Two Months Later: An Update

Okay, here’s a blog post update on how I’m recovering since my bike accident! I’m sparing my FB feed from what would be a horribly long status update. Two months ago, April 9th, I was in the ICU after crashing my bike, losing consciousness, and having a tiny bit of bleeding in the brain (final diagnosis: minor traumatic brain injury). And here I am, June 9th, at the computer and heading to the studio this afternoon. I’m almost back to normal! Well, sort of. :)

Last week, my family lost my Aunt Eleanor. She battled intense asthma all her life. My heart hurts for my Uncle George and my cousins Rachel & Ruthie. They’ve already gone through so much as a family. Also in the past two months, my cousin Frankie has been in serious hospitalizations fighting his diabetes. I’m watching my cousins fight their battles courageously and I strive to do the same. I have a big amazing family. 

So, I’m not sure what normal is anymore. It’s not all bad, just different. Life can change so suddenly, instantaneously. It hasn’t been easy figuring out how to comport myself, between managing my limitations and understanding my capabilities. I was afraid I’d miss out on signs that I could do more and that I’d end up staying in bed for months on end when I didn’t need to. Turns out, I wasn’t too bad at estimating my limitations/ability status each day. As I get better, I can look back at how I was feeling before and confirm, yeah, it felt pretty bad. Some days, I am reminded exactly how it felt; I regress sometimes into dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Also, some things seem to have really changed neurologically. While I hope some of these changes are permanent (cool stuff!), I hope others heal up quick (less cool stuff).

  • I used to go to the studio several times a week, but I’ve only been back once since April, and that was just to pick up a few supplies. I haven’t used those supplies much, either. Oh well. I’m going back to the studio this afternoon, though! Who knows what I’ll make today. I don’t expect much, I only expect to play with my materials. I hope to at least have a check-in on what it’s like to have an art practice. I hope.
  • I can definitely say I’m more verbal than I used to be. I feel a little sorry for my old self; it wasn’t easy to have so many filters/inhibitions when attempting to say what I wanted to say! Even though some people might not know I was inhibited quite a bit, I credit how far I’d come as an adult to the ample amount of conversations & high level of engagement I’ve had with my best friends through the years (my friends have a tendency to insist on expressiveness.) Yet today, I can look back at my conversations from a few months ago, and know that I feel very different now. I just do. My former reservations really seem to have had a biological component to them, because ever since I got my head whacked, I’m quicker to say exactly what I intend to say. And I care less about if there are implications, especially if I mean what I say. I’m still empathetic and all that, but it feels less like I’m constrained by empathy, and more like I’m freed by it. Free to see others’ points of views, but not stifled in my own. If I got to age forty and still had those inhibitions before the head whacking accident, I can now have more compassion for the ingrained biological component to what makes us all the way we are, whether we are made of the stuff of mice or of lions.
  • This overflows into my Spanish speaking. I can speak Spanish more freely now! I can access the language and use it too. Maybe there was some barrier dislodged in my brain during that head trauma? ;) I’ve yet to fully explore this, but initial observations are pointing to this being true. I definitely was more afraid in the past to make mistakes while speaking Spanish. Which is kind of a problem when working at improving language skills. See, I primarily spoke Spanish until age 5, so I’ve known the español was in there somewhere. Finally, I can use what I have. I think I’m well enough to start up my Spanish audio lessons again, that’s something I was doing a lot during commutes to/from the studio before the accident. Before now, I haven’t been able to do audio-only things (music, audio-books) so the lessons were out of the question. I still can’t listen to things while driving, but I look forward to working some spanish audio-lessons into my at-home life.
  • OK, another weird thing… anyone who knows me well would say this is a huge change: I like going on walks now, I might even like exercising. This began this past week as I’ve started being well enough to be active for over half an hour. Like, super active. I strap on my running shoes (when was the last time I wore those things?! I didn’t even used to like how they looked and didn’t want to wear them!). I head out the door for a determined walk. I see a hill, and I’m like: bring it! This is NOT like me, I repeat, NOT like me. If I have enjoyed a walk before now, it was because I was meandering slowly through a pretty place, taking in the view around me. It was a serene experience. I have several friends who walk together regularly, and it’s known that I only join them on rare occasions. And it’s not because I want to do the walk, it’s just more so that I can hang with them. I like sitting in nature. Not exercising in it! I’ve been known to occasionally get motivated for a one-off thing (like training for a metric century ride) (I still proudly wear the badge of having completed a 100K bike ride even though that was several years ago, only one time!), or a (very very!) brief boot-camp craze because I was trying to get healthy after having babies. Even the day I got into the bike accident in April, I wasn’t biking for exercise, I was getting images of bike riding on a beautiful day (!). I guess I whacked the part of my brain that involves motivation for exercise. So, me & exercising… we are apparently buddies now. We’ll see if this friendship lasts. I hope so!
  • The more I’ve been able to be physically active without many symptoms (the past two weeks), the less reflective I’ve become. I feel like I’m drying up. I’m reading less, I’m writing less, and I’ve barely touched the materials I brought home from the studio. Which is why I’m headed back to the studio today. I seemed to stay creative after my accident at first. I definitely felt that I stayed creative writing-wise after my accident. Beginning a week after being home from hospital, I blogged a lot AND I worked with my team to publish Issue #9 of ProWax Journal, AND I started up the self-directed #exMFA grad experience thing!– but now I feel like that part of me is emptied out, flat. And May 21 to June 2, I did write five entries (one, two, three, four, five!) as notes for the  #exMFA. But since June 2, since I’ve been up & moving & out + about, I’ve been less able to engage the part of my brain that thinks in abstract terms and creates visual or conceptual connections. Even as I write this, I feel that my language is plain and less reflective. I care enough about this to work at it, to not let this slip away from me… but, gladly, I also don’t care that I have a deficit that might be obvious to others. It’s kind of like the way that I’m not ashamed about the scar on the left side of my head. I’ll proudly own this state-of-being that I’m in today. It’s where I’m at. It’s me.
  • The more active I’ve gotten, the more words I’ve said wrong without even noticing. Like, I saw a pair of numbers (73) (a tied score during the first Warriors game in the championships) and I told my son, look it’s 33 to 33! I didn’t realize my mistake until my son pointed it out to me. It’s not just numbers related, either. I just say things wrong. As far as I know, this is a new thing as of the last two weeks, since I’ve been “getting better.” So, I’m not happy about this part, but it’s OK, it doesn’t seem to have serious implications.
  • Also as I return to normal, I’m realizing that it’s a new kind of normal. I still have limitations. I can begin my day forgetting the feelings of disability I’ve had, and I can go along with my life that day (i.e. I’ve been driving again for 2 weeks now!) and then it hits me: headache & nausea. So I return home. My day comes to a halt. My wellbeing each day depends on quality sleep; without it, I’m likely to hit a wall… Which is where I will leave this, since last night was a horrible night of sleep (we lost power in our neighborhood in out one day 100+ heatwave, the electric company was outside our house at midnight, my dogs were barking, and my youngest son came into my bed at maybe 4am, then a couple hours later I gave up and got up and here I am.) I still went on my walk coz I really wanted to (!!!). And I attended a middle-school awards ceremony (my kid got a peer nominated award for being Kind & Helpful!– how cool is that!– And also a teacher nominated award for excellence in Reading: analyzing literature, comprehending non-fiction texts, and contributing to an active learning environment! Love it!) And now after my boys’ school pickup, I’m headed to the studio, so help me God. My biggest accomplishment today may just be that I drive the 30 min (no traffic) there & then drive the 1 hour (commute traffic) back.

