For years I carried two backpacks. One with my volleyball gear, and one with my supplies for school. Although the fashion statement was questionable, I wore them with pride because I believed it spoke to who I was, an athlete, a student, a hard worker, and the girl who could do it all. For years I carried two backpacks, until one day, I only carried one.
My sophomore year of high school I was diagnosed with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (VEDS), a rare genetic condition that makes the arteries prone to tearing. Due to the risk and severity of my condition, my cardiologist removed me from organized sports. Gathered in her tiny office, she spoke gently, attempting to soften the weight of her words. I heard her rationale as she spoke to my parents, but I failed to comprehend the impact. Avoid strenuous physical activity? Difficulty in childbirth? Shorter life expectancy? Therapy? Try table tennis?!? Her words coursed through my body and I felt my heart grow physically weaker as I listened. But then I realized it had always been weak. Maybe I never was a hard working student athlete. Maybe I was a fraud.
The diagnosis imploded my sophomore year. I allowed it to strip away parts of my identity and the future I planned for myself. For months It felt as if I was walking around in a body that wasn’t mine. Not only was I no longer an athlete, but other aspects of my personality began to fade. Drowning in self-pity, I found myself unable to be the friend, daughter, student, and leader that I so easily had been before.
Rejecting offers of help, I failed to see how I would navigate this change. But the fragile light that beamed shakily at the end of the tunnel turned out to be my sudden possession of more time. I wasn’t practicing for two and a half hours after school everyday. I didn’t have weekend long tournaments or conditioning training to attend. The unscheduled hours were mine alone, and became my path to healing.
I began to join my brother on his surf trips and learned to shape and craft boards of my own. I explored the local hiking trails at a slower and more appreciative pace than ever before. I used these newfound hours to create music, join the local Jane Goodal Roots and Shoots Conservation Club, and foster over twenty five stray kittens for the local Humane Society. I poured my heart into the creation of my own sustainable beeswax soap business and leveraged my platform to educate the community on our local biodiversity. Although I had discovered that my body might be far weaker than any of my other peers, it led me to realize just how much mental strength and determination I truly had, and how far it could get me. Day by day I crafted a more tenacious, well rounded and contented version of myself, all because of a diagnosis I thought would ruin me.
I wish I could say this transformation happened smoothly and all at once, like a tightly written sitcom plot or an after-school special. Wouldn’t that make a nice essay? The truth is, there is still so much growing left for me to do. But over time, I stopped fighting to get my old self back, and am learning to use this opportunity to alter my perspective and discover other sides of myself. I now know that I am capable of being a teammate and leader off of the volleyball court. I can lean on my experience to better understand the struggles of others. I am a powerful person, beyond my individual challenges, and this perspective is my greatest asset. It keeps me focused on living a life of impact. It keeps me focused on discovering my other backpacks that are just waiting to be filled.
Written by Anna Foehr