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Climbing Life’s Ladders

Climbing Life’s Ladders

by Erich Perry Siebert

erichsiebertA burst of light blinded my eyes for a few seconds as I climbed out of the darkness of the dusty wooden attic. A soothing breeze brushed against my face as I stepped off the ladder after climbing 10 feet. It was a sunny day so clear that I could see castles in the distance just like the one where I was standing. Just as I absorbed the rich blue skies above large green hills, I turned to find two out of five people in my group removing their equipment.

As an eighth grader, I was the youngest in the delegation of People to People Student Ambassadors travelling through the United Kingdom. We scaled the ladder together for the opportunity to rappel down the wall. Two turned back. I kept going. Since then, I have drawn on the drive of that moment.

Three years later, I decided I had to exert the strength of that moment while facing the challenges of ADHD. The more I agonized through three months of therapy and four different types of medication, I realized that there was not a magic pill for me and my life completely turned around. After much thought, I decided to create an independent study on the impact of holistic well being including mental, physical, and nutritional health on the ADHD experience. I set out to actually live the study with a healthier lifestyle, involving a more plant based diet, high intensity workouts, and practiced meditation.

The creation of the plan took the level of dedication I carried through the tall, stone passage, carrying heavy nylon harnesses in my arms a few years ago. It was quite dark and the whole inside of the castle was built with solid brick. Two guiding lanterns replaced any natural light. I didn’t feel nervous, but I was very excited.

Yet, it was a long climb that seemed like it would never end from the spiraling wooden staircase to the ladder. At the top, we stopped to prepare for the trip down the wall. When my name was called to descend, I felt startled. I cautiously made my way to the rope. The closer I came to the edge, I began to feel more and more nervous. I fastened my helmet and one of the instructors opened the trapdoor from the cherry wood ceiling. A ladder fell down to us.

As I finally reached the edge of the castle, I looked down and stared 90 feet down.I could feel my heartbeat throughout my whole body. Every sense in my body kept telling me to walk away, but I couldn’t. I knew if i had made it this far, I was not quitting, no matter how terrifying it seemed.

I now see a finish line in my independent study that resembles my feeling of accomplishment at the bottom of the wall. The research involved interviewing a nutritionist, meditation coach, and a physical trainer as well as reading articles, books , and viewing documentaries. Through my new, carefully designed lifestyle, I started to notice a huge difference and a positive impact on my grades.

When I look at ADHD in the big picture, I don’t see it as a barrier anymore, I see it as a strength. In May of 2014, Forbes’ magazine published an article about the relationship between entrepreneurs and ADHD. The article described ADHD as “the entrepreneur’s superpower.” I learned that entrepreneurs with ADHD hold certain qualities that are necessary to succeed in the business world, including creativity, multitasking, risk taking, a heightened level of energy, and most importantly, resilience–the very factor that led to a successful journey down the ladder.

Erich Perry Siebert, a graduate of Frances W Parker High School, is a freshman at American University.

Journey to a Strong Back

Journey to a Strong Back

by Kyle Borden

kylebordenHappy birthday, Kyle! Really? Two days after I turn 16, I feel like an old man. I am lying in a hospital bed. A nurse shorter than my younger sister injects the IV into my vein. What if I can never walk again? What happens to basketball?

“Are you ready to go night-night?” The nurse’s tone is fit to entice a two-year-old to go to bed. Her voice freaks me out, but only for a few seconds. My eyelids begin to feel like sand bags– three, two, one, out! Back surgery begins.

Ten hours later, I wake up and my body feels like a lead block. I cannot move and have no idea where I am. I look over my right shoulder and see my family.

A day later, another nurse stands where I saw my family when I woke up.

“Time to get out of bed!”  she says with excitement in her voice. Sounding like a nursery school teacher trying to move a class of kindergartners, she pushes a grandma walker towards me. “On three, you’re going to have to sit up and turn your body.” She counts to three and I try sitting up. It feels like I have a bullet lodged into my spine.

“We‘re going to take some steps today!” I can barely sit up by myself. How am I supposed to get out of bed, let alone walk? I struggle to sit up and slowly edge my way out of bed. What used to take seconds turns into a five minute process. I grab the walker and grimace as I stand. My legs are so weak that they feel like two pieces of uncooked spaghetti. One inch at a time; that’s how big my steps are. First stop is the bathroom. I turn and looked in the mirror. I haven’t seen my reflection in two days. The man in the mirror is skinny and famished. I feel like less of a person. Over the next year, I would learn a lot about myself and discover ways to conquer my flaws.

