Let go or be dragged

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What it feels like sometimes to have a chronic illness.

This blog has always been a place of healing for me. You, dear readers, have contributed to creating this safe sanctuary with your comments and stories, sharing your hearts, your struggles and your fears. Vulnerability breeds vulnerability. But for these past few months, hitting the publish button on WordPress has been a terrifying idea for me. To share what has really been going on in my life comes with risk, mostly the fear that I will invite in pity and that no one would understand.

What has pushed me to finally tell my story here is my frustration over the last few months of the lack of personal stories around chronic illness, particularly young adults living with chronic illness. In other words, stories like mine.

As a lover of non-fiction and memoir, I have listened to, watched and read accounts of people’s chronic illness experiences, mostly about those who are living with and/or survived cancer. I turned to others’ stories of sickness to try to understand mine. I longed to find stories that helped me connect with someone else who might be going through/or have experienced similar challenges. I found some nuggets of comfort in their stories, points of relating, but I have since come to realize that every person’s story is unique, and so is mine, and it is one worth telling.

During this past summer, my health was relatively stable, and I started to feel like I was getting my life back and getting ME back. I was running again for the first time in years and I cannot tell you how good it felt to reclaim that. I felt normal again–hopeful. I ran 4.8 miles in a relay race and signed up for my first 10K. I spent the rest of my summer training for my 10K in September—the 10K that never happened.

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Me over the summer when I was back to running and feeling strong and on top of the world. 

For the past month, my chronic illness has flared because of a virus that I contracted. Over these past few weeks, I’ve been re-experiencing what it’s like to have a chronic illness rob me of big things like my identity and little things like cooking dinner. Anger and frustration have been building inside of me. I feel like I have control over nothing and it scares the hell out of me. While these emotions don’t always feel good, they’re fueling me to feel more empowered in this mess and not be afraid to use my voice to share my story and also advocate for myself in a healthcare system that downright just sucks.

***

Chronic illness can be a lonely journey. Throughout mine, I have often felt that no one could understand what I was experiencing, and so I isolated myself. Beyond my immediate family, only a handful of my close friends know about my illness. I coped by not talking about it. When you say things out loud it feels too real. I no longer want to stay silent.

Over the summer, I finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s latest memoir about her journey with cancer: “Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home.” In the preface, she writes “a writer has a second chance to digest experience.” For me, writing has always helped me make sense of the world, process what feels unexplainable and painful. But for the last nine months or so, I have been so immersed in my health that I no longer had the energy to digest my experience. It was easier to shut down and numb out. All my strength was poured into grad school, doctor’s appointments and medication changes. I fell into my default mode of pushing through. During that time, the pages of my writing notebook and journal sat mostly blank, except for some random entries about doctor’s visits or quotes that moved me. It wasn’t until May that I cracked open my notebook again while lounging on the beach listening to the constant calm of the sea and trying to make sense of the past year. It felt equally freeing and scary to put words to paper and face those difficult emotions.

The thing I wanted to write about, the thing that had become a constant presence in my life since August, I have been most afraid to write about. To write about anything else would have felt false, inauthentic, which is why you haven’t heard much from me in the last year on this blog.

There is a Zen proverb “let go or be dragged.” Writing about my illness has been part of my grieving process and has helped me accept what is and let go of what was. And yet I’m constantly being reminded that the grieving process is never linear, and I find myself these days revisiting the stages of grief that I thought I was done visiting.

Holding on to the past keeps me stuck in my suffering. Writing has always been my therapeutic release. Lately, I have been writing just for me, but now I feel called to share it because I hope my story may help others in their chronic illness journey, but also because selfishly I need to share it for my own healing.

***

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This is the first picture I took of the regimen of pills I was first prescribed bc I’m weird like that and like to document things. :p This photo was taken in Sept. 2017. Since then, my medication has morphed into four different medications totaling close to 3,000 mg a day. 

Every new diagnosis comes with grief—a loss of health, a loss of normalcy, frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, sadness. Just when my health reaches a period of stability, it seems something else is positioned in the wings, waiting to reveal itself. Chronic illness has the worst timing.

Barely a few weeks into my first year of grad school, I was diagnosed with Mycobacterium avium intracellulare, or MAI, a rare and serious lung infection. MAI is an atypical nontuberculosis germ that lives in the environment. It is not contagious. However, it is difficult to treat because the bacteria is slow-growing and thus it takes longer to eradicate. Treatment is further complicated if the infection has formed in the cavity of the lung, making it difficult for the medicine to reach the infection, and putting a patient at higher risk of permanent lung damage. It is a lifetime disease with a 40 percent reinfection rate, which is a high and sobering statistic. I, unfortunately, contracted the cavitary type. This also means that for the past year, I’ve been on a regimen of nearly 3,000 mg of antibiotics daily—three different oral medications and one inhaled. In addition, I take eight different supplements daily to counteract the effects of my drugs and my disease.

