me about what community looks like, about how it feels to have people rally around you, lifting you up in prayer and offering support. In December of 2016, I came to Denver to meet with some specialists and also had some family friends gather around me and pray over me. Moving to Colorado in 2017, I’ve had people pray over me and offer me support, love, and encouragement.
There’s a quote in one of my favorite books of all time, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, that says, “So, I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.” I don’t know all of the reasons for why I am who I am or why I’m going through the things I’m going through. I can’t always control situations where I lose people that are important to me, or control the fact that I have all these random diseases and disorders. But, I can control where I’m going from here. I can choose to treat this tumor, praying for success now so that I don’t have to revisit it later. I can choose to pursue school, which was something that was pushed to the back burner once I finished my undergraduate degree. I can choose to walk away from situations and people who are toxic and who make me doubt myself or make me unhappy, and choose instead to spend time with people who encourage and love me unconditionally. A lot of days it’s easier and way more comfortable to stay in bed all day and watch Netflix and not talk to a single person, but I can choose to participate in things. I can choose to open up, and ultimately, I can choose to believe that we have a God who is good, even (and especially) when life isn’t.
If you’ve read this to the end, thank you! I invite you to respond and share some of your thoughts with me.