The pain started Christmas Eve of my freshman year. After a game, cramps tore through my back as if something were pulling it to the floor. The agitation continued after games; I began seeing doctors who all had different ideas. One said it was a nerve problem. No, it was a joint problem. How about a nerve and joint problem? These diagnoses went on for over a year. Not knowing what was wrong killed me. I thought I was going to have to give up basketball.

Finally, my parents took me to a surgeon. “Lift your leg.” I lifted two inches off the ground and winced. “You need surgery.” I was fifteen at the time; that was the last thing I wanted to hear.

Overcoming spondylolysis, a spine defect, changed my life. Doctors placed titanium rods into my back. After three days in the hospital, I spent the remainder of the summer indoors. Each morning started with three different painkillers– none of them worked. Steps were my worst enemy– I faced fifteen of them daily.

The only rehab for me was walking. While it was dangerous for me to walk on inclines, go up steps, or sit down too fast, being able to walk flickered some hope into my heart. I would never take another step for granted.

The words, “You need surgery,” reframed my entire life. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason in this world. This was the very beginning of a stormy rain cloud with that silver lining. My recovery process allowed me to see the world through a new lens. I would not take back what happened for the world, because then I would cease to exist. I would be someone else. Every high and every low made…me.

Kyle Borden, a 2015 graduate of The Hun School of Princeton, just began his freshman year at Franklin and Marshall College.

Fit for Me

Fit for Me

By Marlena Rubenstein

IMG_0414At 12, I could barely run across the gym without gasping for breath. So if someone had predicted that I would one day run 3.1 miles continuously, I would have rolled my eyes and mumbled, “Yeah, right.” That image was as plausible to me as the idea of playing “Ode to Joy” on the moon.

Back on Earth, lunch in a middle school cafeteria is hell by definition; my classmates made it worse. Carrying a plate filled with questionable-quality cafeteria food, I passed girls sitting at bare tables. As I silently scarfed down my food, I overheard nearby conversations: “Well, since I’m going to a party tomorrow, I’ll look better if I don’t eat anything today.” I opened my mouth to correct the error of their thinking…and then immediately decided to stay quiet. I knew that these girls didn’t want my input, and I wanted to avoid conflict.

I endured endless bullying throughout middle school because of my weight. The advice I always received was: “Don’t let the bullies get to you,” but in following that advice I disregarded the origin of the bullying – my size.

I cannot remember a single visit to our family pediatrician that did not include a lengthy, worried lecture about my weight; and though I agreed, I wanted someone to wave a magic wand and solve the problem for me.

In 10th grade I realized that my fairy godmother wasn’t coming, and that my health deserved my full time attention. So I flew across the country to spend six weeks in the summer at a place that helps kids like me, and I returned home forever changed.

My typical day at Wellspring began at 7am with ‘Mama’ Christine, my favorite counselor, knocking on my door. By 7:30am, we were downstairs stretching on the grass for our pre-breakfast hike. In addition to the standard goal of reaching 10,000 steps per day, we went around the circle and gave a personal goal, which had to be S.M.A.R.T. – simple, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Whether we were running laps or kickboxing, we kept moving until lights out at 10pm. Silently, we would each walk to our rooms, close the doors, and collapse on our beds.

The end-of-camp 5K was on the day before my 17th birthday; it was mandatory to complete, but campers set their own paces.

The gun boomed, and dozens of people shot down the track. I jogged slowly, my breathing in time with my footsteps. I saw those who had sprinted off slow down or stop entirely, gripping their sides and heaving. I steadily passed them all.

At the 1 mile mark, my nutritionist Mia stood at the water table where runners stalled their inevitable return to the monotony of jogging. “Looking great, Marlena! Wanna stop for some water?”

“No thanks, I’m not slowing down. See you at the finish line!” I called out over my shoulder, more determined than ever to make it to the end. I completed the 3.1 miles in 36 minutes and 50 seconds, and have never felt a stronger sense of accomplishment. This race put the sugar-free icing on the fat-free cake of my transformation at Wellspring.

I did not change my life because others said I should. I made my decision in my own way, and crossed the finish line as a new person. Every aspect of my life has changed because of the discovery of willpower that I never knew I had.

On the plane home, I worried that others wouldn’t see the new Marlena. To my delight, I was wrong. Walking through the door, my little brother enveloped me in a hug and exclaimed with genuine surprise: “Marlena, I can wrap my hands around you now!”

He would soon realize that my change in size was only the tip of the iceberg.

