The day that changed my life

Another corridor

I was seventeen, and alone, crying uncontrollably in the corridor. And I went to my French lesson anyway.


It was the end of form period and the bell had just rung for the final lesson of the day.
“Tanya, could you stay behind for a moment?” my form tutor asked.


I nodded, surprised. I rarely spoke to my form tutor. I was at a girls’ grammar school. Most of the students there were taking three A levels, as was normal; I was taking four. I had just finished my application for the top university in the country. This meant that my life consisted of me avoiding the flute and piano practice I was supposed to do, running from church meeting to orchestra, to school, to meeting my boyfriend, and then doing homework in the small corners in-between.

At the time that my form tutor had asked to speak to me, I was surreptitiously doing French vocabulary homework. This is how I fitted it all in; I was outlandishly lazy at some points, watching soap operas and procrastinating, and then squeezing out tiny fragments of time to the last drop, like I was wringing a flannel dry. French and Spanish homework was always done in lunch breaks and registration, Chaucer translation in the time that I was waiting to be collected from school. I was utterly focused on getting those four A grades and getting to the university of my choice. I just had to.

I was holding it together, but I was under a great deal of pressure. And that week, my Mum had gone into hospital. We didn’t know what was wrong (it turned out to be fairly minor and treatable) but she was in a lot of pain – and she was scared. Mums aren’t supposed to be scared or in hospital, and I was walking through my days with the precarious steps of someone who knew the ice could give way at any minute.

As it turned out, all it took was one question.

When all the rest of my form group had gone, it was just me and the form tutor who remained in the corridor.

“I spoke to your sister in Maths earlier in the day – and she told me your mum was in hospital, and she was having trouble finishing her homework. Why didn’t you tell me your mum was in hospital?”

I burst into tears. It was just that one question, it tipped me over the edge. I couldn’t even explain why. The pressure had got too great and I had cracked under questioning.

Immediately, my teacher looked uncomfortable. She hadn’t expected my reaction, and wasn’t really sure what to do with it.

“Oh, well – I’ve got to go and teach a lesson now. Will you be okay?”

I nodded yes, because there wasn’t much else I could do. I went, sobbing, to my French lesson. Why? Because I had to. I couldn’t not. I had four A Levels to do and a university place to win and four A grades to get.

I arrived late and hoped I wouldn’t get into trouble. I thought that the French would act as a distraction, but the tears kept spilling out sideways. I couldn’t stop them.

My French teacher, Mrs West – blessings upon her! – asked every single other person in the class to answer questions in French, and didn’t ask me a single thing.

I later discovered that she asked my friend to stay behind so that she could talk to her about me.

“It’s the pressure,” Mrs West told her. “This school… the pace of work…” She shook her head, and made my friend promise to look after me. She never said anything directly to me.

Then two weeks later I shared a drink with my sister, who had glandular fever (mononucleosis). My already stress-depleted immune system was knocked to the ground. My body had no resources left to fight the virus. I was off school, exhausted and flu-like, for two months.

What is the day that changed your life?

Most people with M.E can name the day they went from healthy to ill. They caught a virus and never recovered.

For me, the onset was much more insidious. It was triggered by the glandular fever and began as mild but was made worse by bad medical advice and my own stubborn determination to not give up what I held dear.

If you had told my seventeen-year-old self, ‘you need to rest and take a year out – this virus has the potential to seriously affect your health for decades afterwards if you don’t allow your body to properly recover now’ – I would probably not have done anything differently. I was so utterly focused on my goals, and so determined to be the best – it was all that mattered to me. I would have gladly sacrificed my future health (who cares about health when you’re OLD?) for the goal of getting into Cambridge. I had the foolish single-mindedness and misplaced idealism of a teenager because, after all, that is what I was.

That day, the day where I was crying in the corridor, could have changed my life. I could have taken stock, stepped back, adjusted my pace, dropped my workload, admitted that I didn’t have to achieve all that I wanted to, that it didn’t matter that much.

