It is crazy how time changes the way you look at things. There was a time when I could not have imagined being where I am today. A time so dark and scary that it literally took my breath away, crippling me with fear in a way only one’s threatened life could!
By the time I was 9, I had seen a lot. Truth is, most of the memories I have of my childhood are of the inside of Schneider’s Children’s Hospital. It is there where I sat among countless children who were suffering from life-threatening forms of cancer and other harrowing diseases. Images that I believe will be etched in my mind forever.
Gaucher’s disease, a rare genetic blood disorder compromising the major organs of my body, was what brought me to that hospital often. Thankfully, I was afforded the opportunity to leave while many precious children were left fighting for their lives.
My folks were told of all of the disturbing possibilities early on – that this disease had the potential of robbing me of my full life expectancy and that there was no known cure.Needless to say, they were pretty devastated. As far as I was concerned, I remained kind of clueless at the tender age of 9.
At 17, I was the sickest I had been. Most of my junior year of high school was spent in and out of the hospital. One of the treatments involved the removal of my 15-pound spleen (written up in the medical journals as one of the biggest spleens doctors had ever seen). Lying in that hospital bed the night before my surgery, looking down at my arms completely covered in broken blood vessels (a result of a dangerously low platelet count), I felt terrified and remember wondering whether I was going to die.
That night, as it turns out, was the most defining moment of my entire life. It has been the catalyst for everything else I’ve done. It has become the driving force behind fighting my fears and my disease itself. It is what helped me to understand that our mindset is our strongest tool to fight anything! In re-framing my belief system my whole world began to make sense. I was not like other kids; I had never felt like I belonged or that anyone could truly understand what I was going through. However, flipping the switch on my attitude changed all that. In fact, it has helped me to understand and to truly embrace that my disease is my gift in this lifetime!
I know this might sound odd to some, but I thank God for my disease. It has been what grounds me in life. It is what taught me, at an age where most kids were out partying,living in an illusion of immortality as most teenagers do, that life is precious! Because of my disease, I know that at any time life can be taken from me and that embracing each day as a blessing is the only way to live!
I soon adopted the slogan”carpe diem” (seize the day) and it became my motto for everything else I did! I enrolled in college and pushed through my fatigue because I could see no other option, and then a miracle happened.
In 1991, the FDA approved a genetic research project for the treatment of Gaucher’s disease. I soon was part of the study because I met the criteria of being in critical need and was blessed to be one of the first 40 people in the U.S. to receive this new infusion therapy. It is a treatment that actually replenishes my body with the enzyme that it’s missing to break down the Gaucher cells that build up in my liver and bones.
A real-life, true miracle unfolded before my eyes and literally saved my life. Over time, it began to reverse many of the symptoms and eventually brought me to a place of stablehealth. While working to accept the reality that I would have to adapt to a life where every other week for the rest of my life I would have to go for IV therapy, I was also in total gratitude for this gift given to me!
I’d be lying if I said that every day I showed up for treatment I was beaming with joy. Truth be told, dealing with a chronic illness and being imprisoned to”have” to show up for treatment in order to have that full life often brought out anger, depression and frustration. Getting a permanent”port” in my chest at 21 years old where they could easily access my veins to make life easier was often suggested but always refused by me. I just did not want to be reminded of this reality once I left the hospital!
This is when I really began to believe in the power of thought and positive energy. I started to believe that if I just showed up, did what I had to do and then left the hospital without feeding the awfulness and the fear of having this disease, then I would feel as if I was truly living.
I was a year into graduate school when I had another bout of illness not related to the Gaucher’s.This landed me in the hospital with temporary loss of the use of my legs. Despite my discharge from the hospital, I still felt awful and continued to experience freaky “attacks” of weakness and an overwhelmingly toxic feeling in my body.
It was scary again having to face some “unknown” weird illness. After another round of doctors and several MRIs to back it up, I was officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS on top of the Gaucher’s disease? This here folks was when I kind of lost it!
I literally lost my ability to contain my anxiety and depression. I started having full-blown anxiety attacks and what are referred to as “body memories” of the trauma I went through as a kid surrounding my illness. “WHY me” I’d be screaming in my head at 3 a.m. not able to sleep out of sheer panic!
Wasn’t the Gaucher’s enough?Wait a minute, I thought I already learned my soul lesson! You know, the one where I saw my disease as a gift. Was there something I was missing, God?
It turns out there was … a lot! I frantically began to research and stumbled upon facts that helped me make the connection between aspartame and MS-”like” symptoms. That nutritional discovery began my quest for a more mindful approach to the foods and drinks I was consuming and a heightened awareness of how I actually felt when consuming such products. Much to my surprise, I felt a whole lot better when I got off of unnatural sweeteners, diet soda, red meat and a host of other toxic foods! With this new awareness, I began to “get” the body-mind-spirit connection. I threw myself into understanding the depth of it all. It became the meaning of my life.
As I attempted to accept the reality that I would always have to rely on Western medicine for my treatment and monitoring of my diseases, I began to yearn for a place that could help to bridge my two worlds. I needed a connection between my world of IV needles, MRIs, CAT scans, white coats and cold hospital walls and my world of peaceful, warm, sacred spaces; mindful eating; positive thought; and the deeper meaning of it all!
I began to dream of creating such a place; I wanted to gather like-minded spirits that shared a similar vision based on the principles of a soulful life. This would be a place where I could help to heal others in a way that I had been healed.
Much to my joyful realization, this place began to manifest in a way I believe was divinely guided. Other practitioners began to knock on our doors asking to join us,each saying that the energy of the place is what drew them in. Despite my dark and scary past, I began to believe that anything was possible!
Today I am proud to say that my dream of opening a holistic counseling and wellness center has come true and that everything that I have been through starting at the age of 9 has led me here to this place; a place of miracles … a place where I believe this to be true:
“Courageous is the soul who adventures into time and space to learn of their divinity.” I believe that everyone of us has a piece of God, the divine or the universe (whatever you want to call it) implanted within us, and in this lifetime, we are meant to discover this divine part, to nurture it and master it so that we can offer that unique divinity back to the world in the form of helping others find peace on their own journey.
I can think of nothing more rewarding. Can you?
Alissa Schwartz, LCSW, CHP, is a licensed clinical psychotherapist and a certified hypnotherapist. Alissa is a dynamic and empathic professional dedicated to the empowerment of the human spirit. Alissa believes in the POWER of positive thought and a strengths-based approach to life based on her own extremely challenging life circumstances. Ms. Schwartz is the co-owner of THE CENTER FOR SOULFUL LIVING, a holistic counseling & wellness center on Long Island, New York.