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We Were Flatmates in Siberia, and Then She Got a Brain Tumour

We Were Flatmates in Siberia, and Then She Got a Brain Tumour

The ‘Beautiful Women on the Inside (and the Outside)’ Interviews I decided to kick off the series with my friend Heidi after reading more of her story (Miss Asia USA will be in a few weeks).  She and I have known each other since the mid-90s, but really got to know each other when we shared a small room in Irkutsk, Russia. 

The two of us in Siberia - I'm the one with the fluffy hat.

The equivalent of a British gap year, we lived three months together in the land furry chapkas (hats), fatty shashslik (kebabs), and driving on frozen lakes.  However, the Siberia story is another tale for another day.  Not long after that trip, Heidi and I went our separate ways for several years, and at her engagement party I noticed something was different . . .

When I asked her via email if she would do this interview series, I realised I only knew part of her journey.  She was so vulnerable with me (and I’m putting the shorter version here), and all her struggles are inspirational. Heidi represents true beauty – someone who has gone through life’s crucible.  She had a brain tumour, post-partum depression and hair loss, but she has come out the other side to tell about it.

Here is some of her story in interview form (* Sidenote – I wanted to keep Heidi’s ‘voice’ so I didn’t edit her answers much.):

Heidi is 40-years-old, a mum of three, pursuing medicine, an artist and a cake decorator.

If you were to write an autobiography, what would you call it?

 The Girl in the Black Cap or Wigging Out! 

Most people don’t know that 75% of my hair is fake.  I have lost most of my natural hair since college (even then I was losing hair, but had enough left that people didn’t stare or ask many questions.)   I’ve always had thin and very fine hair, but it’s just gotten more pronounced with age and life changes like pregnancy.  I’ve had perfect strangers walk up to me in the middle

of the grocery store and ask me about my thin hair. Some people have assumed I had cancer and was recovering from chemotherapy and waiting for my hair to regrow.  I’ve had guys in the middle of a date comment on it, all the while I’m dying on the inside just wanting to be appreciated for who I am, and not judged solely on my appearance.  I had a best friend of several years finally break down and confess that she had always wanted to know what was “wrong” with my hair, but never had the guts to ask me.  In 2010, during one of my weekly meeting with my therapist we finally talked about how ugly I felt, how I hated my hair, how I was tired of people asking questions, staring and feeling like that was all anyone was noticing about me.  She suggested I look into wearing a wig or maybe a hair piece or something that would take my thinning hair out of the equation.  My autobiography would be partly about my journey to find a look that worked for me, all while trying to find beauty in myself in spite of the fact that society was telling me that my physical appearance wouldn’t be winning any beauty pageants.  I wear a black baseball cap a lot of places because there are situations (like working out at the gym or early classes at the University) where wearing my hair pieces will either get them sweaty/dirty or when I am too lazy to go through the process of getting them in place, so I opt for easy and low maintenance.  Maybe it is a book I will write some day.

If you were to list them, what are the most important moments of your life?

December 19th, 2001 — the day I was told I had a brain tumor

July 20th, 2002 — the day I married my husband

January 28th, 2004 — the day I became a mom and embarked on a seven-year battle with postpartum depression

June 2010 — the summer I returned to school and decided to pursue my career in medicine

November 22nd, 2012 — my first shift working in the ER

With one or two of those significant events, how did it change you?

January 28th, 2004 was the day I became a mom, something I had wanted for as long as I can remember.  I grew up wanting to be a mom, loved to play with my dolls, started babysitting when I was 12, and worked in the church nursery almost every week as a teenager so I could hold the babies and love on them.  What I didn’t know was that my body didn’t handle going from being pregnant to not being pregnant very well.  My first stint with postpartum depression lasted 18 months, and there were seriously days when I thought it would just be easier to go to bed and never wake up again—that the world could go on

