hope

day 27: hope floats: HIV & hopelessness

Friday, 4/1/2016

Hope Floats is (if you know me) not shockingly one of my favorite movies. Sandra Bulluck? Check. Adorable, feisty, little girl? Check. Quirky grandma? Check. Texas? Check. Often rated one of the worst movies of all time? Check. Handsome cowboy? Chhhheck. #whatsupharryconickjr

The movie begins with Sandra Bulluck’s character, Birdee, being humiliated on a live talk show when it’s revealed that her husband and her best friend are having an affair - all in front of her daughter, Bernice. They move from Chicago to her tiny Texas hometown to start over…

Starting over... there’s something about this notion that we’ve decided goes hand in hand with hope. A fresh start –> brings hope. A new beginning –> brings hope. A new chapter –> brings hope.

But- where do you find hope if starting over isn’t an option? What if you need hope in the circumstance you’re actually in? What happens when you’re driving through a fog so thick that you can’t even see the lights in front of you, let alone find a new road to drive down in order to find hope? What happens when all hope is lost?

It had been two months since I was assaulted after my friend and I were drugged, separated, and taken to different apartments – me under the guise of finding her. I picked up the bottle of pills from my nightstand, took them to the kitchen, opened my cabinet, stuck them on the highest shelf behind all the sauces and spices I intend to cook with, but never do, shut the cabinet, went back to my room, shut the door, got in my bed, under the covers, and began to sob. If I put enough physical distance between them and me, then that horrible thought would disappear too.

There’s this worldwide, mutual feeling that we all know. It’s those first 15 seconds after we wake up, when the reality of whatever we may be facing hasn’t hit yet. And then it does – like a ton of bricks. For me, that moment came every morning, without fail, at about 7 seconds. I’d roll over, look at my bedside table, and BOOM – there it was. The bottle for the month-long course of HIV Antiretroviral Post-exposure Prophylaxis medication sat there, staring me in the face. PEP – as it is referred to in medical circles. Such an odd abbreviation for such a heavy thing.

In the hospital the morning of/after my assault, I was immediately given Plan B, started on a high dose round of antibiotics to prevent STD's, and given a prescription for PEP. I didn’t know my attackers and I was still foggy on everything that had happened, but the evidence collected indicated that should they be HIV positive, I had been exposed to the virus. Taking PEP within 72 hours of exposure is the only way that it’s effective. Once the course is completed, the protocol is to have an HIV test at 6 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, and one year “after the rape incident.” PEP may make me unbearably nauseous for the next month or so, but I had no choice, I had to take it. So I did. Every day for 28 days. And every time I did, I was poignantly reminded of a night I was desperate to forget. With each horse size pill that I swallowed, a little more of my hope disappeared.

I finished the course of PEP and went to the doctor two weeks later for my first round of HIV testing. It came back negative. I was told that while this was indicative of a good result, I shouldn’t get too comfortable – sometimes the virus can take time to form. The chances were slim that the results would change, but I should keep a realistic view.  Talk about being handed a sliver of hope only to have it quickly taken away. [1 year later, my final test would say what all the others had - I never contracted the virus, I was, and am, definitively, HIV free!!!]

Two weeks after that doctor’s appointment, I rolled over, got out of bed, and reached for my heart medication- glad that I was no longer reaching for PEP. I don’t know where the thought came from. But all of a sudden, my mind was running away from me –  “Ya know, that heart medicine you’re about to take, it slows your blood pressure. It slows your heart. If you took a few extra, all of this would go away. Your hopelessness would vanish. You’d be free.”

Terrified doesn't do justice to how I felt. Where the actual EFF did this thought come from? My life was miraculously saved a year earlier from having brain surgery. Hell, it was saved the night of my attack – it could have ended very differently. And now I was thinking about this?

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. My body shook as I took that bottle of pills to the kitchen. I was devastated. And I was disappointed in myself. I was not raised to think this way.  I’m a Christian for God’s sake. As if I wasn’t ashamed enough already of this whole experience, I was absolutely disgusted with myself for this. I was better than this horrible thought.

But you know what? No, I wasn’t. The human response to trauma can’t be confined to a standardized response. We can’t box it up and say, “this is how trauma looks for [fill in the blank here.]” “Your response is selfish.” “Your response is acceptable.”

I didn’t want anyone to know what I’d just thought. But I knew I had to get it out. I was living with enough secrets, and one more might make me explode. So I texted my therapist, who reminded me of the truth she knew I already knew, somewhere deep in my spirit - first via text, then via phone, and then in-person the next day.  

