One year ago today I got in an awful bike accident. I remember lying contorted on the ground in the most pain I’d felt in my life, being lifted onto a stretcher and into the back of an ambulance, then opening my eyes in an emergency room bed thinking that if I wasn’t dead I would definitely be paralyzed for the rest of my life.
And yet – here I am. Alive. Going to the bathroom without assistance (thanks, Thomas, for weeks of facilitating bathroom trips!). Walking down the block to the grocery store. Working regular hours at my job. Going for hikes and riding my bike through the beautiful trees of Northern California.
I wrote a lot during my hospitalization (once I was adequately conscious, that is…it’s crazy how little I remember from the week following my emergency surgery) and from my house in the lonely weeks of recovery after. I shared some posts here during that time but never talked much about my experience of the accident or the process of recovery. As I sat on my couch last night reflecting on the last 12 months I read everything I’d written during that time. Scattered among journals, notebooks, and unfinished blog post drafts I had generated pages and pages of jumbled thoughts, half-formed ideas, and unfinished sentences.
I suppose I never shared any of it because 1) I didn’t need to; its primary purpose was to help me make sense of my own experience (rather than listen to myself talk, which is – let’s be honest – the point of a blog) and 2) I never felt like I was articulating anything well. So many of my reflections from that time were abandoned when I got frustrated that I couldn’t accurately describe how I felt or that I couldn’t make any profound meaning out of my experience. But after 12 months of sitting on these words I decided to share some, no matter how half-baked or stupid they may sound. As with all the posts on my blog, they are a way for me to connect with others as I try to make sense of being a human. (So, if you want to leave a comment or share some thoughts or reflections of your own…that’s kind of the only reason I do this.)
From my journal, March 2019:
“Look at the moon,” said my dad, pointing up at the darkening sky. “It’s a perfect half!”
We both stood still for a moment, looking up at the white semicircle speckled with its brownish craters, then continued walking in reflective silence. After a minute he turned to me again. “So, Mads, I have to ask — is there anything you think you’ll do differently in your life after this accident?”
I have spent a lot of time over the past six weeks reflecting on how this injury has altered my perceptions, beliefs, and habits but no one – until my dad a few days ago – asked me to voice any of these thoughts. His question prompted me to better articulate my half-formed ideas; so, here I am, attempting to put them in writing. I hope that writing them down will 1) bring more clarity and succinctness to the jumbled mess in my head and 2) allow me to hold on to them more tightly as I recover and, more importantly, after I recover.
I’ve been told by multiple family members and friends over the past weeks that they “can’t believe I seem so happy and positive!” If I’m being honest – and it feels shameful to admit – I worry that I’ve only been able to stay hopeful because I know I will recover. I thank god every day that I’m expected to make a full recovery but simultaneously ask myself, “Would I have been able to stay optimistic if I knew I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life?” I don’t know. I’ve seen firsthand how difficult navigating daily life is when you’re physically disabled and how drastically my life as I knew it changed. I would like to think that in the same ways I’ve made temporary adjustments to both my lifestyle and thought patterns over the past weeks, I’d similarly rise to the occasion in the event of a permanent injury, but that would be holding myself in too high of a regard. I can’t get out of my head thoughts of people who have done that, and do that every day, and I’m in awe of their strength.
I thank god, too, for my job and my health insurance. Please never allow me to complain about my job again, even in the smallest, half-joking-with-my-friends-on-a-Sunday-evening of ways; I am so grateful for it and the stability, income, and benefits it provides. Everything else — the day-to-day ups and downs, the stressful weeks, the impending scary meetings — is trivial. (Insert rant here about healthcare in the United States because I’d be bankrupt right now without the health insurance my job provides and everyone deserves the right to healthcare.)
