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  • Ava Leibmann

Choosing Happiness: A Lesson Learned Through Chronic Illness

If you ask anyone to describe me in a few adjectives, I can pretty much guarantee that at least one of them would be something along the lines of “happy” or “optimistic.” A lot of my attitude has always been there, but I think that a good part of optimism is a choice.

"Living with a disability has taught me to make those choices and has, maybe counterintuitively, been a huge contributor to my happiness. "

I have a trio of chronic illnesses. The first is Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome (AMPS), which is just a medical term for chronic pain. My second illness is Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a blood pressure disorder that causes dizziness, fatigue, and lightheadedness (among other symptoms). Finally, the main overarching disease is called hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. hEDS is a connective tissue disorder that, in addition to causing the other two syndromes, has also led to a multitude of injuries throughout my life.

When I was in high school, hEDS caused me to develop a lot of stress fractures. I started to go on runs with my rowing team, and I enjoyed it so much that I ran outside of practice as well. I got into a problematic routine: I ran, something started hurting, I kept running, and after a few weeks I had a broken bone. It was a cycle of running and injuries that I thought would never end. In my sophomore year of high school, I hadn’t been diagnosed with hEDS yet, but I was deep into the process of getting a variety of tests done in an attempt to get answers. For the tests to be accurate, my bones couldn’t be broken or healing so the doctors said that until all of the testing was done, I couldn’t run. Then covid hit.

At first, we thought it would be two weeks – two extra weeks of not running, two extra weeks until I got a diagnosis. That wasn’t ideal, but it was manageable. Then lockdown got extended, and I had to wait two more weeks. Then four more. Then two months. Then another two months. I didn’t run again for over a year.

When I started running again, I was terrified. Every twinge in any bone or joint sent alarm bells ringing in my head. I had no serious injuries between my junior year of high school and my freshman year of college, but I was never able to run consistently because of chronic pain that stemmed partially from a myriad of injuries, and partially from my own fear. At some point, I chose to change my mindset. Instead of looking at every run as a situation in which I might get injured, I looked at every run as a gift. I knew that I could get hurt at any moment, and that any run could be my last; so, instead of wasting those runs on anxieties and doubt, I savored every second that I was healthy enough to complete them. Little by little, my chronic pain started to fade – not just during runs, but also in my everyday life.

"I chose happiness. I chose hope. I chose to let go of my fear and just live. Those choices healed me, and I have continued to make them over and over again."

It’s important to clarify that running wasn’t, and isn’t, my entire life. I didn’t run competitively – I started doing it with my rowing team, and kept doing it outside of practice because I loved how therapeutic it was, and how I was in total control of my speed and my body. But rowing, or more specifically coxing, has always been my sport. If rowers are the brawn of the boat, or the muscle, then coxswains are the brain. As a coxswain, I steer the boat, direct the rowers, and push them to go faster using motivational and technical calls.

"There’s a certain magic to coxing – the feel of the boat running under you, the knowledge that what you are saying has an impact, the excitement that comes when you are working with rowers to make a change. "

Coxing is like a beautiful puzzle and when you make a good call, when you say the right thing at the right time, it’s like you have placed the last piece and are finally able to see the bigger picture.

During my freshman year of college, however, I lost some of the tranquility that usually came with coxing. I woke up every morning anxious for practice and sat on the bus desperately hoping that I wouldn’t mess anything up. After a few months of this, I noticed the change in my thought process and I knew that I had to take action. So, I shifted my mindset once again. Instead of looking at each practice as an opportunity to fail, I made another choice: I chose to learn, to grow, and to showcase my abilities. My ability to choose my mindset and control how I saw my situation was a lesson I had already learned from my experiences of chronic illness and chronic pain, but now I started applying it to rowing. The results were, again, incredibly clear. I performed better at practice, learned more every day, and rediscovered the peace I found in my sport.

This past winter, my mindset was tested once again. I attended selection camp for the 2024 Paralympics, an incredible but intimidating opportunity. Most of the other athletes had medalled at past Paralympics or World Championships, while I had never even raced internationally. After a few days of camp, I was very aware that I was experiencing major impostor syndrome, and I also knew that it was negatively impacting my performance. I asked one of my coaches at Duke for help, and he gave me a piece of advice that flipped a switch in me. He told me this:

"It doesn’t matter why or how I received the opportunity to be at camp. That wasn’t going to change, so what mattered was what I did with the opportunity."

Once again, I remembered what I had learned from my illness, and I made another choice. This time, I chose confidence. I chose to prove myself and to fight for the spot that I wanted.

The symptoms of hEDS change at different points in my life, so I never truly know what is going to hit me next. During high school, it mainly caused stress fractures, but now it manifests itself more in loose joints and tight muscles. Before I know it I could be back to breaking bones left and right. In some ways this unpredictability is really terrifying, but it’s also a gift because it has taught me to have gratitude for every moment. The lessons I learned from my illness have touched every part of my life: I take every hardship or struggle I face as another opportunity – another way to get stronger, faster, or better. So this fall, when I ran my first marathon, each day of training was a little miracle. I had a huge smile on my face for every single one of those 26.2 miles because I knew that some people can only dream of being able to run marathons. I knew that I was one of those people three years ago. I knew that I was finally getting a chance to make my dream come true.

On Duke Women’s Rowing, we have amantra that perfectly puts this mindset into words: “we get to.” We don’t have to wake up early, we get to wake up early. We don’t have to train twenty hours a week, we get to train twenty hours a week. We don’t have to push ourselves to the limit, we get to push ourselves to the limit.

"Every day, I get to show up with a smile on my face. I get to take opportunities that come my way. I get to choose optimism, and in doing so, I get to fully appreciate every moment of my life."

- Ava Liebmann

Photo Credits: Ava Liebmann & Duke Athletics


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