Rebecca Dixon's journey has been a tumultuous one. But the courageous 45-year-old has a knack for dusting herself off before ploughing ahead and creating positives from the negatives.
Despite being academic, the 'bored and mischievous' teen successfully 'pestered' her parents to allow her to leave school in the fifth form – a decision she later regretted. At 16, she was the victim of a potential date rape after her drink was spiked at a night club in Whangarei. Paralytic, she was abducted, taken to an alleyway and assaulted but, after a security light came on, she was taken to another alley and, beginning to regain consciousness, the feisty teen put up a raucous fight, which drew the attention of passers-by.
Around 18 months later, she was pregnant and after the decision was made to adopt the baby out, sent to Auckland to await the birth. However, after the birth, Rebecca and her partner couldn't follow through.
"The whole way through the pregnancy I had told myself that she wasn't mine and that I was just the incubator so it was an extremely difficult and emotional time when the nurses tried to make me bond with and nurse her," Rebecca recalls.
"There was a 'cooling off' period before you sign your rights away so we were without her for about three weeks. It wasn't until I walked out the hospital doors that I completely broke down. We were overwhelmingly heartbroken. We went back to our tiny Auckland flat and tried to carry on for a couple of weeks while I recovered but we just couldn't do it. Her father and I were fortunate enough to get her back in time but I've often wondered if that was selfish of us considering we were only teenagers and an older couple could've provided her with the upbringing she deserved."
By then the court case had come around for her ordeal more than two years earlier so, leaving her six-week-old with her father in the court waiting room, Rebecca went through the arduous process of facing her assailant.
"Victim Support was seriously lacking back then. The whole court process was extremely traumatising and I was portrayed as the instigator; that I encouraged the attack and deserved what happened to me because I was somewhere I shouldn't have been. I was not his only victim. When he was jailed, I carried tremendous guilt because he had a wife and a newborn too and I was the cause of him leaving his family. Eventually I came to realise that it wasn't my fault, that I didn't cause his actions and decent people don't behave that way."
The relationship with her daughter's father dissolved and she met her husband-to-be, having another daughter together and running a business.
However, the marriage became extremely unhealthy and volatile and, during this time, Rebecca abused alcohol to cope, hitting rock bottom.
"It wasn't a good situation and I just knew, with two daughters, I had to get out so they didn't grow up thinking that kind of relationship was normal."
A tumble down a flight of concrete stairs resulted in a ruptured disc – later to become the bane of her life. Following her divorce, Rebecca moved north to Whangarei, knowing no one, and deciding to start afresh, enrolled at then-named Northland Polytechnic to finish high school.
"It wasn't my intellect that was the problem at high school – circumstances forced me to grow up too quickly and I couldn't relate to the teenage life of my peers," she explains. "Leaving school early came round to bite me on the butt and returning to study was very humbling. I had a child at school and a three-year-old I'd put in day care and I just made it work."
After completing high school qualifications, she underwent training to become a chartered accountant, and, although suffering a lot of pain, had several caudal epidurals to keep her going.
The, then, seven-year degree took ten because of 'life events, spinal surgeries and being a single mum raising teenage daughters without family nearby'. She also met her current husband of 12 years and blended their families.
Rebecca's training and subsequent work spanned 14 years before her past caught up putting her career on hold as a chartered accountant.
"I was suffering a lot of pain daily but I continued to put my clients and job first, which was foolish in hindsight. I battled on too long and ended up with nerve damage so, in the end, I had to resign. It was silly but, like most women, we just keep going. I've learnt to prioritise my needs now."
After spinal surgeries in 2000 and 2004, she had a 'really good 10 years' when she took on the likes of half marathons, caving, Tongariro crossing, mud runs and obstacle courses. Then, suffering through a couple of 'really bad years' lead her to see a surgeon who booked surgery for the following week. This was followed by four further surgeries, one in which she was delivered via ambulance.
Rebecca's surgeries have included four discectomies with the removal of the collapsed disc, decompressions to relieve pressure on the spinal cord and nerves and three complex fusions. Unfortunately, the last fusion has not yet been successful and she now faces a complex fusion revision.
A complex fusion is conducted after a damaged disc has been removed and replaced with spacer material, before 'welding' the vertebrae via a bone graft. Rebecca's hip bone was used in the hope the bone would fuse, thereby allowing the removal of the screws if necessary. However, recent results show the bone graft hasn't fused and she has a fractured screw.
Now it's a wait to find out if she needs to have her eighth surgery and the biggest to date, which would involve entering through the side of her stomach.
"I'm preying that this doesn't happen," says the optimist. "But, in the meantime, I'm getting as fit and as healthy as I can because recovery is very demanding. My back muscles are weaker from being cut through multiple times and my body is exhausted so the best thing I can do is come prepared."
And by preparation, she means getting up at 4.40am for 6am starts at CrossFit where Rebecca is a permanent fixture with her smile and positive attitude. The keen gym bunny is more active now than she ever was and has often helped friends and family with training and nutritional advice acquired from years of experience. She now plans to gain the qualifications and further knowledge required by studying recreational sport/health science, which will allow her to help and train other pain patients, especially those suffering back injuries.
"Significant injury and chronic pain hijack your life. Pain medications take your personality, your lifestyle, relationships, goals and dreams. Chronic pain is exhausting and isolating. It changes brain/body chemistry which you have no control over. However, I do have control over my healing, how I approach my recovery or surgery preparation.
"I got into fitness because of my injury and decided to take a holistic approach," Rebecca explains. "I had a couple of options: one was to give up and take meds for the rest of my life and the other was to learn how to live in this body now. I'm incredibly grateful for all the support I've received and how amazing and strong my body and mind is."
There are low days when the pain is worse and "I'll be on bed rest with a hot water bottle feeling a little sorry for myself and, in those cases, I'll need to take all my medication.
"I just want to get on with things. I've never been an overly patient person, but I've had to learn patience so I'm going to use this time to study. This will mean coming off pain medication to reduce detrimental effects on my brain. It's frustrating not being able to operate at my previous levels. Pain medication has a profound effect on intellect so, until I can function at the level required for my previous position, I'd like to try and study to become a physical trainer/health coach.
"I always had people, including strangers, come up to me and share sensitive life stories. They just need someone to listen with compassion, empathy and without any judgement. We both leave the conversation feeling valuable and more connected. I find that very heeling and it's another distraction from pain."
Rebecca's gym peers have become family, she says, and "everyone is going through their own challenges, pushing themselves to be stronger in every way and boxing on to get those endorphins.
"The family culture, unlimited support, loud music, challenging workouts and cheeky, somewhat un-PC banter, are what makes Barbell Jungle CrossFit my favourite place for recovery. Going there significantly helps me with mental and physical health – strong body equals strong mind!"
Rebecca's daughters are now 26 and 21, the oldest a student of scientist focusing on cancer research and the youngest has studied law and owns her own home with her fiancé.
"I'd be up until the early hours studying most of their lives. My girls made huge sacrifices so I could study and provide us with a secure future. I'm beyond proud of my girls. By seeing everything I've achieved and talking to them frankly about my mistakes and teaching them to be independent and compassionate, I know they have the tools to do well in life. I'm very blessed that my children have grown up to become amazing adults. Watching them make better life decisions than I did makes everything we've been through as a family unit worth it.
"It's never too late to change your circumstances for the better."