The gratitude lists I’ve always written in my journal each morning have been far too easy to write since the accident. I’ve never doubted that my relationships are by far and away the number one priority in my life, but if it were possible to realize this truth even more so that’s what has happened over the past few weeks. Saying that I’ve remained positive and optimistic every minute of this process would be dishonest, but I can say that it has been easier and more joy-filled than I ever could have imagined thanks to my family and friends. I never take for granted my family who has supported and taken care of me every step of the way. I never take for granted my friends who have sent me books they thought I’d like to read, or written me a card, or brought me flowers and mint chocolate chip ice cream because they know it’s my favorite flavor. I’m not sure I will ever be able to fully express my gratitude for the joy they have brought me…
Another reflection/realization: maybe people don’t hate me?! (Hmm, that sounds a lot more dramatic when I type it out but I can’t pretend it’s not a thought I have often.) There’s a part of me (and this is where I delve into territory that might make some people ask, “Why are you sharing this online?”) that believes that everyone – even my closest friends – might secretly dislike or hate me, and I often live in a state of anxiety because of this fear. I am constantly afraid that I’m doing or saying something wrong, or that I’ve messed up, or that everyone is just pretending to tolerate me when in reality they think I’m too loud or annoying or stupid. I’m not sure this belief will be erased entirely as a result of this process (hashtag deeply-rooted issues), but there has never been such strong evidence to its contrary. Why would my friends go out of their way to come visit me, or send me the most incredibly thoughtful packages, if they didn’t like me? Why would people who I haven’t known for that long come to the hospital with chocolate if I were perceived as stupid and annoying? I have to hand it to reality, here: you’ve made a strong case for yourself. I am sure the constant battle between my irrational thoughts and my objective reality (is there such a thing? I’d argue no, but that’s a more philosophical conversation I’ll save for a later time) won’t disappear, but I am thankful for everyone who has given me concrete evidence that lies in stark contrast to the long-held beliefs I have about myself.
From a draft blog post, November 2019:
Art and creativity have played a huge part in helping me remain positive throughout my recovery. Sure, a lot of the past weeks have been spent in pain and massive frustration that I can’t move or sleep or work but, on the bright side, I have never had so much time for reading and writing. Before my injury I was worried about reaching the read-50-books-this-year goal I’d set for myself, but that concern has flown out the window! I’ve had time every morning to write – time that I’d usually use to exercise, or to do some work before I head into the office -and to enjoy my morning coffee instead of chugging it on the bus on my way to work.
I could live without exercise, but I couldn’t live without the outdoors. I love you San Francisco. I love you California. I love you trees and ocean and flowers and skies.
From my journal app, December 2019:
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get out and about; in the past ten weeks of recovery I haven’t ventured further than the 45-minute drive from San Francisco to Half Moon Bay. But despite not being able to stray far from home I have never felt void of adventure: a walk around my neighborhood, a short hike in Golden Gate Park, or even reading a good book in bed at night were enough to make me feel fully alive. There’s a lot to be said for exploring your own home, and I remind myself often there’s no need to travel more than two miles to have an adventure (extra credit to San Francisco, though, this city makes it easy). Maybe it’s an idea perpetuated by social media that you have to travel to a National Park or across an ocean to “have an adventure.” What’s wrong with going to the park down the street? I have gotten my fill of adventure simply by noticing and experiencing every small thing within a three block radius of my house…and I bet there’s a lot waiting to be discovered within a few miles of yours…
From a notebook, October 2019:
I thought being in the hospital, unable to move or do much besides sleep and stare at the ceiling, would be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. In some ways, it has been that. But, in others, it’s been the biggest blessing to be forced to slow down.
And back to the present moment:
Looking back on these words I wrote I’m incredibly thankful I took the time to get them down no matter how frustrating or incomplete or stupid they seemed to me at the time.
I love how strongly I’ve held on to the thoughts and feelings I experienced during that time, primarily those of gratitude and blessing. I never took going for a morning walk for granted even before my accident, and I sure as hell don’t now.
While I’m at it, I thought I’d share a few pictures from those recovery months that make me smile. Those were (and it may seem ironic to some) many of the happiest and “my-heart-is-so-full” moments of my life.