Sometimes it takes an eye-opening experience to fully awaken what we need most.
For Sharon Forstner, that moment came when she fell asleep at the wheel and barely missed driving into a concrete barrier.
She had spent a career caring for others. It was time to start caring for herself.
Sharon was raised in a small town in Georgia by her grandparents who instilled in her a sense of pride and the value of hard work. After earning her Associates degree from Augusta State University, she went into nursing, eventually getting her Bachelor’s degree and certification in case management. She found her calling in treating patients holistically, connecting them with resources to help them care for their lives.
But in 2009, she noticed her energy began to dip.
“My body wouldn’t cooperate,” Sharon recalls. “I had difficulty staying awake during movies or even conversations.”
Lab tests showed no abnormalities. Doctors blamed fatigue and stress, common in her industry especially after years of working night shifts.
“I figured doctors must know. But in the back of my mind I knew my body and that something was different,” Sharon says. “I went from being this energetic, curious person to suddenly feeling broken.”
Other symptoms appeared. Her legs would give out and she’d fall. Her jaw would go slack mid-sentence, resulting in slurred speech.
She couldn’t sleep at night and couldn’t stay awake during the day.
After ruling out more serious diseases like Seasonal Affective Disorder, Lupus and MS, doctors diagnosed Sharon with insomnia and depression.
Still, there were more questions than answers. While doctors believed her symptoms were caused by depression, Sharon insisted it was the symptoms that were making her depressed.
“Once you get that label of depression, it’s hard to step away from that despite whatever other physical symptoms you’re having. I only got really depressed when I felt my life was falling apart.”
She took a four year break from to stay home with her children while her husband was deployed in the Army. In 2015, she returned to her job and continued to struggle with exhaustion, especially as her case work required her to travel miles around town for meetings.
Finally, in 2017, a sleep specialist made a diagnosis. She had narcolepsy with cataplexy, a serious neurological condition in which the brain does not properly regulate the sleep-wake cycle. The weakness in her legs and jaw numbness mimicked the loss of muscle control during REM sleep. Sharon was having these episodes while awake.
Narcolepsy affects three million people world-wide.
“It was a relief to have a diagnosis because I knew I wasn’t crazy” Sharon says. “I had missed the last 8 years of my life and I wanted to get back to where I was.”
For someone who had always prided herself on getting a lot done on little sleep, Sharon presumed that with medication and some short naps, she could manage her illness. She says she never really “hit the pause button” to explore the necessary treatment.
Until a few months after her diagnosis, in June of 2017, when she was heading to a work meeting and she fell asleep at the wheel. She awoke just moments before driving into a concrete barrier.
“Talk about your life flashing before your eyes!” she recalls. “I knew at that point that I had to stop what I was doing. Why was I working so hard to prove to other people that I’m still capable of doing everything they’re asking me to do? I was risking my own health.”
Sharon went on medical leave, leaving her identity as a nurse, a role she wasn’t sure she could go back to.
She had to ask herself a lot of difficult questions.
“How do I get my quality of life back? How do I function in society? Do I tell people or suffer in silence?”
After several months of learning about her condition and practicing self-care – exercising, meditating and changing her diet – Sharon felt a shift in her mindset. She asked herself a new question:
“Is there a way for me to turn this into an opportunity?”
The light bulb went off while attending a coaching seminar. She realized she could use her background and her health challenge to help other people with their own challenges.
In March of 2018 Sharon went back to school to become a certified life coach and launched her own company, Forstner Solutions.
Her new role has parallels to nursing.
“The holistic practice of nursing is similar to the work I’m doing as a life coach,” Sharon says, noting she’s got her confidence back. “I get really excited and inspired when I talk about it.”
A mom of four whose husband works six hours from home for his work building wind farms, Sharon notes that challenges never really go away. There is no cure for narcolepsy.
She doesn’t let that derail her. Instead, she incorporates her career – and her life – around her challenges.
“I’ve learned that in every challenge there is a beautiful disguised opportunity,” Sharon says. “I could not have gotten to this point without the diagnosis. I would have continued on the hamster wheel of people-pleasing and doing what others wanted. It was the challenge of the diagnosis that led to me to self-care and self-compassion.”
She’s loving the coaching relationship and helping people step out of their comfort zones to grow into something they hadn’t perceived before as possible. She’s also open about her diagnosis and serves as an advocate to bring awareness to the disease.
“Before I was in victim mode. Everything was ‘I can’t I can’t I can’t.’ And now I’m in a place of empowerment.”
Now, Sharon helps clients open their eyes to see their full potential. She’s fully awake to the potential she has to care for others, helping them lead full and satisfying lives, while caring for herself.
“I feel like I can do everything I want to,” Sharon says. “I have so many opportunities and I’m so grateful.”
PROFILE: Sharon Fostner, Professional Life Coach, Forstner Solutions, LLC
TITLE OF YOUR CURRENT CHAPTER: “Living the Best Version of Me”
MOTTO TO LIVE BY: You’re going to make it! Just keep going and don’t give up!
DAILY RITUAL: Expressing gratitude and meditation. And my morning coffee!
HOW TO YOU GET UNSTUCK: I step away from the situation for a few minutes or few days if that’s what it takes. I do something fun, just for me.Then I come back with a new, fresh perspective.
WHAT’S NEXT?: Because this is a new chapter in my life I’m still growing. I want to become more resilient and embrace my flaws and imperfections in such a way that I inspire others to do the same. I’m looking to write and speak from a true place of authenticity and be completely happy regardless of circumstances, based on my own values.
Check out Sharon’s website at: www.sharonelesia.com or follow her on Instagram @sharonelesia_coaching
Want more Next Chapter stories? Find out how Jen makes a difference in her community, Sara turned an hobby into a side gig, Aurelia took her newsroom skills to the world of non-profit and Shannon got back in the game following a career break!
Valerie Gordon is a long-time storyteller, award-winning television producer and owner of Commander-in-She, a career and communication strategy firm. She offers conference breakout sessions and professional workshops helping clients capitalize on the power of storytelling for greater success and satisfaction at work.