There are times when I reminisce about my life and feel like it barely belongs to me. Like “Past Rachael” and “Present Rachael” come from 2 completely different places, are 2 completely different people, and the resemblance to one another is so faint that people wouldn’t even realize we were related to one another, let alone the same person.
This morning is one of those times.
Today, I logged on to Facebook and saw photos of the wedding of someone who I used to call my best friend. She was the best roommate I’ve had in my life (next to Adam, of course), a bridesmaid in my first wedding, and someone whom I deeply respect and admire. And I found out that she got married, not by an announcement in the mail or an email from her, but by seeing pictures of her wedding posted on Facebook by mutual friends.
It hit me at that moment that she probably doesn’t even consider me a friend anymore. We barely know each other now.
“Rachael From Way Back When” rocked. Literally.
When I think about who I was when I was close to this person, I get almost mournful… not just because I miss the friendship (I do), but because I miss who I was and how I thought about myself back then.
I was at Berklee College of Music, had just switched my principal instrument from percussion to voice, and had declared a major in music business. I was songwriting with a very talented partner (whose friendship I kind of fucked up while going through therapy to treat PTSD), and still believed that I could change the world through music. I was going to be a rockstar — I just knew it. I went to live music shows, worked my ass off in performance labs, and didn’t believe I could make bad choices.
But I could. And I did.
And in the midst of those bad choices, I did some pretty amazing stuff. I started Greek life on campus, bringing a professional co-educational fraternity for people in the creative and performing arts to Berklee and the Pro-Arts Consortium. I constructed and shopped a $5 million dollar business plan that I thought was going to revolutionize the music industry. (Some of the things in my plan were actually implemented by CDBaby after our 2 year non-disclosure agreement was complete.) And I did a lot of unpaid work in internet radio.
I didn’t believe in failure. Or rather, I wouldn’t accept failure, in any circumstance of my life – even when there were times where I should have walked away from situations that were terribly negative for me.
If that version of “Past Rachael” were to hear about the life I’m currently living, she would have freaked the fuck out. And not in a positive way.
I remember, when I was first diagnosed with seizure disorder and was having time-travel with my cognition, waking up, thinking I was 18 again and being in complete disbelief that (1) I had graduated from law school (I always thought that it was too much hard work) and (2) that I was in the process of studying for the bar exam. My thought was always, “But I was going to be a musician. I sold out.”
That Time When I Sold Out…
I don’t remember exactly when I decided that making money was more important than making music… but I know I was still in college. I think it was during a film scoring class, when the professor said that a film scoring graduate would be lucky to make $25,000 a year. I declared my major in music business the next day. And the longer I took music business classes, the harder I worked at web and graphic design, on that business plan I talked about, and less on practicing any kind of music.
The future well-being of “my family” (and children I didn’t have) meant more to me than music.
Fast forward to 2005: I was living in Memphis and had just gotten divorced. Life was beginning to teach me that it is very possible to fail at things that are important to you, despite how much you try to succeed.
At that time, I had a wonderful job with a fantastic, friendly boss and coworkers who I genuinely enjoyed and respected. I could even afford the mortgage on my own house. But something about getting divorced threw me into a headspace that said, “You’ve got to do better than what you’re doing now. You never want to be dependent on anyone else ever again. Become a professional.”
So, I studied like a madwoman for the LSAT and I went to law school in Los Angeles, thinking I could return to the music industry as an advocate, even though I had said at least a million times before in my life, “I don’t ever want to be a lawyer.” I watched how life as an attorney had drained the happiness from my father during his years as a prosecutor.
But, it became more important to me to be independent and be able to support “my family” (that I didn’t have) than it was to stay at a good job, in a city filled with friends.
“Past Rachael” was tough as nails.
Law school was stressful. That, of course, is a magnificent understatement. I took at least 15 credits per semester, had a workstudy job, and tried to be as active in the student bar association as I could. I took on “extracurricular activities” that made life much more colorful. I lost 70 pounds. But it never was enough. I was always pushing myself to do more, and was looking, constantly, for “Mr. Right.”
Adam (yes, THE “Mr. Right”) found me, however… 2 weeks after a breakup with Mr. Amazing-but-not-for-me… and for that I am profoundly grateful. It was the first time when Life tried to teach me that things can go very right when you’re not even trying.
I was 2 years into law school when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Adam and my mom held my hands as the doctor told me. Crazy thing: I wasn’t upset by the news or afraid for my future. I just wanted to treat the disease and get on with my life like nothing had changed. I honestly didn’t think anything had changed. It really hadn’t, yet.
I was absolutely determined to finish law school, despite the symptoms of MS and the seizures that we thought, at the time, were narcolepsy. Again, I had decided that failure was absolutely not an option. That stubbornness suited me well. I proudly graduated in May of 2008, and started preparing for the bar exam, studying 8-12 hours a day.