+ I was not captive – my thoughts have been taken captive :

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ – 2 Cor 10:5

 

+ Even if I felt trapped or chained – Jesus came to set me free:  

He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners [captives]
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4: 17-21

 

+ - and His word does not return void:

So is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:11

 

At the end of Hope Floats, Birdee says,

“Beginnings are scary. Endings are usually sad, but it’s what’s in the middle that counts. So when you find yourself at the beginning, just give hope a chance to float up. And it will.”

Ok, listen – I love Sandra. I do – but like, what a load of MALARKEY. Give hope a chance to float up and it will...? Girl, please. I was giving hope ALL the chances. I was lying on the ground blowing into the air in case hope needed a little push. I was releasing balloons with the word “hope” written on them in Sharpie – ok, not really the last one, but I was close to not being above trying it.

Hope doesn’t need a chance to float up. In fact:  Hope deferred makes the heart sick... Prov 13:12.

The great thing is this: hope isn’t some far off ideal that we aren’t really sure about. Hope is found in Jesus, and Jesus is the truth.

God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.
Hebrews 6:19

 

I had accomplished the fleeing and now it was time to take hold of the hope. Sometimes you have to grab hope by the horns, hold on for dear life, and see where it takes you.

It wasn’t a new start that would give me hope – it was hope in Jesus that would give me a new start. 

If you have been the victim of sexual assault, oh sweet love, I am so sorry. Please, please, seek professional help to begin the process of healing. It is scary, but it is possible. If you would like help in finding help, please reach out via the contact page. If you are in NYC, I cannot recommend my therapist highly enough and would happily pass her info on to you. You are not alone. It is not your fault. You are VALUABLE, beautiful, and worthy. Nothing that anybody does or says can take that away. There is a God in heaven who has called you by name. He says that “you are beautiful and there is no blemish within you.” Even if you can’t believe that now, there are others who can and are praying on your behalf. If it feels dark, keep fighting - keep pushing. You WILL rise out of the ashes + into the light.  

if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call 1-800-273-8255 and get help.  life is worth it babe - even if it doesn't feel that way right now. 

- all my love, B

 

day 14: choosing to care | a real actress

Saturday, 3/19/2016

This is the post I never wanted to write. The one that when I first realized where it was going made me think, “oh my gosh, I’m a statistic.” But maybe, since it’s the one I’m most afraid of, it’s the one that most needs to be written. You see, this post will be an “a ha!” moment for some people that knew me growing up. Some may even know who is referenced in this writing. It’s not so scary to write about an attacker I, nor my readers, know. It’s a lot harder to write about a predator that I, and some readers, do.

This post cracks open the door to a conversation about revictimization. It reveals that April 26, 2014 was not my first experience with sexual assault.

That was one of the first 10 questions the police asked me in that hospital room - "have you ever been the victim of sexual violence before?” For some reason, having to answer, “yes,” filled me with the greatest sense of shame. Multiple studies conducted by The National Sexual Violence Resource Center “suggest that sexual victimization in childhood or adolescence increases the likelihood of sexual victimization in adulthood between 2 and 13.7 times.” A 2010 CDC report concluded the same. I don’t go into it much, but one day I will, because it’s a conversation that needs to be had, and there is SO much to it. 

 

So here goes… 

Today I cried in my Saturday acting class because I’m afraid to care. (oh yeah, welcome to the first, and potentially most cliche, post from someone you will now be able to clip into the world’s actor stereotype. Oy.) Crying over your art or career in front of other people is not an enjoyable experience. I remember when I first arrived for my freshman year at college, I was really afraid to cry in front of people. Boy was I forced to get over that fast.  

When I arrived to one of the most highly ranked acting conservatories in the country, I had never been in a play. If I’m being really honest - I didn’t actually like plays…or I didn’t think I did. I didn’t know anything about writers, or theatre history, and I certainly had no clue that there were different techniques to acting. Here I am sitting in orientation and our dean starts talking about how we will dive into the worlds of the Stanislavsky technique, the Adler technique, and the Meisner technique…. Huh?! When the cute boy next to me leaned over and asked me if I wanted a toothpick, it was about the only sentence that sounded like English. 

The first week of classes when our teachers asked us what our favorite plays were, I had to embarrassingly admit (every single time) that I didn’t really know any plays, so I didn’t have one. (The only play I remember seeing up to that point was a high school production of “Our Town.”)

