Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Independent Woman - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Independent Woman.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


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Gina Hessburg: I will always crave going out and seeing a new place and experiencing it by myself. And that isn't because I don't want somebody else there and I don't want that shared experience. But when you're on your own, it opens the door for all these unknown variables to happen. And you can go in whatever way the current takes you.

[MUSIC: “Independent Woman” by Destiny’s Child]


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” 

And that was Gina. 

Well, the voice you heard at the top of the episode was Gina.

Those other voices you just heard belong to the supremely talented vocal group known as Destiny’s Child. Or, for the Gen Zers who are listening to this episode, “the girl group that Beyonce used to be in.” You’re gonna need to Google it. 

Actually, I did hear that Gen Z is really into Destiny’s Child, and I think that’s great. It makes me proud of all of you.

In their 1999 hit “Independent Women Part 1,” the lyrics go: “All the women, who are independent, throw your hands up at me.”

And Gina is that quintessential independent woman. She is throwing her hands up at Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle. She’s 43 years old. She’s single. She doesn’t have children. She’s a producer. And she’s a world traveler — she’s been to more than 25 countries so far, and many of those trips were solo. 

The idea of going to a totally new country, by myself, for more than a month at a time, with just a backpack and some cash for a hostel that I have to share with at least four other strangers, makes me ... not want to go anywhere. But Gina isn’t like me. 


Gina Hessburg: I don't think that there is a greater thing that I have ever done for myself than solo travel, and I would recommend that everybody do it at least once. I think that it is probably the most spiritual experience I can have, to land in a place that's foreign to me and see people just living their lives and the world continuing to revolve without my interaction or involvement, and that people all over the world do things completely differently, and everything can be done in a million ways and it still works. I think that having the space and time to just sit and observe and to wander and to take in the world around you is such a gift to give to yourself. And it's brought me a lot of joy. I think it's also made me more adaptable in my career. It's made me more diplomatic. It's made me a better communicator. It's something that I can't imagine not having in my life. And you meet so many incredible people. And I think maybe when you're with another person, or when you're with someone else, you're distracted by them. So you don't end up engaging in these really spontaneous and amazing ways.

Nora McInerny: Yeah, you also don't have to be like, “I don't know, is that what you want for lunch? Are you sure? I mean, I could do something else if you don't want to. That's fine. You sure?”

Gina Hessburg: Yeah. You could be like, “I'm eating now. I'm stopping for a glass of wine now. I don't care if it's 11 a.m.”


In fact, that’s what Gina was doing when COVID-19 hit in 2020 — not having a glass of wine at 11 a.m., although MAYBE SHE WAS. I literally don’t know! But as news of the growing pandemic spread, Gina cut her trip short.


Gina Hessburg: I think my flight took off at like 9:30 in the morning. And it was the second to the last flight to go off the tarmac. And so there was all these people at the airport that had no way of getting home. And it was so surreal to be in this ginormous international airport and there's hardly anybody in there, and the people that are in there are holding their breath. And I remember thinking, like, "When this flight takes off, everybody's going to cheer, because we're going home." And it didn't happen. And that felt very anticlimactic, and maybe we're not out of this yet.


At the beginning of the pandemic, lots of people were facing long stretches of isolation for the first time in their lives. But not Gina. Because on top of traveling alone, Gina’s also used to spending long periods of time alone in her apartment. That’s because she’s living with a mysterious, undiagnosable autoimmune disorder. And that autoimmune disorder causes her to have what are called optic neuritis attacks. 


Gina Hessburg: So optic neuritis is an autoimmune response where the optic nerve inflames. And the optic nerve is part of the brain -- it's not part of the eye. But the optic nerve obviously transmits light from the eye to the brain. And so when it inflames, it can potentially cause damage. And the more times it inflames, the more damage, and the potential that the damage is irreversible. So it can lead to blindness.


By the time we record this in 2021, Gina has had four optic neuritis attacks so far. With each one, she loses more of her vision. 

Her first one happened in 2017, when she was traveling like she does so often: adventurously and alone. 


