Personal Stories

How Hitting Rock Bottom Helped Me Soar

As moms, we try and teach our kids to have compassion for others and resilience to overcome any obstacle as they get older. As adults, reality still hits when we go through hard lessons and receive ridicule in certain situations. However, we must persevere. Mary Spillane shares her profound story about being diagnosed with Shingles in college, and how it made her realize that life can be cruel, but forgiving. She helps us see that despite hitting rock bottom, you can reach new heights as a strong, independent woman. 


“How Hitting Rock Bottom Helped Me Soar”

By Mary Spillane


To date, the worst thing I have ever had to endure was a freak sickness my junior year of college. It is a week I will never forget—as it changed everything about me and began a journey that has brought me to where I am today.

Life seemed to be pretty smooth for me. I had an amazing childhood. Two loving parents, two older brothers, a lot of friends, and moving myself through college. At the time, I was on track to graduate with an accounting degree from a great university with an acclaimed business school.

Hitting rock bottom

The school year was nearly over—with only the Little 500 (the largest party weekend of the year and exams) before we would be cut loose for Summer vacation. The weather had been cooperating and Spring was in the air.

My roommate Ann and I had turned the corner on dating, and had become involved with two graduate school guys that were friends. Together, the four of us made it through the wild weekend, and were preparing for final exams when I started having this crazy twitch in my left eye which soon morphed into an earache.

We had been spending a lot of time in the pool at our apartments, so I just thought I had water in my ear. After a couple days, and some prompting from my roommates and boyfriend, I decided to stop by the local Health Center to have someone take a look.

Yep, water in my ear was the initial diagnosis, so back to my apartment I went.

The ear pain became more and more intense and I remembered having many earaches as a child.

Therefore, I thought perhaps this was normal.

The weekend rolled on.

It was soon Monday morning, and the day of my first final exam. I was not much of a morning person (definitely more of a night owl) and the only one of the four of us in the apartment. I woke up feeling strange. It was at this very moment that I watched the most bizarre thing happen to my own body.

As I tried to pucker my lips to spread lip balm on them, the entire left side of my face paralyzed from top to bottom. I stared at myself in the mirror, trying not to lose it, but to no avail. I freaked out!

I ran to the phone (yes, these were the days of the landline), and called my mom…

I tried to remain calm so as not to scare her, but could not help crying. But, my mother is a cool cat, so upon hearing the news and without a hint of being frazzled, she calmly told me to get the phonebook and look up ENT in the yellow pages. “ENT, what in the hell is that mom?”

She explained that it was an ear, nose, and throat specialist, and instructed me to call them immediately. She said to tell them exactly what happened to my face, and that I was headed to their office via taxi. Pronto!

I arrived at the doctor looking like the victim of a stroke.

I remember being scared and embarrassed. The doctor explained that I had Herpes Zoster, AKA Shingles, in my inner ear and that I was about to become extremely sick.

I asked him, “Will my face go back to normal?”

He looked at me straight in the eye and said “No”.


This was when I completely lost it. He instructed me to call my parents and ask them to drive to Bloomington to pick me up. I really don’t remember leaving his office, but I do remember sitting on the curb outside of the building balling my eyes out while I waited for my friend Colleen to arrive.

She drove me to my apartment where I quickly locked myself in my room and began to pack my things.

There would be no finals, no friends, and certainly no boyfriend as I told him he could not come and see me. What else could I do but shelter myself from everyone...?

My condition made me unbelievably sick while the Shingles attached to my 7th and 8th nerves. I couldn’t close my eye, I wore a patch to attempt to prevent the damage. And, I couldn’t eat because I was battling constant bouts of Vertigo and bed spins for months… without even being drunk! I became extremely depressed.

The only time I left my house was for doctor visits.

I cried all the time and asked myself, “Why did this happen to me?”

“What did I do to deserve this?”

I was 21 with my entire life ahead of me. How would any man ever think I was pretty? How would people act when they saw me again?

As a result, I told my parents I was dropping out of college.

Looking back, I’m sure I scared the hell out of them, but their hands were tied.

