When I was sixteen, I was bitten by a mosquito. That mosquito infected me with a rare virus that causes swelling of the brain and spinal fluid. I had a stroke, many grand mal seizures, spent three days in a coma, and nine days in the intensive care unit of Phoenix Children’s Hospital. It almost killed me. Towards the end of my stay, a speech pathologist came into my room at the hospital and held up an apple. She asked me what it was… and I couldn’t answer.
The stroke caused damage to the output area of my brain. It most prominently affected my ability to speak and my hand-eye coordination. The recovery process was drawn out, difficult, and embarrassing. At first, I could barely talk. I’d constantly lose my train of thought or get stuck trying to pull a simple word out of my head.
Time and speech rehabilitation proved fruitful. After six months, I probably had two thirds of “the old me” back. As far as I could tell, the last third came slowly, over the next couple years. Around the time I was starting to wonder if I was fully “back,” I had a simple, yet profound realization – I almost died. Everything almost ended for me at sixteen years old, yet I hadn’t really done anything of personal significance. I’d spent my life passively existing, jumping through hoops, and putting things off for someday in the future.
As time passed, I continued to gain unique insight and perspective from my stroke at sixteen. Of all the understanding I’ve gleaned, here are the four most important lessons I learned:
1. Most of us are just passively existing.
Life is this incredible opportunity. Take a step back for a second and look at the bigger picture. Think of the infinite different paths we can take, the places we can go, the billions of unique individuals we can meet, and the vast amount of experiences we can have, it’s absolutely mind-blowing! Yet, most of us squander away this time. We watch Netflix and scroll through social media. Though we may value experiences of greater importance, we seek comfort and convenience above all else.
For nearly two decades of my life, I was passively existing. I was conflict avoidant and afraid to reach beyond my comfort zone. I played too many video games and watched too much television. I always thought I’d get around to living later. When the realization hit me that I narrowly escaped death and had done so little in the time before that moment, it became blatantly obvious that the only time I could ever start living was now.
2. We aren’t guaranteed to live into old age.
Most of us plan our lives with the assumption that we’re going to live to grow old. Brushing so close to death and going through a arduous recovery process made me question not just the belief that I will live to grow old, but whether or not it’s good to assume I will.
Something interesting happens when you no longer assume you have decades upon decades ahead of you – you appreciate the present with such ease. As humans, we appreciate and value things that are scarce. Things like gold, original artwork, and men who actually listen are so valuable because of their very limited nature. So if we don’t make the assumption that we’re going to live to be one hundred, we value our time more, and when we value our time more, we naturally spend our time more wisely.
3. We don’t appreciate anything fully until we lose it.
Do you appreciate your ability to speak? Probably not. In fact, such a thought probably seems funny and has never crossed your mind until now, right? It never crossed mine until the day I couldn’t. That’s just how it works – we don’t appreciate anything until we lose it. Imagine how incredible it would be for someone who’s blind to exist in your shoes for a day. Or how fascinating a day in your shoes would be for someone who lived a hundred years ago with our incredible technological advancements. We are literally engulfed in miracles, but like spoiled children, we’re just so used to them we don’t even notice.
If we ever feel a bit numb or life becomes monotonous, it’s often because we have it so good that we don’t appreciate what we have. We become numb through comfort. At such a point, it’s time to change things up, to try something you’ve never done, or even take away a comfort for while, so you can appreciate it when you go back to it. Step out of routine – you’ll can appreciate it more upon your return.
4. The worst things that happen to us can become the best.
The last lesson I learned from having a stroke at sixteen took much longer to understand than the others. In fact, it hasn’t become clear until recently. That lesson – the worst things that happen to us can become the best. Today, I firmly believe that nearly dying in a hospital bed and suffering a brain damaging stroke was the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m absolutely serious. For years it was the one thing I’d immediately cite as the worst happening of my life, but now I see it gave me this unbelievably valuable insight about life that sent me down a vastly different path.
Over the summer of 2013, as a way of saying thank you for saving my life, I pedalled a bicycle across the United States and raised over $96,000 for Phoenix Children’s Hospital. I’ve been on this great adventure ever since. I backpacked the 221 mile long John Muir Trail, lived on the Big Island of Hawaii, worked as a deckhand on a cruise ship, and I’m currently living in Playa del Carmen, MX learning Spanish and writing for my website. I have such passion. I live life more boldly and openly than I ever thought possible. I owe it all to the stroke of insight I had at sixteen years old.