Gina Hessburg: I was traveling in Nicaragua initially with a friend. We went to surf camp on the front end of the trip. And I was sick about three weeks before. Everybody always thinks that I got sick in Nicaragua and I picked up something in Nicaragua. I did not. I had sort of a respiratory flu thing three weeks before, and I was super sick, and I was still pretty lethargic going on to this trip. But I went on it, anyway. And after my friend and I went to surf camp, she left, and I proceeded to travel onto these little islands called the Corn Islands. And I went scuba diving on Big Corn. And then that day I took a boat over to Little Corn. And I didn't have pain. I didn't have any indication that this thing was going to happen, and I was feeling physically better. And the next morning, I woke up and I kind of felt like I was looking through, like, horizontal plastic lines in my eye, almost. It was just weird. I have always had 20/20 perfect vision and I didn't know what was going on.


At first, Gina thinks she … might just be hungover. She’s on vacation! In Nicaragua! Meeting folks from other countries and spending her evenings drinking rum and playing cards! No one would blame her for having a hangover. But normal hangovers don’t generally include suddenly feeling like you’re staring at the world through Venetian blinds.

Gina’s starting to panic, so she starts calling doctors back in the states. 


Gina Hessburg: The doctors at home were concerned that my retina was detaching, which is equally stressful, because if your retina detaches, you go blind.


So this is stressful! Very stressful! Gina races back over to the mainland in a series of events that rival the plot of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” … only to be told the last seat on the flight she needs to get on has just been sold to someone else. 


Gina Hessburg: They tell me, “Come back in an hour and a half, and we'll see if we can get the next flight.” And there happens to be the hospital just, like, a car down and across the road. So I go there, and that doctor was very kind and said, “I don't want you to panic, but you need to get to an ophthalmologist as soon as possible.”


Gina is referred to a doctor back on the mainland, but first she has to GET to the mainland. A fellow traveler -- a Canadian backpacker named Jake -- gives up his seat on the next flight so Gina can get the help she needs. We love you, Jake.

But the ophthalmologist she sees when she’s back on the mainland is … not so great? He tells Gina “Well, you’re just getting old. You probably need glasses.” Note: She’s 38 years old at the time! 

Which, sure. Who among us doesn’t need glasses once we reach our mid-30s? But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill, “I stare at my computer screen too much during the day and now things are a little bit blurry,” kind of thing. This is a drastic change that happened literally overnight.

So Gina gets a second opinion, this time from a female ophthalmologist.


Gina Hessburg: She says to me, “You need to go to the hospital right now. You need to see a neurologist, because this nerve is on your brain, and it's inflamed. And I have this neurologist at this hospital who I went to medical school with waiting there for you.”


Gina’s admitted to the hospital and told they need to run some tests. There are blood tests. Many blood tests. There’s an MRI. And ...


Gina Hessburg: The first thing that happened was I got a spinal tap. And like, I can tell now that I paid one hundred twenty dollars cash for a spinal tap.

Nora McInerny: Hell yeah.

Gina Hessburg: Like, I feel like I needed that t-shirt, like, "I went to Nicaragua and all I got was a hundred and twenty dollar spinal tap."

Nora McInerny: I got a reasonably priced spinal tap, okay?


Neither Gina nor I are here to dog the quality of available medical care in other countries when our own health care system here in the U.S. is ... bad, blegh, far from perfect. But the truth is, Gina’s time in the Nicaraguan hospital is stressful. It’s scary. She’s almost certain she’s going to lose vision in one eye. 


Gina Hessburg: As I tell you this, I'm sure you can start to hear the stress in my voice, because I've been on this journey since this moment started four and a half years ago. And I ... there's a lot to unpack of just how much escalated in my life in that moment, and then what has come out of it since. But I called my mom, and my mom was like, "You just gotta stay there, you just gotta trust the doctor, just let them take care of you, they want to take care of you." And I call my older brother and my brother's like, "Get the fuck out of there right now. Get on a plane, don't let them touch you, just come home." And I didn't know what to do, because here's a nerve on my brain that's inflamed, and I don't really understand fully what that means.


