My Sentiment, Exactly

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There is this uplifting scene towards the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas where the Grinch’s heart expands to three times its normal size. Having a kid is somewhat like having this happen-except throw frustration, sleep deprivation, anxiety and abject terror at the responsibility for keeping this totally helpless tiny human alive into the mix.

To be honest, ever since our daughter Ellie was born six weeks ago, I have walked around with a totally different perspective on motherhood. I have looked at other mothers-especially those with multiple children-and wondered just how the hell they do it.

I don’t mean how do they do it on a day to day basis.

Yes, the sleep deprivation outright sucks. But no matter how long and frustrating the nights get, things always seem a little brighter once the sun comes up (because, let’s be honest, the first few weeks are mostly just about survival).

And yes, the constant crying and occasional screaming (newborns are sort of like dachshunds – a body that tiny really shouldn’t be able to produce that loud a sound, it just can’t be natural!) is frustrating, but at some point it always passes.

No – caring for a baby is hard work for sure, but it’s something that slipped into our lives like it was supposed to, because loving our daughter just made it so. What I wondered about these other mothers-now that I am one-is how they walk around with this expanded heart. A heart filled with boundless love but also what must be boundless anxiety and a fierce sense of protection.

I wondered – how have these women managed to temper these feelings and carry on with their daily lives, appearing so nonchalant? I wanted to know the key – I wanted to know their secret to somehow resuming a relatively normal life and regaining some sense of who I was before the baby. I wanted to know once I found her-this old Jenni-how I could marry who I used to be with this new identity as a mother. I reasoned that surely this must be possible.

Everyone else seems to be able to do it.

A few weeks after Ellie was born, I got on my horse for the first time since last October. At the barn, I felt a curious blend of emotions – a brief taste of independence and its joy mixed with the absolute visceral need to get back to my baby. Still, I pressed on and enjoyed a brief ride because it’s a part of who I am.

I also recently began running again, slowly re-building my stamina. It’s just 30 minutes, but something about getting outside, pounding the pavement with my two (giant) feet and just sweating helped me to slowly start seeing that it just might be possible to still be me

Perhaps becoming a mother for me doesn’t mean that I need to accept a completely new identity – maybe it just means accepting that I am capable of having my heart expand as such.

Becoming a parent has been everything and nothing like what I expected. I expected the day to day to be exactly like the way it is – the constant nursing, the dirty diapers, the lack of sleep. But while I knew instinctually that I would love my child, I couldn’t have braced for the depth and degree.

I learn something new about Ellie literally every day. It’s amazing to watch her grow and experience the world – at times, I definitely feel like I’m fumbling my way through this, but a few days ago, she cracked her first really big smile at Paul, and I thought there is nothing I would rather see.

I wouldn’t describe myself as overtly sentimental on the surface – but, I will take that memory and store it inside my ever expanding heart.

 

 

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Baby Steps

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I was never that girl who spent much time dreaming about being a mom. I am not overtly “girly,” nor do I consider myself overly maternal (though I would bet our plethora of animals might say otherwise).

Rather, my desire to have a baby just sort of developed naturally over the course of time. During that timeframe, several of my friends and acquaintances became pregnant and had children. Yes, it is entirely possible to be thrilled for someone while feeling a tinge of sadness and regret that you are not the one sharing such news. I had to realize that feeling that way didn’t make me a horrible, selfish friend. It just made me human.

Time went by and I became pregnant at the end of last August. I shared our news very early on. I didn’t have misgivings about doing so because I figured that if things went wrong, I would want the support. It didn’t make sense to me to hide something I had wanted and waited for – if I had had a miscarriage, I would have been devastated. But what if no one knew? Paul and I would have been alone, and I didn’t see the point in that. It’s such an individual preference, I know.

I have shared so much in this blog about my recovery from grief and my injury. Yet, I could never had quite prepared myself for the entirely different door that being pregnant opens. And I have to say, it’s been at times very uncomfortable for me.

Don’t misunderstand – I am thrilled to have this baby. It’s just everything else that has thrown me for a loop. For someone who has shared so much, I am a very private person, and so many things have been a rude awakening for me.

I expected the advice – some welcome, some not so much. Paul and I have an idea of how we would like to raise our child, and I don’t think that always jives with how other people might want to do things – that’s okay, too, as long our wants as parents are respected.

As I pointed out, for example, I am not overtly girly, and I don’t plan to raise my child that way. If she grows up and wants to play with dolls and play dress up and watch 500 movies about princesses, then so be it. But I also don’t intend to push her toward being any one way. I just want her to have the opportunity to be herself.

