By Leah Guaglione
I can be a little neurotic at times, I’ll admit. Like when I shut off the lights, I wonder if I might go blind. I also feel panicky sleeping alone in the dark, and at 27 I’m embarrassed to confess that it’s not unusual for me to come home at 2 a.m. running madly into the house like an axe murderer is chasing me.
While this psychosomatic temperament has always had the potential to give me nightmares, it also helps me create beautiful works of art.
In fact, at 18 I heard God whisper to me on a plane ride home from Florida: “Your gift is your mind.”
I thought He was referring to my imagination, storytelling, or songwriting abilities, but after a car accident and traumatic brain injury in 2015 that statement took on a whole new meaning for me—especially regarding the spiritual discipline of meditation and my beautiful mind throughout its recovery process.
Flashback to February 2015. It’s 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. Three weeks into the diagnosis of my concussion that occurred on Christmas Eve.
I’ve already puked three times. Turns out the SSRI prescribed to me by my family doctor has side effects of nausea and insomnia, complicating my dizziness, noise sensitivity, light sensitivity, and headaches—symptoms that came after I slammed my head on the window during the car accident.
I’ve lost fifteen pounds since that night. I’m facedown in sunglasses on the bathroom rug, unable to pick up my own body. Somewhere between exhaustion and panic I say to my mom, “If something doesn’t change, I’m
going to die.”
Fast forward three months later, and I’m officially diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a condition of the nervous system affecting 2-3 million Americans. POTS disrupts autonomic functions of the body like heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. The brain misfires to the body, generates confusion, and creates debilitating symptoms without a cause. Some POTS patients are in wheelchairs, and some manage their sedentary life through medication, saline drips, and online support groups.
The online groups unanimously agreed that POTS was the worst thing to happen to a person and that there was no hope for recovery.
Only one man disagreed. Dr. Sherry, a dutiful member of our congregation (although he stays under the radar), was the only doctor who said POTS was curable. He generously met with me every Sunday, repeating the same words over and over again: “Your illness is curable, but you have to do
Running a clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and treating children with pain disorders, these words were more believable for him. A lot of his patients hobble in on crutches with a foot turned blue—blue from pain, level 10—even though there is no injury detectable on an X-ray or CT scan. Instead of throwing medication at them, Dr. Sherry increases their pain thresholds to desensitize the brain to the feeling of pain. After a robust regiment of physical therapy, counseling, and other techniques, a lot of these children walk out pain free.
But this was my first introduction to the world of brain retraining, based on the principle of neuroplasticity, that the brain is fluid, always changing, delicate and powerful, a servant to the will.
Skeptical and clinically depressed, I doubted it would work, but Dr. Sherry was adamant that I would recover if I lived like I did before the accident. I had to ignore my symptoms and maybe see a therapist.
No one could say how real POTS was. The diagnoses from the cardiologist reverberated with a scary tone of finality. There was a chance Dr. Sherry was right. There was also a chance I would be sick for the rest of my life. What felt real: the sensation that my body was always coming out from under tar. The headaches, the back pain, the flu-like lethargy, the fog that never lifted.
I was Lindsey Lohan coming out of rehab—a haggard, pill measuring, therapy pool swimming ninety-year-old trapped in a twenty-four-year-old’s body. On a good day, I’d get out for lunch. Most days though, I stared at walls, and my little sister was scared to approach me.
There were four ladies at the church who swarmed around me declaring healing. They earned the nickname “fairies” because they laid in the dark with me, invited me to sit by their pools, texted me prophetic words, and prayed unrelentingly for a miracle.
I’d like to think I was praying with them, but when illness struck I turned to logic—a Descartian rationalism that put doubt at the center of everything. My soul reverted to a stubborn child’s, leading with all question marks and demanding a crushingly unrealistic level of certainty. “Will I recover? Will I recover?” ran like a mantra through me.
It felt like there was no answer.
My turnaround came in late August when on a family vacation I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Words Can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg. It said thoughts are physical and that the body has real, chemical responses to seeing negative words. I stared at an illustration of the word “No” growing in size and thought to myself, “What if the opposite is true?”
I placed the book down on the table and announced my new therapy. Everything I said and did that day would be positive.
My mother, sister, and I later that day stumbled into a museum that turns ocean trash into art. Some children were making crafts upstairs, and, even though I hate making crafts, I turned to my little sister and said, “Carly, let’s do a craft!”
It was a blue mermaid with swirling rope hair, glass bottle eyes, and a small black rubber mouth. She looked back at me like a manifesto to my new life.
We called it the positivity game—an exaggerated exercise in cognitive behavioral therapy or a modern version of the spiritual discipline of meditation—which took a tone of robotic enthusiasm as I reversed every negative thought and statement into a positive one.
If we left something at a restaurant, we were “so excited to see that place twice.” When I felt nauseous in the car, I looked at my mom in the backseat, red hair blowing, and she would say, “I think driving is kind of like an amusement ride. People couldn’t do this 100 years ago.” She was a pro at the spiritual discipline of gratitude.
The constant reversal, the laughter, and the absurdity force fed my brain serotonin. When my feelings lied to me, I lied back with the truth. I felt myself moving on the wings of something ancient, a scientific truth as real and tested as gravity, a force God put into motion since the dawn of time.
The fact that I didn’t mean it when I said “I’m 100% better,” is irrelevant, because two months later that statement was true.
It’s still shocking to me that the nightmare is over.
POTS was a year of sweating, thrashing, and running in every direction from the unknown and fighting my own body. In the tug of war between hope and fear, illusion and reality, I didn’t understand the power of the mind.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist, Christian, and champion of brain retraining says the following in her book Switch on Your Brain:
“Thoughts are real, physical things that occupy mental real estate. Moment by moment, every day, you are changing the structure of your brain through your thinking. When we hope, it is an activity of the mind that changes the structure of our brain in a positive and normal direction.”
Her point: don’t wait to think happy thoughts. Create them.
This was liberating news to someone like me, suffering from a brain disorder. Thoughts were not in my control but words were. To me, words are as physical as the table beneath the computer I’m writing this on. When I tell my niece she’s brilliant, that she’s going to excel as an artist, I see my words like hands reaching into her cells and shaping her future.
Keep in mind that I was supposed to have this illness for the rest of my life. The fact that I now run a full-time wedding video business, my song has been on national television, and I’m living in Nashville on my own is staggering.
Looking back, I can see that speaking positively was like praying with my eyes open, a form of meditation that declared something in lieu of requesting it. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Like Dr. Sherry, He’s saying, you do it. God will do the rest.
I still have to fight the modernist appropriation of Christianity that says belief is all mental—a vague adherence to a logical sequence of axioms. Judaic faith wasn’t like that. It was action that led to conviction. It’s no surprise that as I exerted my will to open my mouth, in spite of my feelings, my body responded with health.
When God said my gift was my mind, he meant I was gifted to create reality. The year 2015 was just one massive experiment in taking Proverbs 18:21 literally: “The tongue has the power of life and death.”
If we all have this power, why be atheistic in our approach to faith? We come from a long line of people traveling in tents to unknown lands, marching around walls, walking on water, and calling fire down from heaven.
We show up every week to rehearse a commitment to a crazy idea: that God’s promises will come to pass, the spiritual deserves as much attention as the physical, and in spite of critical, hyperrational accusations made against us, we keep grouping in circles to pray for miracles. When they don’t happen, we keep praying anyway. This is the faith that moves mountains.
Whenever I have a doubt flash across the billboard of my mind, I think of my mom’s translucent blue eyes and the joy and resilience shining in them at my worst. She never saw me as anything but healed.