My Christmas Story

January 4, 2010

Everyone has a personal Christmas story. That is the beauty of the season. The story often holds a mirror up to our natures allowing us to see not only ourselves, but also God's gifts.

My story has taken years to form. My life has seen the tragedies of unexpected death and the joys of parenthood. This story is about more than overcoming loss and grief or experiencing parental satisfaction. It is about seeing the truth.

More than five years ago, a hidden illness made itself known while I worked for a large company doing all the things in my profession that indicated success: publishing articles, giving presentations, and traveling. At the time, I did not know what was happening with me, only that I was in constant mental and physical pain, and that I felt I could no longer live with my family. I thought I needed quiet and solitude to survive what was going on inside my head.

I could not get a correct diagnosis from my family doctors who prescribed all the wrong medications, which exacerbated the condition and left me ready to run. I did leave and as a result I found out I had Temporal Lobe Epilepsy whose symptoms are similar to migraines, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or simply insanity.

The diagnosis devastated me and left me unable to come to terms with my condition, even as it worsened. It had been dormant in my body for many years, making minor appearances here and there until I persisted in a stressful and aggressive lifestyle that brought it into full bloom.

As my TLE progressed, it took with it all the things I thought were important. First to go was my ability to be diplomatic at the office. I was in the medical publishing business after years of working in hospitals dealing with doctors. I prided myself in my ability to hold my temper when doctors screamed at me as I tried to keep them and the facilities in compliance with various laws and regulations. The TLE sat in my emotional center and made for some rather dramatic responses to requests from managers. While this entertained my co-workers, it was hardly helpful to me.

My ability to work on computers, particularly with spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, was the next to go. This frightened me because it threatened my ability to earn a living. My job was my security. It was supposed to keep the proverbial wolf away from the door. I had no idea what I would do if I could not work.

I also realized I was no longer a safe driver. I did my best to catch rides with others or to stay home during and after seizures.

During all of these changes, I refused to ask for help. I was seeing a therapist and that was the only thing holding me together.

By that point, I had lost my family, or so I had thought, and my ability to work, which, I felt defined me. My work did not give me satisfaction; it gave me status and material rewards. I let it define my intelligence.

As I was trying to decide what to do, my husband, who had refused to divorce me earlier, talked to me about returning home to Texas from Utah. This is the part of the marriage vows that speak to sickness and health.

I moved home and began a concentrated program of recovery along with attempts to repair my relationships with my husband and daughters. Over the next two years, I went through six drug withdrawals to clean out the medication that either no longer controlled my condition and my pain or were the wrong drugs for me.

I worked with both of my daughters, who were in their late teens to middle twenties, to restore what the disease had taken away. I struggled daily with my husband to re-establish our thirty-three year relationship and to adjust to my new situation without fear, anger, or flight. In many ways, it was the hardest period of my life.

Repairing damage is difficult when you don't remember what you did a great deal of the time, or when you look back and realize your actions were motivated by a condition in your brain. There are no excuses or reasons. It simply was what was happening at the time.

I went through three neurologists and a family doctor dealing with the pain and seizures. My persistence finally paid off as I found the correct treatments for me. I felt clear and sane for the first time in years. Then the economy hit the skids and my husband lost his long-time job at the university.

Losing a job is always tough. It's harder during bad economic times. And it's really bad when it happens around Christmas as all of the trappings and trimmings of holiday cheer only deepen the fears and depression.

We've been in tight situations before, but one of us was always working. Our current situation is new to me. The insecurity that had driven me to a high stress, type-A job, kicked into full gear. I had to consider more than the goals of getting off the wrong drugs and working to get better. I had to live with myself knowing that I did not have the ability to improve our situation.

Then the miracle happened for me. My older daughter gave birth to a very large and healthy boy. As I held him and looked into his peaceful and beautiful face, I realized the significance of the Bethlehem story. This is not to imply that I think my grandson is anything more than a normal little boy. It is simply that God gives us amazing gifts each day and so often they go unnoticed.

I had spent the last year mourning my losses: the job and its status; my independence; and my access to money, travel and friends. None of these survived, including most of the friends. I felt stripped of all I had and concerned that the last bit of what my husband and I had worked so hard to maintain, our home, would be the next to go.

Then I looked into my grandson's face so full of trust and peace. As I watched him sleep or rocked him while he made small, sighing noises, I saw clearly I had gained far more than I had lost. I lost my job and my status, but I gained a true insight into myself and the strength to fight a difficult condition by sheer will. I lost my community standing, but I understood that breaking the mold of propriety frees you to be yourself.

I lost my income and designer wardrobe, my color-coded closet and my name brand shoes and purses, but I realized I used these things as armor against a hostile world I never expected to accept me or my intelligence. I now know who I am and what I can accomplish. This had nothing to do with Coach purses or Chanel scarves.

My relationships with my daughters have been restored, along with my relationship with my husband. I now have a confidence in him I had not had before. I understood I needed to give him my trust, faith, and support to find his way, which I hope is one of self-realization and not the path I chose so many years ago.

Over the last few years I also lost my ability to really see God. He has been there for me each step of the way, but when I was in pain or distress it was easy to imagine that I was completely alone. I saw him again in the face of my grandson, illustrating the continuing miracle of life.

This year the Bethlehem story is alive for me. There was no place in the inn for me, not because God had not provided it, but because I wanted more, a condominium maybe. I could not see what was important in life. My grandson has allowed me to understand the love we feel for each other, the love we learn to feel for ourselves, and the love we give to God are the most important things.

Houses, clothes, jobs, even health are all subject to change, but not God's love for each of us. We just have to let Him into our lives to experience it.

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Copyright ©2010 Sharon R. Powell

Sharon Powell is working on a book about her battles with temporal lobe epilepsy.  Her email address is