In my early youth, softball and basketball played a big role in my athletic life. Starting off with tee ball, a good foundation of basic athletic skill (never, ever underestimate Little League…) and (ahem) natural talent, I soon embraced my competitive edge by playing softball and basketball in grade school.
As my competitive self grew edgier and my athletic talent revealed itself, my world became one big practice, game or tournament.My goals were to become a fantastic ballplayer and to continue to follow my big brother, Travis, around, shadowing his every move whether he was playing tag football or shooting hoops with our dad in the driveway.
Let me digress a little at this point to give organized sports the recognition it deserves: Any kind of team sport is a good thing for a child to get into. For me, playing sports boosted my self-confidence, taught me how hard work and dedication pay off, and most of all added happiness to my life. For many, organized sports means becoming part of a team that requires commitment, compromise and dedication. Everyone strives to be good at something, to be someone important and that is what I believe a sport provides: a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Very important for a growing child.
Where was I? Oh yes. My amazing sports career! My first major accomplishment came in 1990 in the form of 2 varsity letters for softball and basketball when I was just a freshman. Unfortunately, I took this honor for granted. You see, by then, I’d already developed a sense of great self-confidence, maybe too great, and I let this award, bestowed upon me, go straight to my head. I lowered myself from a self-confident young girl to a cocky and arrogant athlete. Not something I strived to be, not at all.
As a decorated freshman varsity athlete, I entered the greatest year of my life: my sophomore year. The year that would only elevate me more. I was a rising star and an all-state catcher who was about to go into the Class 5A state championship tournament with a 42-1 team record. We were a young team with a physical and mental strength beyond comparison to other teams. In the first days of the tournament, we played our hearts out gaining us a spot in the semi-finals. Next step: The Championship. We were going to WIN! And nothing could stop our team from plowing through the opposing team and winning the ultimate game! Why not? We were champions!
But, as everyone knows, all good things must come to an end and an end did come. In every sense of the word. As you’ve probably guessed, we didn’t make the finals and we not only lost, but lost big. Soon, I would find out the game wasn’t the only thing I was meant to lose.
Now, let’s rewind: before the tournament with the devastating loss, before the heartbreak of losing and not being able to play in the big Championship game, before we played our hearts out. Let’s go back just a few weeks when I met an unwanted and unbeknownst to me, permanent, visitor: Pain.
Pain nestled in my feet, knees, shoulders, forearms, wrists, and hands. Pain rolled up and tightened my chest. Pain made me cough up blood into my shaking hands. Pain had come and planned to stay. So what did I do about this sudden visitor? I hid from it. I masked it with pain killers so that I wouldn’t have to face telling anyone just how badly this pain made me feel. The last thing I wanted to do was face the pain and allow it to take down everything I’d worked so hard for.
Fast forward to the days after the softball tournament: the pain continued to lay down its stakes in my body, creating the foundation for a more permanent residence while I writhed in agony on the outside. Pain stayed on the inside, allowing me to continue to mask how I felt, until one morning when pain took over completely and forced me to succumb to its presence within my body.
I awoke after a restless night to find my once strong, athletic body lying limp in bed. I was rendered immovable. I couldn’t make my legs go to the right so I could sit up and prepare to stand. My head commanded my body to move with conviction, but it wouldn’t listen. I simply lay still, in a lifeless state, unable to even get out of bed. Fear erupted from me and spilled over. I screamed. “Dad! Dad! Dad! I can’t move!” Moments later I would find myself at Broken Arrow Hospital only to start a mantra of tests that would lead me in many different directions with ever more dreadful possibilities: Multiple sclerosis, Lupus, Mixed connective tissue disease, PANDAS, Fibromyalgia, the list goes on, but the worst of it all was Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Are you kidding? I can’t have any aspect of muscular dystrophy! I grew up watching and supporting the MDA telethon with Jerry Lewis, but could this actually be where my life was headed?
That fateful summer led me to lose 20 pounds and still unable to walk without excruciating pain in my feet. In an effort to alleviate this pain and get me walking again, I decided to see a foot specialist about creating some “orthotics” for my shoes that would hopefully lessen some of the pain in my feet when I stood. The foot specialist took one look at my feet and asked, “Has anyone ever checked you for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)?” Imagine that. One look and he knew. And he was right.
No. No. Please. But, no matter how hard I prayed, it didn’t stop me from tumbling into a dark place where I would be unable to come of out of for quite some time. No matter how hard I hoped, it didn’t stop the doctor from telling me the worst news of my life: I would never play softball again. I would probably be in a wheelchair at 21 years of age. No matter how hard I wished, anger, despair and deep depression set in, pulling me into a place where I was a nobody. I was done. My life was over. My dreams had been stricken just like that. Like someone drawing a black mark across my life. I was so angry the only thing I could do was throw a book of articles (all about me) across the room. I stormed out of the room and in a foreshadowing of what was yet to come: I fell on the pavement outside.
The next year and half was nothing but actions of desperation on my part. I wanted nothing more than to get back to the usual way of life. Despite constant pain surging through my body like elongated electrical shocks, I tried my best to be what everyone wanted me to be again: whether it was an all-star athlete or even the class clown. I strove to be those things, fighting my own body every step of the way.
Forget cheeseburgers and fries, my stomach was full of stuff like Arava, Prednisone, Plaquenil, Vioxx, Oxycontin, Ultram, Demerol, Advil or Tylenol. At one point, I was taking over 21 pills a day! I was desperate to find relief just to get through the day. In addition to the pills, I began receiving cortisone injections in my lower back, legs, feet, and hands. My once athletic, strong and healthy body was now full of nothing but drugs and disease. There are many aspects about my disease that I never disclosed to even my dearest friends. I feared what they would think, how they would react, knowing that Danielle Bryant the Athlete was no more; she’d been replaced by Danielle Bryant, RA patient.
