There’s nothing like a big health scare to force you to rethink who you are and where you are going in life, focusing on things that really matter. And brain surgery qualifies as something that can really focus you. Brooke Miller has been through brain surgery not once but twice, enough for just about anyone to rethink their direction in life and look for a greater purpose they can contribute to. For Brooke, going through this crisis propelled her into a career in psychotherapy, working to make a difference in the way mental health is perceived and treated.
The first time Brooke faced brain surgery was just before her 14th birthday. At a boy’s house who she had a big crush on, she suddenly had a splitting headache that just wouldn’t stop. She called her mom to take her home, a serious step when you’re a teenager with a crush. It turned out after a whirlwind tour of doctors that she had Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH), a non-cancerous but potentially dangerous growth of immune cells that was growing toward her brain and needed to be removed immediately.
The LCH and surgery were scary, enough for even a young person to be eager to make the most of life in the years that followed. Fortunately the surgery to remove the mass from inside her skull was a success, allowing Brooke to get on with her life, finishing school and college. Brain surgery is a pretty big deal if you ask me, but she also faced turmoil in her inner life wrapped up in her self-esteem and her feelings about her body. After going through therapy, she felt such an affinity for it that she found herself drawn to pursue a career as a therapist, studying to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, and starting a practice.
Then while on a trip to Mexico with her husband who she had recently married, Brooke woke up one morning with a sharp pain over her eye and a pea-shaped ball bulging over her eyebrow, stirring old fears from her first brain surgery. This time it was not cancer or LCH however—it was an infection that had probably started all those years earlier with the first surgery. She needed brain surgery again to stop the infection, and her second brain surgery was a success once again, but the impact on her life extended way beyond the infection and the surgery itself. Her first brain surgery had sent her the message that life is short and you’d better live it well. The second surgery drove her even farther, seeing that although she had come a long way she still had much more she had to do with her life.
It might sound weird, but Brooke is grateful for what she went through because it changed how she sees life and moved her to do more, to take on challenges far larger than she might have otherwise. Going through something like this, she could have chosen to see herself as a victim because she had faced such a difficult risk, but instead she chose to see it as an opportunity to do more. “By being grateful that I was given this opportunity to be a more whole, well-rounded person, I’m not wasting any energy. I’m relaxed. And I’m a better person,” said Brooke in Gifts from the Train Station.
The mental health field is loaded with challenges, and poorly understood by many. Millions of people struggle with challenges but are afraid to ask for help, worried about what others will think of them. Taking on a larger purpose after her second surgery, Brooke created Soapbox Therapy to increase awareness of mental health challenges and solutions, reaching a larger audience. Today Brooke’s reach is continuing to expand as an emotional wellness expert on The Ricki Lake Show, and with a new workshop for Supermoms, helping moms move from chaos to calm in their lives.
We might not all have brain surgery like Brooke, but we’re all going to face a crisis at some point in our lives that forces us to ask ourselves some hard questions. When we face a big risk like a health crisis, we can see ourselves as powerless victims, or we can choose to be grateful for the new perspective it gives us. By being grateful, we might even grow healthier and happier than if we had never encountered such a challenge, because it pushes us to connect with a larger purpose we can contribute to, to work for the greater good.
It often seems that people striving for greatness have been through great challenges that forced them to decide either to fall back as a victim or push forward to do more. Maybe only by passing through such a crisis can we know how resilient we are, capable of more than we imagined. The greater risk that Brooke faced, and that we all face, may be failing to be all that we can be, to reach our full potential and find a greater purpose in life. Viewed this way, it’s not hard at all to understand how Brooke and others going through hard times can learn to be grateful.
Glenn Croston is the author of “The Real Story of Risk”, exploring the weird ways we see risks in our lives, and “Gifts from the Train Station”, presenting the inspiring stories of people who have overcome great challenges and used their second chance to work for the greater good.