But I didn’t let it change my life, so the day I unsuspectingly drank from the same cup as my sister was the day that changed my life instead.


Novelists call these kinds of days ‘inciting incidents’: the pivotal moments, the forks in the road where the character makes an important decision which changes the course of their life. If I were a character in a story, I would have instantly learnt my lesson. Unfortunately, I’m a good deal more stubborn.

I have learnt, through long, painful lessons, that I need to let go, and that I need to surrender goals and my instinct to perfectionism. I leave things half-done and undone, and I have made my peace with that. (Mostly). I have learnt that I don’t need to compete with Jesus to be my own messiah, and that there is strength in being weak, because that is where grace is found.

In 2012, in my early thirties, I am better at dealing with the truth that I am not superwoman. I am better at accepting my limitations, and not pushing my body beyond its limits. I think back to the insistence and desperation that I held to my A Levels and I know that I am not that person anymore.

Today, I am feeling that tension between the old me and the new me. I am staring down the barrel of a busy (for me) September. I have guest posts that I have pre-written and guest-posters that I have invited – and there are new things happening in church. (It’s exciting!) But my health has slipped a little in the last week and I have spent the past three days in bed.

I know, the 2012-me knows, that I need to start looking at my life and seeing what I should cut. But there are still times, even today, when the seventeen-year-old in me pops up and cries in the corridor and goes to the French lesson anyway.

I don’t know about you, but I find that rather than having one life-altering and character-changing day, I repeatedly go through what feels like exactly the same thing, learning the same lesson over and over. We usually think of change as a u-turn, a reversal. But change, particularly character change, is not a u-turn but a spiral. It feels like you’re going in circles but you’re slowly getting closer to the target.

Sometimes holiness comes in a big whooshing breakthrough, a decisive victory. For me, it is one day after another, one foot in front of the other; a gradual, faltering stumbling towards wholeness and the One who makes all things new.

This blog was inspired by a new book: Inciting Incidents.
Inciting Incidents combines the unique stories from six creatives (artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, and leaders) managing the tensions between their faith, their place in life, and their work as artists. It is a collective call to face life’s imperfections and difficulties while attempting to do the great things we all want to do.

Over to you:
An inciting incident is one where a character is put under pressure or makes a discovery and has an ‘aha’ moment and changes their course as a result.

  • Can you think of incidents like that in your life?
  • Have you had one day that changed your life and character, or has it been a more subtle journey?


Linking with Life Unmasked at Joy in this Journey, WIP Weds and Imperfect Prose with Emily.

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54 Responses to The day that changed my life

  1. Joy @ Joy in this Journey 6th September, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading this little window into your life. We were very much the same as teens. I don’t have the chronic physical ailments now, but I am struggling in the mental health area. I think it’s been a slow steady stubborness and refusal to get help that has landed me here. I don’t know if anything would be different, but I suspect I’d be handling things better. This was a good reminder for me — I still need to take some steps to get healthier/take better care of myself.

    • Tanya 7th September, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      Thank you, Joy – it was hard writing this – I think it’s the admitting my weakness (again). I think mental health is even tougher to negotiate; it’s so hard to know when to get help and what will get you better. I suspect that sometimes those closest to us know better than we do about when we need to take steps to change. I’m finding great consolation in the fact that you were so similar to me as a teen – it’s always nice to find kindred spirits 🙂

