By Grace Rojek
I turned my head as far right as I could before the familiar throb of pain shot up my neck to my temple. I looked at my colleague, the two of us working overtime on a Saturday at a video shoot on Navy Pier. (The day she captured this sunny shot.)
“Hey,” I said. “I’m not OK.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Your headache? We’re almost done.”
I had nicknamed her my work wife — an accurate term of endearment considering the large percentage of our time we spent together. Despite our closeness, I struggled to tell her how everything was slipping out of my control.
For over a year I had been ignoring my headaches — getting by with weekly trips to the chiropractor and handfuls of Advil. I was consumed by life in Chicago, Instagramming its most photogenic aspects for my family and friends back home in Ohio.
Just a few weeks after this photo was taken the pain became all-consuming, like a constant jackhammer at the side of my neck. I made a panicked call home and was on an emergency flight back to Ohio the next day.
I packed only a few weeks’ worth of clothes, determined to fix whatever was wrong and return in time for my company’s fast-approaching annual performance reviews.
Cue the X-rays, CT scans and MRI — yet doctor after doctor found nothing to diagnose. I spent the holidays in bed with the lights out, my siblings standing worriedly on the fringes of my room, at a loss for words. I did not make my return flight back to the city.
“Just a few weeks after this photo was taken the pain became all-consuming, like a constant jackhammer at the side of my neck.”
Physical pain connects you to your most human self. My personality was suspended as sleeping, eating and even breathing took all my limited energy. I didn’t look at social media for months.
It’s hard enough to keep in contact with friends when things in life are exciting! But how do you call someone you haven’t seen in a year and say, “Hey. I am in the deepest, darkest pit.”
(I did, in fact, text those exact words to someone, and she responded with empathy and kindness. That right there is the making of a lifelong friend.)
Finally, my mother and I hesitantly accepted a diagnosis from my neurologist: chronic migraines. This meant the road to relief would require more patience, as well as frustrating trial and error. No major accident or injury was to blame for my fate, but I knew my lifestyle in Chicago certainly hadn’t helped my health.
If I could draw a pie graph of my life in 2015, 75 percent of it would have been labeled “work” — I was consumed by a job that I liked, but didn’t love. As an achievement-oriented person in a post-college world, the workplace can be addictive because it's one of the only places where there are clear steps to success. Agreeing to work on the weekends to finish projects didn't seem like a compromise — it almost felt comfortable.
I missed my performance review. I resigned from my job. My roommates in Chicago found a subletter. The process seems logical and linear in retrospect, but each decision stung as the life I once worked so hard to maintain was suddenly no longer an option.
“I was not ahead. I was not behind.”
I continued to avoid social media because I knew while I was anxiously awaiting my health insurance to approve Botox injections for my head and spending most of my time with my mom and physical therapist, my work wife was completing projects we had started together and sipping mimosas on #SundayFunday.
But I also had a great deal of time to think. I thought about what I loved about my old job and what it was missing. I pictured what I would do with a day if I magically woke up without pain. That idyllic day included being close to family with limited stress, and I realized that moving back to Chicago may not be the right answer.
In June, my mother and I took a trip to Sanibel Island in Florida — the world’s capital for sea shelling and a sacred family retreat. The plane ride was difficult, and while there, I slept my typical 10 hours a night. I passed on our traditional bike ride around the island, but I did get to watch a sunset paint the sky while wading ankle-deep in warm water. Next to my mother, who had been the steady light in my darkness, I said a prayer of thanks.
On the island, I realized there is no comprehensive life timeline. I was not ahead. I was not behind. In fact, I had been forcibly given something many would consider a huge privilege: a fresh start.
Pain will break you down to almost nothing. But when it lets up just a bit and you regain some capacity, you have newfound clarity on what’s important to add back into your life. For me? Family, then faith; a chance to finally start my own company — one that will allow me to be creative and live a well-balanced life.
This month I turned 26, and despite what it may look like on social media, I still battle pain and fatigue every day. But the balance of my life has been restored, and I have greater clarity on what I want to create in the months and years ahead.
Perhaps poet Emery Allen put it best:
“You are on the ground and you feel like you are nothing.
This is where it happens.
Do you feel your roots?
Do you see the sun?
You are not alone in this dirt.
The pain is just showing you that you are alive.
It is time to start over
And grow the way you’ve always wanted to.
It is time to become.”
Grace continues to heal while living in Canton, Ohio, with her mother and brother, and near her boyfriend. She’s thankful for her friends, her pup Molly, and the chance to start an e-commerce site in the fashion and bridal industry launching this January.