At one point, a doctor casually tells Gina she has multiple sclerosis and provides her with a makeshift wheelchair. And Gina’s terrified. That’s a big diagnosis, a life-altering diagnosis ... and Gina’s knowledge of the disease is limited to the memory of a friend from middle school whose mom had MS and used a wheelchair.


Gina Hessburg: And if you know anything about multiple sclerosis now, there is a wide spectrum of levels of how it can affect people or not affect their lives at all. But I didn't know that. So in my mind, I'm going through the narrative that I'm going to be debilitated, and that I'm not going to be able to support myself, and that I'm never going to go see another place in the world again. And that was just devastating, this idea of lack of independence. That independence was just taken away from me. And the doctor just arrogantly dumps this on me, and I have no resources.


We all know that people with MS, people with vision loss or blindness, can live completely full, wonderful, meaningful lives. They travel! They have adventures! 

Gina knows that, too. But her identity for 38 years has been so wrapped up in her independence — in her ability to just get up and go and travel the world and work from wherever she is that day and sleep wherever she finds a place to crash. And the lack of resources and answers about her current condition sends her on an emotional spiral thinking of all the ways her life is about to change.


Gina Hessburg: My life has just completely shifted. Like, I don't know who I am anymore. And who am I if I am not me?


Who are you if you’re not you?

What will your life be if it’s not the life you planned for?

When Gina gets back to the states, she sees a doctor at the University of Minnesota.


Gina Hessburg: When you have an inflamed optic nerve, you can't see a regular opthamologist. You have to see a neuro-opthamologist because it's part of your brain. So my next morning was to have a visit with him to assess what was going on. And his sort of diagnosis at the time was that, “You have atypical optic neuritis, which is indicative of infection and not multiple sclerosis. But, you do have lesions on your brain, and lesions are indicative of multiple sclerosis as well. So you either had an infection, and you just happen to have some lesions, and the infection caused optic neuritis ... or you have multiple sclerosis.” There are multiple causes for optic neuritis attacks. Sometimes it's just infection, and sometimes people have one or two attacks. And sometimes it's autoimmune disorders and diseases. And so they don't understand why my body is having this autoimmune response.


If you know what it’s like to search for a medical diagnosis, to search for a reason why something is happening to you, you know that it can be a living nightmare. It can consume your life. 

If this all sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. Because this is what Gina’s life has suddenly become: a seismic shift from being out in the world, seeking adventure and connection … to being in her apartment or in a doctor’s office … trying to figure out what is happening INSIDE of her.

She undergoes countless MRIs and blood tests. She sees dozens of different doctors trying to figure out what the heck is happening to her body. 

It’s frightening, and it’s traumatic. And during all of this, Gina’s vision doesn’t improve.


Gina Hessburg: My right eye is sort of blurry and blobby. And what happens is your left eye, your good eye, will correct for the most part. But what happens is you have this weird sort of halo effect all the time that's happening. This extra sort of vibration that's in your vision. And like, I've lost a little bit of sort of depth perception, so I trip a little bit more than I used to. So there's always this constant, weird halo thing happening -- this vibration that you always know is there. It's annoying. It doesn't go away.


We’ll be right back.


———


Gina is dealing with the aftermath of her first optic neuritis attack. She’s bouncing around from doctor to doctor, looking for an explanation so they can keep it from happening again. 

And while she waits for answers, Gina takes matters into her own hands. She’s heard that stress can play a big role in causing optic neuritis attacks, so she tries as best she can to manage her stress levels. 

And that’s hard to do when what is causing your stress IS YOUR BODY.


