It’s Never Too Late to Adjust to Happy
These days, Stacy only gets two good weeks a month. The first is consumed by the after effects of the 14-hour infusion she sits through as part of her treatment for Stiff Person Syndrome, a brutal yet little known immune disease that has recently received more attention since Celine Dion revealed her own diagnosis. The second is the beginning of a slow recovery, full of severe headaches and exhaustion, but creeping back to life. Because of that limitation, Stacy packs as much as possible into her remaining good weeks, getting out for walks to keep her joints nimble, spending time with people she cares about, and contemplating the book she intends to write. She begins each day—the good and the bad—putting into practice a well-honed skill: silencing and disputing negative self-talk and setting the terms of her own existence.
Stacy, who was born into a community-minded Jewish family in Denver, was taught from the start that giving mattered. She stuffed envelopes to raise money for the Jewish hospital her family supported as a child, and by her teen years, had begun volunteering at the hospital gift shop begun by her mom. But it was a close friend’s mental health crisis that spurred Stacy’s lifelong passion for psychology. She didn’t want to look on uselessly or, worse yet, look away when someone needed support; Stacy wanted to learn how to help and as soon as she could, she did just that.
Stacy leveraged her athletic abilities on the basketball court as a left-handed walk-on to the women’s team in college, securing for herself a scholarship—all but unheard of in those days for women in sports—of tuition and books. There she completed the first of her many degrees, this one in Social Urban Recreation, and put what she had learned into practice right away through Sherut La’am (Service to the People), a one year volunteer program in Israel. Following a period of language study, Stacy moved to a small town near the Syrian and Lebanese borders where she was tasked with creating programming for the impoverished Moroccan immigrant community.
It was not uncommon there to spend days and nights in a bomb shelter as Katasha rockets rained down from Syria. Despite the danger, Stacy grew to love Israel and, after finishing her first Master’s Degree, returned as a counselor for the Israel Study Program (IST). This time, she went to a kibbutz in the Negev desert, where she dutifully took her turn on guard duty, carrying an Uzi, just like everyone else. It was there that Stacy suffered the first of her major health challenges. Having contracted hepatitis from toxic water she consumed at the kibbutz in a bioterrorism attack, Stacy spent the next eight months trying to regain her health.
Her body was temporarily weak, but her mind remained strong. Stacy, who by that time had completed two Master’s Degrees along with a slew of certifications in psychology and addiction counseling, opened her own clinic. The Cognitive Behavior Therapy approach she embraced worked well for her clients, and soon she was running the number one program in the city. Stacy hired more staff, but even with the additional help, the workload – and the corresponding paperwork – was immense. The piles of papers she had to fill out, each thick with carbon copies, caused her hand to give out, and so she sought out a locally renowned surgeon for a cure. What should have been a straightforward procedure ended with a severed nerve, paralysis, and pain like she had never experienced before.
The botched surgery left her with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome and Stacy could no longer work. On most days, it was all she could do to get her two boys up for school, using all her strength and focus for that brief window of time to pretend like everything was normal before collapsing back into bed until their return. The next ten years crawled by, punctuated with physical therapy that did little good and nerve blocks that did even less until, miraculously, the nerve that had been causing all the problems suddenly died. For the first time in a decade, Stacy could move beyond the pain that had hijacked her life and start to rebuild.
Stacy rebooted her counseling career, this time as an accountability coach. Her goal with her clients was to collaboratively assess the choices they were making and to teach them the cognitive skills necessary to improve their lives. The brain, Stacy taught her clients, is powerful: it can drag you down, or it can be harnessed for good. Stacy coached her clients to choose the latter. The practice thrived and Stacy, finally able to work and contribute again, felt fulfilled. And then, her third health crisis hit her like an avalanche.
Stacy began experiencing muscle spasms so severe that it could look as though she had a small animal running up and down her legs. The pain that came with those spasms, one of which tore her meniscus – was excruciating. It took Stacy years of searching – years in which perplexed doctors dismissed her symptoms as Fibromyalgia or, worse yet, all in her head – to finally get the correct diagnosis. Finally, one of her doctors figured it out. She had Stiff Person Syndrome, a disease which affects only one in a million people and whose treatments are in their infancy. For those afflicted, the syndrome often comes with severe anxiety and depression, as even the smallest change in temperature or sound can lead to excruciating and debilitating spasms. Stacy, however, has consciously chosen a different path. Each day, despite the challenges she is up against, Stacy makes the conscious choice to remind herself that she is strong, to find the joy life still brings her in so many ways, and to continue to give.
It’s never too late to adjust to happy.