I’ve only heard my father cry twice in my whole life: the one time was in his bedroom shortly after I received my dreaded diagnosis and on New Year’s Day 2005 when he lovingly said, “I just want you to be happy.” My father passed away on March 4th, 2005 of cancer, but long before he was sick, he made sure I was being taken care of, by sending me to my mother’s in Arizona so that she could help get me the extensive medical attention I now required. You see, along with my list of daily medications, the medical bills had piled up even higher and so now, it was time to allow my mother to help financially. At my father’s request, I moved to Arizona to live with my mother, who I’d not had a close relationship with since I was a very young child.
After a month, I was done living in Arizona and all I wanted was to get back to my father, the one that had been there for me since day one. I packed my bags and headed back to Tulsa, OK, anxious to be with my father and brother again, but I would not find solace here. Shortly after my arrival, my father informed me that he was moving to Lake Placid, NY to be with his girlfriend. Rightfully so, as my father’s business had plummeted and his “get rich quick” schemes had not proven successful. As a result, he had debt collectors after him for not paying his bills. I understood my father’s plight, but I’d been in Oklahoma since I was in 6th grade, so I’d actually created a good friend-base here. I longed to stay and continue school.
Perhaps the only bit of luck I thought I had in a long while, I soon came upon a welcomed opportunity in the form of a single mother with two boys who offered me room and board in exchange for being a nanny to her children. What seemed to be a good idea quickly turned into a not-so-good one. As many often do, I began to discover many aspects about this family that I had been naive about prior to my living in their home. I always say you don’t truly know a person until you either travel or live with them. In the short time I’d been there, I soon realized that I would not only be a nanny to the boys, but to their mother as well. I often found myself caring for her after she’d go out at night. This was not what I needed in my life right now, to have to babysit a full-grown woman while she reeled from the effects of alcohol. Not what I needed at all, but I couldn’t see that when one night, I decided to let alcohol numb my pain too. This house I’d chose to live in gave me a place to hide and the alcohol and pain medication gave me the tunnel to crawl into and duck away from everything painful. In this deep, dark place, I sat on the palm of despair and medicated myself in hopes that the fingers would close and trap me forever. My bedroom was my hiding place where I’d found solace, albeit the wrong solace, but it was solace nonetheless. I would read and write when I was alone, but my writing was as desperate as myself:
Spore of Immortality
A whisper so gently to the falling of a tear,
The spore of immortality is somewhat near.
The raising of the moon, the callow of the sun,
makes the day seem deeply young.
You wonder if the grass will ever grow tall.
You wonder about the stars, will they ever fall.
Thoughts of immorality are always near, however
the thought of death seems ever clear.
Two weeks before I was to graduate from high school, another turn of events caused me to fall into a deeper hole than the one I was already in. It all started with an argument I’d had involving a couple of close friends during a powder puff football game. The argument bothered me because at this point, these two people were the closest friends I had. I went home after the argument, feeling defeated and hopeless. I went directly upstairs, poured all my prescription drugs onto a book and one by one, began to swallow each pill, chasing them down with beer. In my hazy state, I illegibly began to write a letter. I felt unloved, unappreciated and the disease had changed my life so much that I felt that I no longer measured up to who people thought I should be. My teammates were off living their dreams and playing on college teams, while I sat here on my bedroom floor, full of drugs and alcohol and full of complete and utter pain, emotionally and physically. Thankfully, I only passed out and awoke the next morning. I drove myself to the nearest emergency room and had my stomach pumped while the doctor said, “God must have been watching over you.” Indeed. He must have. Still, I challenged God’s protection and watchful eye, by continuing to endanger my life with the combination of vodka and pain medication. This addiction would last for a few more years, but as they always say, sometimes you just have to “hit rock bottom” before you can rise again.
In an attempt to reclaim my life, I continued on with school by attending a community college in Tulsa, OK. However, I was still a very lonely, angry individual who continued to drink away my problems, numbing my heart and soul to everything around me.
In June of 1995, a tragic incident occurred that became a turning point for me. The incident left me in a hospital that forced me to look my demons right in the eye. I had hit the bottom and was ready to come up; I doubted I’d survive if I stayed hidden with these demons that threatened to hold me down forever.
Let’s hit the fast forward button again: after the hospital, a brief stay in New Mexico with a dear friend (Lisa DelPrete), I was living once again in Arizona, but this time I was with my big brother, the one I loved and trusted. It was he who would finally give me the “home” I needed and the support I had to have to confront my disease.
I decided to hit my disease head on when I awoke one morning from a dream and the revelation that I was the only one who could change the course of this disease. I was the only one who could prevent Pain from taking over and defining who I was. I was the only one who could change my life and my impending future. That’s a difficult thing to realize: knowing you have to face something so strong on your own first, then accepting that you do have support and love all around you, you just didn’t know it was there before.
My first confrontation with RA began when I walked right into a gym and signed a 3-year contract. Shortly after, I curled my aching fingers around 3-pound dumbbells and with tears streaming down my face; I lifted them, beginning a transformation that would last a lifetime. Everything I did at the gym hurt. I walked on the treadmill and it made my legs feel pain I’d never felt before, I lifted weights and felt my body protest with each contraction of my muscle fibers. I drove home in pain, but this time the pain was real, not masked by drugs and alcohol. It was a real feeling. I’d begun to change, to transform, to rise up, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the sky really was the limit.