Wish me luck!

Crash. Boom. Opera. (Or: my bike crash and the clear light of day.)

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Thump. Thump. Thump. The sound of a kid doing basketball drills, bouncing the ball in that monotonous way. The picture of the afternoon sunlight on a driveway, the passing of time marked by the mundane. The beat. The beat. The beat.

The beating of my heart. The yellow foam earplugs I’d been given amplified the rhythm. Even my breath: in and out, in and out, an inside-my-head soundtrack for my post-head-trauma recovery. And the movie inside my mind, as my eyes were closed, covered: a menagerie of images (I remember animations in light blue line on navy blue background?), places, colors, practicing Spanish, working on art. You can take the activities away from the girl, but you can’t take them out of her head. For the first couple days in the hospital after I crashed my bike, I was on “strict brain injury protocol”. No sound. No light. No nothing. Just me and my brain. And painkillers. And they thought I was resting…. .

I remember a lot from the night of the accident, interspersed with a few completely blank chunks. It seems like every healthcare worker during my entire hospital stay made me retell the story. Didn’t they already know? Were they rushed between patients, no chance to read the charts? Did this asking for the story have something to do with working my memory, a kind of brain exercise, was it for my wellness? Perhaps a check to make sure the trauma wasn’t from a domestic crime? Or did they just want to hear how much I’d say, how much truth I’d tell, did they want my mea culpa? Was it a social test? Along the way, I’d regret the compulsion to tell every person the whole truth. Couldn’t I massage the truth a little? Control the judgements that were sure to come? These were questions I had despite the cloudiness of my super medicated state.

