Two parallel lines, two faint blue strips that dictated how drastically my life was about to change.
Pregnant. There’s no way, this can’t be right… can it? Not me, it was only once, so it doesn’t even really count, right? Wrong. So, so wrong.
Lets back up for a minute and start from the very beginning.
I have always been a true-blue, textbook definition of a perfectionist. From as early as I can remember, if I couldn’t do things 100% the way they were supposed to be done, that was it, I could not handle it, so I just wouldn’t do it. The risk of failing far surpassed the risk of trying and not ending up being able to do it perfectly. This is probably why I flew through about half a dozen sports growing up before I landed on my one true love, which also fueled my perfectionism in more ways than I can even bear to think about: gymnastics.
The perfect 10, the most sought-out number on the face of the planet in a gymnasts’ eyes, and quite frankly, next to none of us ever experienced that success. But nonetheless it was a goal, a goal that every single gymnast strives for.
From that point on, from the age of 6 years old, my entire being and human existence was dictated by the correlation between numbers and perfectionism. In gymnastics, it was the perfect 10, which let’s get real, I never even came close to achieving. Once I outgrew gymnastics, both figuratively and literally because I’m 5’6” which is a monster in the sport where all dominating forces are under 5’, I turned to running.
After running in a 5k for a late uncle, I realized I might potentially have some talent, so I decided to take up track and cross country throughout high school, which further fed my numbers equals success rationale. Times, miles, laps, it all had to add up to what I deemed to be “perfect”, most often determined by my coaches, but I also put my spin on it to determine how effectively I was meeting my own expectations for myself, which if you haven’t figured out by now, were unrealistically high.
My numbers equals success facade took a turn for the absolute worst the summer before my junior year of high school. 3 weeks before school began, I ended up being life-flighted to one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country for deadly blood clots in my leg and lungs.
After that 8-day hospital ordeal was over, as I was getting ready for discharge, the doctor turned to me and said “In order to prevent this from happening again, there are 3 things you must not ever do: Smoke cigarettes, take hormonal contraceptives, and become overweight.” I nodded and tucked that information in the back of my mind, and proceeded with the rest of my day.
As my recovery process began, I found myself laid up a lot longer than I originally had thought. It seemed my running days were over as I could barely hobble across my house to the bathroom with a walker without gasping for air. And to my absolute demise, I began to gain weight.
I have always been a muscular girl, between the immense amount of muscle mass gained from 6 years of gymnastics, to having “quadzilla” legs from running for 5 years up until that point, I had a good amount of mass. So 150 pounds on my 5’6” frame was normal for me, and I looked exceptionally fit and healthy. Or so I thought, until I found the internet.
Soon I began obsessing over weight charts, “normal ranges” for women my height, and to my absolute despair, I was considered “at risk for becoming overweight”. There was that word, overweight. One of those three words my doctor told me I could never become. Thus began my irrationally unhealthy relationship with food. Over the next 3 months, I would go on to lose close to 30 pounds, always fed by my numbers-driven thought process. By the end of December, I was 127 pounds and looked like a walking skeleton.
I had family members constantly down my throat, drilling me about how much I weighed and what I had eaten that day. It was constant, and it was exhausting. So I “recovered” or so everyone thought. My battles with food and disordered thoughts would continue to haunt me every day for the next 5 years. My weight had recovered, despite a few half-hearted attempts at starvation a few weeks before a big event like prom or graduation or the beginning of college, only to binge afterward and put on more weight than I had lost.
I had been accepted into Duquesne University’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy program, and began my first semester there in the fall of 2012. This acceptance was just another reminder of how ‘perfect’ my life was to be; a great school in a big city far away from the controlling eyes and words of my family, I was pre-accepted into grad school as a freshman, I would graduate with my Doctorate and live the rest of my life as the strong independent woman I was always portrayed to be in a big city filled with opportunity… until those two little blue lines showed up.
I met D through a mutual friend at the University of Pittsburgh, and we instantly hit it off. He was different than anyone I had ever been with back home, so immediately I was even more intrigued. He had a history in modeling and was studying opera at Carnegie Mellon, the primitive music college right next door to Pitt. All of these things combined, plus a little liquid courage, made him more attractive by the minute.
