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.

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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

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