As soon as people found out that I was having a girl, I found myself struggling with their reaction. Here is a news flash. I have one pink shirt in my own wardrobe. What makes people think that I need 500 pink shirts for my baby? Why do we just automatically assume that girl=pink? I don’t begrudge the color – it’s just not my preference. That hasn’t changed because I’m pregnant.

Which points toward the bigger issue and what I have been struggling with the most – yes, being pregnant and having a baby changes your life. But being pregnant in and of itself doesn’t mean that I am a different person or that my personality just changed randomly.

I am still me – I am still Jenni.

I didn’t like being touched randomly before – what makes people think I want to have my swollen, tender belly touched or rubbed? Especially out of the blue?

It’s like people consider my belly to be entirely separate from my body. Just to reiterate – it’s not. And as a public service to all other pregnant women, please stop reaching out and touching us without asking. Maybe there are some women who don’t mind, but I would bet the majority of us would at least like to be asked first. People didn’t reach out and randomly rub my stomach before I was pregnant. How weird would that be? Food for thought.

Paul and I also have struggled mightily to keep the baby “stuff” under control, which is difficult when people are excited and want to give you ALL THE THINGS. And again, I am so, so grateful that people are excited for us and want to help. I really, really am – but similar to the whole belly touching thing, be mindful of who you’re dealing with. Some people might welcome a plethora of random baby gifts, and that is totally fine. But some people might be more minimalist and just want specific items. Nothing wrong with either way of being – it just seems to be difficult for people to get sometimes.

I have struggled to maintain my sense of self over the last eight months. I have not ridden a horse or run a few miles in months, and it’s hard to lose that sense of self, even if only temporarily – but I don’t think people realize that sometimes. And so, it’s more important to me than ever to still be regarded as who I am and who I was before – even as I prepare to welcome this new life. Physically preparing for this change is challenging enough!

While grieving my father and then during my initial recovery from the TBI, all I wanted was to find some sort of sense of normalcy again. Emotionally, being pregnant has been a crazy balance between being so excited and so terrified. The only “normal” thing about this is knowing that in some way, everyone who has been there has dealt with these emotions in some way or another – it’s just always eye opening once it finally happens to you.

 

 

Stage 5: Acceptance

At some point over the winter, I stopped wearing makeup. Now, I never wore a ton to begin with, but I still felt naked leaving the house without at least a swipe of powder. I never had the best complexion, and I was self-conscious.

Just after New Years, my face was angry. My body was angry. And my mind was angry. I had accomplished some big milestones–I flew to Texas for a work meeting and presented in front of a large group of (sometimes intimidating) people. Paul and I finally got my parents’ old house cleaned out and listed for sale. And I had competed in my first dressage show in almost three years.

But I was tired. Really, really tired. Not from a lack of sleep, really, but just from being bone tired. I had been carrying around so much stress internally that I felt like I was going to lose it, and it showed, both in the way I felt and the way I looked.

I’ve never been afraid to ask for help, but I’ve always tried to do things on my own first. I actually think considering the past year and a half, I did pretty damn well. But, it was time to wave the white flag. I got to work making some appointments for myself.

So somewhere along the way, as I stopped to take care of my body and mind, I stopped wearing makeup. It was weird at first. It had always just been a part of my routine. Shower, get dressed, makeup, go. Suddenly, my routine got a lot simpler. And that was odd at first.

But then it became natural. Sure, there is absolutely nothing wrong with makeup. But suddenly, I was enough. I didn’t need it to feel put together.

Acceptance. It’s not just about accepting other people. It’s also about accepting who you are.

For me, it’s been a long process.

I am now a girl with a speech disorder, and that’s alright. Please note, I didn’t say it was fun. But it’s okay. It’s just who I am.

Many people wear their physical scars proudly–as a testament to strength and recovery from some traumatic event. I think of my apraxia in the same fashion. The fact that I can mostly control it at this point just symbolizes how much I have been kicking its ass over the past 11 months.

I am also a girl without a father, at least in the sense that I no longer have my dad to call on when things get tough. Or to surprise on birthdays. Or simply hug. That new identity has been much harder to accept. And yet, I have been working on it.

Acceptance doesn’t mean forgetting.

I accept that these facts are immutable. There is nothing I can do about it. But after one of the longest winters I can remember (or at least it felt that way), I, too, am changing with the season.

Do you think that the little caterpillar is always ready to break free of his cocoon and fly? In truth, he probably doesn’t really think about it. He just does.

Well, however we work our way out – does it really matter?

 

Reality Shows

The infamous recovery board.

The infamous recovery board.

