It’s Just a House

Paul and I began 2012 like most other years – excited about the prospect of a fresh start and a new year to experience together. That spring, I was promoted at work, and we began to seriously talk about starting a family. I loved the little townhouse my family had purchased a few years before, but it was time (so I felt) to move up and along to a real house.

Paul and I got on a kick looking for restored bungalows, somehow ending up doing the majority of our searching in Durham. Paul wanted to be somewhere walkable to restaurants and other fun things to do, and I wanted a home for the future family I envisioned. We stumbled upon the listing for our house – I was instantly smitten. Built in 1916, it had been beautifully restored. Yet, we actually bypassed it after the first showing. We were still “new” to downtown Durham, having been UNC students.

The house was in an area of Durham still in transition, and we were temporarily blinded by the dilapidated church across the street (now an art gallery) and the uncertainty of what we were getting into. We looked at other places in the next month or two after our initial showing and just didn’t see anything that seemed suited for us. Something about the house stuck with us, so we went back and gave it another chance. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was perfect for us. We decided to put in an offer and make our home there.

We closed on the house the morning of September 28th, 2012. Less than two hours later, my mom called me. My dad had suffered a major stroke – a stroke that would take his life just over two weeks later.

Instead of unpacking and making our new house a home, I spent time planning my dad’s funeral. The next few months were a blur, and to be honest, I don’t remember much about that time apart from barely functioning. Yet, somehow the fog lifted a bit the next spring. I remember specifically that Memorial Day weekend – Paul and I took our two dogs to Umstead Park for a long hike. I crouched on a rock in the middle of the creek and watch my dog enjoy the rushing water. I looked at the sunlight filter through the trees and thought for the first time that life could be okay again.

sallieandme

The next week, the accident occurred and I sustained my TBI, aphasia and apraxia. Once again, our “normal” life took a backseat. Instead of cherishing our first summer in the new house, we spent time driving back and forth to doctor and therapy appointments. I spent much of my time sleeping on the couch, trying to recover from the shock and haze of my injury.

All I wanted during that time was for things to be stable – to have something solid that I could hold on to. Life was not at all what I had envisioned the morning we closed on our house. But as it goes, life went on.

I attended an aphasia caregiver panel recently at UNC, and the more I hear other people’s stories, the luckier I feel about my own recovery. I wasn’t lucky to go through the process, but things could have turned out much worse. Here I am on the other side, and I’m able to utilize my experience in order to live a richer life.

I actually started writing this post a couple of months ago, when we confirmed the move date from our bungalow to a modern condo in Chapel Hill. It was a huge decision for us and not one that we made lightly. But with Paul in school and my acceptance to the Speech and Hearing doctoral program at UNC, moving back to Chapel Hill just made sense. And, with Baby Shafer set to make her debut this May, we wanted to down size and find a place walkable to school, daycare and all the places we love in Chapel Hill.

I’m glad that I sat on this post for a while, because if I’d finished it back in February, it would have been a pretty maudlin read. I was convinced that I would be devastated to leave the house that I had placed so many hopes and expectations on – I had placed the dreams I had for that house on an unreachable pedestal, just by virtue of how life turned out to be while we were there. That’s okay, but it wasn’t realistic to expect life to cooperate just because I wanted it to.

There is a pivotal scene toward the end of the movie Up where Carl lets go of the house he shared with Ellie. He understands at that point of the movie that it’s just a house and that letting go of the actual house doesn’t mean he has to let go of the memories he made there.

up_movie_balloons_house-wide

I have learned to let go of a lot of things the past few years, and then more I have to let go, the more I understand that I keep what matters most close to me – what matters is not necessarily where I am but who I am with and what I choose to do with my time.

To spend time with Paul and our animals, to embark on this new journey together with a family and school, it’s more important than any expectation I could place on what, in the end, is just a house.

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Don’t Panic!

Don’t push the red button.

Don’t think about the fact that you have to pee.

Don’t think about that one song you REALLY hate.

(What’s the one?)

Human nature dictates that you will inevitably think about the ONE thing you shouldn’t. You don’t have to be a psychologist to figure that out. 

That’s why super strict, extreme diets don’t typically work – at least, not in the long term. Deprivation over moderation is never the answer.

Similarly, too frequently we focus on the physical and simply ignore the other very key piece to recovery – our mental health. Despite the push for physical health (there always seems to be a new diet fad or cholesterol drug out), there is very little focus on what we can do to care for our mental health. So we quash it, ignore it.

