Onstage: My Silver Lining

Posted: 5/11/18

Stephanie Everett, a junior studying a modification of Theater and African American studies at Dartmouth College, had three concussions between her high school and college athletic career. She suffers from Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS) as a result of her last concussion nearly two years later. She wrote and starred in an autobiographical one person play, titled "It’s Fine, I’m Fine", detailing the difficulty of living with PCS and in describing her symptoms to those that don’t understand. She performed her play in early 2018 at the New Works Now festival for an audience of over 200 people.

“You are what you’ve overcome,”

reads the military dog tag that hangs from my neck. Today and every day, it is a symbolic and physical reminder of how far I’ve come in the three years since choosing to apply to Dartmouth College instead of West Point.

With one concussion under my belt from my final high school baseball days, I walked onto the Dartmouth varsity soccer team as a goalie. Two weeks into practice, I was knocked on the temple by a stray shot I didn’t see coming. Exactly one year later, I took a ball to the nose during a scrimmage. All three times, I felt fine – just “shook it off” and continued with practice. It wasn’t until the following morning that tremendous pressure would fill my head, signaling something was wrong.

As athletes, we are conditioned to think we are invincible. We have to perform at 110% every time we hit the field, and are pushed back into playing before injuries (to the brain or otherwise) are fully healed. I fell victim to that competitive nature, returning to play when I was “good enough,” not good. There was no doctor mandating I stop contact sports. I was the only person who knew how my head was doing, and was the only person who could decide my future.

I started to feel more insecure than ever. I was going through the motions, listening to the same prognosis from doctor after doctor, and sitting on the sideline every day at practice. I was unhappy and unfulfilled, but unable to admit it to myself. I thought being an athlete was everything. As a ballerina, soccer, and baseball player from the age of four, “athlete” was the only identity I’d ever stuck with. But after nine months of school, waking up every day feeling the same – or worse – than the day before, I started to come to grips with the decision I knew I had to make.

Little did I know that trading my cleats in for character shoes in the spring of my sophomore year would finally bring me home. Theater was the last activity to be cut from my schedule when I committed to college soccer, but the first one I returned to after quitting. I took my first college theater class that spring, and fell so in love with it that I found myself interning this past fall at Northern Stage, a regional theater in Vermont run by one of Dartmouth’s professors, Carol Dunne. It was during this internship that I learned about marketing, development, and education in the theater sphere, and got my first professional acting contract. Dunne pushed me to pursue writing in my free time, knowing that I was still struggling with Post-Concussion Syndrome (PCS). Though I truly couldn’t think of anything scarier, I agreed to dive into a one woman show on my own experience with head trauma... “my diary – staged,” as the play begins.

For over a year, by that point, I had practiced shutting the bad out, afraid that sinking into the negatives of PCS would make my recovery even longer. Writing this play, ironically titled “It’s Fine, I’m Fine,” became a way for me to finally put into words everything I couldn’t before.

But it’s not just a play about a headache.

“It’s Fine, I’m Fine” is about the invisible. Anyone who has dealt with TBI and PCS knows that our symptoms aren’t our only trouble, and we certainly know that they’re never conveniently-timed. “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” is about transitions and self-discovery. About losing direction and letting go. About relationships and sexuality. About mental health and the therapist my parents don’t know exists. It’s an ode to the twists, turns, and deep dives in adolescence that we mask with “I’m fine.” 

It’s Fine, I’m Fine incorporates prose, spoken word, and original songs that come together as vignettes depicting Everett’s new normal. Photo by Heidi Reynolds

 

Maman’s Cooking

When Maman – that’s French for Mom – cooks,

you best stay out her way.

By the time I wake on Saturday mornings,

the smells slipping through the

space under the door

are a delightfully confusing mix of

roasting garlic and

Vermont maple syrup.

She’s up at the crack of 9am to begin that evening’s meal

just as dad finishes breakfast.

By the time I reveal myself,

she is two countertops-deep in

the dish of the day.

Clanging pots and pans,

she doesn’t care –

if she’s up,

so, too,

should the world

be.

From the sunporch

comes the banging of drums and African dialects.

Music from

Senegal,

Ghana,

la Cote D’Ivoire –

in this, Maman does not discriminate.

And so we have Saturday morning:

sound waves and scents

wafting and weaving

together in

sweetly-savored harmony.

But now

when memories like these pull me back home,

I can do nothing but sit and stare –

knowing that full meals of this

will end in misery.

Like dessert on a too-full stomach,

Maman’s cooking is too rich,

too heavy.

Bogging down my foggy mind.

No,

rabbit food will have to do.

Sometimes I fail, and I indulge.

Feeling, in those 20 minutes

before my new plateau derails,

that everything is back to normal.

And I am just home

on a Saturday morning...

 

My friends, my family, my community – they all know me as the confident, put-together girl who bounces from one extracurricular to the next with apparent ease. This show is my way of taking the mask off, even if just for an hour. This show is me admitting that sometimes I’m scared out of my mind, that sometimes I’m weak, that sometimes I cancel plans to go home and cry on my dorm room floor. The state of my head is my first thought in the morning, and most often the determinant of my bed time. I feel trapped by the things I have to do, or the food I have to eat, or the events I have to miss just to keep the muscle tension from getting worse than it is to start. In the show, I reference the exact number of days I’ve been dealing with the symptoms of my third concussion. When I was writing, that number was in the 300s. A week ago, that number doubled.

Stephanie Everett performing a staged reading of It’s Fine, I’m Fine for a full house at Northern Stage during the 2018 New Works Now Festival. Photo by Heidi Reynolds

But I am a happier person than I was at 300, and miles above where I was at 0. I found my way back to theater, and know wholeheartedly that it is what I want to pursue for the rest of my life. There is no better feeling than telling stories night after night that matter, that change lives. If my show makes just one more person think twice before making assumptions, I’ll be happy. I know this is what I am called to do – finding the silver linings, inspiring compassion, and making the invisible visible.



Leading to a Safer Future

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