I haven’t written or recorded a video in almost two months.

Today, a friend at work asked if I was still writing.

I have sat down countless times over the past two months, and sometimes, I even started a post. But they were never good enough. Never telling enough. The issue is not a lack of things to write about – the issue is where to begin.

When I first started this blog, I did so in hopes of sharing my journey in recovery. While the way in which I lost my voice was rather unique, there was nothing unique about the end result: I was lost without my voice, and I would do anything I could to make myself heard, like the numerous other people blindsided every day by accidents, strokes, heart attacks – the list goes on.

I just wanted someone to HEAR me, and in turn, I hoped that I could help others going through a similar journey. For those of you who have not gone through a similar journey, well – I hoped that I could help you to understand just what it’s like. I lost my speech. Others may have lost something else. In the end, the recovery process is similar anyway. We’re all starting from scratch and clawing our way back to the life we once knew.

But what happens when you get there? Or some version of what you once knew? I haven’t recorded a video in a long time, and to be honest, it was because initially the progress I made each week was readily audible. As time progressed, it got harder and harder to hear a noticeable difference on the tapes.

I started to ask myself, “Is this it?”

“Is this as good as it gets?”

People who don’t completely understand hear me ask that, and their response is usually something like, “Well, look at how you started! The difference is huge. You should be so thankful!”

Friends, let’s not make any mistake. I am SO thankful. I am thankful to everyone who has helped me to this point. I will take how I am today for the rest of my life compared to the life I knew on June 5, 2013 when I woke up, speechless and aphasic. I have worked so hard to get to this point, that I would be amiss to not appreciate what I have now.

That being said, when you get to the point in the recovery process where you find yourself asking if that’s the best things are going to get, it can be difficult. And the precise reason why I have made so much progress is the blame – I am a Type-A, OCD, perseverating, perfectionist. I am my own worst critic. And while I have the insight to understand that, it’s hard to change.

I was watching a documentary called Sole Survivor–ironically before I took my first plane trip after my injury–about people who were the only ones to survive a horrible plane crash. Many of them shared the same feeling that I have felt but struggled to pinpoint: after surviving and returning to relative normalcy after something so horrible, you find yourself wondering whether you deserve it.

You feel as if you should be doing something SO great with your life. So meaningful. Like you should be single-handedly changing the world.

This second chance at life has been given to you. Why are you not DOING anything with it?

The thing is, immediately after an injury or other catastrophe, time seems to slow down. Like those action movie previews, when the bass goes way up and the camera pans out to a car exploding in slow motion, or something of the like. At least, that’s how the few months felt subsequent to my accident. My days were punctuated by naps, speech and occupational therapy sessions and the focus was a sole objective: get it back – life – get it ALL back.

And then somehow, as I got better, life resumed its normal pace and in fact, sped up. The thing was, all the things that I got to put aside for a few months came rushing back – all the things that I wanted to get away from, though I could think of about 500 other ways I would have preferred to escape.

My dad was still gone. No, scratch that. Dead. I don’t like to say it, THAT word. But it is what it is. And a year and a half and a TBI later, I still can’t believe it.

I still can’t believe that I can’t call him and tell him all about the past seven months and what I’ve done. I can’t call and tell him that I just flew to Texas and presented at an important work function. Something absolutely unthinkable seven months ago.

I can’t tell him that I am really enjoying riding my “half horse” and that my own horse is on her way to recovery. I get to put tack on her next month, again. Finally.

And I certainly can’t tell him how stressful moving my mom closer to us has been. Finally, finally she is closer, and I’m so glad. But packing up the house and knowing that I still have to go back down and clear out what’s left is, well, completely surreal and also, agonizing.

So, it occurred to me that I have finally reached the goal I so badly wanted to achieve last summer. I made it back to my life, as I knew it before. Except, there were so many parts of it that I didn’t want to re-visit. Reality shows, and it’s not like the crappy, vacant shows I enjoy watching (much to Paul’s disdain) on the Bravo channel.

I started this blog, as I said before, to help others to relate or to understand. But really, I’m the one who has gained the most benefit.

I don’t have to be defined by what happened to me. The fact that I survived a horse kick to the head and a fractured skull doesn’t earn me any badges of honor, and it shouldn’t. The fact that I regained my speech well enough to fly to a work function and speak in front of a group of raters and medical professionals doesn’t mean I deserve a ribbon. It’s just life, and it just is.

Yet, it does mean that I will always wonder why. Not why did this happen to me, but the “why” of why I’m still invested in thinking about my life and what I want to do with it. Am I doing enough to help other people? To pursue happiness? To appreciate the moments I’ve been given, despite the stresses of reality?