My MAI diagnosis in September 2017 marked my fourth confirmed lung disease at age 37. Living with this disease in addition to three previously diagnosed lung diseases, one of which is in remission, has been an exhausting and tumultuous journey that has turned my life and my family’s life upside down. Having lung disease often feels like having the flu—you lose your appetite, your muscle aches, your body feels weak and tired. And one of the most frustrating parts is that you never know when it’s going to strike, and you have to spend the weekend in bed.

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Nurse Molly at the ready when I am not feeling well. 

***

My health history is like a domino effect. Nothing lives in isolation. One disease breeds another disease breeds another disease. Between 2011 and 2017, I had a few periods where my health felt stable. But every day I lived in constant fear that I’d have a flare up or some new and rare illness would surface. That anxiety has never left me.

“You can feel the pain, but suffering is when you want it to be different, when you want to be a horse instead of a donkey, an éclair instead of a slice of bread. Suffering is when you want the pain to stop,” writes Natalie Goldberg in “Old Friend From Far Away,” a beloved book I often find myself returning to. …

I want to be the horse. …

I want to be the éclair. …

***

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Hibernation: Winter is here

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I am in full hibernation mode. Winter does this to me. It’s a time to retreat, reflect and restore. A time to sleep in and draw the covers tighter to your chin, linger over cups of coffee and tea, read a book on the couch by the warmth of a fire.

I’ve grown fonder of winter over the last few years. I loved it as a kid. Hot chocolate with pillows of whipped cream, scarves and boots, sledding and snowsuits, mom’s creamy casserole, snowflakes and blankets, hours of movies and mid-afternoon naps, early dismissal and snow days.

Winter makes me feel alive—its crisp, cold air fills my lungs and wakes up my body. I like walking in the woods this time of year, where it’s quieter than other seasons. Just me, my dog, the creak of the pine trees and the crunch of layers of frozen leaves under my boots.

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Since December 1, my last official day of the semester, I have pretty much done nothing, at least it feels like nothing. This “doing nothing” is difficult for me to do. I struggle with being still, not producing, not in motion. Doing. Doing. Doing. Before December, I spent four months just “doing”, more accurately, overdoing. I stretched and squeezed in as many tasks, errands, emails, pages in a book, dinners, and coffee dates. This is what grad school looks like: eat, sleep, read, study, go to class, go to work, repeat. (Notice how showering wasn’t part of that cycle.) This is what grad school looks like in a counseling program: eat, sleep, read, study, go to work, go to class, cry, reflect, cry some more, feel, feel, feel, cry some more, think, think, think, cry, grow, grow, grow, cry, reflect, repeat.

December 1 arrived and I slipped into my December coma. I haven’t felt like writing. I haven’t felt much like doing anything really. My counselor says I am in recovery from this year. This is human. … This year and all of its challenges, surprises, turbulence, and layer upon layer of traumas. On my first official day of my semester break, I stayed in bed and watched movies. All. Day. Long. Flannel jammies, tea, muffins, naps, white twinkle string lights. Repeat.

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Day of Nothing. Otherwise known as best day ever.

 

I have been out of it since the middle of December and don’t feel like going back to work.

I overhear someone say this to a friend in the tea shop where I often come to write. I haven’t written here since August, but this place still feels like home and it’s where I tend to do my best writing. I warm my hands wrapped around my cup of spiced orange tea. It was five degrees earlier. I think it’s 15 now. Progress. The South cannot cope with cold. Me? I am leaning into it. Wool socks, boots, plaid scarf layered around my neck, my favorite grey, bulky, wool sweater. In the afternoon I’ll go for a walk in the woods with my four-legged companion and then we’ll take a nap on the couch. This is what you’re supposed to do in winter. Isn’t it?

It doesn’t feel like a new year. On Sunday, I lit every candle in the house, made a special dinner of lobster tail and clam chowder for my husband and me, and we watched movies until midnight approached. I held my flute of Prosecco in my hands as my husband and I cuddled under blankets and watched the ball drop in Times Square. As the countdown to 2018 began, I felt nothing. No excitement. No pang of hope. No giddiness of anticipation. It just was. We clinked glasses, kissed, and I took a sip of my bubbles. I poured the rest down the drain and stumbled sleepy-eyed into bed.

Have no expectations and you won’t be disappointed, I keep telling myself.

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A book of Jane Kenyon poems and Rumi are near me today. Before you know kindness, you must lose things. Isn’t that what Jane Kenyon said? I keep re-reading Rumi’s “The Guest House.”

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.

