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Let It Be

In August 2021, I went solo to my first ever TEDx event. And it was a game changer for me. I met a new friend group and was introduced to the power of TED talks. (Remember boring old Jackie the trial lawyer? Before she got sick, she: didn’t know how to run the smart TV; had never logged onto Netflix; had never listened to a podcast, and had never listened to a TED talk.)

I also met a new friend who feels like a dear old friend, Jim Enderle. Jim delivered his TED talk that day and it was so captivating, you could have heard a pin drop throughout it.

Jim’s speech ends with: “This world is comprised of two kinds of people. Those who see a miracle in nothing and those who see a miracle in everything. Let’s be a part of the second group, you and I.”

God, that’s beautiful.

I was so taken to what he said that I tweeted it out. Those who see a miracle in everything …

Was it my Catholic upbringing, my faith, my near-death experience, my against all odds recovery, my post-AE baby, or something else? I don’t know. But I know if you’d have asked me that day, as I sat there by myself in my blue blazer, hoping to become the new-Jackie I dreamed of becoming, I would have affirmatively and quickly replied: “Yes.”

“I believe in miracles.”

The year of 2022 gave me enormous blessings and the feels of insurmountable challenges. I live a life in paradox.

I am an inspirational speaker. I give hope, as day to day I face what sometimes feels hopeless and helpless. I share resilience, because a life with chronic illness is full of heartache, uncertainty, fear, and isolation.

I lost my dream career, but pursued a new dream and saw it come to fruition in 2022. My book, Unwillable, was published! 2022 became the year of the book! And it was all amazing and wonderful past my wildest dreams.

I traveled throughout the state, signed hundreds of copies of Unwillable, and received enough praise and feedback to last a lifetime. I was interviewed on the news, morning television shows, and talk radio. I appeared on international podcasts, local podcasts, and my own. I took pictures in broadcast studios and with my old teachers. I memorized and delivered my own TED-like talk in a packed auditorium. I posed for pictures with the heroes of the book and my social media was flooded with pictures of people reading it. I wrote guest blogs and my own blogs. I shared AE stories and empathy with other AE survivors. A fellow survivor shared with me very early news that she’s pregnant. Mothers reached out to me to tell me their children’s AE stories and thanked me for writing my story.

Unwillable became a testament to my miraculous recovery.

And all throughout this joyous year of the book, I doctored like a patient with chronic health and a long and complicated medical history of rare diseases does. This year alone, I went to over thirty clinic appointments, and I saw eight specialists from Neurology to Rheumatology and more.

I underwent MRIs, CT scans, and physical therapy. I went completely under anesthesia a few times. I gave a lot of vials of blood to be tested in labs. I fixed more teeth I cracked, found out a portion of my knee is dead from steroid use, and dealt with pain.

I waited for my patient portals to load while praying that there wasn’t a red exclamation point next to the test results. I held my breath. And I saw some red exclamation points.

Repeatedly, I was given life-changing and scary news. Some of it was given haphazardly with a background like mine and was later proven incorrect. I narrowly dodged a few ugly ones and some stuck.

I spent a few days at the Mayo Clinic by myself.

I’ve tried to learn how to process dreadful medical news and not to shed a tear until the diagnosis is in black and white. And even then, until it’s confirmed by the Mayo Clinic if necessary.

I’ve tried to train myself how to always think the best. I have said aloud: “It all seems to work out.”

I called to leave a message for my doctor and cried during the whole voicemail.

I was up and I was down. Yet I was repeatedly reminded that I’m never alone. Neither through triumph nor through pain.

I know this, because I have seen miracles with my own eyes.

If you followed my CaringBridge page, if you’re a JM Stebbins blog afficionado, or if you read Unwillable, you know that my friend and law school classmate, Rachel Ellingson, died from colorectal cancer January 6, 2019.

In February 2020, for the inaugural Bismarck Brain Walk, Rachel’s mom, my dear friend, Pat, attended.

It was hard to see Pat speak to my mom at the Brain Walk. Hard to picture what life would be like for my family had AE or its complications taken me. It was so hard to see Pat in so much pain from the loss of Rachel. It’s still so hard for Rachel to be gone.