I’m still thinking about it, and in the mean time, I’m still writing.

Heads or Tails

Allow me to “geek out” for a minute.

No, I don’t have a comic book collection. I DO love my MacBook.  And I love the Batman movies. But really only the Christopher Nolan trilogy.

Maybe that makes me more of a semi-nerd?

At any rate, I really loved Nolan’s take on Batman – if you’ve watched any of his other films, they pretty much all have this tinge of darkness. Batman became more than just a figure leaping around with colorful balloons announcing every fight with a “POW” or “BAM”!

He became a man, and the evils he dealt with–with some artistic license—were real people.

Sure, it’s easy to put the monsters away at night when they’re not real. But, it’s a lot harder to put your mind at ease when you understand that our greatest enemy is usually each other – and sometimes, ourselves.

Ironically, in the Dark Knight, one such enemy was Harvey Dent. His transformation from good to “evil” was quite literal as he became Harvey Two-Face. Now, if you’re not a big Batman fan or haven’t seen the Dark Knight, bear with me here. I do have a point.

You see, Dent worked to pursue the “bad guy” for most of the movie, until he and his love, Rachel (I’ll spare you the other geeky details) were captured by the Joker’s henchman and taken to two separate buildings, each filled with oil and an explosive device set to explode in a matter of minutes.

The Joker’s idea was to make Batman choose between love (Rachel) and the goodness that Dent represented for the city at the time – the hope of a new beginning and a life without crime (or at least, less) in Gotham. The Joker was certain that Batman would follow his heart over his brain.

But, he didn’t. And Dent was rescued, but not before he suffered from serious burns to his face (really, how was he still alive? Anyone?).

The former “white knight” of Gotham became an embittered, vindictive man instead. He didn’t understand why he had to live and Rachel didn’t, and he was suffering – the “greater good” was lost on him in the face of his own loss. And so, he sought to make other people suffer.

During a life changing tragedy, we are all faced with a choice. Dent chose to act out the anger and suffering he felt at his injury and his loss by opting to take vengeance on others he felt were responsible. And of course, I am talking about a movie here. But to Dent, there was only one choice, one path on which to proceed.

Any time we endure a life changing event such as a serious injury or a loss, as I wrote about before, we face a choice. No, I don’t mean to imply that choice is simple and easy, but in reality, it’s true – we face a choice between moving on and making the best of what we have or allowing ourselves to become angry and mired in bitterness. Again, I’m not saying that choosing to move on automatically means you will no longer feel angry that this happened to you or that the path won’t be tough. But, we do have a choice in how we approach things going forward.

I always tend to relate these topics back to my own loss (both in my injury and my father), because that’s personal to me. I strongly believe we always, always have a choice in how we proceed with things. Even then, we don’t always choose the right path, but it’s there, and we always have a chance to get back on it.

Choosing to go forward and accept what has happened (whatever that may be) requires a degree of resilience, and some people have more than others. Yet, it also requires support. Resilience is vital, yes, but I don’t believe that the majority of people want to end up feeling angry and bitter for the rest of their lives. Maybe they just lack the resources and support to know how to best move forward. Or it’s possible they just don’t know how to access them.

Recovering and moving on from a loss, an injury, a disability or other life-changing event requires work. We can’t just make the choice to be free of our feelings, gather them up and release the tether like a balloon. But we can learn how to slowly deflate it. What are we doing to ensure that others have the same tools?

This blog is my balloon – every time I post, I release a few more through my words. And that’s helpful for me to process everything has happened to me. And I hope in some way, it’s helpful for others. I’ll never be a superhero, but that’s okay. I’ll make my own luck.

On Loss and A Volleyball

A couple of weeks ago, we saw the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips. And I thought to myself, “Man, I really love Tom Hanks.”

Now, I have no idea what he’s actually LIKE. For all I know, he could be the worst human being on the planet in person…but I like to think not. And, he’s in one of my all-time favorites, Forrest Gump (which STILL makes me bawl).

Though, you have no idea what it was like being a “Jenni” in the ’90s when that movie came out. If I hear, “Run, Forrest, run!” one more time…But, I digress.

The other day, I was thinking about loss. October is such a mixed bag of emotions for me now. I have always loved the month and all its accoutrements. Fall. The leaves, a fiery hue, streaming to the ground like little meteorites. The scary movies (!). And clearly, the excuse to eat way too much candy.

But, October has also become a season of loss to me. I suppose technically it has always been that way – the excitement for fall layered with the sadness of watching summer slip by. And yet, now it
is literally a time of loss, as we mark the one year anniversary of losing my dad and the way of life I knew before losing him and before my injury.