The first time I gave that answer, it just kinda fell out of my mouth. Word vomit tends to be a problem of mine. After I said it, I vaguely considered going back to my dorm that night and googling “best plays” and just picking a title for next time the question was asked. That idea was soon quashed when I heard the amount of follow-up questions involved to one’s favorite play answer. I was so embarrassed. Sitting in my first week of classes being talked to about art and craft and what it means to be an artist, and I was dumbfounded. I had certainly never identified as an artist. What had I done? Why had I come here when I was accepted into plenty of amazing musical theatre programs? I would have definitely been able to answer their questions. 

Seven months earlier, I got very sick [see day 12.] Over the course of nine days in the ICU I went from being a healthy 18 year old to a really not healthy 18 year old. My doctors became the authors of my life. They narrowed down the list of schools I’d been accepted to by distance to major medical center. I could not be more than 10 minutes away via ambulance. 

That left two schools. A week before decision day, I’d signed and sent off my papers to another program. A double major BM/BFA program. But one of the assistant deans at NCSA, would not stop calling my house and telling me to "just come visit." Sensing I could use a break from the monotony of school and an endless cycle of doctor’s appointments and tests, the headmaster of my high school and my mum suggested a visit to North Carolina. If nothing else, it would be a pretty three days.

My mum and I were standing in the drama office after a meeting with the assistant dean, and the drama school secretary, when she suddenly called from her office, “oh Becky, Gerald is driving over to performance place now - he can take you over there so that you can observe the senior’s acting class.” 

Now is as good a time as any to tell you that being observant is not my strong suit. Neither is talking to people that I don’t know.

This little, white-haired, older man, with a newspaper hat on, came shuffling out and motioned for me to join him. I gave my mum a hug goodbye and off I went. I was intrigued - I’d never seen a real acting class before and had no idea what it entailed. Also, I tend to think little old people are cute, so I was cool with him being my carpool leader.

As we climbed into his equally cute BMW, I decided the correct move was to make some small talk. 

B: “I’m Becky - I’m deciding whether or not to come here for acting school. Uh, classes. Uh to the drama school, I mean.” 

G: “ Oh that’s nice. I hear it’s a pretty good school.” 

                         awkward silence

B: “That’s good. Have you seen any of the shows here?” 

G: “A few, yes.” 

                         awkward silence 

B: “So you must like theatre then?” 

G: “I do.” 

B: “Have you ever done any theatre?” 

                         as he pulls into a parking space marked “DEAN OF DRAMA"

G: “Here and there. (chuckles to himself) Come on, we don’t want to be late!” 

B: (incoherent words, sounds, and head nodding as I stumble out of the car and realize that I just asked one of the most revered pioneers of American theatre, if he’s ever done any theatre.)

I was MORTIFIED. In a state of mortification. Is that a word? I don’t know. But that’s where I was at. 

Thank the good Lord in heaven that Gerald has a sense of humor. Later that day, as I sat in his office, I was told that if I wanted to be an actress - a real actress - I needed to come to NCSA. If I went to one of the other schools I’d been accepted to, I’d be successful. I’d likely see many of my dreams come true - but if I wanted to last, to have longevity, he and the rest of the faculty of NCSA needed to teach me. It felt honest. And it was one of the only times in my life where telling someone that I wanted to be an actress didn’t embarrass me. For the first time since I could remember, the word didn’t fill me with some sense of shame. 

I’d spent the last 10 years performing in musical theatre. I'd taken I think I took two 1 hour acting classes once, and when I was twelve, I began to take private acting lessons. I wanted to be an actress - "a real actress” (hello, Moulin Rouge.) The artistic director at one of the theaters I worked at suggested to my parents that I take private lessons with one of his company members who I had performed with, and taken group lessons from, many times over the previous two years. 

My pre-teen years were a trying time for my family and caused me to put up some seriously fortified walls. It was almost as if he knew that - like he had x-ray vision and could see that behind my tough exterior, I was crumbling into a million pieces, and my vulnerability was just waiting to be exploited. I had a callback for the role of Abigail in "the Crucible” at another theatre, so my mum scheduled a private lesson for me to go over the material I’d been given. I was so excited. I’d never auditioned at an equity regional theatre before. I didn’t totally know what that meant, but I knew it meant something. I remember walking into the building for my initial audition and being in awe of how big it was. How professional it all seemed. How real. When I got a callback, I couldn’t believe it - it was the first time I ever felt like a real actress. 

After my lesson, I never wanted to feel like that again.

My teacher explained to me that we would do an exercise that they often do at callbacks - especially for roles as serious and complex as this one. The director would want to see my chemistry with the actor cast in the role of John Proctor. I froze. Confusion and disbelief took over and then all of a sudden I found myself doing some ninja moves to break free before it got any farther and run to the bathroom. Maybe that was something that real actresses in plays did to prepare. But I didn’t want to. He was my teacher and he was trying to help. I must have misunderstood… Maybe being a real actress just wasn’t for me. So I didn’t say anything to anyone, and the cycle of intermittent abuse continued. 