2017 was a year of unexpected visitors—literally and figuratively. Chronic illness, a diagnosis, and then another and another. A car accident that almost took my life. Trips to the ER. A fatigue that entered my body and settled there for months. A fall and back surgery. And then there were the visitors I welcomed. My acceptance letter to grad school. My job working with assault survivors. Claiming and declaring my identity as a survivor. Marching with my best friend and 5 million others around the world. The summer, the beach, the bliss before I knew what fall would bring. My mother flying 2,000 miles and showing up at my door to take care of me. Our late-night talk, the tears, the understanding, the forgiveness, and the ice cream sundaes we made after. A home-cooked meal from a dear friend, hand-delivered with gooey, fudge brownies. The community I found among my classmates, a balm during the toughest months of this year. My family. My husband. My village. My sweet, comforting dog. And love, love, love. … Always love. This is the joy. This is the pain.

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Unexpected visitors are just that: visitors, temporary passersby. All things must pass.  The good, the bad, the bittersweet, I am thankful for it all. They cannot exist without each other. They are both needed, necessary for living. There lie the lessons.

This year I learned I am resilient. I learned I am a workaholic and what stress can do to the mind, body and spirit. I learned that a mother’s love is like no other—unconditional, unwavering, steady, reliable, constant, whole. I learned to ask for help, to stop trying to prove to myself and to others that I can do this alone. This. What is the this? All of it. I learned that community can be cultivated in the most unexpected places, and how that community will help hold you up when you collapse into tears in the public restroom, deliver homemade meals to your door, send you loving texts and snippets of videos declaring how much they miss you.

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Equipped by pain.

I heard someone say this recently and how they feel their painful experiences have equipped them to step into the New Year, maybe like wearing their pain like a suit of armor or a scarlet letter, as if to say, I’ve been through some shit. Approach carefully. Tread lightly.

I used to look forward to each New Year, but now there is a part of me that fears it, the unknown, whatever is lurking around the corner, the next unexpected visitor. But I am equipped by pain, this pain, like a familiar highway. I know each way it bends and curves, where it ends, where it begins, the stops in between. It’s taught me how to navigate this life. I remember my counselor asking me in 2016: How will you carry your grief? It took me a year before I learned that to carry it, I needed to accept it.

Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?

Rumi, again.

On New Year’s Eve, I read aloud the moments I scribbled on slips of paper and kept in a jar marked “Good Things.” The idea was to capture the bright spots throughout the year, the simple moments of daily gratitude. I vowed to fill up the jar, but only made it halfway. Maybe this year.

Always look for the beauty; that’s me. But I slipped up quite a few times this year and lost sight of it. Pain can do that. Still, when I look back on 2017, love outshines the pain. During this difficult year, love was present; I felt it in my chest, expanding and stretching, taking up space. It never left me. It was there the whole time. And it’s love that what will carry me into the new year. Steady, unconditional, constant.

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***

 

Adventure is calling …

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me.” 

A year ago, I purchased a black and white postcard in a bookstore in downtown Rhinebeck, N.Y. The postcard features a photograph of a woman in a dress, holding a parasol and balancing on a tightrope between two rows of hedges. The image resonated with me and felt like the perfect metaphor for my life at the time. Just weeks before, I had taken the GRE, which stands for Worst Test Ever. It was the first major step I took toward my dream of becoming a mental health counselor. That entire year felt like a balancing act, teetering between the past and the future, my grief and my healing. Many times, during that difficult year, I felt stuck in my grief, like I was sinking into a deep pool of wet, heavy mud. But when I saw that black and white postcard that afternoon, I also saw lightness in the way the woman balanced her body on the tight rope, and her gentle determination. The photograph gave me hope that I would once again find the lightness in my own body and reach the other side of the tightrope.

Well, I have reached the other side of that tightrope. Tomorrow is my first day of grad school. This journey that I embarked on a year ago is actually freaking happening. I am in shock every day that my dreams are being realized. Along the way, so many of my loved ones were cheering me on, supporting me, believing in me, confident that everything would work out. It’s also been a nerve wracking and scary experience to take on. I left my job just two weeks ago. The night before I gave my notice, I printed my resignation letter, walked into the living room, and joined my husband on the couch with the letter in my hand. I started to sob. “I am freaking out. Majorly freaking out,” I sobbed. “You should be,” he said. “It’s a huge deal.” Yes, it is a huge deal. But I never second guessed one second of this journey. The closer I got, the more I realized how much I wanted it.


Every step of the way, I was shocked and surprised when I’d make it to the next level. After I took the GRE, it was like doors just started opening for me. I applied to two nationally ranked schools and got into both. My Life Coach instructor kept telling me last year that my dream was just “three clicks away.” I laughed and told her she made it sound so easy. “Because it is,” she answered. I listened to her advice and I wrote the words “You’re just three clicks away” in black Sharpie on a post-it note tacked to my computer at home and at work. Doing that simple task made my goal seem attainable. The day that I realized that there were no more clicks, that I had arrived at my goal, I smiled as I removed the sticky note from my computer, balled it up in my hands and tossed it in the garbage.