I will be forever grateful to the excellent staff at UNC for putting my head back together and giving me the best possible chance for recovery. However, it occurred to me recently that while the doctors and staff did the best job caring for my physical health, no one ever stopped to really ask me how I was doing on the inside.

Sure, they assessed me. They tested me. They made note of my neurocognitive health and progress. But I didn’t really need to spend a half paycheck’s worth to know that my speech is slow, I suck at math, and that writing is my best strength.

Those things have always been true – the TBI just made it all a bit more defined.

It’s not that the doctors and staff didn’t care about me and how I was doing. Rather, it’s just that entire facet of my recovery was never broached. Highly skilled nurses monitored my vitals. Doctors and various specialists came and went. Different therapists–OT, PT, RT–inquired about my likes, dislikes, goals, etc.

But no one ever came and just sat down with me.

“Hey, Jenni. How are you feeling about getting a hole kicked in your skull? How do you feel knowing that the surgeon had to clean the bits of skull out of your brain? What about the fact that your husband spent hours not knowing whether you’d come through the same Jenni as before?” And such, and such.

Don’t get me wrong – I had a wonderful support network, including Paul, family and friends. But because no one ever really asked me to think about what happened–and I was so busy trying to recover–I never gave it much thought.

I did a whole lot of talking about my accident and not a whole lot of actually sitting down with myself and working through my feelings about it.

It was odd, then, that starting a few weeks ago, I started experiencing fleeting moments of real anxiety. There was no specific rhyme or reason. It just happened. Driving down the road, out at dinner, sitting in a CPR class.

No one else would ever know what was going on, but inside I felt panicked. I felt trapped, scared that something else would happen to me and that I’d have to wake up in the hospital completely helpless again. It wasn’t rational, but regardless, I felt it.

Now, it won’t surprise anyone to know that I’m type A and sometimes, being that way can tend to make a person a little OCD or anxious (I’m generalizing, but you get it). However, these were completely new feelings for me. And they let me know that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I had been focusing so hard on my speech and physical recovery. Now it was time to start working on healing my mind.

I saw a therapist who deftly pointed out what I already knew but needed to be told–what happened to me was scary, plain and simple. To be well enough to finally understand what happened and everything I went through was eye-opening. For the first time, I realized that I’m mortal and survived a situation that could have had a very different ending. Thinking about that alternative was difficult.

But I’ve learned that, in the end, being strong and surviving doesn’t mean ignoring your fears. Sometimes, facing your fears or emotions can be more difficult than the physical because they are intangible and sometimes nebulous. Yet, they often go hand in hand with your total recovery.

It’s time we as a whole started focusing more on the big picture. I suppose it’s really more akin to a puzzle – finding that one missing piece is difficult, but you’re not totally complete until you squeeze it into place.

On Gratitude

I think we all know that life isn’t a fairy tale. Life doesn’t guarantee us a happy ending just by virtue of us living. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people – and more perplexing, sometimes good things happen to bad people.

But, if there is an overarching theme to many of these posts, it’s just called being human. All we can do is the best we have with whatever situation life has thrown at us. You know that whole “make lemonade” expression.

Now, while I do happen to enjoy some sweet, cool lemonade, the process of making it can try a person’s patience. Because often what those people who are advising you to make lemonade have neglected to say to you is that your life after is going to be (sometimes drastically) different. I’ve written before that the hardest part of accepting a disability or impairment – temporary or otherwise – is that you’re not the same person you were one week ago, or three months ago, or seven years ago. Becoming accustomed to this new state of “normal” is where I suspect many people with acquired impairment taste the bitterness of this whole process, understandably so.

At least, it’s how I’ve felt at points during this process.

And yet, tonight I find myself writing about gratitude.

Last Tuesday, I taught my first therapeutic riding class since the accident. Since the accident occurred on the last day of the spring session, I actually didn’t miss any classes. All the girls I had been teaching returned, so we all “got back on the horse” so to speak. After that class, I had a special surprise waiting for me. One of the first responders to my accident was waiting to say hello. He told me that the rest of the first responders would also like to see me at some point.

That point came tonight. I had just finished my class, and they hadn’t arrived yet, though I knew they were coming. As the horses walked into the barn, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ambulance (fortunately without the sirens!). Single-file, a group of people walked down the sidewalk with smiles on their faces. Just seeing these people made my heart sing. Nearly all the first responders and EMTs from my accident had come to visit, just to say hello.

While Paul and I wrote them cards, anything I could say felt so inadequate. Yet, the responders continued to tell me that just seeing me was enough. The entire experience felt so surreal. I found myself bathed in the strongest feeling of gratitude I have ever experienced. Words are not enough to properly express my thanks to these people for saving my life.

