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Ellery Kemner: Staying positive in the face of being broken

After an injury left her with debilitating migraines, Ellery Kemner survived a massive seizure at the start of her sophomore year of high school.

During the healing process, the young millennial decided that the experience would not define her or limit who she could go on to become. Kemner’s courage and determination enabled her to reach through the pain and find hope. Her positive outlook has become an inspiration to others, including her unique perspective on body perception and the effects of social media.

Using makeup to depict the migraines, these selfies by Kemner captured her feelings at the time.

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Q&A with Ellery Kemner

Q: What is the fondest memory of your youth, and who was the most influential person in your life?

A: My fondest memory is a culmination of discussions with my dad. Since I was first able to talk, he would speak to me as if I was his equal. He used words that I couldn’t repeat without getting tongue tied, and he pushed me to excel in everything I tried. Throughout the years since, I’ve started to understand our conversations more. I’ve realized that I can be a driver in discussions, and that I can make other people think as much as he made me think. I’ve been able to use the memories of my dad pushing me to think critically and speak fluently to my advantage. I truly feel like I’m a contributor as well as a better listener now. My dad has been amazingly influential to who I have become, and who I strive to be.

Q: Since you are not originally from Milwaukee, what is your personal impression of the city?

A: In regards to what I think about the city, I was immediately struck by the creativity of Milwaukee. It seemed like every corner had something tasteful to see, in what I’m starting to think of as a “Milwaukee Way.” Chicago was the city I knew best before coming here, and despite the beauty of a big city like that, it’s completely vanilla compared to Milwaukee. I love the Mom & Pop stores, and the unique art that exists on every block. Milwaukee is definitely my favorite city.

Q: What are you doing now with your education and why did you pick that academic path?

A: I go to Marquette University as a business student in the honors college. So I am balancing honors curriculum and trying to match it with business courses. I have not picked my major yet, and want to spend some time to see what direction the classes take me. I was lucky enough to get a science teacher who I absolutely hated in high school. It allowed me to realize that I no longer had a passion for the subject. My father is a scientist so I thought I could deal with that field of study, but it just didn’t work out for me.

Q: Can you talk about the injury that you suffered from, and the condition of your health situation?

A: After my freshman year of high school, I was involved with a bunch outdoor activities as a way to stay busy during the summer. One day I was on a set of bleachers, just messing around with friends. Someone came up behind me while I was looking over the edge. You know when someone pushes you forward and then pulls you back, and says ‘gotcha’ to try and scare you a little bit? So they pushed me, but the railing I was leaning on was a really old. It broke as I was pushed forward, before they could pull me back. I fell down and hit my head on concrete or metal, I’m not really sure, but I got a really bad head injury that left me unconscious for a while.

It was near the end of the summer when this happened. Afterwards, I was sleeping a lot at the time, plus having trouble eating. I wasn’t having headaches, but I felt a bit off. Then right before the first day of school, which was two weeks after my injury, I had an absolutely debilitating migraine. It wasn’t a kind of headache that I ever experienced before, so I just let it slide and told myself that I must have been dehydrated. I went to school the next day, which was the first day of my sophomore classes, and it went pretty well. Then I went to school the second day, and all of a sudden I got there and another one of those migraines hit me. So I had to leave school.

I was having trouble walking, I was having trouble sitting up and opening my eyes. Eventually these migraines were happening for eight hours a day. As it progressed, for maybe three of the eight hours I would be having hallucinations during the migraines. I never traced anything I suffered from back to my accident with the head injury.

The doctors could not determine the problem either, it was not something they had seen before. So they gave me a lot of medications. We were switching from one medication to another, doing CAT scans and MRIs. Then they gave me one drug, a stimulant to hopefully alleviate the migraines. Something in my body didn’t react well to it. One or two days after I switched to another medication, I had a seizure.

We were never sure how the medications triggered it. But I had the episode in the middle of the night. Luckily my parents heard that there was something going with me, and they got to my room while I was in the middle my seizure. I don’t know how long it lasted, but they called 911 and when the paramedics got there they were able to sedate me. But I remained unresponsive and unconscious for three to four days. I consider it technically a coma, for lack of a better word. The reason I don’t know these times exactly or some of my condition is because it’s been difficult for my family to talk about with me. I think what happened is still upsetting for them, and they are not ready to have a discussion. So for some things I am left to my own understanding and interpretation.

Q: What did the whole experience of overcoming these medical problems teach you about yourself?