I’ve wanted to be a counselor for a long time. It’s one of those things that I feel has always been in the back of my head. I’ve always had a heart for people and helping others. As early as grade school, I remember my girlfriends passing me notes in class, writing to me like I was an advice columnist: “Dear Carla.” They had questions about boys, friends, their parents divorcing. In high school, I volunteered a lot through the Future Homemakers of America (FHA) and spent time in psychiatric hospitals and assisted living centers singing carols, serving food or just having a friendly conversation with the residents.

By the time I was a sophomore in college, I became depressed, partly due to the stress I was under. I was a full-time student working 25 hours a week and writing for two on campus publications and in a relationship. I was overwhelmed and extremely unhappy—numb even. I don’t remember how I ended up at the counseling center at my college, but my counselor, Alice, saved me from a really difficult time in my life. The other day I was rummaging around in our guest closet when I found a piece I wrote about my struggle with depression for my Creative Non-Fiction class sophomore year. I sat down in the middle of the closet and read the entire thing. I remembered going through a tough time, but re-reading my own words made me realize how much pain I was in. I couldn’t help but cry reading it.

Since Alice, I’ve seen four counselors throughout the peaks and valleys of my life. And I can honestly say because of them, and because of the work I put into growing and learning about myself, I am the best version of myself. I believe so strongly in the power of counseling, and how it can transform lives the way that it has mine.


Last year, my heart felt called to do this work. Writing will forever and always be my first love, but I have never in my life felt so pulled to do something like this. At times, it has felt like there has been some outside force pushing me, guiding me down this path. When I would talk about my dream with my friends or family, I would start crying; that’s how badly I wanted it. After my first interview at my top choice school, I called my husband and best friend and bawled over the phone, blabbering about how I didn’t do well and feared I didn’t get in. A few days later, my acceptance letter popped up in my inbox. I was on my lunch break, casually checking my email while shoveling food in my mouth. My whole body started to tremble and I burst into tears, re-reading the letter over and over to make sure it was true. It really wasn’t a dream.

During the last two days, I’ve been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.” In chapter 5, “Bouncing Forward,” she writes about “post-traumatic growth,” positive outcomes that follow loss. I wasn’t familiar with this phrase, but as I read the chapter I began to realize that grad school is my positive outcome from my trauma. That experience, that loss, changed me forever. Months after it happened, my eyes started to open. I found myself re-examining my priorities and redefining what really matters. I longed for a job that would fulfill me and impact the lives of others. I felt a deep need to help people heal and grow.

Sandberg writes that in the past psychologists defined two possible outcomes of trauma: a person either struggled (developed PTSD, depression, anxiety), or they were resilient. But now, there is a third outcome, bouncing forward, Sandberg writes. Seeing new possibilities is one of the forms that post-traumatic growth can take. The chapter goes on to share a dozen anecdotes about people who have experienced an incredible loss, and recovered by re-imagining their life and “adding more love and beauty to the world.” That’s how I see this change in my life. More love. More beauty. A better world.

“It’s like you’re going through a portal. You can’t go back. You’re going to change. The question is how.” That’s a quote from Jeff Huber whose story is told in the chapter. He lost his wife to cancer, quit his job, and became CEO of a company that detects early cancer—despite warnings from loved ones not to make any big decisions or changes after losing his wife. Jeff’s words made me pause on the page. Last year felt exactly like walking through a portal. I came out on the other side a changed person. Now I’m using that experience to fuel my dreams and, I hope, help others who have undergone similar experiences of loss and trauma.


My department orientation was last week. I got to meet the rest of the future counselors in my cohort, and reconnect with those I met during the interview process. I was on an adrenaline rush all day. I still couldn’t believe I was there, that this was happening, that these professors saw my potential and welcomed me into this program and this profession. I can’t believe this is my life.

When I recapped the day to my husband, I told him how I had this comforting feeling the whole time that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. “I found my place,” I told him. “I found my people.” It took me 37 years to get there, but the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

###

 

 

 

Brace for impact

A few weeks ago, my godmother sent me a hamsa necklace—a beautiful, delicate silver chain with a hamsa dangling from it, a hand with an eye in the middle of the palm. The hamsa symbolizes different things in different cultures. My godmother bought mine for me as a symbol of protection. It wards off bad luck and evil, and brings positive things into one’s life. I’ve been wearing the necklace every day.

I’ll admit, life got better after I got my necklace. The last few weeks have been uneventful, stress free, calm. Quite a difference from pretty much the entire month of May.

bookends blog accident hamsa

May was challenging. You know how 2016 was the worst year ever? Well, my friend Addy says that 2017, it’s like the ghost of 2016 coming back to haunt us. Lingering ghosts trying to stir shit up.

This year, these past six months, it has been marked by transitions—big and small. I have friends who have gotten divorced, landed new jobs, quit their old ones, moved to new states, started entirely new lives. For me, there are some life-changing things on the horizon—equally exciting and terrifying at the same time.

May felt like a shedding of what was. Things have been stripped from me—possessions, health, vulnerability, confidence. Things that matter, and things that don’t.