I don’t really remember my callback, only that it wasn’t very good and I didn’t get the part. I do remember wanting it to be over as soon as possible. I never auditioned for a play after that.  

Sexual assault of a child is dark. In fact, I believe it is one of the darkest, lowest, and most depraved forms of sin and evil that exists. There’s no way to paint it as a pretty picture. To try to do so would be almost criminal. But I needed to be at NCSA. I needed to learn all the things that the faculty there would teach me and I needed the personal growth it would provide.

As we’ve established, I believe in signs - and nobody else had used the words real actress to me in five years. Seven years later, I can tell you that this was God at work in my life. If those words hadn’t been used, I don’t know if I would have gone. Only God can do that. Only God can take the darkest of the dark, and allow a little light in. I did a lot of healing at NCSA - I don’t think I ever would have found my voice if I hadn’t attended that school. If I hadn’t found my voice, if I hadn’t learned to bravely access the truest parts of myself, and put them on display, I likely wouldn’t have this blog. What Satan intended for evil, God used for good. 

Right then and there, I rescinded my paperwork from the other school and signed new paperwork to confirm that I would like to attend NCSA in the fall. 

I had all these ideas about how my life would look when I graduated from NCSA and arrived in New York. Not a one of them came to be. To say my confidence was knocked is the understatement of a lifetime. Six-ish months after moving to NYC (and three months prior to my attack,) I was introduced to my now acting teacher, Vance. He’s walked with me through the past 2 1/2 years with a lot of grace, patience, and encouragement. He’s been privy to lots of tears (NCSA broke the no crying habit,) frustrations, deep conversations, stops and starts, and back and forths about quitting. He’s been tough on me, but with an underlying spirit of gentleness that I will probably never be able to repay. And his acting class is bomb. 

But lately, I’ve felt so stuck. My work has been blah. And that’s almost worse than bad. I would rather you be able to say, “that’s the shittiest shit I’ve ever seen” than “well that was okay.” 

Okay = blah

blah = hell 

He has waited for me to realize this on my own. And today I realized it. And then, in his ever-annoying way, he made me expound upon my feelings to the entire class. Acting school may have taught me how to identify and talk about my feelings, but it doesn’t mean I like doing it any more than I did when I was 18. 

Expounding went something like this: "I just think that what I did today was horrible. I don’t even want to watch it because it’s blah. All of my work is blah and I’m not sure why. And all of a sudden I care about my work again and that’s so annoying because up until recently I didn’t care and now I do and I want to be great and not lame and now I’m crying, why am I crying?" 

I have a real ability to make myself not care. And since my life didn’t pan out the way I thought, and bad things happened, I decided not to care. In fact, I refused to do so. And here we are on day 14 of this 52 day journey, and I realize I want to care again. And not only that, I do care again. I care about my life, I care about my art, I care about my family, I care about my friends, I care about my classmates, I care about my colleagues. I care about my mistakes. I care about my wins. Caring is scary because it means you can get hurt. But isn’t it better to get hurt than to be blah? Isn’t it better to try and epically fail than not try at all? Isn’t it better to love and get your heart broken than to never know love at all? 

That all sounds so lame. Very very lame. But it also sounds so true. 

Lame but true. That’s a trend that I don’t think will ever not be. 

When my expounding was done, I was met with encouragement and commiseration from my classmates and from Vance. Why I expected anything else? I don’t know. It could be that I’m slightly stubborn. 

And so I’ve decided to actively care. The only reason not to would be because I have given into fear. And as has been determined the past 13 days, that’s no longer an option. 

 

 

if you have been the victim of sexual assault, oh sweet love, I am so sorry. Please, please, seek professional help to begin the process of healing. It is scary, but it is possible. If you would like help in finding help, please reach out. You are not alone. It is not your fault. You are VALUABLE, beautiful, and worthy. Nothing that anybody does or says can take that away. There is a God in heaven who has called you by name. He says that “you are beautiful and there is no blemish within you.” Even if you can’t believe that now, there are others who can and are praying on your behalf. If it feels dark, keep fighting - keep pushing. You WILL rise out of the ashes + into the light. - all my love, B  

day 12: everything happens for a reason: [no, really]

 

Thursday, 3/17/2016

So today I have to email a new doctor and I don’t want to. I feel like I’ve paid my dues in the medical realm. 