A: As horrible as the experience was, I came out of it with my migraines almost entirely gone. It all worked out, but it was a very long and extensive process to get there. And now I have a lot of physical limitations that stop me from doing some of the things I love. My body had gone through a lot of trauma, with the impact to my head and the seizure. I wanted to run a marathon, that was a huge goal. I got up to about 13 or 14 miles that I could do. Now I can run for about 5 to 15 minutes tops. But having an injury like that, and having it ultimately work out so well, taught me to be more positive. I’m just so thankful that the migraines ended. I went from being not able to think for eight hours a day, to being able to think clearly again. I’ve always valued my mind, but to be able to think a thought without pain was something I was so happy about.

The switch from having more of a mind problem to having more of a body problem was absolutely liberating to me, because I could put all of my mental energy into fixing my body. Like how I could improve my circulation so my legs wouldn’t go numb, what type of workouts could I do, or the kind of food I should eat. I was starved for using my brain after it was clouded so long in pain. The entire experience just led me to being more positive, and more willing to work for things that used to come easily, like being able to walk. I’ve had this attitude that everything will bounce back as long as I’m willing to work for it. So my attitude has become overwhelmingly positive, and always working for positivity.

Q: How do people treat you now after the accident, or react when they hear about what you went through?

A: I get a lot of feedback, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Sometimes even my close friends who know about my injury don’t connect what happened to why I changed. I spend at least two hours a day doing physical activities, just to keep the circulation flowing in my body so parts don’t go numb.

It’s been about three years now since the injury, and I really know what I need to do to keep my body feeling good. A lot of people come up to me and say it’s been so inspiring to see my progress and watch what I’m doing. I was really sad my sophomore year when I had all the migraines, and people saw me suffer. Now they see how I care about my body and health, and it looks like I enjoy doing it. It isn’t a task for me to eat well or work out.

But some people really misunderstand me. I don’t hear that from them directly, because that’s the type of generation I’m from. We like to do things through social media, instead of having direct conversations. So I have heard that some people consider me to be superficial, because they think that I do everything just for body image.

I can’t blame them for having that opinion, but I also can’t lie to myself. A part of why I work out is to look and feel good. When I take the time to sit down and tell someone the full story about my experience, they do understand. Then it makes sense why I meticulously prepare what I eat, and meticulously count the calories, and meticulously plan my workout routine.

Q: What is the most difficult thing for you to talk about, regarding your medical condition?

A: When people know the outcome of my story, they respond by focusing on the rebound. That is a great and positive way of looking at my experience, but I think it adds to the taboo that we shouldn’t talk about the difficult aspects. Sometimes just chewing food would hurt so I didn’t eat for two days, but whenever I got hungry I would also get a migraine.

I never felt 100% normal, and everything about the condition really wore on me. I could see the life that I knew falling apart around me. I could see my 4.0 GPA going down the toilet. I got C’s and D’s if I was lucky and a teacher had sympathy for me.

I couldn’t hang out with my friends, because I physically couldn’t. And everyone in my world was maybe a bit self-centered and just didn’t notice that I was not as available as I used to be before the injury. I took that as a personal insult, like they don’t care. So it’s easy to talk about the rebound from my injury to people, and of course I’m very proud of that and the work that I’ve done. But I’m also very proud of what I went through, that I endured a very harsh time.

I missed out on a lot of things, but it helped me overcome a lot of things too. So I don’t like the taboo of not talking about it all, and how difficult parts were instead of just talking about how well they turned out. People feel more comfortable if I only talk about positive aspects of my struggle, and leave out a huge and important part, which is the difficulty. Migraines are difficult, seizures are difficult, and it makes your entire life difficult.

Q: Why do you think it is easier for people to care about their body with diets and exercise, but not pay attention to the health of their mind?

A: I see where some people want to eat better and want to work out more to improve what they look like. So they go through the steps necessary to achieve those results, sometimes small and sometimes lifestyle changes. But I don’t know if people are as willing to make the effort with their mind, because when we use our minds we don’t necessarily see a visible outcome. When we use our minds and engage ourselves, there is not a tangible affect like how we can see weight loss or muscle gain. Knowing your mind and seeing it progress is harder. When someone is very anxious, they do not make a correlation that if they take time to relax now, they will be 5% happier the next day. We can’t quantitate what’s inside our heads.

Q: What is the one the thing that no one ever asks you about?

A: I was never diagnosed, but I would say I had depression. When I talk to people, I don’t normally talk about how I was depressed. I just say it was really difficult, and look at these things that I was able to come back and do. But if I’m honest with myself, during that time I was severely depressed in response to my physical limitations.