During the 30 days in May, I: got into a car accident, had a near-death experience, and totaled my car; learned I needed back surgery days later; got diagnosed with PCOS the week after that; suddenly found myself in a complete upheaval of my department; oh, and had back surgery. I think that’s it.

May started out with a bang. Literally. It was May 1st. A Monday. The weather was overcast and windy, with a spitty rain off and on all day. I left work early for a doctor’s appointment. That day, I detoured from my usual route because I had to stop at my friend Tina’s house to drop off frozen pork dumplings for our supper club dinner that night. It put me on the other side of town, requiring me to get on the interstate. I only needed to be on the highway for less than a mile to get to the next exit.

I was rushing, in a hurry, impatient. I was listening to Pink! on the radio. “Just Like Fire.” I was belting out the chorus as I accelerated onto the highway. 50, 55, 60. I cranked the volume. Something caught my eye through the windshield. I looked up through the glass and saw a towering pine tree falling toward my car. I watched the whole thing happen, but in slow motion. I felt like I was in a movie like in “Twister” when the cow goes flying past the front of the pick-up truck during the tornado. Except in my case, there was no tornado. Everything around me went silent. I actually thought to myself in that split second: This is it. Not as in “this is it, it’s going to hit me,” but as in “this is it, I’m going to die.”

I instinctually turned the wheel to the left as the tree simultaneously slammed down onto my car. “It’s physics,” a colleague would tell me days later. “Two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”

That sound. That familiar sound. Metal. Glass shattering like thousands of wine glasses dropped on the kitchen floor. The weight of the tree. The impact. How I held my breath. Held onto the wheel. Tensed up. Closed my eyes. My shoulders were in my ears. I never screamed. All I said was one word: Fuck.

I opened my eyes, slammed on my breaks, and then braced myself, waiting for the cars behind me to slam into the back of me. It was nearing 4 o’clock. Traffic was picking up. But there were no tire squeals, screeching of rubber, just silence and the smell of burning electrical wires. It was like I was in a bubble. No one was around me.

My windshield was completely smashed. Bits of glass coated the dashboard, the seats, the floor. I turned and looked at the passenger seat, covered in glass, thankful that no one was with me.

Am I still here?  I thought. Am I really here?

I was stuck in a moment where I felt like I had left this earth.

***

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First accident.

I got into my first car accident when I was 17. I had left school early that day for an orthodontist appointment. I grew up in rural northeast Pennsylvania, lots of two-lane roads with curves. I don’t remember much about the initial impact. There was a brown van, and an older gentleman. I had just come around a bend, and over a small hill when I saw his car in the approaching lane, drifting over the double yellow line. What I remember most is the sound. The crunching of metal, glass shattering—my windshield. And then the force that feels like the pressure against your body when a roller coaster makes its first drop, and the belt across your chest presses against your body, holding you back. My box of cassette tapes in the back seat flew into the front of the car and were scattered everywhere. I was playing the Rent soundtrack. (I was an obsessed super fan.) I never listened to it again after that day.

When I opened my eyes, I was on the other side of the road, my car perpendicular. Bits and pieces of broken glass like crushed ice were everywhere. I burst into tears. I was shaking. The force of our two cars slamming into each other knocked the pony tail out of my hair. Strands of my hair hung in my face. I was confused. Scared. Through my cracked windshield, I looked at my crumpled hood and thought of movies with car crashes, fire, explosions. I unbuckled my seat belt and threw open the door. A man came from somewhere and crouched down next to me asking if I was OK. All I kept saying was “I want my mom,” over and over and over. He was behind me. Saw the whole accident happen. He told me to stay in the car. “You might be hurt.” “No, my car is going to blow up,” I told him, trying to stand up and untangle myself from my seatbelt. Lead. My legs felt like lead. He wrote down my phone number on a piece of paper and promised he’d call my parents; they took off work that day to clean the basement. They never heard the phone ring. They didn’t know anyone had called until they saw the red blinking light on the answering machine. By then, I was already at the ER. They saw my car on the side of the road before they saw me. I walked away with a sore chest and a bruise on my face; I think it hit the steering wheel.

An ambulance and police arrived. School had just let out. I stood on the side of the road crying watching school buses pass. “Looks like I hit you pretty good.” I turned to my right and an older man, 60s, 70s, was standing next to me. He was wearing a fisherman’s hat, the kind with the floppy brim, and tinted sunglasses—amber. He said it with a laugh, and continued to stand next to me smirking. It took me a few seconds before I realized this was the guy who hit me. Why was he laughing about it? A wave of warmth came over my entire body. My heart started to race. I wanted to punch him. Hard. Instead I took a few steps away from him to put distance between us. My English teacher, Mr. Dowd, was on his way home from school when he saw me on the side of the road. He pulled over on the shoulder, and as he walked toward me, concern on his face, I started to cry.