Soon enough, I found myself in his suite the morning following a party we had attended together, not entirely sure what had happened the night before, but through deductive reasoning, I had a pretty good idea. In the midst of getting around and ready to head back to my campus, the conversation was brought up that the condom had broken. “Oh well, it happens”, I thought, and back home I went.
A few weeks later, that “oh well” thought had turned into a feeling of absolute despair as I walked alone to the nearest pharmacy to buy the one and only pregnancy test I have ever taken to this day. There it was, 6pm on a cold November night, 6 hours away from home, with a white stick with two faint blue lines running down it, confirming what I believed to be something that happened to unlucky people, people who weren’t careful, people that weren’t me… I was 18, and pregnant.
The next few weeks were a blur, honestly. Abortion was never an option as I am explicitly pro-life and there was no way to persuade me otherwise. I had made a decision, and now it was my job to take responsibility for my actions, a lesson that had been taught to me from a very young age.
At first, D and I had decided that an open adoption was the only way to get through this. I would have the baby and his aunt who had been trying to have kids would adopt it, that way we could still be a part of his or her life. But that idea was shot down after a conversation with my mother one day, who had also gotten pregnant at 18, and she asked one simple question that determined the direction that my life would go from that point on, “Where do you think you would be today if I had given you up for adoption?” Thus began the planning.
I applied and was accepted at a small branch campus of Penn State University that had a 2-year Physical Therapist Assistant program, a “measly Associates degree” that I thought to be a cake walk compared to the Doctorate program I was currently a part of.
I withdrew from Duquesne at the end of the semester, returned home, and immediately began working. I got a job at a new deli in my small rural hometown, and worked throughout the entire length of my pregnancy, up until a few weeks before my due date, July 2nd. July 2nd came and went, without any sign of “Baby Bella” as she was affectionately known as.
The morning of the Fourth of July came, and I was woken up abnormally early, about 6:45am, with these weird cramps. I tried going back to sleep but they seemed to be getting stronger, so after taking some time to shower and relax, I realized exactly what was going on… I was in labor. So off we went to make the 2-hour drive to the hospital that I was to deliver at.
By the time I got to the hospital, I was already 5cm dilated, half-way there! I began walking laps around the hospital floor, doing everything in my power to have gravity help me move things along. I never planned on having an epidural, just something about needles and my spine that I’m not too comfortable with! By 7pm, it was go time, and by 7:10, I heard those first beautiful cries from my baby girl.
The first few weeks after delivery were tough, but with some minor complications and feeding issues resolved, things were beginning to calm down. That is, until the end of August came around. I had decided to begin my schooling immediately after my daughter was born, with the rationale being that I would get through a two-year program while she was young and wouldn’t remember me being gone, and then I would be home and with a career once she was old enough to start remembering things from her childhood. This all sounded fine and great, except for one thing; she wouldn’t remember I wasn’t there, but I sure would remember not being there.
The campus was an hour and 40 minutes away, far too long to make the commute every single day with no income to help pay for gas and all of the mileage on my car. So with the immense love and support from my family, it was decided that I would stay on campus during the week, and come home on the weekends, with my mom and grandma taking turns helping out with my daughter throughout the week. Welcome to the next two and a half years…
My daily schedule during the week proceeded as follows: wake up by 7am, class from roughly 8am to 4pm, depending on the day, library from 4pm to 10pm, back to my room to study from 10pm to between 2am-4am, off to bed and up by 7am the next day. It was grueling, and it was exhausting to say the least. I would force myself to do whatever necessary to get all of my work done throughout the week so by Friday night, I could come home, snuggle up with Bella, and be passed out asleep by 8:30pm.
Weekends consisted of all of the time I could get with her, interspersed with the increasingly less frequent naps as she got older that I craved in order to catch up on all of the lost hours of sleep during the week. And week by week, I found myself collapsing into bed on a Friday night, muttering the same phrase “another week down, I did it.”
Summers consisted of more hours in the heat of the kitchen back in my hometown deli, with the hopes of making enough money throughout the summer to get me through the school year to follow. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the class tutor my freshman year in both Anatomy and Physiology, so through the schools’ work-study program, I was able to make a minimal amount of money that helped with the ever growing expenses of being not only a college student, but a single mother on top of that.