On May 21, 2013, I underwent elective brain surgery. Why would anyone elect to have their brain cut open? Absolutely debilitating headaches that take you out for hours to days at a time over the course of four years, and continually get progressively worse, push you to the point of saying, “Yeah, sure! Slice my head open. Sounds good!” 

(warning:one mildly graphic scar photo a little ways below - but if you’ve watched ‘Scandal,’ this is child’s play)

My elective surgery saved my life. After opening up my brain, my baller neurosurgeon/friend/mum’s colleague went to find my parents. We’ll call him BallerDoctor. It’s a little strange to think of my brain just chilling in the open air. Also do you want to know my biggest regret in life thus far? Forgetting to ask BallerDoctor to snap a pic of my brain while he was mucking around in there. I mean, I had the chance and the chance will never present itself again (at least it better not.) I blew it. Merp.

“Becky’s brain was gray and very little oxygen was reaching it, therefore it was not pulsating well. She'd been living on borrowed time. In addition to the procedure agreed upon, I had to cut through the lining of her brain, remove some dura from the top of her skull, and make a little patch in the back to give the brain more space.”  — Why, yes - I AM so smart that my brain is extra big and needs more room to compute its brilliant ideas…. 

Apparently, the scans I’d been having to monitor my very common (but also rarely and severely symptomatic, hence the choice to have surgery) brain malformation had not told the whole story. 

Let me tell you something - waking up from brain surgery is a b***h. When I woke up from the successful surgery, I almost immediately started vomiting. Actually, I was HURLING. I’d been ‘under’ for longer than expected and my body was not loving the repercussions of that extra anesthesia, so it decided to rid me of it in the most vile way it knew how - for three days. At one point I begged my doctors to give me enough pain meds to kill me because l really did not think I could take the pain. My time in neuro-ICU is pretty foggy due to a plethora of Michael Jackson’s pain meds being IV’ed into my body (they are MIRACULOUS,) but it’s truly remarkable how your body doesn’t forget that level of excruciating pain. Wanna know the weirdest sensation? Feeling every.single.pulsation of your brain. In case you didn’t know, it pulsates the way your heart beats. And if your brain had been slammed up against your skull for years, you wouldn’t know that. But once that pressure is relieved, you find it out real quick and it is weirrrrrd.

Getting to the point of choosing to have brain surgery was a four year process that began in 2009. 

Feb 8, 2009 |

fly back one day early from college auditions at my mum’s annoying insistence. She has these things that she calls ‘holy spirit holds’ where she knows she’s supposed to do something, but she has no real, concrete reason why. You might think she sounds wacko, but I kid you not, every time she’s honored that “feeling,” it has paid off.  There was no reason for us to fly back a day early and I wanted to miss an extra day of school, but she had a “feeling.” As a high schooler not particularly interested in the school part of high school, I was not amused.

Feb 9, 2009 | 3:45pm -     

pull my car over on the side of the highway due to severe stomach cramps. They pass, so I ignore them.

Feb 9, 2009 | 7:00pm -     

in rehearsal and turn to a friend and tell him I think I’m gonna puke  

Feb 9, 2009 | 7:15pm -    

make it to the bathroom just in time to start uncontrollably throwing up blood. Not vomit with some blood in it or the type of blood that comes out after you’ve been vomming for a while and have scratched your throat. No. I was throwing up only blood. And not old blood. I was throwing up pints and pints of fresh, red, blood and I couldn’t stop.

Feb 9, 2009 | 7:45pm -     

Mum picks me up from rehearsal and takes me home, while I continue to vomit blood into a trashcan in the car. 

Feb 9, 2009 | 8:30pm      

Mum calls 911

Feb 9, 2009 | 8: 45pm     

Ambulance arrives. I code in the ambulance on the way to the ER, so they divert and take me to the closest hospital, not the one we requested.

Feb 9, 2009 | 9:00pm  

Arrive at the hospital. My whole body is numb and tingling 

Feb 10-18, 2009 |        

ICU. Since they can’t find the source of the hematemesis (or as I like to call it, vomming blood,) and since the vomming didn’t stop for three days, they decide to look at every part of my body. I have the first of many MRIs, CT scans, spinal taps, blood patches, bleeding time tests, blood draws, and neurological exams. Over the course of this week, they discover a brain malformation, a blood disease, a connective tissue disorder, and cysts down my spinal cord. This vomming blood episode flung my previously asymptomatic existence into symptomatic overdrive. While that was extremely painful, it was not life threatening. And unless it’s going to kill you, you can pretty much convince yourself, and your body, to do anything. 