Gina Hessburg: For me, like, part of my treatment and my protocol is keeping stress down and keeping stress at a minimum. But there's always external factors that are out of our control. These things that are out of our control that impact us on such an emotional and core level. They rattle us, and they affect our health. And for me, for some reason, when I get to a certain threshold of stressors — whether those stressors are work and the flu and something else — we don't know where that is, but I'm pushed over it. So that's scary because it's like, well, what's the threshold? And like, how do I modulate this at all times? How do I keep control of that? And if I'm trying to keep control of that, am I stressing myself out? You know? And what are all the other factors that I can do? I can do diet to keep inflammation down. I can try to get lots of sleep. I can try to keep work under control. I can try to keep any of those personal stressful relationships at a distance. It's just a constant practice of just being aware of: how do I feel, and how to do the things that I do impact it? Because I have done everything from talking to a shaman in Peru to going to the Mayo Clinic.


Finally, Gina meets with a doctor who tells her, “Ya know what? The odds of you having MS are less than 3 percent. Those lesions on your brain? They’re not that bad!” She tells Gina ...


Gina Hessburg: I would advise that we do MRIs once a year for the next couple of years just to monitor your lesions. But I think that you just had a really bad infection and this autoimmune response. And I told her, you know, “Some days I feel like 85 percent of my old self, and some days I feel like 65 percent.” She said, “Well that's normal. You had a really bad infection. We don't even know what it was. It's going to take you a while. It's going to take you probably a year to start feeling like yourself at all.” And so this is ... incredibly validating because I'm like, “Oh, I'm on the right track. I'm on the right trajectory.” And she came in and said to me, “How are you feeling?” And it was like the skies parted and the sun hit me, because I had been on that journey for eight or nine months at the time, and I realized even though I had seen dozens of practitioners and had I don't even know how many — sometimes three, four appointments a week — nobody ever had asked me how I was feeling. And I noticed it, because this person did, and I landed. I was going to be OK. That's what that feels like. I'm going to be OK. Somebody just put out the net, and they're going to catch me, because now they know somebody understands that I'm going through this thing. With that first attack and that first infection, I didn't really feel great for a year or two. And nobody was acknowledging it. And so the first person to stop and say, “How are you feeling?” was like angels singing. I felt very liberated. And so like, within a week or two, I went home, and I booked a trip to Thailand for five weeks, because I thought, “I got this, I'm getting past this. I'm me.”


Shortly after booking the trip, Gina starts another adventure … on Tinder. And she meets someone. He’s handsome and he’s charming and he pursues her, and that in and of itself is intoxicating and flattering and charming. And even though they haven’t known each other that long, he says hey, you know that trip you’re going on? I’ll book a flight and meet you for the last leg.


Gina Hessburg: I'm buzzing, you know? Like, I’m 39 at that point — and I'm just buzzing, because I think maybe I found my person finally. We were kayaking on islands, and hiking, and going on boat tours, and swimming, and meeting people, and having fun going out, and holding hands and all that stuff that you think you would do on a romantic vacation. And we got along fine. We traveled really well together. And it seems like people enjoyed being around us, too.


One night, during a romantic dinner on a little island in Thailand, they have conversations about the future. About potentially having a family together someday. Because yes, Gina is an independent woman, and yes, she loves traveling the world … and she wants kids, too. 


Gina Hessburg:  I think people assume that because the majority of my life I've been single, I didn't want kids. I wanted kids, but I wanted them with a good partner. And the reality is: I'm, you know, pushing 40, and I've never tried to have kids, and I don't know if I can. He said to me, “I see you as somebody that I would like to have in my future, and I do want kids. But if we ever got to that point in a relationship where we wanted to have kids together and it wasn't biologically possible, I'm open to any and all alternatives.” I totally opened up and submitted to this idea of allowing myself to have real feelings for this person and envisioning a future, which I had not done in a long time. 


After getting back to Minnesota, Gina realizes that something feels … off. She learns that this guy has been cheating on her. 

The fact he was with other people isn’t what bothers Gina the most. It’s the fact that he’s been having unprotected sex with them. There are still so many unknowns about Gina’s health situation, but one thing she does know is that her body doesn’t respond well to stress. 

And finding out a person has been careless with your heart and your HEALTH? THAT IS STRESSFUL.


Gina Hessburg: People had no idea what to do with me, because they didn't know and weren't aware that I was in a high state of trauma. Like, not only was my world completely unsafe, because this person I entrusted my heart with ripped it apart...