You may thinking, “Okay, Jenni, I’m with you here, but what does Tom Hanks really have to do with anything?”

Does anyone remember Castaway? Maybe it wasn’t your favorite Tom Hanks movie, but I bet you remember that volleyball (why, by the way, you can apparently purchase, fake bloody handprint and all). There was nothing quite so sad as watching poor Wilson float away from the raft,
and nothing likely mocked so much after as Tom’s character screaming after it.

You know, people made fun of that scene. Why be so upset? It’s JUST a volleyball.

And that’s the issue here, really. When we start prefacing our speech with “JUST,” we sort of miss the point, don’t we? It doesn’t matter if it was just a volleyball to you. To his character, at the time and given the circumstances, it was the biggest loss he could face.

Conversely, making these type of justifications or comparisons lessens our ability to emphasize with other people who we feel have it “easier” than we do. Saying, “It’s JUST a ____ (fill in the blank – horse/house/cat/car/whatever)” just isn’t fair.

On the hand, constantly comparing your own loss to someone else who you feel may have it a lot worse can sometimes make your own feelings seem invalid. But they’re not.

There is a very entertaining gentleman in my local “Back to Work” support group. He has a lot going for him. He seems to be very bright and his speech is quite clear. People might wonder what he’s doing there. But when asked how his disorder has impacted his employment, he was very specific. For the first time, he can no longer walk into a group of colleagues and feel proud, self-assured.

In this case, his loss was one of confidence.

It’s okay to be grateful for what you’ve been given–life–but still want more. The loss is very real even if other people think it’s JUST a “something.”

I feel like I am constantly chasing my own Wilson – the version of myself that stopped existing on June 4th this year. I feel that it always within reach, but depending on the day, the tides change. And that’s okay.

The important thing to remember is, just about everyone is riding the same ocean – the circumstances might be different for each one of us, but we’re all chasing after something.

Monday Night Rehabilitation

Over dinner yesterday with friends, I said that I sometimes feel like I’ve been watching my life through a movie. I don’t mean that to sound odd, though it does.

Don’t get me wrong. I have certainly experienced every step of the way – the fear, the anger, the pain, the uncertainty. But today, I find myself at the conclusion of the 97th day since my accident.  It just seems so unreal to me.

I’ve tried to really think about this–why it feels so surreal to me–and I think it’s largely because I’ve just been doing what I could to get better. That’s not to say that I haven’t had a chance to think about what’s happened. But, it also means that I’ve not really thought of myself as courageous or inspiring, which a few very kind and generous people have told me. To me, I’ve been doing what any other person in my situation would do – trying my hardest to get better.

We all have choices in our lives. And I think we all know that despite our best efforts, we can’t control what life has in store for us. Yet, we can control our reactions. The choices we make and how we approach certain situations. I made the choice that despite not knowing 97 days ago whether I would ever speak again, to try and get better. I didn’t know whether I could work again, talk again, write sensibly again. But I wanted to try – I HAD to try.

But, am I really courageous for trying? It’s not like I should get a medal or something for wanting my life to get back to “normal.” What if I had tried my best but not been able to speak again? Would I still be considered as courageous? Inspiring? What happens when you put in the same amount of effort but don’t succeed? And who really defines what success is?

I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to get back to 100 percent in terms of my speech. But I’m still going to try my best. If I don’t get there, will I remember the successes I’ve had along the way in trying or the fact that I didn’t get back to whatever bar I set for myself? Just something for everyone to think about, no matter what the goal is.

To that end, I sit here tonight, having just completed my first day back at work. I’ve gone back full time and am getting back into the swing of things.

So the things I’ve been missing, that I desperately wanted back….well, they’re not perfect. But, I can now (usually) order confidently at my favorite restaurant. I can sing along (for the most part) with my favorite song. And I’ve gone back to work. No, I can’t just forget what happened. Every day, I am reminded in some way.

But, if you had told me 97 days ago that I’d be sitting here tonight, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you. That is, if I even would have really understood through my aphasia haze.

Am I someone special? Not particularly, and I don’t mean that as cut down to myself. I’m just a person who wanted her life back. I have been lucky. My life could be very different, even more so that it already is. So many people feel the same way – sometimes it works, and some times it doesn’t, but it’s not always from a lack of trying or desire.

When you think about it that way, it’s hard not to be grateful for what does work out. For me, I continue to be grateful that I have the chance to keep working – not only in my job but in trying to get better.

In my speech, yes. But also as a better person.