But as Pat and I spoke that day, she told me about Rachel leaving her dimes. I had never before heard of it. I was so moved, but I didn’t contemplate it happening to me.

In my February 2019 CaringBridge post about Rachel, I spoke of the powerful connection we made again, but as sick women, and only shortly before her death. I talked about how the morning I found out she had died, I realized her “white light” was nearly blinding me as I walked outside.

Countless days since then, I have been taken aback at the white light radiating from the sun and other places I believe Rachel has shone it for me. In the summer of 2021, while I was maneuvering my mental health crisis, Rachel gave me a particularly moving sunrise. So beautiful that I was trying to photograph it while Mom called to tell me that Dad had suffered a heart attack.

I have never doubted Rachel’s presence with me. She encourages me, walks with me, and I speak directly to her in prayer.

On June 2nd, the morning after my Unwillable launch party, I attended counseling in shorts and a pair of Jordans. I was absolutely worn out from it, but I was also on cloud nine.

As I sat down on my usual spot on the couch, something caught my eye. Right there on the floor, next to my shoe, was a dime. As I picked it up and held it, time stopped for a moment. I knew who it was from and what it meant. I told Dr. Nev about Rachel, about her leaving dimes for her mom, and that I believed it was a sign. Dr. Nev was as speechless and happy as me, and directly stated that she had never, ever, seen any money on the floor of her office.

I knew that Rachel was sharing in my joy and reminding me of all the happiness in my life, even as I continue to work through my grief and losses.

I kept that dime.

A few weeks later on the 4th of July, I was at my sister-in-law’s lake house in Minnesota. As I stood next to a deck down by the shore, I looked down at my feet and saw a dime peeking out from the grass.

The year prior, I sat on that same lawn and looked out on the lake. And I felt the feeling of ease. It was one of the first times I had felt any happiness in months. I could specifically point to that holiday, on that lawn, by that lake, where I realized that I was going to get through the terrifying anxiety, depression, and PTSD that was plaguing me. And I realized that because mental health applied to me, I not only had to face it, but had to start speaking more honestly about it.

As I saw that dime hiding in the grass, I knew it was from Rachel. She was reminding me to feel that sense of purpose and gratitude. She was telling me that no matter what, no matter my health and no matter the feelings of my mind, I have to keep my perspective and continue sharing my story. I have to appreciate everything and believe that come anything, I’m still standing.

Life can be short. Life is precious. Never waste a minute. There’s no time to feel sorry for yourself. Keep finding the joy! Keep being you!

I heard what she was telling me. I heard it loud and clear. I enjoyed another wonderful and sunny holiday weekend with family and went back to Unwillable with a renewed sense of purpose.

And I kept that dime.

In August, I traveled to Fargo for my last big book signing of the summer. That night, as I drove to my bestie Ashley’s house to stay, I drove by the Fargo Shanley school, which is Rachel’s alma mater. And there I saw her tree. A tree planted in her memory that’s lit up each year at Christmas.

I had also seen one of Rachel’s best friends from law school, Sarah, at my signing. Rach’s three core friends, Lynn, Sarah, and Ann, all had the same “love” tattooed on their forearms, in her memory. As Sarah held out her arm, I grabbed it and ran my thumb over the tatt, just like I do the swimmer girl, and signed books for her and Ann. I felt Rachel’s presence alive and well inside of so many of us and it absolutely made me smile.

The next morning, I got up early, and randomly pulled into one of the many gas stations near Ashley’s house. As I got out and walked to the pump, I looked down at my feet, and there it was. A dime. Of all the gas stations, of all the pumps, of all the places in Fargo, Rachel was waiting for me.

She was reminding me of the importance of friendship. The power of the people we love, despite having no relation. She was proud of me for venturing across the state alone, after the debacle of my Fargo panic attack in 2021. She was complimenting me on my bravery and reminding me to share my love.

I picked up the dime and added it to my collection.

In late October, I was back on the road. I had to drive across the state to Fargo, to meet Ashley, and then drive another hour north to the corner of the state to Mayville, to give a speech.