Nora McInerny: And your body, which is already like, vulnerable too. 


All of this stress triggers Gina’s second optic neuritis attack. And this means she loses more of her vision. If these attacks keep happening? She could eventually lose all of it. So it’s crucial that she keeps the attacks at bay. 

Only problem is … doctors still don’t know exactly what’s causing them.

The drugs that Gina has to take when dealing with one of these attacks destroy her, mentally and physically. 

And just as a heads up, this next part mentions suicidal ideation so you might wanna skip ahead 30 seconds.


Gina Hessburg: The normal dose of prednisone is usually 20 milligrams, and when I have an attack, they do three days of a thousand milligrams minimum. So it's an exorbitant amount. And then they have to taper you to bring you off it slowly, because it's like rocket fuel in your system and then you just stop. Physically, how it affects me is I have insomnia. I have an insatiable appetite. I tremor -- like I shake. I stutter. I have severe brain fog. When it was really in my system, I would get severe and intense body aches, like my whole body felt rickety and sore. My throat can just feel strained. It rips your stomach apart, so nauseous, just sore stomach, sour stomach. And then mentally, for me, it causes severe depression. I had very lucid suicidal thoughts every day around lunchtime on this last bout, and I knew that it was the drug. And anxiety, you know, the world is crumbling around you. And on top of it, you're doing a shitty job at it, and then you're pissing everybody off around you. And they must just think you're the worst and the biggest burden. So some paranoia and compulsivity -- get fixated on an idea and you can’t let go of it and you can’t sleep until it’s done. So basically, it's hell.


I know from personal experience that when I’m in hell, I want the people I love to surround me. That physical and emotional presence is what has carried me through the worst years of my life so far. And I also know that sometimes the people we love, who love us, just can’t do it.


Gina Hessburg: I don't have some friends that I used to have, because of what I was like when I was on prednisone. I’m not going to say it's because I was totally out of my mind and awful. I wasn't myself. I hope that I wasn't totally awful. But I think there's two sides to that, where I think people also sort of expect you to just be you. And they couldn't grasp the state I was in. I basically would turn into a werewolf every day. And, you know, sometimes my mom would go, “You're so angry,” and I'd be like, “I'm on prednisone, mom!"

Nora McInerny: Also yeah, I'm angry. It's like, why is it, why is it such an unreasonable response to having your physical health just decimated? Yes, I'm angry. Like, I mean, I'd be angry as hell if I were you. Why can't you be angry?

Gina Hessburg: Like, don't tell me not to be angry after being violated, after having my health jeopardized, having somebody take my dream, make me think it was happening, and then rip it apart and shit on it and have it affect my health. Like, don't tell me to not be angry about that. Tell me, “Of course you'd be angry.” Don't tell me, “This guy just cheated on you.” Like, that wasn't even the issue. I didn't care that he had sex with other people. It's that he had me partake in something that was completely against my values without my consent -- and then without my consent, he jeopardized my health. I'm allowed to be angry about that.


We’ll be back.


———


Gina does the hard work of healing herself again — both from the optic neuritis attack and the violation from her ex. She works through anger, fear, shame.

And as she heals, Gina begins working toward her next trip — a journey through Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. 

It’s March 2020. And you know what happens next. Gina gets the second-to-last flight home and self-quarantines for three weeks. And like a lot of people did at the beginning of the pandemic, Gina spends a lot of that time cleaning out her apartment.

She’s cleaning out a drawer one day when Gina finds an old pal. His name is Rafael, and he is … an inflatable doll. 


Gina Hessburg: When I say blowup doll, people's heads go to strange places, but he's just like, he's just a pool toy. He's ... there's nothing mechanical about him. I used them in practical jokes to scare people at cabins and parties to, as you do, get a good laugh.


Look, we all did weird things at the beginning of the pandemic, okay? I, every night, ate two bowls of vanilla ice cream with Lucky Charms imitation marshmallows in them every day. Every day. Two bowls. Our producer Jeyca learned to crochet actual clothes … which is not that weird, that's just practical. 