[If my mum had not heeded her “holy spirit hold,” this would have all gone down in Chicago - a city where we knew no one and had no medical connections. We would have been forced to spend a week in their ICU and then go through the grueling and complicated process of having records transferred to Houston, choosing new doctors ourselves, and trying to explain a medically inexplicable situation to people who were not there to witness it.] 

Over the course of the next couple of months, we ironed out the members of my medical team and began to look for ways to calm the symptoms.

[If I hadn’t coded in the ambulance, requiring a diversion to the hospital that was closest, as opposed to the one of our choosing, I would never have the team I have now. This team of internationally recognized doctors not only saved my life, but they have become a part of my family. They’ve answered calls and texts in the middle of the night and met my family and me in emergency rooms in the early hours of the morning. They’ve even come to my shows and performances.] 

I get put on some headache medicine, one of which I quickly had to stop taking due to the fact that it made me forget everything. Literally. My mum would tell me to do something, I’d agree, and later when she’d get annoyed that I hadn’t done whatever it was we’d discussed, I’d get frustrated and tell her the conversation never happened. This was initially chalked up to me being an annoying teenager (which I indeed was,) but a couple months in, my mum realized that I wasn’t that annoying (no, really.) I forgot how to get places that I regularly drove to or that I had conversations. I’d call my dad and he’d say, “Treasure, you called to tell me that a little while ago.” It was scary.

I became a pro at lasting through never ending MRIs (the longest I ever did was 8 hours with very short breaks) despite being claustrophobic. I have a phenomenal system and if you need tips - I gotchu. I became oddly used to the sensation of peeing myself provided by the contrast medicine used in CT scans (don’t worry, I didn’t actually pee myself.) I once watched a blood draw butterfly needle pop in my arm and send blood flying everywhere - I barely even blinked. I’ve passed out from having too much blood drawn at once, and I learned how to keep still while a doctor sticks a long ass needle into the space around my spinal chord, and then later injects blood into that space and tells me to “take as much pain as I think I can."

The day the blood vomming began was one of my first days of rehearsal for a production of “Beauty and Beast.” I’d been out on tour for my junior year of high school with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Whistle Down the Wind,” and came back to Houston really nervous about adjusting to life off the road. “Beauty and the Beast” was one thing that had me really excited. And then I got sick. 

A combination of miracles, grace, and patience on the part of my school, the company producing “Beauty and Beast,” and the cast I shared the stage with, allowed me to continue on in the role of Belle. In a way, it saved my spirit. It planted a seed that I would need to survive the next four years. Amidst a never-ending slew of doctors appointments and bad news, it was a reminder of the thing that brought me joy my whole life, even while muddying through the darkest circumstances. For just a few hours every night, I escaped my reality and stepped into the shoes of a young woman who also needed hope, and refused to believe that new beginnings weren’t possible. You could hear little girls gasp when I appeared at the top of the stairs in my yellow ball gown. They reminded me that magic was real - and I needed all the magic I could get. Over four days, we got to tell 20,000 people that magic was real in a massive outdoor theatre that is the stuff of dreams. My dad loves to describe leaving the theatre early one night to catch the metro, and hearing my voice echoing across Hermann Park. He says he stopped with tears in his eyes and just listened to me sing “A Change in Me”, whose lyrics couldn’t be more fitting to the two months we’d just pushed through. 

Two days after my high school graduation, I was met with the following words from a cardiologist (we’ll call him DrNoName):

“well, I hate to say this - you need to find a new career. You have a grossly enlarged aortic root. It is more than likely another symptom of the greater issue we can’t yet diagnose. If you continue to pursue this career path, you will likely die. The over-exertion on your body will cause your aorta to burst. I know you’re going on a mission trip in a few days to work with children, but you cannot pick up a child. You can’t even move a box. Not until we figure out a way to reduce this dilation.” 

I could see his lips moving and I could hear what he was saying - but I couldn’t compute. Two days after my high school graduation, and DrNoName was basically telling me that my life as I knew it was over. This was supposed to be a “just in case” check-up. When my doctors suggested I see a cardiologist, it was as a total precaution. They had no reason to believe anything was wrong with my heart, but since almost every other major organ had been looked at over the last three months, it “couldn’t hurt” to check my heart, too. Up to now it had been scary and weird, but nobody ever even remotely mentioned death as a possibility. The idea wasn’t even on our radar.

You will likely die? I felt all the breath leave my body and I just barely squeaked out a quiet “ok.” 