In the ambulance, the EMS tech was a kid from my high school. He was a grade or two older than me. I couldn’t remember if he had graduated. His last name was Price. I wish I could remember his first name. I never really knew him, but he was so nice to me that day. His compassion surprised me. He talked me through everything he was doing or about to do. I tried to refuse the back stretcher, but he said it was a precaution to protect my spine in case of injury. It was hard plastic like a sliding board. He talked to me the whole ride to the hospital, calmed me down. I think I may have even laughed.

Mr. Dowd met me at the hospital. He was the first face I saw when they pulled me out of the ambulance. He stayed with me until my parents arrived. My mom cried.

I suffered a few bruises and some pain across my chest and arm from my seat belt. My car was totaled. I remember hearing later that the guy who hit me fell asleep at the wheel.

car accident 1

The following night, we went to see my car at the junk lot. My little Nissan looked like an elephant sat on it. The right side of my car was crumpled, a ball of twisted, mangled metal. The right door was caved in. The right side of the windshield smashed. The frame of the car’s roof was bent. My mom said I was lucky to be alive. I didn’t know the accident was that bad until I heard her say that.

***

I knew while the pine tree was plummeting toward my car that I was close to death because I watched it all happen. I was consciously aware of the fragility of life. With my other accident, it caught me by surprise. I didn’t realize I was hit until I opened my eyes and realized I was on the other side of the road.

I pulled my car over to the shoulder and crept along for a few feet before coming to a rolling stop. I felt like a zombie. I took out my phone but suddenly forgot how to dial 911. I kept pressing on different apps, opening them up, then closing them. I was shaking. I finally got to the phone pad and dialed 911. I was trembling but calm—surprisingly calm. I had done this before, just six months ago when four teenage boys threw a pumpkin at my car while I was driving. It instantly smashed my windshield into a thousand pieces. My dog was with me in the back seat. Other than a small piece of glass sticking out of my middle finger, we were both OK. The police never caught the kids.

My voice was steady as I talked to the operator. Words came out of my mouth, but I felt like someone else was speaking. I kept scanning my body for injuries, blood, cuts and found nothing. I called AAA, then my doctor’s office to cancel my appointment, and then my husband, Andrew. When I ran out of people to call, I stepped out of the car and walked around the front to assess the damage. The hood was sunken in. The windshield looked like someone took a baseball bat to it. My side mirror was gone. Pine cones rested on the rear wiper. It smelled like sap and pine needles. I sat in the back seat of the car and waited for Andrew. The air was heavy like a wet blanket. It started to drizzle. I kept the car door open and listened to the rush of traffic passing by. I stared at my hand wrapped around my phone, resting in my lap.

bookends blog accident 1

For the next two days I operated on autopilot. The night of my accident I still went to supper club. I was going to go to work the next day, but my husband talked me into staying home. I just wanted to move forward.

Two days later, I found out I needed back surgery. I fell on black ice in January getting out of my husband’s truck, and after four months of pain, acupuncture, physical therapy and chiropractic adjustments, I wasn’t improving. An MRI revealed a chipped disc, and a piece of that disc was lodged, crushing my sciatic nerve. Surgery was the only solution.

When my doctor told me the news. I sighed and nodded my head. I knew my fate before he gave me the results. My reaction was of acceptance, or maybe it was indifference. I was pretty numb that week.

“Oh, well,” I said to my husband as we stood on the sidewalk outside my doctor’s office in the late afternoon sunshine.

“At least we know the problem, and it can be fixed,” he said. My husband is always the reassurer when I’m feeling defeated.

We kissed goodbye. Andrew went back to work, and I went to the autobody shop to clean out my car. The insurance company was towing it to the auction yard the next day.

The receptionist gave me instructions on where to enter through the gate. “Your car should be on the right, toward the end of the lot.”

“Awww, it’s like going to the graveyard. So sad,” I said. She frowned as she handed me the keys. They felt old and familiar.

I got in my rental car and crawled along through the chain-link gate and started scanning the row of smashed cars. Missing fenders, hoods crumpled like accordions, entire front portions of cars missing. I spotted the front of my car poking out from the row of misfit cars and pulled up in front of it. As my car came into full view—battered and broken—hot tears welled up in my eyes. My little car looked so vulnerable out there in the open, exposed, showing all of its scars. There was nothing to hide. My car looked sad, if cars can look sad, broken, defeated. I put the car in park and lowered my head and took a deep breath like I was about to enter a boxing ring. I stepped out of the car and stood in front of mine speechless. It looked worse than I remembered. How did I walk away from that? I stood there in disbelief.

bookends blog accident 2

Tears poured down my face as I opened the door and started to stuff the contents into canvas bags I brought with me. CDs, hand sanitizer, pens, old receipts. I thought about how this was the first car I bought on my own without the help of my parents. I bought it with my ex-husband. I had the car for 10 years. It lasted three times as long as my marriage. This was the last physical thing that connected me to him. In that sense, it felt good in a way to let my car go. But my tears weren’t about him or our failed marriage. That didn’t matter anymore. It was the memories that came after.