As I got into my car that morning to leave, I couldn’t miss what was on the floorboard. A dime. I can’t lie, that one shocked me a little. I hollered for Sean and he came to look. We both exchanged happy and can’t believe it smiles. I had gassed up the car the day before, and he had placed my travel bag in the hatch, but neither of us remembered dropping anything.

The meaning on that one didn’t quite come to me until the next day, when I arrived to speak in Mayville. One of Ashley’s law partners, Lynn, is another one of Rach’s law school besties. And she lives and works in Mayville.

To my great surprise, Lynn came to listen. I hadn’t seen her since prior to getting sick.

And as I prepared to speak, I wondered if I should warn her, but I decided against it and spoke from my heart.

At the end of my speeches, I usually share some of Rachel’s story and final words: “You are stronger than you think.” And as I got to that part, I saw Lynn’s raw and real emotion. We caught up after, and she told me that it had all come back to her. As my horror was happening, we were also losing Rachel.

Ashley called me later to chat about the speech and shared with me Lynn’s reaction: “I know it sounds weird, but that’s Jackie. She’s still Jackie.” As I drove back to Bismarck with that final dime in my car, I swelled with happiness.

Rachel had once again reminded me of my good health, my good fortune, my miraculous recovery, and all the love and support I have from friends and family. Including Pat, whom I have shared all these stories with.

Rachel also reminded me of how interconnected we all are. Pat, Lynn, Sarah, Ann, Ashley, me, and so many others. Our lives are weaved together in ways we never knew until we all landed in school together and navigated life as lawyers. Rachel knows about this interconnectivity and is sending signs from up above.

I have four heavenly dimes. And I routinely have one in my pocket. Like the night I debuted my Unwillable speech, which was the first time I concluded by sharing Rachel’s words.

You are stronger than you think.

As I write this, 2022 is ending. We’ve had a massive winter snowstorm that’s kept us indoors for days. My kids are sick. I’m recovering from surgery last week. And on top of it all, my surgeon called with bad news.

Pro Tip: When your doctor personally calls, it’s always bad news. I’ve been on the receiving end of that one a few times and it sucks.

I braced myself for a biggie. I honestly thought, this is it, this is when I finally hear the words muttered: “You have cancer.” Those weren’t her words! I don’t have cancer! But I am harboring a rare infection and it’s because I’m immunocompromised. It’s a whole new complicated medical rigamarole for me.

I drove myself through the snowstorm and to the clinic. And I rounded out the year of specialists with a trip to Infectious Disease (that makes nine for the year!).

January began with an accidental and scary finding, and I concluded December with another accidental, but possibly lifesaving finding of this infection.

God winked at me once again. And Rachel was right there beside him.

Overall, I believe this was the final leg of what has been a beautiful and daunting year. And unfortunately, I’m sure I’ll have more of life’s challenges ahead. I am heading to Mayo soon to determine just how weird I am and how alarmed I should be.

Yet I know I can do it. I’ve proven my strength. I’m resilient.

But mostly, I know my health and life are going to be okay, because I believe in miracles. I’ve seen them with my own eyes.

This world is comprised of two kinds of people. Those who see a miracle in nothing and those who see a miracle in everything. Let’s be a part of the second group, you and I.

Sending love and hope to everyone struggling with grief, loss, and illness. Say your prayers and count your blessings. And please know how much I care.

And Rachel, we miss you. Love Enid.

“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

“Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

“And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me Shinin’ until tomorrow, let it be I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me Speaking words of wisdom, let it be” ~ Let It Be by The Beatles

**Click HERE to watch Jim's beautiful TED talk.

**Click HERE for the Live Like Rach Foundation's website. #LiveLikeRach


/ / The JM Stebbins blog is an autoimmune encephalitis blog from former lawyer and autoimmune encephalitis survivor, Jackie M. Stebbins.

Jackie M. Stebbins is also the author of Unwillable: A Journey to Reclaim my Brain, a book about autoimmune encephalitis, resilience, faith, hope, and survival. / /


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