By Courtney Runyon
Have you ever heard someone’s story and suddenly your problems no longer seem like problems anymore in comparison? You know... those stories you see on the news of some girl overcoming some crazy health phenomenon you’ve never heard of, and you think to yourself, At least I’m not her?
Well... I’m her.
I’m the “poor girl,” in the news story, and the shocking viral video. The friend of a friend, ex-coworker’s daughter, and old acquaintance from high school who was living a normal, happy life when tragedy struck.
I was a 32-year-old free spirit living in Las Vegas when it started. I remember walking out of my bedroom laughing to my then boyfriend about how I needed to start working out because my “old age” made me weaker overnight. But then within weeks, I started mysteriously going paralyzed.
I loved my life. I was head over heels in love, had a great group of friends, and a good job. I meditated daily, exercised constantly, and spent all of my free time either traveling or crafting some type of healthy concoction in the kitchen out of whatever I could find at the farmer’s market that week. And sometimes it was even edible... ish. I danced, laughed, and lived my life in the sunshine. Let’s just say I wasn’t scared to get my hair wet.
Change is hard. Forced, painful, unwanted change is even harder.
When I started to lose control of my body—I. Fought. Hard. I declared I would not allow whatever was happening to my body to win. I changed my diet and consumed every article about healing I could get my increasingly weak little hands on. Six months of tests and 53 different alternative treatments and therapies later—I was finally diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, also known as CIDP.
Both arms were completely paralyzed, and I was having problems walking, but I was so relieved to have answers that my best friend snuck in a bottle of champagne into the hospital to celebrate—which she poured into my mouth while I was hanging upside down laughing from the bed when the nurse wasn’t looking.
When I finally got the diagnosis, I thought the worst was over. In fact, I thought I would start treatment, make a full recovery, and life will be even better than before. But I got worse. I grew weaker and weaker until I was paralyzed from the neck down, barely able to speak.
You never think something is going to happen to you... until it does. You think your health is good... until it isn’t. And you think you’d never survive through your biggest fears... until you do. I feared losing the life I loved, but not as much as I feared losing the future, I always dreamed I’d live. However, in a matter of months, I lost both. I lost my job, car, relationship, and home. And when the doctors said there was nothing else they could do, I moved into my parent’s house, halfway across the country from my friends and the life I loved, so they could feed, bathe, dress, and care for me.
On New Year’s Day in 2018, just days after being released from the hospital, I was sitting in my wheelchair listening to music in my room when I realized something that saved my life.
There was no promise of walking again, and the neurologist called the nerve damage in my hands “significant,” as in permanent. I was 33 years old, paralyzed from the neck down, struggling to speak, breathe, and swallow. I couldn’t feel anything from my elbows and knees down, my face was in the beginning stages of paralysis—and I thought to myself, “This could be really sad.”
But what made me even more sorrowful was the thought of losing years of my life surviving them and wishing they were over, instead of being happy to be alive. It’s not what happens to a person that is sad. We all get hit with a gust of wind that blows out our light sometimes, but what’s sad is when a good hearted, full of life person, never lights back up again. It’s how we respond to life’s trade winds that determines if our story is an action-packed romantic thriller, or a sad tragedy.
In the last days of my life, I want to look back at myself and love who I see—a hero in my own story. A woman who found joy in the midst of her struggle and found new life through her losses. I made it my mission to love my life in a wheelchair just as much as my life before. I thought if I could just find ways to enjoy my new circumstances, then the stress and struggle would go away, and I would be okay.
I started writing with my nose on my phone. It took me 3 days to write 3 paragraphs — but I didn’t care. I was writing. Rainbows and unicorns literally covered my walls, and I always looked like I just got done rolling around in Lady Gaga’s closet. My green wig was always a hit with the older ladies in the nursing home I lived in, and my friends pimped out my wheelchair.
My only focus was to heal and be happy. And truth be told, being in the hospital is like a welcomed hall pass from having to make an effort to be perfect. So... it’s basically like a vacation. I made every joke I could think of, smiled at everyone and their dogs, spent time with my family, and then something magical happened—I was happy.
Courage comes from going into a challenge without fear of losing, and when you’re not afraid of the worst and you can find joy in any situation, you can’t lose. When you can’t lose, you are truly free to live. Making the choice to not allow myself to die inside while I was still alive saved my life. It was the difference between a life of being the “poor girl” whose light went out and being the “inspirational girl” whose fire lights up others in need.
I spent 7 months in a wheelchair and an entire year without use of my arms. Since getting back on my feet again, I have hiked 500 miles across Spain, backpacked solo through Guatemala for 22 days, completed a 120-hour hatha yoga intensive, traveled through 3 continents, and just recently moved to a foreign country into my dream home. I’m closer to my family than ever, and I’ve created a business I’m proud of from the ashes of my gust of wind—all with disabilities. To this day I have limited use of my hands, and it’s very challenging to walk, but I’m living a life I love.
Just because we hit a bump in the road, doesn’t mean we are on the wrong path. There is absolutely nothing about my life that looks the same as it did before my paralysis, but I’ll never get my old life back. You can’t get back what you never lost. I didn’t lose my life, my circumstances just changed. Who we were, who we are, and who we will become are not separate lives—they’re just different chapters of our heartbreaking, courageous, beautiful masterpiece of a life story.
There is joy after a diagnosis, opportunity after disability, and life after life changes.
Every day we have the option to look up and turn the page. There is so much uncertainty and fear in the world right now and it’s paralyzing, but with new circumstances come new opportunities to love your life in ways you’ve never known before.
It’s a choice.
Be your own hero and save your own life.
Courtney Runyon is a motivational speaker, international best-selling author, and transformational coach. As an autoimmune survivor, she has inspired millions through her social media, and her story won an Emmy in 2018. She is currently traveling the world exploring different ways to heal, while organizing speaking gigs, women’s retreats, and coaching fighters how to navigate through mental and physical health struggles. Visit Courtney at www.courtneyrunyon.com.