By Jenny Wolfrom
My mother always says “everything happens for a reason.” Growing up, I felt like it was the most useless response to whatever I was upset about and she typically pushed me further towards hysteria when she said it. Even earlier in my adulthood, the phrase drove me crazy. As someone who sees things in black and white, the grayness of the phrase was illogical- what were the reasons and why couldn’t I find them?
Unbeknownst to me, my mother used this mantra to help her get her through her own struggles- working through multiple recoveries and lapses of an alcoholic husband, raising three kids on a teacher’s salary, going through a divorce after 35 years of marriage, the untimely death of her partner, etc.
I know now that my mother is a quiet warrior.
She has faith that everything happens for a reason and that each of her battles would eventually serve a purpose- that the lessons learned and the calluses formed would protect her from the friction of life.
The “everything happens for a reason” philosophy is easy, even cliché, to say during hard times, but it is very hard to live. It requires you to stop asking why, it requires you to forgive those who have hurt you, and it requires you to accept that life is full of things we can’t control. While I’m still not a fan of the phrase, the past five years of my life have taught me that in order to make it through the big stuff, I have to accept that there is a purpose behind the struggles, even if that purpose takes a while to surface.
I had my first tangible taste of death on my 30th birthday. I was visiting my brother and his wife in Peru while they were on a year-long road trip from Jackson, WY to the tip of South America. The story is a long one, but now I can say involved being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were attacked in our vehicle, chased through the dark, beaten with rocks and lumber, slashed with leather livestock whips, and held at gunpoint. After a night of terror, they lined us up in front of three men with guns in the early hours of the morning. We said our goodbyes to each other, thinking undoubtedly that it was the end for all of us. This experience was something I had never anticipated in my life and I had no preparation for coping with. Standing there at gunpoint for no logical reason, facing death and saying goodbye to my brother while thinking about my parents losing their children is a moment I never want to live again and a feeling I never want to feel again, it is a moment and a feeling that inherently changed something in me forever.
After the attack, the most common question was “why did this happen?” This question haunted me for months. Why did this happen? I was filled with an inexplicable feeling of guilt and anxiety because I did not have an answer. After struggling with guilt, anger, sadness, and fear, it became evident that I had two choices:
1) I could let the experience ruin my love for travel, rob me of my spirit adventure, replace my laughter with anger, and ultimately waste my life trying to understand and avoid things completely out of my control, or 2) I could focus on the things I could control like my health, job, relationships, and attitude.
I made a lot of changes that year- introspective, selfish changes that I felt (and still do) were justified based on my experience. I ended relationships and friendships, got serious about my health, pursued a fitness career, started racing my mountain bike, and focused on forgiveness. I realize how cliché it all sounds, but what happened in Peru was a catalyst for many positive changes in my life which have contributed significantly to my current happiness.
While Peru motivated me to live a better life, I didn’t know the real answer to the “why”
until I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 35, three weeks before my wedding date.
When I received the diagnosis from my Doctor, my first thought was “I’m going to die.” Slightly dramatic, but also valid when you hear the word cancer. The same flashes I had at gunpoint in Peru came to mind- my parents, my future husband, my life. It was the same feeling of extreme sadness and fear. Luckily, the type of cancer I had is generally very curable, although the treatment for it can have long-lasting, life-changing effects. My cancer was fairly advanced and required a full removal of my thyroid, removal of my lymph nodes on the right side of my neck, and follow-up treatment with Radio Active Iodine to kill any remaining cancer-carrying thyroid cells.
Cancer drove me crazy, or should I say the surgery to cure my cancer drove me crazy. All the things that made up my identity were threatened. A significant part of my identity is being a strong, fast, powerful athlete, specifically, a mountain biker. Losing my thyroid to cancer made me gain 20 pounds in a matter of weeks, my vocal cords were permanently paralyzed in surgery making it next to impossible to breathe with an elevated heart rate, and my energy levels dropped to zero without the natural production of hormones. Being permanently Hypothyroid feels like you’re about two stiff martinis deep and trying to pretend that you’re sober. Talk about my worst nightmare- I was overweight and I had no voice, no power, no focus, and no energy. But, I didn’t have cancer anymore and I also had the advantage of knowing how to work through trauma without getting lost in the futility of asking why.
There are a few things that people ask you when you have cancer. One of the big questions is “why”- is it genetic, is it from what you eat, drink, breathe, or is it from chemicals in your home cleaners. Similar to Peru, there was no answer for why for me. There isn’t a specific cause for thyroid cancer, it just happens. Maybe down the road, similar to Peru, I’ll understand the real “why” behind going through cancer.
For now, I’m grateful to be alive. If you google “life after cancer” you’ll find inspiring and tear-jerking blogs, articles, podcasts, and videos about people who have drastically changed their life after cancer or another life-changing illness. While I applaud those survivors, and I understand their desire to change, that isn’t where I ended up after cancer. First, I already did that after Peru so I was already living I life I loved. Second, while I still have trouble accepting my mom’s mantra that “everything happens for a reason”, I understand now that life is a fight and that you can learn a lot by accepting your challenges head-on and working through them gracefully without getting distracted by anger, fear, and blame.
As an endurance mountain biker, I now find solace in grinding through long, challenging races. The mental and physical coping skills that I learned from recovering from Peru and from cancer are put to good use on the course. Suffering 100 miles of self-inflicted physical discomfort seems easy compared to what I’ve been through and, for now, physical challenges give me a temporary answer to the why and give my past struggles a purpose. For now, until the next inevitable big life event, it’s the reason everything happened.
Jenny grew up in the rural mountains of Maine skiing, running, and playing various sports. After finishing college in Boston, she spent a few years in the city working in marketing and weekend-warrioring to ski and mountain bike. Missing the mountains and rural-life, Jenny moved to Kodiak, AK where she spent two years working for a non-profit and playing in the Alaskan wilderness. A Jackson resident since 2011, she now spends her free time training for endurance mountain bike races and trail running in the summer, and downhill and backcountry skiing in the Tetons in the winter. Jenny is passionate about being in the mountains and helping others gain strength and confidence to get out and explore. She is the Director of Advancement and Engagement at the Jackson Hole Land Trust and is also a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, which she puts to use as a strength coach at Wright Training and Revolution Indoor Cycling.
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