On Thursday, July 10, 2008, the question of whether or not I would succeed at becoming an attorney in CA was completely removed from my hands. I had my first grand mal seizure, in the the kitchen of our apartment, while I was doing dishes. The next day, my mom came in town from Las Vegas and took me to my primary care physician. I had another seizure in the office, and the next thing I knew I was at a hospital, handwriting my last will and testament as fast as I could before I had another seizure.
I regained consciousness/memory 8 days later. (Though I have heard stories about that first week in the hospital and how I was just constantly spewing legal knowledge the whole time… which is kind of embarrassing.) The bar exam was 2 weeks away, and I was actually trying to bribe orderlies to give me my notes. The words out of my new epileptologist’s mouth were simple, “Relax, you can take it next time. For now, rest.”
In the months that followed, I faced some of the worst emotional pain of my life, dealing with pseudoseizures caused by PTSD: I was unearthing and reprocessing repressed memories about terrible things that had happened in my life. EMDR let me “time travel” back and sort out some very bad lessons that I had learned about myself and life.
To be honest, the work I did with Ann (my therapist) was invaluable, but we only met once a week. Between sessions, I was an absolute trainwreck of a person. I shook half the day, smoked weed the rest of it, but I was still studying all day long for the bar exam… (and taking it, and failing it. Twice.)
It was during this time that I feel like I actually lost my mind. I was mean to people who didn’t deserve it. (Like the friend I songwrote with at Berklee, for example.) I was unable to control my emotions or my behavior. I felt so deeply lost and so angry at the world for being unfair and so fucked up in so many ways, and so scared about my future (and what it could mean for my family) that I became suicidal — because I thought my life was over anyway.
In a manner of speaking, my life (at least as I knew it) was over. I couldn’t work because of the near-constant seizures. I couldn’t (and still can’t) drive, so I couldn’t get out of the house to do things. I couldn’t even walk to the store by myself because of the seizures. I was miserable, but eventually I got used to the idea that life for me meant sitting on the couch, typing on Facebook, watching TV, and eating. I had a shower chair, because I couldn’t shower safely standing up, thanks to the seizures. I couldn’t cook, because wielding sharp knives isn’t safe for someone who is constantly seizing. I felt pathetic and worthless.
As if trying to nail down the lesson that it is very possible to fail at things that are important to you, despite how much you try to succeed, life threw me a crushing blow in 2011. Because I couldn’t pass the bar exam and work and Adam couldn’t find work, our financial situation became so desperate that we had to leave Los Angeles and move in with his brother, Nick, in Romeoville, IL (otherwise known as the middle of nowhere). I had to organize a new care team of doctors, which was complicated and weird. Adam (who had finally gotten to work using the skills he studied in college) had to give up a potential job with the NFL (who waited over 5 months to decide that they wanted him) and return to working for the railroad.
Fortunately, the rail has been good to him. They took him back immediately, and we were able to move from Nick’s house get an apartment of our own in Chicago in 2012. He also got an even better job with the rail shortly after our move.
A fresh set of doctor’s eyes meant that in December of 2012, I had to do a second week-long video-monitored EEG session. To make sure that everything they got on video EEG was accurate and not caused by the medications I was taking (and because I wanted to have a clean body so Adam and I could start our family), I stopped taking the Cymbalta and Abilify that had been prescribed to me after diagnosis with seizure disorder.
Suddenly, I wasn’t having seizures on and off through the day. And the ones that I did have were simple partial facial ticks and not grand mals. Life was again showing me that things can go very right when you’re not even trying.
I still am adapting to the idea that life is more than sitting on the couch, typing on FB, watching TV, or eating. I walk to and from the grocery store most days. I exercise at the gym whenever I am able. I apply for jobs that I think I am qualified for…
But I’m not a rockstar. And I’m not an attorney. I am a housewife who struggles with MS. I consider myself a success on the days when I go out to get groceries, do the laundry, and wash the dishes.
I have a hard time getting myself to practice guitar or piano because it’s emotionally difficult to hear yourself not playing as well as you know you used to… I know that at 32, I am too old and not attractive enough to get signed to a record label – but moreover, I know that I don’t want the pressures of that life. I don’t want to go on the road anymore. I like being home and with my husband. If I do anything musical anymore, it’s rare and occasional songwriting… and, as always, I never actually write out the notes. So, I guess if I’m being honest with myself, I’m really more of a poet.
When I judge myself based on the high standards I set for myself in the past, I come up exceedingly short. I am not changing the world. I am not independent. I am not doing anything amazing or memorable or worthy of mention in history textbooks. And that sometimes makes me sad.
But when I look at where I am today: Able to be physically independent enough to walk to and from the grocery store alone, able to shower without a chair, able to cook, able to workout, and able to say that despite failing the CA bar exam twice, I am not a failure as a person… I am actually thrilled.
So, sure, I’m nothing like I used to be… but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
In another life, financial success meant more to me than all the things that brought me happiness. I’m glad that’s no longer the case. The future well-being of “my family” (and children I still don’t have) means more to me than money.