Insert Judy Moyes into the conversation. Things to know about my mum: 

  1. She is mad smart - one of a handful women in the world to be accepted to the Cambridge University med school in 1974. Seven degrees and a phenomenal pediatric oncologist.
  2. She is not to be messed with  
  3. We would not have made it through months of testing, diagnoses, worsening symptoms, college decisions, and doctors appointments without her
  4. She cannot stand morons 
  5. She is fiercely protective 

“Excuse me, DrNoName, would you mind stepping outside for a minute to walk me through these test results a little more extensively?” 

Yo, that’s how you know that Jude is PISSED. 

She ripped DrNoName, who you can well guess is no longer a part of my medical team, a new one for the way in which he relayed life altering medical information without any type of hope or concern for the way a teenager might react to that information.

[But you know what? If he hadn’t been such a dumbdumb, we never would have been placed with my now cardiologist, who we’ll call DrNotToBeMessedWith. DrNotToBeMessedWith runs not only the cardiology department, but also the entire internal medicine department of the hospital and the Heart and Vascular Institute where my care is based. DrNotToBeMessedWith never misses my 6 month stress echo - in fact, he stands right next to me the entire time. He also managed my cardiac care during my brain surgery … from CHINA, because that’s how much he cares.] 

But that day, the only words I kept hearing over and over again were, “You will likely die.” I was MAD. Why did this have to happen? Why did I get 18 normal years with these stupid problems lying dormant and then everything came crashing down all at once? I felt like a shell of myself. Two girls who were my “friends” started questioning if the problems were real since they couldn’t see them. Cue us not being friends anymore. I had a few of my college options stripped from me due to the necessity that I needed to be close to high ranking emergency centers. Within my first two weeks at college, I had to wear a heart monitor for a week to gauge how my heart was reacting to the rapid increase in physical activity - under a leotard. It wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. I was mortified and I was guarded.

So how did I respond to this news? I decided to push my body to its limit. I drank until I threw up regularly. I stayed out way too late and never got enough sleep. I pushed myself to a breaking point until Valentines Day 2010, when I had to fly back to Texas for an emergency myelogram and blood patch. 

When you have a myelogram, they strap you to a table that resembles one of those spine inversion chairs (except you’re on your stomach,) insert a lumbar needle into your spine, push dye through that needle, flip you upside down, and watch on a screen to see which of the multiple spinal cord cysts I had, the dye would leak through. Once that’s been established, they determine how many of the many cc’s of blood that have been previously removed from your arm will be necessary to insert into the space around your spinal cord, then squirt blood into that space, until you can’t stand the pain anymore. That part is called a blood patch. The blood acts as a glue, sealing the holes in your cysts, and allows the spinal fluid level in your brain to rise back up to a healthy level. THE HUMAN BODY IS AMAZING. 

(she looks oddly happy and comfortable - I can assure you, I was not smiling.) 

Once they were finished, my doctors gravely looked at my mum and me and informed us that my levels of spinal fluid were alarmingly low. They lovingly, but firmly, reminded me that ensuring that I did as little as possible to exert force on those cysts, especially vomiting, was of utmost importance. I feigned innocence, though everyone in the room knew better, and went to recovery. After that day, I swore that come hell or high-water, I would never ever subject myself to that stupid procedure ever again. HA.

It’s funny when you think you get to control your own life. Fast forward three and half years, six weeks post brain surgery, and I’m still not able to walk. I can physically do it. Like I could put one foot in front of the other, but I couldn’t stand upright without pain so severe that I would pass out. Nobody knew what was going on and we started to think that I was stuck this way forever. Before my surgery, my doctors warned me that the cysts down my spinal chord made things much more complicated. There was a chance, small - like 5%, but still a chance, that I would be irreversibly worse off after surgery than I was pre-surgery. I decided the potential reward outweighed the risk. I began to strongly regret that decision around week three post-surgery. By week six, I was going out of my mind. 

My whole life, I planned to move to New York and be on Broadway - and if I’m being honest, I never doubted I could do it. Call it pride or call it confidence - it was what it was. I worked hard, I was talented, and I wanted it. During the fall of my senior year of college, my mum called me to say that the team she worked with at MD Anderson had just hired a new neurosurgeon (BallerDoctor.) After hearing about my situation he told my mum that he may be able to help me and would like to meet with me. 

Vehement no. In no way was I interested in meeting with a man who cut into people’s brains for a living. But as the year progressed, so did the headaches - and by spring break, I was feeling a little desperate. At the end of a very long appointment we made a deal. If the New York showcase that I was performing in with my class in a few weeks went as planned, then I would move directly to New York and forego surgery. If it didn’t, I’d come home and have the surgery. I'd had a pretty great year at school and enough of the visiting industry guests had expressed interest in me, so I thought my plan was foolproof. I’d move right to New York, and I’d get out of this surgery. 