But because Gina’s stuck in isolation like the rest of us were, she decides to hang out with Rafael.

Gina Hessburg: I blew him up, and I put them at my kitchen table and had a cup of coffee. And I wrote this Instagram post about how I empathized with all the insane feelings everybody was feeling right now, because we were told to stay put, and we weren't going to know about the future of our health – and, for many of us, the future of our finances. And we didn't know what was next. And then I started to sort of randomly post with Rafael in my Instagram — our interactions in life and our existential crises — and trying to make order of chaos around us.


Gina quickly begins to notice that people really enjoy her posts about Rafael. Some people even begin commenting on the posts and interacting with Rafael indirectly. The photos of Rafael and the stories Gina writes about his experiences in quarantine become a way for her to share her own pain, fear, and loneliness about her undiagnosed autoimmune disease with the people around her. 


Gina Hessburg: This is from 4/16/20. “Sometimes at night, Rafael and I lie on the living room floor watching the headlights from the street below dance on the ceiling. Sometimes we put on music and pretend we are in a club. Sometimes we imagine it's a friend coming to see us. Better yet, a hero coming to save us. Rafael asks if I hope my pretend hero has big biceps like him. I confess that I regularly dream about a tiny little puppy coming to love me unconditionally. He rolls over and sighs, bringing me back to Earth. He says, ‘Gina, you can't get a puppy,’ which translates to, ‘You have everything you need.’ I ask him to change the playlist and I accept that I am very happy in this moment with just the headlights dancing over my head.”

Gina Hessburg: This one is from 4/23/20. “I asked Rafael what happened, he explained it was just a case of the pandemic brain. I told him I completely understood and asked where he had gone while the toast almost ignited. Gina, you were cooking dinner in a kitchen for your friends, they were all around dancing and laughing. There was an open bottle of wine and one of your playlists was going, you were in a dress and even had on mascara or raffia. I've been consumed by the same wave of illness from time to time. Rafael and I threw the burnt toast on the floor and danced in honor of our health.” [01:35:29][39.0]


So … things are bleak for literally everyone in the world at this time. It’s a pandemic! But Gina is doing … okay-ish. She’s enjoying a new creative outlet. She’s doing all the things she did before to keep her health in check.

And then, on Gina’s birthday, just weeks into lockdown, she gets a text from her landlord telling her she needs to be out of her apartment in five weeks. 

Nothing shady, just bad timing — she’d been renting it from a friend whose family was going to be moving back into her unit. Still, Gina’s being forced out of her home … while dealing with an undiagnosed chronic illness ... during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the stress of that triggers a third optic neuritis attack. And more vision loss.

We all deal with stress. All of us. And it’s no secret that too much negative stress is bad for our health -- doctors have been saying this for ages. So when you have a mysterious medical condition that is directly affected by stress ... a condition that slowly takes away your vision every time your stress levels get too high ... what do you DO?!

If you’re Gina, you turn to your friend, Rafael.


Gina Hessburg: I'm definitely a feelings person, and I'm an expressive person. And I was having a lot of feelings. There was a lot for me to process happening in my life and around me. And there was no, you know, you were lucky if you got a Zoom therapy appointment every three weeks. There was no outlet, and there was no escape. But I had these things that I needed to get out of me and that I wanted to express. And I think that Rafael was a way for me to just put stuff out there, really raw and really expressive and sometimes nonsensical. Because if a blowup doll is saying it, it's not so weird. He might say something you were thinking, but you were never going to say. So I think that's why it stuck with me, and that's why it caught on with other people, because it allowed me to have a voice that wasn't necessarily safe putting out there in another format.


In the time between Gina reaching out to us and our actual interview, she experiences another optic neuritis attack. And when we talk to Gina, she tells us that her doctors still don’t know what’s causing them. Their best guess is that she has an autoimmune disorder that hasn’t yet been discovered. 

Financially, Gina will be fine. She’s always been a saver. Even during those international trips, she did it on the cheap, often spending less than 40 bucks a day. But Gina’s NOT fine in a lot of other ways. She’s not fine with the fact that her health already makes it dangerous to travel now, let alone in today’s COVID times. COVID-19 can cause neurological damage … and these optic neuritis attacks are neurological in nature. 

