When a Chance Encounter Turns Into Perspective

By Nicole Chilton

When I was asked to write about resilience for The Bravery Board, I laughed. “I’m not perfect,” I said. “Resilience is a constant struggle for me, but I’ll see what I can come up with.”

And then I crawled into bed, hid under the covers, and stressed about it. Oh how I must put up a good front, I thought, that someone would think I was able to write about pushing through against all odds, that I was someone who could bend without snapping.

Years ago, maybe I could. I was the type of person who let nothing get in my way. If someone doubted me, it motivated me more. If I hit a brick wall, I’d bust through it. My husband and I were broke, running a business with 60+ hour weeks, and stressed. We were in survival mode, but thrilled by the challenge. It was a tough time, yet I look back on that period with fondness.

After the birth of my 2nd child five years ago, something shifted. I cannot cope, I cannot do, and worst of all, I don’t even want to.

I had a rough pregnancy followed by an emergency C-Section that I physically and mentally couldn’t handle. Post-partum depression exacerbated my hypothyroidism, turning my body into an autoimmune battle ground. I felt like I was on a roller coaster, one month being so tired I couldn’t move, the next fueled by anxiety where I twitched and paced and panicked myself into obsessiveness. Then back to sluggishness in the snap of a finger. I’ve refused to sleep for fear that I would die in the night. I’ve slept for days on end. I’ve plucked out patches of hair, I’ve cried rivers worth of tears, I’ve argued and screamed with the people I love the most.

This is not the “Me” I want to be, or used to be.

I recite the usual mantras: Mind over Matter. Fake it until you make it. Deal with it.  These sayings loop through my head until they become taunts. “Haha,” the thoughts chuckle. “You can’t do it, you’re a wimp.” I believe them. I get angry at myself. I hate myself. I get out of bed to prove them wrong, and then collapse in the nearest chair.

My current struggle caused me to quit my job. I simply couldn’t find the balance between work, family, and my health. It was a scary decision, and the first in admitting that I needed to make changes in my life. But what next?

Serendipitously running into an old friend helped me take a closer look at my internal struggles. Laura, a former classmate and co-worker, randomly walked by one day as I was having lunch at a cafe. I haven’t seen her in years, as she lives in Colorado. After a brief hello, I found out she was in Springfield rehabbing from an intense skiing accident.

Here’s a girl who is a lean mean fighting machine. You could not have convinced me that five weeks prior she was hospitalized for a month, tubes and splints holding her together, barely able to talk or walk. And yet, here she was, walking down the sidewalk with her dad, headed to lunch.

Five weeks (to be honest, five years) after my C-section, I was still in bed. Physically, everything was healing perfectly, but my brain refused to believe that to be the case.

Five weeks after Laura’s accident, where she collided with a tree at 40mph, physically her body needed a lot of work, but her brain refused to believe it.

I felt like our paths were supposed to converge at this point in time, where I was feeling at my lowest mentally, and she physically.

We decided to meet for coffee later to catch up, when she was feeling a bit better. It was a lovely morning, my children were with me, and she was so gracious to them. She put them both on her knees, which, remember, are currently going through physical therapy, and bounced them while singing “This is the way the ladies ride, the ladies ride, the ladies ride,” while they giggled and squealed like, well, little children. I marveled at her. I felt a twinge of guilt, thinking how could I not do that, when I am physically able to?

We hugged each other goodbye, she drove back to Colorado starting her shift back into normal life: working at an apparel design company, taking care of her body, and an ultimate goal to ski again.

Laura has no plans to quit skiing because of an accident.

“The ICU nurse looked at me like I was crazy,” Laura says, “because when I found out she had never been skiing, I told her she should, it’s amazing.” Her enthusiasm makes *me* want to learn to ski, despite the fact that we are talking about her debilitating accident.

“Things in life just happen,” she says. “There’s no explanation for it. I’m a good skier, but I’m not perfect, and something happened where I couldn’t deal with it, so I lost control and hit a tree really hard.”

Like me thinking that the stars aligned so that Laura and I could reconnect, she too marvels at the timing of everything that has happened. She told me her past experiences really taught her how to cope with tough situations.

During grad school, Laura had panic attacks and broke out in skin rashes, but tried to convince herself that because it was just in her head, she could deal with it.

“It’s funny how you can push things down mentally and when it gets to be too much, your body takes over,” Laura says. At one point, she realized she needed to seek professional medical help. She worked with a doctor and therapist to find the right medication, and to learn more about how to deal with stress.

“Accepting that sometimes I don’t feel good, because I’m crazified in my head, it’s okay,” Laura says with a laugh. “Worrying about worry is just adding fuel to the fire.”

Yoga was another method that helped Laura get through stress during grad school, and her continued years of practice were crucial during her current healing process.

“Throughout this whole experience, whether it was trying to sit up in the snow realizing I was messed up, to learning to walk again, all these things, what gets me through it is breathing,” Laura says. “I think that’s also been a huge driver at helping me with stress at work.”

It’s been six months since Laura’s accident, and she believes she still has a lot of work to do. “Every week has improvement,” Laura says, “and acknowledging that and recognizing that helps me stay positive and give me energy for more improvement.” Being kind to herself is also crucial for her total healing. “I need to listen to my body and relinquish control,” she says. “If I need to nap but wanted to do something else, I’ll nap.” She admits she also gives into emotional meltdowns, and maybe a pint of ice cream every now and then. But those help serve as a catharsis, and a time for reflection and self-care.

Laura is able to care for herself because she has felt so much love and kindness from everyone around her. “I couldn’t have done what I’ve done to come back without that love,” she says.

“My belief in the human connection as the true power of the world has been reinforced,” she adds. Moments after her crash, a park ranger was there, calling for medical help and getting her to safety. A friend was by her side at the hospital until Laura’s parents could get to her. Coming ‘home’ to Springfield to recuperate with the support of her family and friends was paramount to a smooth recovery.

Laura’s accident has interestingly helped her cope with day-to-day challenges. “Because I had this physical thing that happened, it was easier to deal with than normal life stress. Possibly because it was a very jarring event that put everything in its relative place, too. I’m not as worried about XYZ at work because I’m just trying to survive,” she says.

Laura’s story is the motivation I’ve been looking for.

I have been struggling with acceptance of my current mental state, and how to improve my quality of life. Her advice to anyone just trying to make it through the day is to be kind to yourself, so that you can 110% believe in yourself. “That belief will support everything else,” she says. Laura also made sure to keep her sense of humor in check, which helped ease those around her who were also worried. “When I made a joke, it helped my family know that I was going to get through this, that I was going to be okay.” She also adds that the saying might be trite, but true: “Laughter is the best medicine...unless you have a broken rib.”

Laura kept telling me, “I’m not perfect, but I’m learning.”

Aren’t we all, though? Didn’t I say the exact same thing when asked to write this post? I am grateful for Laura’s time to chat with me, to open up about her past and present struggles, and to assure me that we all need a little help now and then, regardless of what we’ve been through. It helped put my challenges into perspective, and also gave me the courage to be more open about them. We are all in survivor mode these days, and connecting with her helped me work through some of my own struggles.

Be kind. Breathe. Relinquish control and listen to my body. Laugh. Love your friends and family. These are my new, more gentle and less taunting, mantras.




Nichole Chilton is a writer, artist, and community do-er in Springfield, MO.