Heidi and her daughter Chloe

spinning without me in it and that would have been perfectly fine with me, except that I knew my son would never be the same if he had to grow up without his mommy.  I wish I could say that the first 7 years of being a mom were awesome and that I had finally found fulfillment in motherhood, etc…  It was awesome — baby snuggles and naps with my newborns and late night feedings that no one but me ever got to be a part of, but it was at times a battle for my soul.  Days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, weeks that I didn’t take a shower, hours that I would leave my newborn in his crib because I was afraid that if I couldn’t get him to stop crying that I might lose my mind.  I had never battled depression until I became a mom and my mind just couldn’t wrap itself around how those two, for some people, go hand in hand.  I wish I had a “this is the day that changed everything” kind of ending to my postpartum depression story, but over the first seven years of motherhood, I battled it after the birth of each of my children.  Each time it was different—lasting different amounts of time or beginning after I weaned my last child instead of right after her birth, and each time it was just as gut wrenching and awful as I had remembered it being the previous time.  My victory in all of it is that I am here.  I made it.  I lived through it, and I can commiserate with other women that have to endure the same experience.  I learned things along the way that helped lessen some of my symptoms, but most of all I learned that sometimes life is about simply putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next thing that you know to do.  I will never judge anyone battling depression ever again because I know how debilitating it can be, how painful just living seems to be and how it takes away your will to fight.  It’s nice to know that we are not alone, that people can relate to something difficult that we are going through, and it also helps me in my own struggle to know that what I went through can be used to help other people.

How would you define beautiful?

I am in a place in my life where I am trying to STOP defining beauty.  Society tells me that toned abs, bronzed skin and perky boobs equal beauty.  I’ve heard that men prefer long hair over short hair and quite frankly having had short hair most of my life I assumed that must mean I wasn’t beautiful.

So, for the first time in my life I am trying to quit defining beauty because in doing so I seem to be constantly determining if I “measure up” to this standard, or if I am indeed beautiful.  I have also found myself measuring other people’s “beauty” by the same standards and at times have valued the “beautiful people” more than the “not-so-beautiful people”.  I’ve tried to indoctrinate myself with little sayings like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or “beauty comes from within” to convince myself that I am indeed beautiful.

Then one day, it finally hit me:  EVERY person is beautiful.  We are created in the image of the one who IS beauty and whether or not that beauty is evident on the outside or buried somewhere deep within, we all possess beauty.  Everyone has some quality about them that makes them beautiful.  Some people have personalities that leave you wanting more, other people have awesome talents that amaze us, some people are physically stunning, but we all have one thing in common:  we are beauty.

I want women to love who they are.  I’m not sure I even love myself most of the time, but because of my own struggle with this, I want them to see that they are beauty just because they are alive… and that no external validation will ever take the place of being able to love and accept yourself exactly the way you are.  Internal validation wins every time.

Heidi's self-portrait in oils on canvas

What advice would you give to a woman reading your story?

If I could talk to the young version of myself I would have two things to say:  BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and DON’T BE AFRAID TO FAIL.  I’ve always needed a cheerleader in my corner saying things like, “You can do it!” and “I believe in you!”  While it’s perfectly okay to have those people in your life, it’s even more important to be able to give those things to yourself.  I had a dream to become a doctor.  I wanted to go to medical school SO badly that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get in.  My very first year at university I got a “C” in General Chemistry I, which is terrible quite frankly especially when that is your major and you are pre-med.  I started finding excuses as to why maybe I shouldn’t become a doctor, why maybe it wasn’t possible to be a good doctor and a good mother, and why maybe I should just give up on my dream because it just all seemed too hard.  Now at the age of 40, with a husband and 3 children I am finally pursuing my dream to practice medicine.  I am proving to myself that I CAN do it, that I AM smart enough, determined enough and that I CAN do the things that I have a passion for.  It’s not easy, and I wish that I had pursued these things in my 20’s before I was married and had kids (it would have been SO much easier!) but I’m proud of myself for not giving up on my dream.  Someday I will wear a stethoscope and a white coat to work every day, and I will remember my journey to get there.

Here is the facebook link to Heidi’s art:

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