The Best Disaster

I’m a distinctly unlucky person.

We all know someone who seems charmed—the perpetual lotto winner who finds large-denomination bills in the street on the reg—but I can assure you, I am not one of those people. Far from it.

By the time I reached high school, I’d resigned myself to this fact. Seemingly random, unpleasant occurrences were just something I learned to deal with. (Now I know that these “random” accidents were probably a result of impulsive or unobservant behavior courtesy of undiagnosed ADHD.) Usually these things were minor annoyances: a scrape here, a bruise there, a missing assignment or lost piece of jewelry. Then, in the tenth grade, I hit my head. And then I did it again. And again. Three hits to the back of the head, all within six months of each other, the last two within a week.

The last one happened at school. It’s stupid, really—I was sitting out of gym (having sustained a sprained ligament in my knee during the fall that gave me the mild concussion of the week before). My friends came over to chat during a break in the game, and I threw my head back to laugh. Cue flash of blinding pain and a “sickening thud,” as my friend Maggie described it. I shook it off and went to my next class. Twenty minutes later, I was throwing up in a bathroom. Twenty minutes after that, I was horizontal on a bed in the nurse’s office, semi-conscious, arguing with another student who was bleeding profusely about who was going to take the ambulance.

You’re probably wondering how this could possibly be a lucky incident. And, to be quite frank, for a long while it wasn’t. I left school in an ambulance, went to the hospital, went into mild shock (which was completely ignored by the ER staff), given a CAT scan, cleared of any inter-cranial bleeding, and sent home. My mom made me go to school the next day to take my Algebra II midterm. (Fun fact: I got a 95% on that test, which, hilariously, was the best grade I made in that class all year.) It all went downhill from there.

By the end of the week, I was out of school and plagued with splitting headaches and blurred vision. It would be a while before I returned. A few weeks in, I was still suffering from blurred vision and sleeping twenty hours out of the day, with headaches during my waking hours. I was shuffled around to specialist after specialist—neurologist, ophthalmologist, neuropsychologist—to attempt to diagnose the root of the problems.

Six months post-concussive and I was still suffering migraine-type headaches and spending about 80% of my time asleep. I was having difficult remembering my friends’ names, classroom numbers, and other simple things. Unable to attend school, I was unenrolled from Fairfax County Public Schools. I spent what should have been my junior year mostly at home, sleeping and trying to take online classes (I failed, miserably). But two things happened during this period that have had far-reaching positive effects on my life.

First of all, I took up photography. I’d always been the academic type, but reading was difficult after my injury, and my memory and reasoning skills took a serious hit. After a few months, I started to worry I might never regain my previous cognitive abilities, and began searching for alternatives. I pursued a previously-ignored interest in photography with vigor, getting my own DSLR and starting to build a portfolio. By my senior year of high school, I was shooting dozens of headshots for fellow students, and getting paid to do so! For the first time, I realized that my cerebral tendencies had prevented me from exploring artistic interests beyond the music and theatre that had been part of my life since childhood.

Secondly, as I started to feel better, I took a role in a play. Steel Magnolias was one of the best things that ever happened to me. With a small cast of women (all of whom were more than twice my age), a dedicated crew, and a stellar script, it was a balm for my anxious mind. And then, at one of the shows, I met Mike Replogle. He approached me afterwards to congratulate me on my performance, thinking I was a local college student. When he discovered that I was still in high school (courtesy of some meddling by one of my castmates), he demanded to know why I wasn’t in his program. It turned out he was the director of the Musical Theatre and Actor’s Studio Academy program. Determined to return to school next year, my mother and I corresponded with Mr. Replogle, who helped me get pupil placed at Fairfax High School, where the academy was located.

Enter Repo (as we called him) and suddenly a vague, lifelong dream of being a performer was on the table for real. Repo’s professional experience and confidence in my abilities convinced my reluctant parents that I could actually make a living as an actress. I spent two years honing my skills at the academy, building close relationships with talented professionals-turned-teachers and like-minded students while finishing up my diploma. (And picked up a spot at the Professional Digital Photography academy while I was at it!) I graduated high school with honors, happier than I’d ever been and heading off to James Madison University to study my passion. I am indebted to Mr. Replogle more than I can say. He was my mentor, my friend, and my champion for two years while I built my new self after my injury, and I will never be able to thank him enough for it.

The changes in my confidence, personality, and relationship with my parents brought on by my injuries have vastly improved the quality of my life. If I was given the chance to do it over and avoid the months of pain, but potentially miss out on years of benefits, I’d take the injuries every time.

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