STELLA: THE COMEBACK KID, A FIGHTER, A BORN TEACHER
Why would you be in tears? I asked.
“If I couldn’t get a word. If I got stuck.” Her eyes stared straight ahead with a sideways smile and a small, slightly embarrassed laugh escaped from her. “And if I started crying then we were done.”
Stella Cox, a nearly-graduated student at Brigham Young University-Idaho, moves forward at almost arm’s length from her life-long dream of being an English and History teacher. It is her vision and her passion—but it wasn’t easy to make it to this day. With her beaming smile and deep, soothing laugh, it would be almost impossible to tell that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
As she sat comfortably on a leather couch, a black and gold-striped dress covering her from shoulder to toe, she started by telling me of her life before her love of words—how difficult it was for her—to get to this point in her life. “It seems like opposition has always been apparent in my life.”
It surprises me to hear from an English teacher that, as a child, she struggled to learn to read. Being from a family of 7, she felt that the beginning of her education was difficult. Newborns in the family caused her education to be “put on the back burner” when she started school, and by the time she was in second grade, testing showed that she was reading at a kindergarten level. When her mother heard this, she began to focus on her struggling child. “My mom freaked out,” she said.
For the rest of the school year, they read together every night. By the end of that year, she improved from a kindergarten level to a third-grade reading level. That growth continued into later years until, in sixth grade, they named her a gifted student. Her mother was impressed by this rapid change.
“My mom calls me ‘The Comeback Kid,’” she said, “because every time something hard happens, I always overcome it.”
She was right. Before high school, her parents were in the middle of divorce, and she had to move out of the house where she was born. Unsure of what would be happening, she focused her everything on her studies. She battled the effects of parental divorce and two deaths in her family which triggered a mental illness that left her battling for stability.
More trials came.
At age fifteen was her first sign of bipolar disorder. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary—just heartbreak. However, the emotional impact was just enough to trigger an episode. She explained how bipolar episodes happen with her.
“It’s always a six month build up.” She said. “I was still functional. . . [but] I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I stopped smiling. . . . Everyone just thought I was heartbroken until I was delusional.”
She explained how she refused to take her medicine, so it took a long time, but she improved. Because of this episode, she missed half of her sophomore year. When she was about to return to school, her brother, also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, committed suicide in a state of depression.
“He was 25, and that kills me because he was so young. I’m about to turn 25. I’m going to outlive him.” Her voice started to soften as she told me about her upcoming birthday.
This trial was the first time she crossed the line into mania. Catatonic states came, and so did the delusion. She still refused to take the medicine. Psychiatrists discussed her case, and one particular psychiatrist, unnamed, took personal interest in Stella. After much work, the girl finally agreed.
“I have not missed a day of my medication since I was 16.” She said proudly. “I will be [taking it] for the rest of my life.”
After a time, her outgoing personality returned. Several years passed, and she decided that she was going to serve 18 months away from home as a missionary. All the necessary checkups were made, and she was ready to go.
Another trial came.
As her gaze fixed on the wall ahead of us, there was absolute silence. “And then the week I was going to submit my papers [to leave],” she says, “my dad died.”
I felt tears come to my eyes as I saw her body cringe and her eyes squeeze shut. An agonized frown began to form on the sides of her mouth, and she continued her story all the way into her time in the mission in New York. After a few months there, she started to notice the signs of her illness in her behavior. Soon, her delusions started again, and she knew that her time in New York was already drawing to a close.
“I thought my dead brother was going to come visit me.” She said. “I knew I was going to have to go home but I didn’t want to.”
Out of some miracle, when her mother came to New York before travelling home together, she had a beautiful window of normality and no delusions. They were able to spend time together as mother and daughter. This was a tender moment for her.
As she spoke of this time with her mother, I saw the tears she had shed begin to dry as her focus was now on the positive. I thought of the pictures she had shown me of her mission. Their smiles in the pictures showed no sign of the trials.
I smiled with her happily as she explained that things have been ‘all her’ since then.
“I haven’t had a problem since I was 21.” She said. She laughed once and told me how blessed she was, even with the opposition. Then she cheerily taught me how to take care of my body with enough sleep, a healthy diet, exercise, and being mindful of stress levels.
“You know how you keep yourself out of an episode?” she asked. “All the things everyone should be doing anyway, so it forces me to just take care of myself. Which is awesome. . . I literally cannot miss a night of sleep; it might cause an episode. So do I stay up and study all night? No. Do I still get straight A’s? Yes.” She laughed.
After all of this, her outlook on life has changed. The way she interacts with others, the way she is always smiling and laughing and complimenting others, and how she can be so full of love of life is inspiring. This wonderful young woman has a light about her that can change the whole feeling in a room. Her cheer helps to open up even the shyest of persons. While her surroundings constantly change, she holds tightly to striving to live each and every moment with joy.
As she ends her final semester here in Rexburg, Idaho, she has reflected on all of the experiences that she has told me, along with many others. While teaching her students now and in the future, she will be able to see her students in a different light. She has realized from her trials that they have backgrounds and trials of their own. They have their own struggles and weaknesses, but in the eyes of “The Comeback Kid,” every time something hard happens, they can overcome it and move forward with hope… but for now, she might just keep on smiling.