An open letter to me (and you)

HospitalTwelve hours from now, I’ll be arriving at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York right before dawn arrives and that jazz blue color paints the City. Hopefully this list will stick with you, but if not, consider it a digital post it that I will re-read to myself as I head into the operating room for the third spinal surgery of my life and the second of 2014 tomorrow.

Sometimes tips like the ones below – no matter how cliché they may seem (they’re not when you have epiphanies about them IRL) – act as a flashlight when you’re heading down a dark road. That is a tree branch shaking in the wind and not a serial killer waiting to pounce. Catch my drift? Things aren’t as scary as they may seem when there is some light.

  • Never underestimate your support system. Since I got my drivers license, I had visions of being independent when it came to almost everything (except for changing the oil in my car and killing spiders) so it was hard for me to truly and intensely rely on people after my recent operation (and the only one I have had over the age of 12). In retrospect, I realize that without my family, friends, boyfriend and coworkers being as flexible, understanding and encouraging as they were, I would be in a very different place right now. Because of how exceedingly supportive everyone in my life was, I feel a lot more prepared for this surgery and my upcoming recovery. Read: I know I’ll kick ass this time around and never have to go under the knife again.
  • Take time to slow down. It is so easy to get sucked into the busy trap. You know what I mean. You fill your life with things until you’re tired and overwhelmed, and it feels impressive when a friend asks to get coffee and you can sigh and say “oh no, I’m just so busy!” For a while, I was in too much pain and too sick to be busy and it felt like a curse. I felt almost as if I had lost my identity because of the lack of that capital-B busy in my life. I don’t know how it happened, but one day, I learned to enjoy not doing anything. I don’t suggest you get surgery in order to feel this, but try it sometime. Buy the cake mix so you don’t have to slave away to make those crème brulee cupcakes from scratch, let the dishes sit in the sink for another hour and get some face to face time with people you love sans your iphone (unless it’s Facetime because they live far away. That’s legit)
  • Remember perspective. Sometimes things can seem really bad. Like, worse than ‘I just can’t’ bad. More like you’re living the plot of Gone Girl bad. Sometimes you have to step back and remember that while sometimes things are not as easy as you’d like them to be, the rest of life is pretty great. And things could always be worse. Usually my go to thought is that I can get water from a sink tap in my house that is heated instead of walking miles to a water source that isn’t even clean. And once I get my water, I can use my phone to order whatever food I’d like and it will arrive at my door within the hour. I don’t event have to talk on the phone or talk to an actual person! Makes you feel better about your life already, huh?
  • Never ever EVER lose hope. At the nonprofit I work at, we use the phrase Hope is inside. We work in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a neighborhood known for its high crime rates and even higher concentration of public housing. The narrative there is one of loss and conflict. The neighborhood also has immense assets and a community comprised of people stronger and more inspiring than most I have met before. Even when things get really bad, there is so much hope. If you don’t lose that hope, good things can happen. I briefly lost hope several months ago when it seemed the doctors could do nothing to correct an extremely painful error made during my last operation: twisting a screw into my nerve root, which prevents me from straightening my right leg fully and causes me constant pain. One of my doctors called around that time and said, “I refuse to believe that the only option is letting you suffer.” Sometimes it takes someone else rooting for you in a big way and other times, it is a matter of just having faith that things will get better. If you do lose hope, see no. 3.
  • Cut the crap. This is one mantra that I am trying to adopt more every day and will hopefully have mastered in the next few years. There are some legitimately tough things in life to deal with, why worry about the little things? I know drama is easy to get caught up in and life gets political, but it’s just not worth the stress. When the really tough things happen, you’ll regret nitpicking over something insignificant just because you happened to be hangry. Eat a doughnut and then see if you feel better.

So, cheers to the positives and the lessons learned. I will be reading this around 4 am tomorrow when I arrive at the hospital. My wish for you is that you read this at a less absurd hour of the day (and hopefully after more than three hours of sleep).

Blonde Daisies

Blonde Daisies

Blonde Daisies

Recently, I had to figure out how to be me again. When I say “being me,” I don’t mean I’ve changed – at least that much. Though, I did get a little more metal. What I’m trying to say is that in March, I underwent the second (and hopefully final) spinal fusion of my lifetime. Before the surgery, I was in pain and, well, I’m sure you don’t want to hear the long story, but suffice to say that the pain made doing the things I thought defined me nearly impossible. Running? Out. Baking? Ouch! Even going to work felt like torture. Think getting stuck on the L train for an hour is bad? Try doing that while your vertebra rub themselves down to nubs.

I counted the days until my surgery and then mentally prepared myself to be as good as new very shortly after. Well, it turns out your body isn’t really elated about having metal wrapped around parts that are supposed to stay safely tucked inside of your skin.

Surgery

Before + After

Fast forward to now: Today marks three months to date that I was wheeled into that operating room, fingers crossed under blankets just warmed by a heater, that this surgery would have a better result than the first one.  It has been a hell of a ride and I am just starting to feel like me again. And I think I have a new perspective on what being me really means.

After passing through the denial stage (OMG I can’t believe I can’t leave my apartment) and getting angry (I know I can’t walk or sit for more than five minutes, but I still don’t understand why I can’t go to that party tonight), I turned a corner somewhere and hit acceptance. Now, let’s not get dramatic. I don’t have a fatal illness and I knew all along that this surgery and recovery would just be a setback – nothing permanent – albeit I no longer have feeling in my right leg and that part might be permanent. But laying low was a lot more difficult than I anticipated, and I was so focused on being active that I never truly enjoyed the stillness that was at my disposal. I did my best to catch up with friends, celebrate good news and be social over the phone, via my laptop or from my couch. But that didn’t fit my usually active schedule of work, working out, cooking, baking, reading and filling any other spare time with podcasts and music (oh, and sleep).

Dotted within this stretch of time that I seemed to fill with nothingness (due to pain, illness, lack of concentration due to heavy pain medication, work, etc.) I attempted a lot of activities that I previously thought defined me (that I could barely do in my recovery state). But on an unknown day during this time, I realized what I had been missing while living too quickly.

Mocha Cupcakes

Mocha Cupcakes

Among the days when I sat down every three minutes as I struggled to bake mocha cupcakes with espresso icing and sugar cookies with buttercream icing; worked with my step mother to plant a hanging mason jar herb garden as I lay on the couch fighting my pain; and tried to go to dinner with my boyfriend’s parents and nearly fainting because my pain medicine was making me so ill, I learned what mattered more than fitting everything into a day, a week a month and a year.

I read more books than I have in years and started to write poetry again. I spent time with my boyfriend during my darkest and most painful nights that faded into bright mornings, when I would wake up to fresh flowers that we nicknamed blonde daisies, which loomed over the pile of pill bottles on my bedside table and made everything seem OK again. I learned that love is someone staying awake all night when you are in too much pain to sleep even with an alarm clock set for 8 am. I spent more consistent time with family than I have in awhile, and I let myself ask for help. My brightest days involved sitting on our balcony in the sun and no longer needing my walker or cane to walk to the end of the hallway.

Even before someone took a scalpel to my spine, I constantly fretted about wasting my time and wanting to use it wisely. But this recovery period gave me the opportunity to soak up what is truly important and allowed me to redefine myself through a new lens.

Now, when the chaos of life starts up again and I resume my usual activities, I know to stop and smell the blonde daises.