Ever since I can remember, I was creating things. I would chisel hotel soap bars into sculptures or I would draw cartoons about my imaginary friends. I found it easier to explain things visually then I did using words. Little did I know at age 22, I would encounter the terrifying prospect of losing my vision, my career and my sanity.
It was May. My hectic photography season was just ramping up. I had recently returned from the Middle East photographing humanitarian work, and I was excited about all the jobs I was about to land. I’ve always been a “Fake it ‘til you make it” type, which had worked out well for my career. Internally, however, it took a toll. Phrases like “push through it,” “hustle” and “should” defined my vocabulary — also, how I defined my everyday existence. I prided myself on being busy and not having time. In my mind, that meant I was succeeding at life.
I was at my photography studio editing when I noticed tingling pain in my left hand. I shrugged it off, took a deep breath, and kept on editing as the room went dark at sunset. Eventually, I called my attentive husband and said, “I think something is wrong.” I got in my car, barely able to hold the steering wheel as I drove to the closest urgent care. By this time, my left hand was stiff and burning with pain. My arm was frozen.
“This is so inconvenient,” I thought to myself. “I need to be getting emails done.”
My urgent care visit quickly turned into a multitude of confused doctors, MRIs and CT scans, and finally a small waiting room as we waited for answers. I sat in the uncomfortable hospital waiting room chair next to my husband, scrolled through my iPhone to-do list and tried not to let my mind obsess over what could be happening to my body. And then:
The front desk nurse called, telephone in hand, waving for me. He handed me the chunky hospital phone with the doctor on the other line. Sliding me a pen and some paper, he looked at me with concern.
“Hello? This is Bethany.” I was calm. I was fine. Let’s move on with life. Tell me I’ll wake up and be better tomorrow.
“Hi, Bethany. We got your imaging results and everything looks fine… well, besides the tumor in your brain.”
Uh. Tumor? My brain?
“I’ll be having a neurosurgeon reach out to you tomorrow to talk about surgery plans to get the tumor removed.”
The doctor was so melancholy cool I felt as though I should reciprocate the same emotions, even though I was internally freaking out.
I hung up the phone, asked the front desk nurse how to spell M…eh-ninn-gionah, and walked back to my husband waiting patiently. “Everything okay?” he asked, hopeful.
“Um, I think so?” I said. “I just have a brain tumor.”
The next six months were the worst of my life. Spinal taps, non-epileptic seizures every 30 minutes, throwing up, passing out, not being able to walk without assistance and failing vision. The tumor was on my optic nerve, between my spinal cord and brain, threatening to destroy my vision, mobility and, ultimately, my life.
I went from being a high-functioning business owner to a pain-ridden, dependent, scared girl. I had my breakdowns. I got angry. No one tells you what to do when you’re young, newly married and get slapped with the news that there’s a brain tumor growing inside of you. But honestly, when you feel so weak and unlike yourself, that’s when you do some deep thinking.
What was the life I had built for myself? Who are the people around me? Was I living my life the way I dreamed of, the life I imagined as a young girl carving my dreams into soap bars? In those darkest days, I clung to anything that was light. I slowly began to rebuild myself into the person I wanted to emulate ten years earlier.
No one tells you what to do when you’re young, newly married and get slapped with the news that there’s a brain tumor growing inside of you.
First and foremost, I needed to rid myself of the guilt of never measuring up. No longer was able to work, I had to defer all my shoots to other photographers around the area. That was one of the most painful things — even compared to the spinal tap. Was I enough, even without my big photo shoots and fancy work meetings and killer Instagram posts? Even deeper, what if I lost my vision because of this surgery, never able to shoot or visually create again? Was I enough? Where was my true identity?
I had to let others help me. After years of priding myself of always being “on,” I took the back seat and was definitely “off.” Letting people help you goes beyond you. When you receive, you give up control and allow others to be their best self by letting them thrive in love. Countless people brought me flowers, sent cards and covered me with blankets. All I could do in return was say, “thank you.” That would have to be enough.
September 20th, my surgery date, inched closer and closer and peace grew over me like wildflowers. I chuckled over my previous anxiety about emails when, just four months later, I was about to have brain surgery and not a bit of me was scared. I had come to terms with myself. What comes, comes, my heart whispered. All I can do is have peace and trust that I will be okay, sight or no sight.
My seizures dissipated as I learned to actually feel my emotions instead of tucking them away because they were inconvenient. For the first time, I didn’t dislike myself. I stopped putting expectations on myself and erased the word “should” from my vocabulary.
There I was, sitting in the bathroom tub at 3am the morning of my surgery, scrubbing away any germs that could cause infection. My phone was dinging with texts and messages from friends saying they were praying for me and that I was going to be okay. My husband sat there, washing my hair between the MRI leads, looking at me the way he did on our wedding day. Peace washed over me as warm as the soapy water washing over my skin.
It was going to be okay.
When you receive, you give up control and allow others to be their best self by letting them thrive in love.
And now, here I am, three months post surgery, stronger and softer than I have ever been. I can see. I am alive. I am thankful. It’s not about the achievements or the awards or the hype, trust me.
When you are sitting in a bathtub, scrubbing yourself down, what do you want your post-surgery treasures to be? My husband, our friends who surrounded us like a village, my enjoyment of creating and not having to showcase, the bravery to be okay with myself.
In the end, this is what we have left.
Images via Beth Cath