  2. Bethany Ann 6th September, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    you sound like my sister.

    • Tanya 6th September, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

      Is that a good thing?? 🙂

  3. tanya @ truthinweakness 5th September, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    as always, my dear friend, there is so, so much i can relate to here. while many would look back on 9/16/2010 as the day that changed my life forever, i can certainly look back before then & see the pieces that led up to that day that i crashed.
    in fact, just yesterday, as i was pouring heaps of sea salt on my food (b/c my condition depends on it), i was thinking back to the time as a child when my father & i made a well-intended pact. my great uncle had died of a heart attack, & word at the time was that salt is bad. so my dad & i agreed to remove salt entirely from our diet, w/ only 3 exceptions. tomatoes, w/ he loved, but i never ate. popcorn, w/ i only ate once in a while when at a movie w/ friends. and corn on the cob, w/ of course was just a summer treat. i’m guessing we started that when i was around 8. and we both held to it until at least i was in college. likely a good 15+ years. so 15+ yrs of my body not getting the very thing it desperately needed to survive. but of course my body didn’t cry out overnight; it simply went without. and then add other factors & stressors of life, & it all caught up to me.
    but like you, i know that our tender Father allowed all of it for my good, & His glory. because like you, i am continuing to discover that “there is Strength in being weak, because that is where Grace is found.”
    thx so much for your transparent sharing, friend. i’m thankful for you, & the ways that His power is made gloriously perfect through you & your weakness.

    • Tanya 5th September, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

      Medical advice can be such a double-edged sword, can’t it?? I read again through your health crisis and though I don’t know what you have, some of the symptoms sound SO familiar. I suspect I probably need more salt in my diet than I have, too! Thanks so much for your encouragement to be brave in sharing my weakness – sometimes it’s easier than others…
      Much love to you, friend!

  4. Ange 5th September, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    I got flu at the end of the autumn term in my second year at Cambridge, I was just 20 . I came home aĂąd slept for 48 hours and figured that was it. . I sent the next two terms sleeping 18 hours a day and scraping through my work and the next decade paying the price because I could not conceive of having time out. Ironically for me pregnancy was the thing that began my recovery. It’s 25 years later now, but I still have to be careful. I know flu type viruses can wipe me out… Swine flu was a bit of a slammer!! My big regret is how depleted my 20s were in terms of energy , a time when most people have lots! Still, I wouldn’t be the person or the priest I am today without those years…

    • Tanya 5th September, 2012 at 10:36 am #

      My doctor described pregnancy as reshuffling the deck in the immune system – I’m thankful you got a better ‘hand’ at the end of it!
      Thanks so much for sharing your story.

      • JB 14th May, 2013 at 3:59 am #

        I’m really curious to hear more about people’s experiences with this. I think that I may have been pregnant (and miscarried) at the beginning of my illness, which might have dealt me a “bad hand” as far as my illness has gone. I do wonder what will happen if my husband and I try to get pregnant again.

        • Tanya 22nd May, 2013 at 11:22 am #

          It’s so hard to know and try and self-diagnose, isn’t it?

          Thinking of you.

  5. Nick 4th September, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    Uni didn’t turn out too bad 😉
    Thanks for the post. I was just thinking, as I responded to a Tweet just now, that life lived more ‘publicly’ through openness in blogs/tweets and the like, while perhaps a bit scary and challenging, can also be so much more rewarding in terms of relationship and community.

    • Tanya 5th September, 2012 at 10:26 am #

      Well, obviously it worked out incredibly well, because I ended up at the actual best university in the country! :-). I am so thankful for my university experience – it was so healing for me in so many ways.

      And thanks for the affirmation about living life publicly – it is certainly scary at times, and this one felt more scary than the average one…

  6. Mia 4th September, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Dear Tanya
    A dear Christian lady once remarked that the saying goes that we learn through the mistakes of others. What actually puzzled her was if we all learn from others’ mistakes, who are the others that make the mistakes? I cannot really answer, but I have found that the stubborn person that I am trying to overcome only learns through my own mistakes, and then only after I have repeated them quite a few times. LOL.
    Mia from

    • Tanya 5th September, 2012 at 10:24 am #

      Ha! I think that most of us only learn through our mistakes – I’m glad to find I’m not the only stubborn one!

  7. Caris Adel 4th September, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    “But change, particularly character change, is not a u-turn but a spiral.” I love this. This is what I’ve experienced, and I often say ‘I’m spiraling down’ – usually in a bad, depressive sense, but when I work my way out of it, I find myself so much closer to the center than I was before.

    • Tanya 5th September, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      I love this thought and I love-love-loved your inciting incidents story – great to connect with you!


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