I tend to write using a lot of humor, and that gets me through most things in my life. I tend to amuse myself a lot, which I guess is not a bad thing. But tonight, I want to put aside the humor and just say this:

The first responders from the Orange Grove Fire Department and EMTs saved my life. Plain and simple, I would not be here without them. They were in and got me out in less then ten minutes. When I was having trouble getting breathing and staying conscious, they stabilized me. Through their efforts, I was able to get to UNC quickly so I could have the surgery I needed to save my life and preserve my ability to recover.

Most impressively, they really cared. They kept up with my progress and checked in for updates. I know that so many times, they work so hard but don’t know the end result of their efforts.

So let me go back to beginning of this post – the whole happy ending/make lemonade, etc., part.

This process is not over for me yet. I have a lot of work left to do. And there have been times when I just wanted to break something. Yet, something has also changed in me. No, I’m not perfect. I can still be impatient, get stressed when I shouldn’t, worry about things I shouldn’t. But, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that all of this is because I’m HERE. I’m alive. Because of these people and the team at UNC, I have the second chance to live my life.

Last year, my dad had his stroke IN the hospital and still died. Yes, BAD things happen. But because of this, I am reminded not to ever take anything for granted. My dad had so much life left. So many things he could have done. I am determined to live my life in turn and the time I’ve been given. Because of these first responders, I have more time.

I cherish being able to do the things I love and to love the people I do.

My gratitude is immeasurable.

Gratitude.

Gratitude.

A hospital? What is it?

It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.

My dad and I loved Airplane, by the way. You know, if you’re wondering where the plethora of quotes has been coming from lately.

To the point. Last Thursday was the big day. Surgery day. Much like Christmas, I spent what felt like forever anticipating it and then, with no fanfare or special trumpet announcement, it was here.

With how much I’d been looking forward to the day, you would think the day itself would be filled with the promise of what this entails. A complete skull, finally!

It should have gone like this…

A flock of doves carried the piece into the operating room, and triumphant music played as I walked into the hospital…

In reality, I started preparing Wednesday. I ate a good dinner, followed by a delightful shower, in which I had to scrub from head to toe with a surgical soap that smelled like it could wilt flowers. The usual no eating after midnight was followed by another shower/scrub Thursday morning. I had some water and ginger ale up until 9:30, since we were to check in at 11:30.

Checked into the waiting room. Then waited. And waited. Lots and lots of time to think. That does no one any good. My surgery was originally scheduled for 1:30. That came and went.

They called us back after 3, and suddenly everything that seemed so far away was slapping me in the face.

I had to confirm my name, address and birth date more times than I could count. Apraxia combined with nerves and a freezing cold room made this quite a bit of fun.

Since I hadn’t had anything to drink in hours, anesthesia had an interesting time finding a vein. After the third try, I promptly thought it appropriate to pass out (oops!). The fifth try was the lucky stick…A few more minutes, and it was time to say goodbye to Paul.

I was in such good hands – and I already knew my surgeon was awesome. But for some reason, in that moment, as they wheeled me out and Paul and I said our goodbyes, I felt so small and alone.

It’s a weird thing – to feel alone, even as you’re surrounded by a team of excellent doctors and nurses. I think how I felt just illustrated the reality – like it or not…this happened to me, and I had to do this.

I moved on to the operating table, took two deep breaths of the mask and was out. And, as soon as I was out, I was back.

I was told that the surgery went great and was wheeled to the post-anesthesia care unit. I was in and out of sleep, but somehow managed to help prop myself up on the table when I was sent to get a CT. And more importantly, of course, I spoke. My speech was okay.

Cue singing birds!

I am so grateful that the surgery went well. I still feel a bit caught in limbo because the next few weeks are critical to ensure the incision starts to heal with no infection. An infection would mean I have to do it again – plate out, clear the infection, plate back in.

To which I say, a big fat HELL NO.

Pardon my language. But you get it.

I am so lucky to have Paul’s support. But I found myself thinking about the people who don’t have the same kind of support. I thought about how scared I felt, and I had someone I could confide in and depend on. How scary it must be to not have that. I’ve been looking into volunteering at the hospital soon. If I can support someone else going through something like this, I will.

I have a lot more lessons learned from my brief stay, but I’ll save them for the next post. I just wanted to share how it went, and express my gratitude to UNC for yet again giving me a new lease on life.

I knew there was a reason I came to school here and never left.

Just wait 'til you see what's under there...

Just wait ’til you see what’s under there…