I looked clearly at each individual who walked in my dark hospital room to take care of me. I wasn’t unaware that they’d have their own perspective, their own prejudices, and that I was just a character (not even a supporting actor, more like an extra-extra) in a life story that has each of them as the center. I similarly carry my own story, my own main character: Me. All of us, strangers, we are these life stories that pass each other by, we circle each other, sometimes criss-crossing at innocuous moments; other times, it’s so much more. So here’s what I sort of hyper-remember from the night of the accident, with a whole cast of important people who I wouldn’t recognize if I saw them again.

I was riding my bike, not going that fast. I saw the wall of the tunnel. I felt my inability to stop the bike, the handlebars turned left. I said to myself (while noting, to myself, my resigned unsurprised tone) “Well, I’m going to crash.”

Then nothing.

I don’t remember the tumbling, the bike crumpling, the head bashing the whatever, the cut, or the bleeding. I don’t remember the strangers who talked to me and who called 911.

I opened my eyes to guys looking down at me, helping me. I saw busyness. Professionals. Crowded. The ambulance. They may have said “You’re going to be OK.” They asked me, “Do you know what happened?” No, I said. “You were in a bike accident.” I started to cry. What about my sons? Where were my sons? I could picture their young faces. I didn’t think of their names. I kept crying. I couldn’t remember I had been biking alone. I wanted to know where my sons were, I wanted to know they were okay. With my eyes closed, I kept crying. “Where’s her helmet?” I heard. “She’s dressed in bike gear, she must have had a helmet.” (I didn’t.)

Someone held my phone. “What is your husband’s name?” I told them. “She knows her husband’s name” I heard them say, happy. Had they asked me my name? Had I not known? I don’t remember them asking, I don’t remember answering. “What is your password?”, some guy asked. I told them. “That’s my password!” someone laughed. I closed my eyes. “We need to apply staples” I heard them tell me. I opened my eyes then closed them again. I didn’t feel pain but I heard, felt the thuds on my left temple.

I remember arriving at the hospital. The bright lights. I cried more. My stupid helmet! They started to cut apart my clothes so they could run the tests, take the x-rays. I cried as they cut my American flag jersey, the one that had been made in honor of my nephew killed in Afghanistan. No no no! My nephew! My nephew! I cried more. They laughed among themselves, “She’s crying about her clothes.” “Ma’am, you will get new clothes.” My nephew! I cried. I pointed to the band I wear on my arm, with his name, his birthday, the day we lost him. Someone read the band. I closed my eyes. I was a Jane Doe.

I cried as they wheeled me to the CT scan. I was so stupid! I said out loud, I forgot to wear my helmet! “We’ve seen worse, believe me”  the technician said. I closed my eyes. They took one earring off. Couldn’t get the other off. Told me to stay still. I couldn’t move anyway.

They brought me back to the ER. Someone cleaned the blood off my head. I heard someone remark, “You cleaned her up really well.” The nurse responded with the technique she’d used. The doctor came in. I saw my husband and oldest son walking in behind him. “Sir, her bike is right over there” and they gestured behind him. I started to cry. The doctor said, pending results from my CT scan, if there was no internal bleeding, I’d be sent home that night. I cried to my husband and son, I’m so sorry I forgot my helmet! He assured me he was just glad I was okay. My son walked around to the side where I was cut on my head, then he backed away, nauseous he said. I closed my eyes.

The doctor came back in and told us the results of the CT scan showed I’d need to be admitted into the ICU. The Neurological (or something) ICU. I closed my eyes.

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It took a neuro specialist to see the bleeding, but I guess it was there, tiny but there.

That was two weeks ago, April 8th, I had a trifecta of things that went wrong, my own bad decisions. I was in a hurry. I had a video project in mind, and I wanted to take it with my phone, something simple before the sun went down (the light was so warm), I wanted to get cycling images, it would be so easy. I dressed in bike gear from shoulder to toe but forgot my helmet. I’d never forgotten before (and made a habit of mocking people–in my mind–when they didn’t wear helmets.) There I was, the picture of ridiculousness. Why bother with all the gear but no helmet? I grabbed a jersey I’d never worn; later, I didn’t have the reflex to find the pockets easily mid-ride. When I had finished taking video and went to put the phone away, I couldn’t find the pocket, so I held the phone in my right hand. When I decided to slow my bike down, I used only my left hand to squeeze the brake (fyi: don’t do that.) My handlebars veered left. I saw the wall of the tunnel. And that was it.

The thing is, my phone was still recording video. I hadn’t pressed stop while the bike was moving (eyes on the road, duh! safety first I always say! heh heh). The video shows scrambling and then my arms and the ground. Not moving. I was breathing. A cyclist came upon me and asked if I was OK. No response. “What happened?” No response. He asked more questions “Did you crash?” and I finally responded “I don’t know…?” with a singsong confused who-are-you-where-am-I voice. I don’t remember him or his questions or answering him. The video shows strangers calling 911. And then someone picked up my phone, said “Hey this was recording the whole time” then click, it was turned off.

