Making Order of Disorder

Natalie Aiken (Photo by Duane Zehr)

July 31, 2018

By Matt Hawkins

As Natalie Aiken ’19 prepared to leave the hospital after a weeklong stay her first year of college, she had a thought: How am I going to handle a month away from my support system? In the hospital’s comforting confines, she had found peace in a chaotic world amplified by a lifelong struggle with anxiety issues.

The public relations major would be leaving a place of comfort in fellowship with new friends. These friends, mostly from Bradley’s speech team, took her to the emergency room late one night when her body suddenly convulsed. They visited her daily as she went through tests and met with doctors. They slipped her treats and binge-watched “The Bachelor” together until nurses kicked them out at night.

They helped her through the first few days after she was diagnosed with conversion disorder (CD), a neurological condition triggered by her ongoing battle with anxiety. First-year-of-college stressors aggravated symptoms, as seizures are one of the disorder’s outcomes. Aiken’s was non-electric, which meant she was conscious and aware of her body’s flailing.

After her release, she would be sequestered in her family’s Wood Dale, Ill., home for a doctor-prescribed rest. She would be nearly three hours from her college friends, not focusing on school and college life. Most importantly, she would miss valuable preparation for the speech team’s spring national tournaments.

“I didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “Everything in me said this would be the longest month of my life because I wouldn’t know what to do while everyone’s lives kept going.”

Break began with two relaxing weeks to refresh her nerves. The time helped Aiken develop healthy practices like creating a routine, eating healthy and meditating.

Teacher education instructor Jim Burdette and former biology instructor Kimberly Pelphrey stayed in contact and gave a few homework assignments to ease her back into the college grind. In addition, Aiken kept connected with Peoria through routine FaceTime chats.

“I was so lucky to have faculty support even though they didn’t fully understand what I was going through. I couldn’t have come back that semester without their help,” Aiken said. “You wouldn’t think anyone would be so thrilled to be back in BIO 101, but there I was.”

Aiken returned to Peoria in time for speech team nationals preparation; However, a conversation with then-assistant coach Tanya Melendez ended competition dreams.

“Tanya told me I had no idea what I was capable of — if I took time off,” Aiken said. “That was tough to hear. I wanted so badly to go to nationals, but I had to understand the world went on without me.”

Instead, Aiken watched from the sidelines. It was strange to not be in the center of activity, but the team kept her engaged. She watched coaches’ homes and cheered from afar while the team finished third at the National Forensics Association finals.

The rest of the semester provided time to manage the disorder. Dietary changes cut caffeine and she learned to cope with stress triggers such as disorganized dorm rooms. Most importantly, she prioritized her schedule to get more rest and include regular exercise and mindfulness activities.

Two years after the disorder’s onset, she still has seizures several times a week, but Aiken and her friends no longer panic when those strike. Knowing they often hit after a stressful situation passes, she can predict when she’s likely to have one. Faculty and friends continue to offer assistance, and speech team coaches accommodate her needs.

CD also triggered an unexpected career change. As she coped with the condition and felt care from all campus corners, she switched from psychology to public relations. The shift followed her maturation from a shy freshman to a passionate advocate for herself and others.

“This disorder showed me what I could do with my life,” Aiken said. “I moved past fear and followed what I love. It’s all because I was lucky enough to have a support system to help me along the way.”