I was overwhelmed with pain, and I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. So I just fell into this lethargic state. What finally made the biggest difference was that I simply hated it. It was not like I had depression and I hated myself. I hated what was happening, I hated the depression itself and wanted to do something about it.

I was very willing to go through a hard time to make it go away. To me, fighting depression was hard and being depressed was hard. Choose your hard. So I chose the hard that meant I would get better even if it took more time to accomplish. I tried everything I thought would help, and it was also depressing just to realize how far I had to go, which made the beginning of my efforts a lot harder. I continued to stay depressed, because things did not get better with a snap of a finger. But I stayed willing and kept making the effort, because not trying made me feel worse.

Q: Where did you find the courage to work through the physical and mental limitations that you wanted to overcome?

A: I didn’t see many other options to the situation, so I was ready to do something. Every medication that doctors gave me seemed to have no effect or a worse effect. I had to go to physical therapy, and could pass out after less than a minute of doing exercises that only required me to move my eyes back and forth.

Just taking a shower would hurt my skin from the pressure contact with water. Every little thing became a big thing. So the big thing of fighting depression became just as difficult as everything else. I had this laundry list of things to get through, one of them was taking a shower today, one of them was getting my clothes on, and one of them was going to physical therapy. I figured, I might as well add working on my attitude to the list.

Before my seizure, I had entirely given up. There’s no doubt about it. I gave up. I didn’t say or do anything, I just collapsed within my agony from the migraines. But I was lucky that I almost died, because that kind of woke me up. It showed me that I couldn’t give up, that I could still fight, and fighting was okay, it was completely normal to try and regain what seemed like my sanity. I felt a lot of hope because I really needed to feel a lot hope. I didn’t have that in my condition and I wanted to have it. So I grabbed for it. I reached for hope.

I could imagine a world where I was okay, because I remembered it had once existed. I knew I would not grab that vision on my first try, but I kept trying and kept getting closer, despite how difficult and exhausting it was. The more I could see it, the more real that world became, until I was finally okay. And then I found the world that I knew had existed, free of daily migraines and hallucinations.

Q: What did faith mean to you during this experience?

A: As much as faith was a big part of the process, it also wasn’t necessarily the crucial part. There were a lot of things that I couldn’t do. Sometimes I’d wake up and be lucky enough to not have a migraine. I wouldn’t know how I’d feel by Sunday, but I knew I could attend the 5:00 a.m. mass that day. So it was irregular when I would be physically able to get to church. I usually didn’t know if I was able to attend until I was on the way to church. It was very nice to have that consistency in such an inconsistency. To have no idea when I could go and to be okay with that. Sometimes I could go to church twice a week, sometimes I wouldn’t go for three weeks.

And I noticed that I never got a migraine while I was at church. When I was thinking really hard, my body was working really hard, and my mind would protest with pain. But when I was feeling really hard, and when I was believing really hard, and when I was able to remove myself from my own mind, I was a peace. So church was the place that helped me take myself outside of my mind. I can certainly pray to God when I’m not at church, but I just had a complete silence of mind and body, and a complete sense of spirit while I was there.

Q: Are there any after-effects from your medical condition that have consequences for your future?

A: I do this really cute thing, where I look like a newborn giraffe and I just fall over. When I get overly active, the muscles starts to inflame the nerves and they get excited. I’ve lost a lot of nerve connections, the were damaged or burned away, when I had my seizure. So if I exert myself too much my body reacts. I can feel my pinky toes go numb, and then that spreads over my foot and to the ankle, until it gets to my knee. That’s when I know I need to stop whatever I’m doing and give myself a twenty minute massage before I can continue. A couple times the numbness has gotten up to my hips, but it very rare when that happens. In the summer when I worked at a pool, and after being out in the hot sun all day I would ride my bike home. My toes would be cold by the time I got there.

One thing I noticed was that my handwriting had changed. I’m proud to say that I have wonderful penmanship, but it’s a whole new style from before. I looked at notebooks I had written in during my freshman year. I had to retrain and regain some understanding of how to use my hands. So by my senior year, my handwriting was entirely different. But it was not something I noticed until I looked back on much later.

Q: Do you think sometimes people define you by the the accident and your recovery process?

