“Miss Theresa, I am so sorry but the chips are finished today”. This is what the very kind gentleman, Daniel, who runs the mini-restaurant downstairs from my hostel room in Ghana says to me when he has sold out of French fries, which happens to be one of the few things I can eat in Ghana without becoming ill (I have a sensitive stomach so do not blame this entirely on the local cuisine). When something is finished in Ghana, it means sold out, gone, no more. Like many of the small Ghanaisms I have heard, I find it charming. But as I get ready to head back to Ghana after a 5-week visit back home I have had some time to process my experiences thus far and that particular term is significant. I will explain why in a bit.
To be honest, when I left last August to begin this adventure I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I felt like I had my life together but what I did not know or acknowledge was that I was coming apart at the seams. I looked in the mirror and saw very little that I liked very much, but could not admit it. I was 49 years old and twenty pounds heavier than I wanted to be (this I did know but was not really doing anything about it). The main career that I have had as a work-at-home mom was drawing to an end (my youngest is a Junior in High School). My twenty-four-year “happy” marriage was slipping between my fingers like sand but I was in denial. My father had recently passed away, which shook me more than I had realized. I knew I felt unhinged a bit, but ignored it. I was in school full-time studying for my BS in Women’s Studies but really had no idea why, other than I needed to take some steps toward doing something, anything to get myself out of the rut I found myself more and more entrenched into.
When I applied for and was accepted into the California State University International Program (CSU-IP) and it all started coming together I felt like it was serendipity because it had been a dream I have had since High School to study abroad. I had thought when I got accepted that the universe was telling me that it was my turn to have something go well and my time to focus on me more than everyone else. I knew that somehow, I would find a path forward by grabbing onto this chance. I just knew that I was part of something much bigger than myself, bigger with a capital B. I was part of a plan alright but I did not know what it was, not yet.
The month after I was accepted into the program and a mere 8 weeks before I left, I began having problems with my vision. My hand felt numb all the time and I was having difficulty typing and getting through my final papers for the end of the semester. Since I had trouble with my vision in the past and this was my primary issue I went to the Ophthalmologist. She ordered an immediate MRI for the next day. I was a bit rattled by the urgency. Three days later on May the 1st 2017 she called me and said that I had multiple lesions on my brain and most likely had Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The Neurologist confirmed the next day. For those of you who do not know what MS is, it is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. It is not terminal but there is no cure and can affect any part of my body that my central nervous system controls (everything). Attacks can strike at any time and each attack does a little more damage than the last. To say that this news rocked my world would be an understatement.
Still though, I knew that I just had to go to Ghana. I was immediately put on medication to help reduce the number of MS attacks I would have in the future. I was concerned though about traveling for so long and so far away, so I discussed it with my Neurologist. I asked him, what if something happens while I am there? He just smiled and said, “Call me”. Then I asked what should I look for, how will I know if I have another attack?—- I love my Neurologist because he is so Zen, he just smiled at me and said, “Theresa do not look for anything, just go and live your life”—-He had an excellent point. I could spend my life with this disease worrying about every sensation in my body, or I can just live.
I still had this unacknowledged growing internal panic feeling within me but packed my bags anyway, told my family goodbye and got on a plane to Africa. I was terrified. I cried from security check in at San Francisco airport, where my husband and two of my sons were waving goodbye, all the way to Ghana. I wondered what on Earth did I think I was doing? Why did I feel the absolute need to make this trip? It made no sense for me to go given all that was going on. But went I did.
When I got there, I was quite overwhelmed. Culture shock was in full swing and the first 6 weeks was a grueling schedule to complete a culture intensive class. There was little time to think or reflect on anything. Then school began and things began to settle in. I slowly found a routine. I had no friends to speak of beyond the casual relationships I had with my fellow CSU-IP classmates but I was not that surprised, because I was most of my classmate’s parent’s age. Who wants to go to college and hang out with their mother? As a result, I spent a great deal of time alone. Alone with the panicky and frantic internal feeling that had traveled all the way to Ghana with me, alone with my thoughts more often than I cared for. Surrounded by 30,000 students here at the university I felt lonely. However, I needed that solitude but still did not know it.
I thought I had a handle on my disease and was coping well with that. I thought I was in Africa to fulfill a life-long dream. What I did not come even close to having a handle on however, was my personal dis-ease. Dis-ease with myself, my marriage, my path forward, with everything in my life. In this foreign and very uncomfortable environment I slowly realized that everything I thought I had going right in my life, wasn’t.
Not long before I left I got a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think” (funny how life sends you messages everywhere should you choose to see them). Something inside of me knew I needed a major paradigm shift. That saying was more appropriate for me than I had realized at the time. That Bigger than me thing knew that I needed to be in an environment that was completely unfamiliar, I needed to be alone and I needed to get to know the me that I had buried under everybody and everything thing else in my life back home, where it was easy to hide from myself.
So, I journaled, I meditated, I began doing yoga several times a week and slowly I realized something about myself. The Theresa that I had so carefully crafted, nurtured and worked so hard to maintain was finished. I was not sure who the real Theresa was but I was never going back to the Theresa that left California months before. This realization spurred in me what I call the Phenomenon phenomenon. I am talking about the movie with John Travolta made in 1996 (watch it if you haven’t because it is great) where the main character finds himself with his mind racing faster and faster. He becomes more and more frantic until one day, he looks up and sees the trees gently blowing back and forth in the breeze and a calmness settles over him. He found his pace and his frantic racing mind calms down. Realizing that the old Theresa was finished had the same effect on me. It was like watching those trees blow gently in the wind. Inside, slowly, I found my own pace and as such, my own peace.
I have no idea what the next four months in Ghana will hold for me, or even what the universe has planned for me, but it should be interesting to find out.
Peace to you,