I had good times in my car. Bad memories, and great ones. I rode in the back seat of it with my dog Yoshi for the last time on the way to the vet. Windows down. April. Spring. Blue sky. His furry neck under my fingertips. It was my rescuer when I left my ex-husband in the middle of the night. It’s been to the beach, the mountains, New York, South Carolina. Andrew drove us home in it after we got married under an archway of fragrant jasmine. We had our first kiss standing outside of it. After my miscarriage, I sat in my car a long time and sobbed in the parking lot of my doctor’s office, trying to collect myself before I drove home and found the strength to share the news with Andrew. We brought our dog Molly home from the shelter in it, her claws digging into the back seat, unsure of us, unsure of this metal thing on wheels, unsure of what the next chapter of her life would look like.

bookends blog marriage

Just married car selfie.

While I stuffed my belongings into bags, a guy from the shop approached me and asked if I needed help.

“You OK?” he asked while removing my license plate.

“Yeah,” my voice cracked as I tried to release the words, “just shaken up. It’s hard seeing it again.”

“Everyone OK? Were you OK?”

I nodded as I continued to collect my things, trying to hide my tear-streaked face.

“I see this happen a lot. It’s common when people see their cars again. It’s a shock.” He was tall, about 250 pounds, bald. He was wearing a muscle shirt. Black. Not the kind of guy I would peg as sentimental. “People get attached to their cars.”

He went on to tell me about this own accident a few years ago. He was knocked unconscious and airlifted to a hospital. He handed my bike rack to me and my license plate. “Sorry this happened. Cars can be replaced. People can’t.”

I thanked him, put the last bag in my trunk, and did one final clean sweep of my car. Beads of sweat were rolling down my chest. It was humid, and the sun was beating down on me in the dusty gravel lot.

I shut each of the four doors I had left open. One by one, I walked around the car gently closing each one. When I came to the final door, the passenger door, I looked around my car at all the glass sparkling in the sunlight. With my things removed, it no longer looked like my car. It looked like what was. I started to cry. As the door left my hand and shut, it felt symbolic, like I was closing the door on a chapter of my life. I put my hands together like a prayer. My lips tasted like salt from my tears as I whispered to my car: thank you. … thank you for keeping me safe.

***

My acupuncturist says that all of these changes, these things that feel like they’ve been taken away from me, it’s like I’m shedding my old life to prepare for my new one and the positive changes that are looming in my life. I like that interpretation.

I dreamt about snakes the other night. I was walking into a backyard that resembled my grandmother’s. There was a thick snake, the width of a kitchen sink pipe, stretched out dead across a large boulder. Its head was cut off, missing. Its blood had stained the stone; it looked like spilled Kool-Aid, a deep cherry red. I sat in a lawn chair, the kind with bands of fabric like seat belts decorated in ‘70s style orange, red and white. I glanced down at the grass and a skinny black snake was slithering up the leg of the chair. I made eye contact with its lime green eyes, and it hissed at me and showed its sharp, pointy fangs. I awoke, kicking my legs violently under the sheets. I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

What does it mean? There are still snakes to slay? Skin left to shed? Who am I growing into? And who am I leaving behind? It’s too soon to know, to tell.

bookends blog accident beach

***

Cupcakes, percocet and Wanda Sykes


My days have blurred together. I know it’s Monday, but have no idea what the date is. I’ve been in a percocet haze for the last six days. It makes my head feel swimmy. Six days ago I had minor back surgery due to a fall on black ice earlier this year in January. After months of going to the chiropractor, doing physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, I finally got an MRI done, which revealed I had chipped a disc between my L5 and S1, and the piece that broke off was lodged somewhere it’s not supposed to be and crushing my sciatic nerve. I had no choice but to have surgery to fix the problem if I ever wanted to be pain free again and return to my normal life of yoga, running, and cardio. All my surgeon had to do was make a 1 ½ inch incision, pull back my muscle, remove the broken chip and cleanup my disc where it broke off. Piece. Of. Cake.

Back surgery. I was terrified. There are so many nerves. So many risks. I was afraid I’d wake up from the surgery and be a paraplegic. This is a place my mind often goes to automatically: worst case scenario. But my neurosurgeon assured me “I’m going to take very good care of you,” and held my hand before I went into surgery, and when I came out. And he was right, he did.

Sporting my sexy scrubs before surgery.

My days since my surgery have been filled with percoset induced naps, marathons of the Golden Girls and Gilmore Girls, books and magazines. Each day, I try to walk a little farther than the day before. I have a plastic pedometer from Walgreens that I’ve strapped to the waistband of my pants to track my steps. I’m so glad I have this to feed my competitive nature. Early on, I had one day where I only took 100 steps. Yesterday, I walked 1,460 steps. Today, I’m up to 1,064 and I’ve only been awake four hours. Progress!