Ha. Expectations were not met and I was devastated. I’d just come through what I considered to be the toughest months of my life (my first real heartbreak) and I was shattered. The last piece of hope dissipated and I realized that I truly had nothing to lose - no career to speak of, no one to spend my life with, and I couldn’t imagine it was possible for my headaches to get any worse. So I kept my word. And it saved my life.

[If my life had gone according to plan, I never would have had that surgery and I may not be here now. Borrowed time is a strange way to look at life on earth.] 

So here we are, six weeks post brain surgery, and I’m no better. My doctors are stumped and they recheck my charts. Maybe in those first three days of vomiting, I had burst the majority of the cysts in my spinal chord. The idea of doing another blood patch as a last ditch effort to improve things is pitched. Remember that? The inverted table hell? My short and concise answer was as follows, “F**k no.”

That’s how much “taking as much pain as possible" hurts. It was being marketed as a way to relieve post-brain surgery headaches and the inability to walk, and I was still saying no. But a week later, I conceded. If it was my only chance to feel normal again, I’d take it, because I sure as hell couldn’t take this. Two days later, I was up and walking around.

[If I hadn’t made the decision to drink myself into oblivion out of anger many a night during that first year of college, we wouldn’t have had the key to revealing the actual success of my surgery which gave me a completely new life.]

I haven’t had what I dub “brain headaches” since that day. I never thought I would know what it felt like to live life not in pain. Knowing what life New York is like, I now know that I would never have been able to handle it in my pre-surgery existence.

[If I never got sick on February 9, 2009, we likely would have found out too late that I had a brain malformation and a heart condition. A brain malformation that was fixed in surgery and a heart condition that has no bearing on my career path or my day to day life, despite what DrNoName said, because it’s controlled by medicine, diet, and exercise.]

My doctors never could figure out what caused the initial vomming up blood that started all of this. Every single test (and there were MANY) came back inconclusive. But I know what (or Who) it was. 

The day before my surgery, one of my mum’s friends from Bible Study called me and asked if I could come over. She felt like she’d "heard from the Lord" and wanted to share with me. I finished up my manicure and eyebrow wax (priorities, people. If I was going to die in surgery, I was going to die looking good) and headed over. She told me that, while she was praying for me, she felt led to turn to Psalm 91:4 in her bible: 

“He will cover you with His feathers and under His wings you will find refuge"

She said she had a vision of me in that operating room - that there would be feathery wings like the ones the Victoria’s Secret angels wear (I kid you not) on either side of me, keeping me suspended in the air - and that they would keep me safe. 

Listen, even I was like - “ok wackadoo" - and went on my merry way. 

Halfway through my surgery, BallerDoctor told my parents that one of the brackets keeping my head in position had malfunctioned. He had no idea how or why - there was a one in a million chance of something like that happening. It was as if someone took a hammer to the bracket because all of a sudden, it snapped, the screw grazed my scalp in a line as my head began to fly downwards, and then it was almost as if my head was suspended in the air, giving the cardiac anesthesiologist time to hold it safely in place before any damage could be done. I mean, this is brain surgery. It’s not ideal for your head to be moving around while BallerDoctor is in there with a knife. The surgery was abruptly halted while they retrieved another bracket and clamped my head again so that it wouldn’t move. Crisis over. I didn’t totally believe that story until I read it in the medical report a few months later. How was that possible? Because, Jesus. 

I don’t know why God has chosen to save my life over and over again. People tell me it's because I have a purpose, a great calling on my life. But there are people all over the world dying every single day. Are we saying that they had no purpose? No calling on their lives?  

Being faced with medical uncertainty has put a lot of things in perspective for me. Death is a reality - something I’m both afraid of and yet have been forced to come to terms with. Science would say that one of my medical issues will be the thing that takes my life one day down the road. Maybe. Maybe not. I know that day will not come until I have accomplished what I was put on this earth to do. And when that day does come, I’ll be one of the many all over the world dying that day, and it won’t mean I had no purpose or calling - it will mean I fulfilled it.

Almost seven months after my surgery, I got a tattoo of a feather on the back of my neck as a reminder of this saga. And you wouldn’t believe how many times since my assault people have asked me why it was there. A tattoo I never see unless I look in the mirror while holding another mirror - almost as if God just wanted me to be reminded that while I couldn’t see my worth or value, it hadn’t gone anywhere. He covered me with His feathers and He gave me refuge once before - why wouldn’t He do it again?