Add to this the part where Gina is immunocompromised due to the bonkers amounts of prednisone she had to take last year, and it’s just a lot. And it prevents Gina from ...  being Gina.

I want you to think for a second about the things that define you. The things you hold on to as a part of your identity. Maybe that’s your career. Maybe it’s being a parent. Maybe it’s a hobby, like reading or running or traveling.

I also want you to think about how you’d react if it was taken from you without warning.


Gina Hessburg: I'm not scared of sharing any of this with you, or my emotions being out there. You can ask me anything. It's just ... I hope when people hear my voice, what you hear is trauma. And if people don't understand what trauma is or how it surfaces, this is trauma. This is ... this is four and a half years of navigating a health care system that is complicated and difficult and doesn't support patients. And four and a half years of being on a journey where sometimes I feel like I'm pushing a boulder up a mountain. And I don't want it, and I didn't ask for it, and I just want it to be done.


For now, the treatments seem to be helping. Gina’s right eye isn’t great; she can’t read or operate anything if using just that eye. It’s like her optic nerves are computers. Parts of those computers are broken, and the parts that still work are working overtime, which is exhausting for her brain and her body.

Gina’s vision will never go back to the way it was before her first optic neuritis attack. If her life were the story of the tortoise and the hare, she’d be the tortoise.


Gina Hessburg: I think that in, in our spirits and in my spirit, there is a ... there's a warrior that's on this journey, and she's got to do, she's got to fight this fight on her own. So in moments where I feel so alone, and sometimes I feel that I'm ridiculous because I'm sad or scared and that no one gets it -- sometimes I still wake up and I think this isn't even happening -- there is also like, “You know what? This is your, this is your journey. This is your path. This isn't what you picked. But this is what you are doing. So how are you going to do it? What's the good that's going to come out of it? If you have to go down this road, where is it going to lead you?” And nobody is going to walk it with me. They may high five me on the way, for sure. There's a lot of people high fiving me. But nobody's in it with me day to day.


The thing about the tortoise and the hare is that the tortoise wins in the end. Major spoilers for those who don’t know Aesop’s Fables. The week after our interview, Gina took her first trip since the start of the pandemic. Since her last two attacks. Gina takes a road trip through the Pacific Northwest van camping with a friend. And with Rafael, of course. 

It’s not Nicaragua. Or Thailand. Or Morocco. It’s not even international. But it’s still travel — and for Gina, that’s more than enough.


Gina Hessburg: I had just this intake of beauty every day and all these wonderful colors. You know, after you've been through a health crisis and you are in a state of complete despair and depression and you don't feel that there's a future and you get through that and you get to the other side, the pendulum swings so hard the other way. And some days, the weight of just joy and gratitude can be so overwhelming because it hits you so hard how good it is to feel good and to be alive. And so I had just an incredible time every day and every moment. Every time I turned the corner, I thought, “God, could this get any better?” I feel revived and refreshed and ready to keep going.


This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Jordan Turgeon, Beth Pearlman, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson.

There is more information about Gina and Rafael in our show notes -- she made a little coffee table book of all of their photos. And that’s all we got for ya. Except we got a little easter egg after this. I don’t think it’s an easter egg if I tell you it’s there, but… 

“Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is a production of APM studios at American Public Media. Executive producer and editor Beth Pearlman. Executives in charge Lily Kim, Alex Shaffert, Joanne Griffith.


Gina Hessburg: I really appreciate your time and the opportunity to speak about my experience just because I want to create awareness around optic neuritis and the shit of prednisone and ...

Nora McInerny: And what I'm going to call Venetian blindness. And if that doesn't catch on, I don't know what will.

Gina Hessburg: Venetian Blindness. I think it may be my new hashtag. 

Nora McInerny: Venetian blindness. Oh, God. All right. Later, Gina. 

Gina Hessburg: Thank you. 

Nora McInerny: Bye.