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What a Pro Cheerleader's Epilepsy Taught Me About Bravery

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I will never forget when I found out that one of the professional cheerleaders I had worked with for years had an invisible illness none of us knew about. I was shocked at how truly invisible it was. With the increase in “entertainment” budgets for professional sports teams, more and more it is becoming standard practice to have bright concert style lighting, including strobe lights, at these events. Professional sports teams have learned that they are really professional entertainers.

When we upgraded our system, an email landed in my inbox – asking that we “slow down” the lights. One of our cheerleaders had a seizure disorder that only a handful of people even knew about. She had hidden it so well that most of the squad didn’t know. But our new lights were a problem, being blasted full force in her face as they were. So with some prompting from her coach, she finally admitted they might be slightly bothersome (she never would flat out complain about it, ever).

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We made adjustments, and I kept in contact with her every few games to make sure it was all good. I think she would rather not have had to say anything, and I could relate to her desire for privacy, and reluctance to make a fuss about it. Then one day out of nowhere I found myself on the unexpected flip side – I collapsed at a game and had a seizure. It wasn’t the lights. It was my medication, or my heart, or any number of other things that were later pinpointed as “possible” factors. But it wasn’t the lights. Neurological testing turned up nothing. Chances are I will never have another. But the fear at the time was very real. The uncertainty was unbearable. And my admiration for her became that much more personal.

She lived with this possibility every waking minute. Yet she was smart, accomplished, caring and talented. It hadn’t stopped her from pursuing her dreams.

That’s when I realized the tremendous courage it must have taken to become a professional cheerleader despite such a condition. To put yourself out there like that, in front of thousands and thousands of people, knowing something could happen. To have to look flawless, act flawlessly and essentially be flawless – while taking medication, avoiding triggers and trying not to give away your secret. I had done it for years with my own depression and anxiety – but this was different. She was the embodiment of bravery and perseverance – and I just hoped I could find even some of that strength in myself.

For months I lived with the uncertainty of whether it would happen again. I was told not to drive, because with no certain cause, there was no certain cure. But the unknown was starting to become more than I could handle, so I reached out to her for reassurance that I wasn’t alone. She was quick to offer support and encouragement, and words of wisdom about how scary it can be. She wanted me to know I’m not alone, and that she was available to talk, or listen. She understood that feeling of floating around in the unknown, waiting for answers. Despite being younger than me, she was a veteran at this.

When eventually it became clear that the cause was likely not neurological in nature, I was definitely relieved. Even the prospect of long term heart medication seemed like nothing in comparison. But I was still living in a land of uncertainty. Would I lose my job? What was happening to me? Is it all in my head?

When I returned to work I was afraid that everyone could see my fear, my “weakness” as I perceived it. But I kept going, I kept working. Even if that meant I was hiding a cardiac event monitor under my shirt, with leads and wires and a belt pack, while making up excuses why I would set off the metal detector, I kept going. Even when I started beta blockers – heart medication that left me practically unable to move I was so tired. I kept going. I wanted to be brave too. I tried to take on what I saw in her. Unflinching determination in the face of life-altering obstacles. So I kept going.

I have to remind myself frequently just how invisible a chronic illness can be – mine, and everyone else’s. But no matter how alone I may feel at times, I know I am never truly alone. There are others out there fighting their own battles, just as silently. Behind the pom-poms and the glitter, there was a warrior right in front of me. An inspiration to us all, to never let anything come between you and your dreams. And an example of how our stories can bring light to someone else’s darkest hours.

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Thinkstock photo via Mike Watson Images.

Originally published: June 26, 2017
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