Marlena Rubenstein, a 2014 graduate of The Hewitt School, will be a freshman at American University in the fall.

Seeing the Game of Life Differently

Seeing the Game of Life Differently

by Blair Weintraub

unnamedAs much as I remember my first seizure, my last one was even more memorable. I was 12 and it was one of the first times my parents trusted my sister and me to be left home alone. I was curled up in my bed watching a movie when I felt the familiar tingling of my body and numbness of my tongue, and I immediately recognized what was about to happen. I tried to grab my phone, but it was too late––the numbness enveloped my body and the twitching took over. Like always, my brain was fully conscious, but lacked control.

Focus on getting help, I kept telling myself, as I spent all my energy on unsuccessfully attempting to roll off the bed to attract my sister’s attention. Breathing was harder than usual. The severity of the attack was worse than ever. My doctors had promised I was seizure-free, yet I was feeling the same fear and hopelessness I remembered too well. It felt hours had passed until my sister finally rushed to my side. She stared at me with a look of fear and confusion then grabbed my phone and called our parents, who instructed her to put a cold washcloth on my forehead and to not leave my side until they got home. She held me and whispered into my ear, telling me to focus on breathing and that everything would be okay.

I had my first seizure when I was five. Doctors eventually prescribed strong medications that made me tired and dizzy. I could only play sports leisurely. My dreams of following in my mother’s footsteps as a squash junior champion were shattered because I would be unable to train. Reading and photography became my new outlets. I sat behind my camera as I photographed the sport games I so eagerly wanted to play. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone I had epilepsy because I thought it would make me different and, at that point, different was bad.

Ironically, epilepsy helped me to appreciate my life. I had to spend many nights in hospitals with kids much sicker than I was. These kids couldn’t go to school or socialize outside the hospital. We spent most of our time playing the board game Life. Unlike the game’s characters, many wouldn’t graduate college, marry or have kids. They lived through that board game. I once shared a hospital room with Eric, a boy my age who was near death. He would do nothing but stare at the TV all day, and sometimes cry.  He would never leave his bed, which made me see the frivolity of my complaints about lack of competitive sports or late bedtimes.

I have come a long way since my last epileptic attack.  When I was 15, I was officially declared healthy and was taken off all medications. I could finally play sports competitively. Now, I see the board game Life as a constant reminder to appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to actually live.

To make up for all the school I missed battling epilepsy, and to compete against the kids who have been playing squash since they could walk, I often had to study and train twice as hard. It might be too late to have a top ten ranking, but this hasn’t discouraged me from being the best player possible. Having to face seizures and their implications as a child has made me stronger, giving me the fierceness to fight for what I want and the determination to overcome obstacles. I’m no longer embarrassed to tell people I had epilepsy. I no longer see being different as a bad thing. Whenever I feel disheartened after losing a big match or getting a bad grade, I remember the tingling feeling in my tongue, the lack of control over my body, and think about how far I’ve come since then.
Blair Weintraub, a 2014 graduate of the Brentwood College School in Vancouver, will be a freshman at Bates College in the fall.

Raising My Voice

by Kayla McCloud

I replaced my traditional Catholic school uniform with a shirt that read: “Some dudes marry dudes. Get over it.” It was the monthly tag day when students are not required to wear uniforms. Once I arrived at school, I immediately noticed the stares and heard not-so-subtle whispers from passers-by. Walking to a special Spirit Day breakfast, one of the school’s toughest teachers stopped me: “That shirt is not allowed. Do you have a sweatshirt or jacket you can put on?”

“Yes,” I obeyed without putting up a fight. I changed into a Union Catholic sweatshirt. Somehow, later in the school day, I mustered up the courage to take it off. Yet I carried the sweatshirt around with me just to be safe in case I ran into any strict teachers.

I did not encounter any more problems that day, but I was angry with myself for not standing up for my beliefs. I had subconsciously become that little girl again–the girl who was afraid to speak up, the girl who did not have a voice at school.  At the age of five, I was diagnosed with Selective Mutism, an anxiety disorder in which a child who is normally capable of speech is unable to speak in certain situations, or to certain people. I was comfortable talking to members of  my immediate family and close friends. Yet at school, I did not talk to anyone. I remember the first day of first grade. I sat down at a table and a little boy introduced himself to me, “Hi I’m Devin. What’s your name?” I waved at him, and remained silent. He was waiting for a reply, but he never got one. His face was filled with confusion. He asked me “Why aren’t you talking?” That was just another question unanswered. A girl sitting across from us jumped in: “She isn’t going to talk to you. That’s the girl that doesn’t talk.”