So, they sent me to Canada and then to England so I could see certain doctors with the hope that they could help me. There was nothing else they could do. I was terrified.

I am not exactly sure what happened next—or what made me pull on the big girl pants—but I showed up in Bloomington a couple weeks later after classes had already started. And, I began to put the pieces together.

I decided to meet with all of my professors and explain the situation; even those whose finals I had missed. Luckily, I had solid grades up until that point—as all but one of them had already put a grade on my transcript without me taking the exam. It was a brutal time for me, however, I was able to somehow complete my studies and graduate.

Writing this right now has me in tears. Are they tears of joy? Old tears I never shed? Tears that I am strong and a fighter who never gives up? I imagine they are a combination of the two.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away, it’s don’t let anyone tell you life isn’t hard. Life can be really hard, but we are strong women.

We deal, and we cope.

We compromise, and we turn the other cheek.

We also try and ignore people when they talk behind our back—and when they do, we come up with something witty when some jackass asks us what happened to our face in a mean manner…

And, we teach our children to have compassion, too. We teach them to always be kind, especially to those who don’t look the same.

I have (to an extent) now learned to deal with my paralysis. And, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I could have a fully functional face again; but I’ve made it work and have been fairly successful at just being me. Women are true warriors.

With all this said and done, this particular experience is actually the first of several hardships that I have endured in my 50-plus years on this planet. (More stories to come for RedLily readers soon!) 

I guess the moral of my story is that I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy. However, it has shaped me into the strong, independent woman I am today.

And for that I am truly grateful.


About the Author: Mary Forray Spillane is currently an island girl living life in Belize while reinventing herself for the 114th time! She strives to have a positive impact on those whose paths she crosses, and feels her life is 1.5 degrees of separation. Through her extensive travel and life experiences, she aims to connect the dots in this connected world. Let her zest for life help you see the beauty of whatever “reef” you may find yourself on. Follow on Instagram @drinkwineandbemaryagain

Editor’s note: Watch out for more personal essays from Mary for RedLily™ in the near future. We love to hear her inspiring stories that help guide us through the many obstacles in our lives. For more heart-warming works like Mary’s, read our other Personal Stories and Life Lessons. Namaste!



    1. Thank you for checking out our site, Kimberly. We look forward to publishing some of your personal works in the near future. The RedLily team.

  • This outstanding woman crossed my path just about a year ago. Turns out we are both from Indiana! We became part time neighbors when she bought her house on the same corner of our little Island in Belize. We got to be great friends – I’m Ethel to her Lucy!- over the few months I spent alone on the Island. I’m amazed at what she has overcome and what she has accomplished in her life. She has a huge personality and a bigger sense of humor. And an absence of self pity.
    She has some amazing stories to share. Hopefully she’ll share them with all of you.
    Love you Lucy!

    1. We hope she does! Mary is delightful and very enthusiastic about sharing her stories to help others understand that they are not alone. She is awesome. We are so grateful to be a vehicle for her to do so and help enhance her personal journey. Thank you for reading and commenting. We really appreciate it!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Scott. All positive vibes here. Mary has definitely demonstrated triumph over struggle. We are so proud of her, too! The RedLily team.

  • Mary is an incredible force and source of energy & possibilities. Seven years ago I had the good fortune of meeting her through a mutual friend from my high school years. While Mary wouldn’t wish her challenging experience on anyone, there are tons of people who would love to be #drinkwineandbemaryagain. And because none of can hold a candle to all she is, I’m among the lucky to have been in her company and look forward to being in her company again in 2020!

    1. That’s fantastic to hear! Mary’s story has inspired many and we look forward to working with her more in the future also. Thank you for your comments and please sign up for our newsletter to learn more about upcoming content on our site.

  • Mary you are a beautiful soul girl!! I can’t wait to see the rest of your stories, you are truly an inspiration! You have built a wonderful life for yourself & that handsome boy!! Hope to see you soon <3

    1. We agree! We look forward to more writing from Ms. Spillane very soon 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to comment on our platform. We hope you signed up for our newsletter where you will receive all sorts of inspiring content updates every month. xo

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