In the midst of everything, I also found myself struggling once again with my obsession of numbers dominating my existence. I knew I had to get good grades in order to be competitive in a graduate school application, and seeing as that was my ultimate goal, I let that far off illusion control my every move. Any second I wasn’t sleeping or eating, both of which I rarely did, I was studying.
It was obsessive, it was compulsive, it had friends worrying and whispering behind closed doors, but I thought I knew what I had to do in order to ensure I would have a chance at another opportunity of furthering my education after this phase of my life was over. I isolated myself in the library, in my dorm room, even in the laundry room in order to utilize every single minute I had to study, to get that elusive 4.0, that “magic number” that I thought would be the only way I would ever feel that I had made something of myself, the only way to be perfect.
But weeks and weekends came and went, exams and practicals passed and aced, and next thing I knew, it was May of 2015 and graduation day was here. I cannot put into words the overflowing emotions that overcame me as I walked into the gymnasium and across that stage. All of the sleepless nights, all of the countless hours of studying and stressing and practicing time and time again for practicals, it was all worth it.
I walked across that stage with a 3.73 GPA and nothing less than an A- in any class except my freshman history class because let’s get real, a science geek like me could not stay awake to save my life in that class! I was inducted into Alpha Sigma Lambda, a collegiate national honor society for adult learners, for those who exemplified leadership and academic excellence while managing a family or competing interests outside of the classroom.
But none of the exam scores, practical grades, or GPAs mattered in that moment, because I was officially a college graduate; 21 years old, with a soon to be 2-year-old cheering over everyone else in the audience… I did it.
And in that moment, everything was great. The Monday following graduation came, and our clinical rotations began. I had 6 weeks at a nursing home, followed immediately with 6 weeks in an outpatient rehab facility in my hometown. Once those were said and done, the real work began.
In the field of Physical Therapy, your degree means nothing without passing the national Board examination. Like the MCATs for medical students or the LSATs for prospective law students, “the Boards” are the biggest cumulative exam a physical therapy student will ever take. It encompasses the last 2.5 (or 7 for DPT students) years of knowledge and clinical experience you have gained and puts it to the test in clinical application questions.
While studying for 20 hours a day in college was something that could be done, studying with a two-year-old proved to be one of the most challenging feats I had come across at this point. Cue again the late nights studying, the minimal sleep, the begging for nap time so I could continue the quest of finally finishing this process, once and for all. Any spare moment of silence I had was spent with my nose in the books, and many pages of my review book are marked with the drawings of a 2-year-old Picasso.
As I made my way to the testing center, I was overcome with a calming sense of relaxation and peace. The nervous jitters were replaced with a feeling of complete satisfaction and confidence, knowing that I had dedicated every single ounce of myself into getting to this moment. I had taken practice exam after practice exam, hitting target scores on each, and continuously solidifying in my mind that this journey that had started just about 3 years ago was finally about to come to an end…
The exam began and to my pleasant surprise, it was easier than any practice exam I had taken, and my confidence began to elevate. By the end of the 4 hours, I was exhausted, I was brain dead, I didn’t know my left from my right, nor did I think I remembered how to drive. But the one thing I did know, was that I had passed. We would not get our results for another week, but in the back of my mind, there wasn’t a single doubt that that was the last test I would ever have to take in my PTA career.
The week following was the slowest and most agonizing waiting I had ever experienced. But finally the day came when we would find our results. The group texts were blowing up, everyone anxiously waiting for the first person to tell everyone that results were up. I checked feverishly every hour on the hour until 6pm, when I told myself that I would stop checking if they weren’t up by then. But around 8:30pm, the first text came through, “THEY’RE UP!” My eyes scanned for that one word, one single 6-letter word in parentheses that was to determine my future… Passed. I did it!
Tears flowed uncontrollably from my eyes as she threw her arms around me, even at 2 years old, she could understand the importance and significance of this moment. I assume the minutes and hours following were full of text messages and calls to those most important to me to share the big news, but there was no better way to have found out that everything was worth it than to have my precious girl right by my side, just as she was for the past 2 ½ years.
As with every college graduate, next came the job search. There are pros and cons in being from a small rural town. Pro: there probably aren’t many of whatever degree you just graduated with, so if the job is there, there’s not much competition for it. Con: It doesn’t matter if there’s competition if there is no job available in said area. I was experiencing the latter. My hometown has two physical therapy offices, and neither of which had postings for jobs. I searched far and wide, every job search engine, websites of every hospital and nursing home within a 30-mile radius. Nothing.
