Last year as a freshman at UCSB, I was eager, excited and nervous, but most of all, I was ready. All of us know the hard work and focus it takes in the years leading up to college applications to sculpt a resume and academic record strong enough to earn a spot here at UCSB. I dedicated my young life to making that happen for myself, and when I got in, it seemed to have finally paid off for me.
So when my new life here suddenly came to a grinding halt, it was difficult for me to process. I made it through my first quarter fairly smoothly, aside from the normal struggles that come with adjusting to college. But one drunken night out with my friends and a bouncy house later, and I was well on my way to needing serious medical attention again. In the weeks that followed, my lower back began to seize up until every little movement left me in excruciating pain. By mid-February, I couldn’t change clothes, attend class or even bathe because of the severity of the pain I experienced every time I moved. I quickly realized that I would not be able to continue the rest of the quarter at UCSB. I was failing all of my classes, and I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was heartbroken.
In February my mom came to move me out of my dorm. As soon as I got home, I began to meet with my doctors. After several examinations, X-rays and an MRI, they were finally able to identify the cause of my excruciating lower back and sciatic nerve pain: a herniated disc in my lower spine that had likely been developing for years.
After months of battling the pain with countless ineffective treatments, surgery was the only option left. I underwent surgery on May 5 of this year and was told the recovery timeline would be approximately six weeks. I had managed to remain fairly strong emotionally and mentally given the circumstances up to that point and was very confident that I would recover quickly. I am now five months post-surgery, and I can honestly say that this time estimate was naively optimistic. The complications that have resulted from surgery are many and varied, and I am still dealing with them even now, despite my return to school this quarter. But there is one major positive that this entire process has brought to my life: a new perspective.
For a long time, I saw my injury and illness as a negative, unfair obstacle that I didn’t deserve. I couldn’t understand why this would happen to me of all people. It didn’t seem to add up. I had worked hard for 18 years to get here, only to be pulled away by an injury beyond my control. As time dragged by for me in the eight months I was withdrawn, I found myself constantly looking for answers to explain why this had happened to me. What was the justification? It took me awhile, but I came to realize that the answers I was looking for didn’t exist. There is no good reason for it — it just is. The reality is that we aren’t guaranteed anything in life. That might sound a bit morbid, but for me, it served as motivation.
I was overcome with the desire to learn to find happiness in every day, regardless of what obstacles I faced. I was not going to let one surgery at the age of 19 stop me from living the life I wanted. I was going to use this opportunity to effectively “restart” my education and make the most of my time in recovery. It took me hitting this low point in my life to realize what really mattered to me. I had eight months of time all to myself. I read, I watched documentaries, I wrote, I painted — I did anything I could to exercise my mind and find what made me happy. I learned more about myself and about life in those long eight months than I have at any other period in my life. I was able to reflect on my past and realize that prior to surgery, I was not pursuing a life that made me happy. I had been grinding away at one assigned project or another constantly since high school began, and I hadn’t taken the time to truly develop my own passions and hobbies without the pressure of academics in years. I even wondered from time to time if college was the right path for me after all.
Since surgery, I have been looking back on other low points in my life and mentally reviewing how each obstacle made me feel or how it has affected me as a person. I have spent a lot of time asking myself what my life would be like and how I would behave if those things had never happened. Of course, none of us would wish ill on ourselves or actively seek out pain, but the periods of time when I struggled most are also the periods of my life when I developed most of my emotional and mental strength and maturity. I, like so many others, have had to deal with circumstances and situations beyond my age and maturity level many times. I can choose to hold onto my anger for having gone through something painful in the past, or I can use my new perspective and wisdom to move forward and create a happier future for myself.
As time dragged by for me in the eight months I was withdrawn, I found myself constantly looking for answers to explain why this had happened to me. What was the justification? It took me awhile, but I came to realize that the answers I was looking for didn’t exist. There is no good reason for it — it just is.
We cannot always choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react to it. Though it may sound cliché, changing your outlook toward struggle will get you through some of the toughest times of your life. It would have been very easy for me to give up on myself. It would’ve been easy to give up entirely, especially when I lost the ability to walk and do most things for myself. Though I tried to remain positive throughout my surgery and the long recovery process leading up to my return to UCSB, my doubts often got the better of me. But as time passed and I progressively got healthier, I was able to see beyond my immediate struggles and realize the temporary nature of my situation. I realized that six months of recovery in exchange for long-term health and mobility was a small price to pay. It motivated me and helped me find peace and hope while I fought to get healthier. So whatever it is that you’re going through, be it a family issue, illness, emotional pain or any number of the other countless obstacles that this life presents us with, I promise you — this, too, shall pass.
Emily Hickingbottom wants you to know that there is nothing life can throw at you that you cannot handle.