My first venture outside post-op

I’m looking at this down time as a gift to rest, something I haven’t been able to do much of lately. I have no schedule, no agenda, no appointments, no meetings to attend, or projects to work on. I’m learning to be happy doing nothing. However, I hit a bit of a low point yesterday when I took a selfie of my bun, yes my bun, and posted it on Instagram. I got a little bored, so I put my hair up in a bun for the first time and wanted to share my achievement during this growing out phase of my hair. After that, I watched Wanda Sykes’ standup comedy routine and ate ice cream out of the jar in bed. It was pretty fantastic. Even though I’m a Type A personality and have a hard time doing nothing, I’m pretty good at being a patient. I’ve had a lot of practice with it.

Bun selfie.

I got sick a lot as a kid. Flu, viruses, colds, even pneumonia. I was in kindergarten or first grade when I got hit with pneumonia. I remember feeling like I was walking through a swimming pool of water every day, my body weak and heavy. I remember getting x-rays taken and putting on a heavy, gray apron over my clothing. I was wearing a royal blue short-sleeve blouse with white elephants. The vest felt heavy like lead. I liked the feeling of this extra weight against my body, like I was wearing a suit of armor to protect me. I think I was sick for a week.

I never minded being home sick from school. I watched Scooby Doo and colored in the new coloring books my mom stopped to get me at the drugstore on the way home from the doctor. I usually got a fresh pack of crayons to go with it. I looked forward to taking my medicine, swallowing spoonfuls of thick pink liquid that smelled, looked, and tasted like bubble gum. My mom made me hot chocolate from the Swiss Miss packets and added a fluffy cloud of whipped cream. She served it in my favorite Garfield mug. Every morning she made me cinnamon toast with the perfect ratio of sugar to butter. I still make that for myself whenever I’m sick.

I’ve always been a good patient. I didn’t complain, sulk or wish I were in school. I liked being home watching cartoons, coloring, eating lunch with my mom. I remember when I got the flu in 4th grade, I missed a week of school. I watched Benji movies and felt a tightness in my throat whenever he encountered danger as he struggled to find his way back home. My mom brought our black and white TV from the kitchen to my bedroom and set it up on a TV dinner table so I could watch TV in bed. I felt like a princess. She checked on me throughout the day bringing me something yummy to eat each time: red Jell-O, a can of ginger ale with a straw, and cupcakes—always cupcakes. They were the kind you get from the grocery store that come in packs of six. Vanilla with whipped frosting that made your teeth turn colors.

I ignored all homework. My best friend Kimmy brought my homework assignments to me. I didn’t do all of them because I was too tired, but also because I had better things to do like watch Benji movies and eat cupcakes. That Monday when I finally returned to school, my teacher, Mrs. Perrault, made me take all the quizzes I missed all at once. I still joke today that she was the toughest teacher I had. She loaded us up with homework every night in every subject. I got in trouble once for rolling my eyes and sighing audibly when she added yet another assignment to our homework. She seemed to take turns embarrassing her students in front of the class. I think she enjoyed it. Anyway, I got an F on my quiz on the 13 colonies. (I was never one for history.) My score was somewhere in the 40s I think. I just remember her red pen marks slashing through my answers—and non-answers—on the paper. She also gave me a quiz on the book we were supposed to be reading: “Dear Mr. Henry.” I hated that book and of course didn’t keep up with my reading while I was out sick because, you know, Benji. I made up answers to most of the questions.

Even as a kid I noticed that I got sick a lot more than the other kids at school. I was always fascinated by my classmates who finished the school year with perfect attendance. I should have gotten an award for most days missed from school.

I’ve always been the type of person who gets diagnosed with rare things. I once had a rheumatologist send me down the hallway to her colleague’s office, a dermatologist, so he could take a picture of my hands. She had just diagnosed me with aquagenic wrinkling of the palms, a rare condition that causes the skin on palms to wrinkle more than normal after being submerged in water. She also telephoned her daughter, a med student, to swing by her office so she could witness this rare occurrence. I wonder if my hands are in some medical journal I don’t know about.

Even this thing with my back. So random. I fell stepping out of my husband’s 4Runner. My foot hit black ice and I fell forward. Hard. I couldn’t just walk away with bruised knees and an aching back. Nope. I had to have surgery. I’m complex like that.

We like to think of our bodies as indestructible, at least I do. But we’re actually very fragile beings. Our bodies are kind of like cars. Every once and a while, something breaks, and we need to go in for a tune up. And sometimes that tune up is longer and more complex than we had expected. So I’m going to sink in to what is, fluff my pillows, take as many naps as I need, eat as many cupcakes as I want, and trust that my body will let me know when it’s time to do more. Now excuse me, the Young & the Restless is coming on in five minutes. …

Cupcakes + Gilmore Girls = best medicine