About a month had passed, and I was getting more and more worried by the day… How am I going to support my daughter as a single mom with no job, OR how am I going to afford to move out on my own to go find a job elsewhere without the help of my family? They say fate has a funny way of taking its own sweet time, but eventually it will come back around and find you. And that’s exactly what it did one November day.
I had just put my daughter down for a nap when my phone rang, and to my surprise, it just so happened to be the facility director from one of the local physical therapy offices in my hometown, where I had done my last clinical rotation. “Hey Victoria, congratulations on passing your boards! Just curious as to if you had a job lined up yet. If not, why don’t you come on in for an interview, we would love to have you back on board as a full time licensed PTA!”
I’m not sure which emotions were strongest, those after finding out I had passed my boards, or those that I felt in that moment after hanging up the phone. Here I had been searching for a month all over the county, just to have my clinical location call ME to ASK me to come back to work for them!? A lesson for anyone having to do internships of any kind: ALWAYS do your best, ALWAYS give your 110%, and NEVER burn bridges, because you never know where they can lead.
I have been working for just over 5 months now, and it is everything I could have asked for. Being able to say that I put myself through college as a single teen mom and came out on top with a degree, a license, a career, and a toddler that I can fully support financially on my own is absolutely without a doubt my proudest moment, and most meaningful accomplishment.
People ask me regularly if I plan on going back to school to finish what I started originally and complete my Doctorate, and yes, that is certainly a goal that I keep in the back of my mind. I am currently teaching myself biology at home from an old college textbook in order to get a head start on some of the classes I know I will have to eventually take to finish out my Bachelors and proceed with grad school. But after spending two years away from my daughter, my only priority is spending as much time as humanly possible with her.
I missed a lot of her firsts: her first time rolling over, her first word, her first steps. But I can’t wait to be here for the remainder of her firsts, and every other moment, both important and unimportant. School will always be there, and I will always have an opportunity to finish what I started. But my baby will only be my baby for so long, and spending time with her and watching her grow is more valuable than any additional piece of paper (and additional $100k in student loan debt).
I hope this story will inspire anyone else going through a similar issue; whether it be an unplanned pregnancy, or any life circumstance that might be limiting your ability to pursue your dreams. I thank God every single day for allowing me to have the strong family support that enabled me and encouraged me to continue my education and not be another “teen mom” statistic. However, I know not everyone can be as lucky as I am with a supportive family.
Whether you are surrounded by a loving and caring support system or you’re totally on your own, always remember that you have the capability to do anything you set your mind to. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” People told me time and time again that “my life was over” and I had “ruined my life”, even those I thought were closest to me. The funny thing about that is, a large majority of the people who told me that, never finished college themselves, or are barely scraping by to pass. How’s that for karma for you.
Moral of the story is: No one can tell you “you can’t” or “you won’t”, every decision you make is a reflection of your inner strength and your inner determination to succeed. You can’t “kind of” want it, you can’t just think about it… whatever you do, whatever you set your mind to, you have to WANT it. You have to want it so bad, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get you there. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be really hard. You’re not going to sleep, and you’re going to survive off of m&m’s and popcorn. It’s not going to be a walk in the park, and you’re going to miss out on a lot of things your peers get to do.
But you have to find that inner strength and desire to throw the rule book out the window, let any comments from people telling you that you can’t roll right off your back, and always keep your goals in the front of your mind and allow your dreams to lead you. I went through my entire college career reminding myself every day of this quote… “Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside of you greater than any obstacle.”
And despite my desperate attempts through my time in gymnastics and running, my struggle with eating disorders throughout high school, and my time in college, I have finally learned that there is no such thing as perfection. There is no perfect number, no perfect person, and no perfect situation that will determine how successful you will be. Success comes from within, it comes from a passionate drive and unwavering determination to succeed.
Today, myself and many of those around me would consider me to be successful, and guess what, there is no number dictating “how” successful I am.
The biggest lesson I have learned through everything I have made it through in this life is to strive for progress, not perfection. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good and great. What you put in, you will get out. As for me, I will continue to have dreams to chase and goals to achieve, but I am perfectly okay with my imperfect life.