A: It is so easy to talk about the negatives. There are stories behind them. There is the lead up, the horrible event, and the finale. As much as we can learn from those negative experiences, I think it is so important to put them into perspective. Yes, I had a horrible injury. And yes, some aspects of it still plague me. But if I was to be interviewed on all of the love I have experienced, on the good fortune I’ve had, or on the friends I’ve been inspired by, there wouldn’t be an end to my stories. It is so important to live and learn from negative occurrences. But I want to make it clear that my injury, and the way I suffer from it, make up a very tiny part of who I am. I remain a positive and self-motivated individual, and I am continuing to growing as a person beyond my injury.

Q: As part of a generation that has grown up with social media, what is your opinion of the platform and its affect on people you know?

A: I think that with social media there’s a great positivity for my generation, but also a great dependence. Something I really love is that we can use it as a demonstration of self, but I also think that people sometimes use it instead as a creation of self. When people do this, they fall into the trap of losing who we really are. People end up losing their opportunity for natural confidence. I’m engaging my true self on social media, and I don’t think that hiding what I look like is fair to who I am. Social media should be an extension of myself.

I get concerned when friends do some things online, because I want to see them act that way in person. Posting a photo of yourself on social media can make a person feel vulnerable. But it is still hiding behind a screen. I would love to see them be vulnerable and genuine in person, instead of being closed off and socially withdrawn.

I think that my generation is all too happy to create a dichotomy between ourselves and the older generation. The idea that my generation is misunderstood is popular, but I’ve never been interested in joining that bandwagon. Instead, I think that my generation needs to work harder to understand the experiences of those before our time, and apply that understanding to present day challenges.

Q: What motivated you to attend the Women’s March in Riverwest, that was part of a nationwide protest the day after Trump’s inauguration?

A: I’m very much a feminist, but I’m also very much not an adult. Even though I legally am at 19, I’ve only had five years to actually think about feminism issues as fully as I can. My opinion at this point changes after a few months, just because as I grow and learn in school I am exposed to new things to think about. I’m also in an environment where these topics are evolving.

I was at Woman’s March on January 21 for a culmination of reasons. I don’t necessarily stand for or even understand every aspect what the march represented. For example, I haven’t been following the issue of Sheriff Clarke beyond the basics. And because I didn’t know the extent of the situation, I did not feel comfortable when the marchers were chanting about him. Otherwise, it was enough for me to just be a part of the event.

With the current political climate, I see how people spend their time on social media. They can make statements of displeasure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is going to get satisfaction out of it, or solve any of the problems. So I attended the march in person to stood in solidarity with many other people. I went to make a statement of what I am displeased about, with a great organization that focused on a multitude of issues.

I was also at the Woman’s March as a way to investigate myself and what I stand for. I wanted to learn how I should be expressing myself, and I found that I really liked it. Not only was I able to express myself, but I was also able to listen. There are so many opinions that I have about politics. And at the March I was exposed to so many new ones, it was a great opportunity to grow and learn and even change how I feel about an issue.

As vague as it sounds, I want to get more involved in the current political situation. Maybe in five or ten years there will be another opportunity for me to march, and I’ll decide at that time its not for me, even if I have the exact same opinions that I do now. I may not wish to voice them, or choose to voice them in different ways.

Q: What do you think about for your future beyond college?

A: In four years I’m going to be graduating and going on to graduate school. But also, I will be going into the work community, and that is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I had an internship over the summer and I was working in the business world. I was going to work, and I was dressing for work, and I was trying to be engaged. I noticed there were so many things to think about that I had not been exposed to before, about being a woman in business.

Women must act professionally, which is very different from how men must act professionally. I think my biggest concern is, will it be possible for me as a woman to be as successful as a man in business. There’s a whole aspect of how women are treated in business. With the Trump administration, and how he has talked about women, he expressed more negative opinions about women than I knew existed.

Q: If you could put a message in a time capsule, for your future self to read a couple decades from now, what would you say?

A: In a few decades I would want to remind myself of how proud I am right now. It’s sometimes hard to be proud of yourself out loud. It can be seen as bragging or even fishing for compliments. But as honestly as I can say that, I don’t want to brag and I don’t need compliments. I also want to give myself credit for the successes and failures I’ve been daring enough to experience. I love that I always put too much on my plate. So the one thing I would want to tell myself in a few decades is ‘way to be a go-getter, and keep going out and getting done as much as you can.’

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© Photo

Lee Matz

Selfies by Ellery Kemner, using makeup to depict how the migraines made her feel.

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe, with a background in publishing, advertising, and design, to the Milwaukee Independent. His list of awards include three consecutive top honors from the Milwaukee Press Club. Lee proudly uses MCTS as his exclusive mode of transportation, other than walking, for all the news stories he reports about in Milwaukee.

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