With the help of intensive and interactive therapy at age seven, I gradually began to speak in school.  On the first day of high school, I witnessed how far I had come. Full of nerves, I walked into my freshman homeroom. It was completely and utterly silent. You could hear a pin drop in the room. I sat in an empty seat next to a girl whom I had never met before. When I sat down, we made eye contact and I whispered “Hi.” Her face lit up and she murmured, “Hey, I’m Julie.”  We continued talking until homeroom was over.  Our conversation was the only indication of life in the room. Somehow, I put my voice to use that day when everyone else remained silent with the first-day-of-high-school jitters.

Through my struggles with communicating, I learned how important it is to be heard and understood. I recognized that language, whether spoken aloud or written on a T-Shirt, was powerful. My struggles have sensitized me to people who are shy. If I see a person sitting alone in a room, the extroverted side of me takes over and I go to introduce myself. Nevertheless, there are times when I feel like that silent five-year-old girl again. Specifically, the day I was forced to hide the shirt that expressed my views, which some found controversial. Like a child hiding under a blanket, I hid under the blanket of mutism.

If I could relive that day, I would not let my fear win that battle over the warring tensions inside me. I would refuse to be silent. After my experience with Selective Mutism, I promised myself that I would always have a voice. No matter what, I will be heard. I regret breaking that promise over a shirt that was an expression of my true voice.

Kayla McCloud is a freshman at George Washington University and a 2012 graduate of Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

Seeing Optimism

by Khiana Lowe

At the age of seven, I realized I was blind. Before then, I thought seeing clearly through only one eye was normal. When I closed my left eye, everything around me became a blur of colors and shapes. I told my parents and my mother took me to see an optometrist the following Tuesday. She missed a meeting at the World Trade Center. That Tuesday was September 11, 2001.

I see 9/11 differently than most Americans. September 11th revealed the depths of human tragedy and depravity, but it also reminds me that positive outcomes can result from negative situations. My blindness protected my mother while the devastation of that day united America. The impact of 9/11 was permanent while my blindness was not. The optometrist told me that I would never see in my right eye, but my mom and I refused to believe him. He said there was a slight chance I could improve my vision by covering my left eye for two hours a day but that the difference in my vision would likely be insignificant. Regardless, we decided to try. Covering my eye proved to be bothersome. I was embarrassed to leave my house while wearing the eye patch. However, I understood, even at the age of seven, that my vision was worth the discomfort of the patch. Those hours proved valuable; my vision improved from 20/400 to 20/30 in three years. This instilled my sense of delayed gratification as I learned that optimism is most effective with action. I face risks looking beyond the potential for failure. Rather, I see the success that hard work can bring.

I realized I lacked a fear of risk during my junior year when I ran to become regional treasurer of Jack and Jill Eastern Region. I was treasurer of my local chapter of Jack and Jill, a service organization of black families, but wanted to enlarge my experience. I knew that it would take an enormous effort since I knew only a handful of people outside of my chapter of 13 teens and there would be 600 voters at the Teen Conference in Baltimore.

My chapter and I were a team, meeting for hours to design T-shirts and fliers and plan my campaign strategy. While campaigning, I met over 500 people and heard many promises of votes and although I had written my speech at the last minute, I was confident in my chances of winning. When the results appeared on the screen, my mouth dropped. I lost by more than 80 percent of the vote. To further my embarrassment the frightening results were displayed in front of everyone. I was devastated. I believed I had worked hard but I learned that my competitor had spent months on her speech; I had worked hard but she had worked harder. Although upset, I realized the defeat of the election could not erase the abundance of new friends I met and the presentation and organization skills I acquired during the campaign. I decided to utilize those skills and take another risk by running for treasurer of my school’s student government a few months later. This time I won. I took more time crafting my speech ahead of time in running for school treasurer rather than focusing solely on other parts of my campaign. This year, my school’s student government is much more active than in previous years and we have already raised over $1,400 for local charities.

My defect in vision shaped my life by enabling me to see more than one perspective in any situation and grasp the bigger picture. My mother’s safety on 9/11 is more or less luck but having vision in both eyes is not. It’s easy to accept failure but turning it into success requires fortitude.  I could have easily accepted that I would be blind in one eye. Instead, I decided to work for it just as I worked to become treasurer after losing that first election. Optimism comes in two forms, seeing what good can come from luck and seeing what good can come from working hard. I choose the latter

Khiana Lowe is a freshman at Stanford University and a 2012 graduate of Long Island Lutheran High School.