I was in Japan, walking toward the sunset above Lake Biwa, with a sticky rock in my hand. Senior year of high school I joined Teen Advisors, a Christian-based organization committed to helping freshmen handle stress, problems, and issues they might face in high school.
Every fall, there’s a Teen Advisors retreat, and at that retreat, there were speakers who spoke about different issues. We were all instructed to carry around a tube sock that weekend, and if the issue the speaker talked about was something you struggled with, you could go up to the front and put rocks in your giant tube sock. One of the speakers talked about comparing yourself to others, which was the first time I realized I had been doing that for years up to that point. I went up to the front and put a bunch of rocks in my giant tube sock. The last night at the retreat, at Camp Lee in Alabama, we all met around a bonfire, spoke what was on our hearts and what we learned, and then all together, we threw our rocks into the lake.
That year, I ended up winning an essay contest that year that allowed me to attend a language school in Kyoto, Japan, for one month the summer before college. That in itself is another story, a huge blessing, and a dream come true. So here I was, in the summer after my senior year, exploring Kyoto and the surrounding area by myself every day after class, before returning to my host family for dinner.
In my last week there, I traveled an hour and half by train away to Hikone, a town with a famous castle located next to Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. I never felt more disconnected from “home” – no one in the world knew where I was at this point in time. It was a thrilling adventure, but I felt isolated and exposed at the same time. Perhaps it was that fear that put me in a weakened state, but for some reason, something really got to me. A gang of elementary school-aged boys didn’t attack me, they were just goofing off across from me on the train. They didn’t interact with me, but watching them made me self-conscious and think, “Why have I never been that way?”
I felt girly, and not boyish like them. I was home-schooled in elementary school because my dad was in the Army and we moved often. I had friends growing up, but in that moment, I felt like I never did.
I didn’t have that many friends because I didn’t go to school with classrooms of kids my age. And instead of a competitive, rowdy trouble-maker, I was more of a creative, imaginative, polite kid. I didn’t like soccer because you had to “steal” the ball. I liked baseball alright because I liked pretending to throw imaginary Pokéballs while mindlessly standing in the outfield.
There are different kinds of people, which is totally fine and good, but because I wasn’t like those Japanese boys on the train when I was their age, I felt less-than, lonely, and sad about my personality, questioning my own masculinity and identity as a man.
I started comparing myself to other guys my age back at home, about how I wasn’t as athletic as they were, or as manly as they were. The last point on my to-see list was Lake Biwa – straight ahead according to the map I had – straight ahead on a long sidewalk pointing right toward the setting, summer sun. Because of the sun’s brightness and my discouragement, I looked down as I walked.
There were no pieces of trash, no cracks in the sidewalk, nothing but pristine walkway– until I saw a single rock. I picked it up, and it was sticky. I thought about how ugly it was, and how it shouldn’t feel sticky. It grossed me out, and I thought to myself that I hated that rock. Then, I remembered the rocks I threw into the lake at Camp Lee. I kept it in my fist and kept walking, ready to throw the ugly thing into Lake Biwa with all my strength as if it were an imaginary Pokéball, and most importantly to renew my vow to not compare myself to others.
The edge of the lake was more like the edge of the ocean. High winds and waves hit the concrete barrier between land and lake. A highlighted haze was a screen on the horizon, and I wondered if I could see the other side on a clear sunset.
It felt great to renew my resolution, and I started to feel better. I was back home in about two hours, had dinner with my host family, and went to the bathroom afterwards. In the bathroom, there was a daily calendar, with little drawings of manga-style monks and handwritten Japanese sayings. Out of the 28 days I was there, I could only read two or three of the messages. But when I looked up at this message, I almost couldn’t believe it. After double-checking the verb on my phone’s dictionary, I translated its message: “Do not compare yourself to others.” The Bible says, “Don’t let your heart be troubled,” and for me, a big way to do that is to not compare myself to others.
I am a child of God, and He loves me just the way He made me – my asymmetrical eyelids, my dry chicken skin, my unique interests and talents, and my kind and gentle heart. God spoke that message to me at Lake Biwa, and three years later, whenever I go to a lake, I throw an ugly rock in it and renew my promise to not compare myself to others. I haven’t come across many other sticky rocks, but if I do, I throw it extra hard and wash my hand clean afterwards.