Had I not hurried myself, careless in my creative urgency, would I have forgotten my helmet? And what about taking video at all while I rode? I knew it was risky but I’d never crashed before. Once I realized I didn’t have my helmet, I made some effort to be more careful. I wasn’t even going fast, but it didn’t take much. Because without a helmet, with a direct strong hit to my head, my left scalp above my ear split open and a blood vessel indeed broke in the lining under my skull that covers my brain. (It started to resolve by the next morning, and I was out of ICU within a day or two; two weeks later I’m well on my way to recovery). But the story of how I got there, and that I had culpability, it was something I wanted to obscure for others’ retelling of what happened to me. So I was in intensive medical care. I felt for the people who care about me, hearing about what happened, knowing they’d worry as I would for them. But what I wanted to control was the part of the story that owed it all to my stupidity. Sympathy, compassion: the connectors between myself and the circle of friends around me, the web that would hold me in place. I didn’t want it paired (tainted) with a simultaneous knowing that had I made better decisions, it wouldn’t have happened at all. It was one thing to tell my loved ones (and cry) about how sorry I was. But having my stupidity discussed in my absence? Make. It. Stop. How could I tell the story in a way that removed me as the villain of my accident? How could I reverse time and tell everyone, while I was still unconscious, that I didn’t want to be embarrassed by the truth?

Here I am two weeks later. I do have an amazing community around me, great health insurance, I’m married to a partner who shares everything with me including the burden, his job allows for flexibility plus doesn’t change his income, and my mom lives with me (she happens to be healthy enough right now to flip roles and take care of me). Without each of these supports, I wouldn’t be recovering so completely. I have a vague understanding that without these safety nets, life would be so different, especially right now. I have so much that I have offers for help that I don’t need to collect on. I’ve had meals delivered to my family every night, coordinated by my friend who went through a terrible inconceivable loss a few years ago. My husband is the parent for everything including the one to take my younger high-need son to extra doctor appointments, in addition to driving me to my follow ups. I’m starting to wonder, do I really need this much help, this much sympathy? Maybe it’s time to take the burden back. So I have a plan in mind. This week, it’s getting to the point that I can wake up like I used to, before the boys go to school, helping them along and making their lunches. Yesterday I woke up at 10am, and today I woke up at 8:30, so I’m almost there. I did a load of laundry and plan to have a parenting task today: teaching my boys (again) how to sort & put their clothes away. Two days ago I walked two blocks with my husband while I held tight to his hand so I wouldn’t fall. As of last night, I still wear earplugs and noise canceling ear phones when my boys are home (their yelps, hollers, and antics pierce my mind). Maybe this afternoon I can just wear earplugs. When should I tell my friends to stop bringing meals? I don’t know. I don’t like cooking anyway. (Truth). But the hours and hours of quiet, in which I am reading, writing, researching and sometimes watching movies or TV (the steady sound, even if it’s people having conversations on the telly, is so easy to process compared with the overwhelmingness of trying to follow the conversation of four laughing adults; I know this now, thanks to a brief encounter with my friendly neighbors when we went out for that walk)… the time I have to immerse myself in subjects I’ve never had time to do before (I’m looking at you, pro- & anti- Social Practice Art articles, and your extremes that I found equally irritating)… the time to delve into things that I usually don’t have because I’m trying to be all the roles that make up my life (woman, daughter, spouse, friend, mother, artist, project leader, faith practitioner)… so I can’t say I’m not enjoying myself. (Truth).

So what’s wrong with a little more truth? I decided to choose happiness when the truth is told. A nice refreshing cold splash of water. I was stupid. If it wasn’t for me, this might not have happened. I might not have had a (minor!) traumatic brain injury. I might not have scared people I love, burdened them with supporting me, and gotten time off doing things I dislike (morning parenting, school drop offs & pickups, dinner, most homework supervision, bedtime “go to bed!” battles) while doing things I quite enjoy instead. (Yes, I had some intense pain but that’s pretty much past now.) I’ve decided that a dose of truth, and humility, are good for me: always. The twinge of pain that accompanies embarrassment that’s owed to truth? I take it gladly now. (Well, that is, for now. Who knows what embarrassment tomorrow holds?) No more aiming for an angelic heroic byline when the truth is I’m a sum of all sorts of pieces that I’d rather not admit to. Whatever truths make their way into the clear light of day, let it be. I’ll be happy.

I have just one reminder, Self.

Wear your stupid helmet, Stupid.

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