rebuilding trust

The day I can walk is circled in red on my mental calendar. No one is more excited for the ditching of the wheelchair than I am, except perhaps my chore-burdened kids and those dear friends who cook/shop for me and cart me around. But even with this anticipation in mind, I was not prepared for such bold instruction from my PT on Tuesday.

“Stand up.”

I promptly responded by bursting into tears. “No,” I sobbed. “I can’t.”

My amazingly patient PT assured me I could. He made me try again. And again. And again, until I actually put weight on the right side to press up to a standing position.

“Mountain pose,” I whispered, rolling my shoulders back but still pouring more weight into the left side of my body.

The thrill was short-lived.

Under orders to practice this new party trick at home, even after initial (supervised) success, I still cried with subsequent attempts. I don’t know where these tears come from. It’s not like I want to be confined to a wheelchair or my first floor forever, though this cocooned life has kept me safe for these past three months, a feat I wasn’t able to achieve the last time I walked on two feet.

I trust the doctor’s prognosis. I trust the PT’s assessment that I’m ready. But I don’t trust myself. All it takes to screw up is a slip, a twist, a misstep. My reputation for klutzy behavior taunts me, and not even the deep breaths that normally move me off the ledge help.

I have another PT session in a few hours, and since he gave me a preview of what to expect, I know today’s visit will include taking baby steps. I can’t think about it without succumbing to tears and dread, the first time I’ve not looked forward to PT, which basically substitutes for a social life these days.

I’ll be ready to go when my ride arrives, but how can I trust my body do as commanded when the order is given?

 

 

 

 

the new normal

Two months ago, I stepped out of the car and onto an icy path of change, humility and, to be honest, pain. In one sense, the days between walking and not passed quickly. But when I consider it’s been two months since I saw the upstairs of my house or took a shower or stood in the kitchen to prepare a meal, time feels like a slowly torturing enemy with no real firm date in sight of when life will return to normal.

Normal? What is normal these days? Persistent shoulder pain when I sleep? Jagged ankle scars that for the most part look uglier than they feel until they burn like a force of evil is pressing a branding iron to them? Having to ask, constantly ask, for favors from my lovely, patient, giving friends? (Drive me to PT? Empty my potty? Pick up groceries? Throw a load of dirty laundry in the washing machine? Wheel me outside for some fresh air?)

But normal is also friends offering to visit, make meals, take the kids. Normal is friends bringing/sending me books (reading is my new cardio) and flowers. Normal is friends sharing tips from their own injuries. This part of normal feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket, even when I want to shed the blanket, stand up and manage my life independently.

I have a long path ahead before I reach independence. The shoulder surgeon says in six weeks he’d like me to be able to lift my arm over my head and make jazz hands. (Okay, he didn’t specify the latter half of that milestone; jazz hands is my own flourish.) I see the ankle surgeon next week and hope he approves weight-bearing exercises. My PT constantly reminds me that being weight-bearing doesn’t mean I hop, skip and jump my way from examination room to car to normal life. Recovery takes patience. I have to regain physical strength and flexibility, even if I honed those qualities mentally during this time.

As two months spill into three to four to a lifetime of lessons, I continue to redefine normal. And in many ways, that practice is more painful than any physical injury.

good reads

I read, therefore I make book recommendations.

According to Goodreads, the social media platform for books, I read 54 books in 2015, surpassing my annual reading challenge goal of 50. Borrowing ambition from fellow reader and dear friend Emily, I tacked one book onto the previous year’s accomplishment and set a 2016 goal of 55.

To date, I’ve already read 17.

I haven’t made a recommended books list in ages, so here are a few recently read favorites that have ushered me through various stages of convalescence.

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara: A top five lifetime favorite, no book has gutted me quite the same as A LITTLE LIFE. I finished over a month ago and still miss the main characters, four male friends whose lives entwine seamlessly but emotionally over several decades. Have the tissues handy; I ugly cried for the last 200 pages.

SMALL MERCIES by Eddie Joyce: I’m a sucker for anything 9/11 related, and this touching tale did not disappoint, weaving together varying perspectives of a family dealing a decade later with the tragic loss of one of their own. I’ve never been to Staten Island but reading this book, I felt immersed in its sights, smells, sounds, pizza, people and anguish.

THE ONE/HIDDEN BODIES by Caroline Kepnes: Sequels often disappoint me, but not the one-two punch socked by these contemporary psychological thrillers. So smart, a little sexy, devious and fast paced, I found myself cheering  (goddammit!) for the dark side throughout both books.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal: I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat it. This book, which centers around the professional (yet emotional) journey of a young chef, will leave you craving the magic its main character evokes with her culinary skills. Wine figures prominently in the plot, too.

Other reads worth a trip to the library or bookstore: THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, THE KIND WORTH KILLING by Peter Swanson, and THE BOOK OF SPECULATION by Erika Swyler.

Happy reading!

an open letter to my ankle

Dear Ankle:

First, let me start off my expressing my sincerest apologies for years and years (decades, if I’m being frank) of completely taking you for granted. “My feet hurt,” I may have complained now and then, but did I give you the respect you deserve? No. I cursed nicks in the shower over your difficult-to-shave bony protuberances that seemed to bleed forever. But did I ever consider what you, conduit to my feet, endured physically and emotionally?

Hindsight is 20/20. Now I see how cruelly I abused you with each pair of sky high heels, each precarious walk on an uneven sidewalk, each high intensity exercise I engaged in. And all without the smallest of thanks.

(Sorry and thank you for heavy ankle weights, four-inch heels, jumping jacks, marathons, boots that blistered, dull razors, careless bumps, and all other infractions.)

Like much in life, we don’t know how good we have something until we don’t have it anymore. It may seem shitty of me to find appreciation for you now that I can’t use you, but I offer my gratitude regardless. I love you, who will forever bear the screws and scars of my slip. I love you, even as you throb and swell and press against the tight boundaries of my cast. (I hope that means you’re healing.) And I promise to take better care of you when you are freed from plaster confinement.

A token of my affection: I’ve already given away two pairs of boots that must have felt like torture chambers to you.

As we move forward together, I want to conclude by letting you know how much I love standing on two feet and appreciate the role you play in my bipedalism.

Affectionately yours,

Chelsea

on sisterly love

For three weeks minus a weekend, my sister has cared for my every need, often without my asking.

She refills my coffee cup, water bottle and wine glass. She now expertly wheels me in and out of the house and knows just how to help me get in and out of the car. When I wake up feeling achy, she massages my shoulder and helps me stretch my glutes. Without complaint, she dumps the icky contents of my flushable port-a-potty, an improvement upon the bedside commode but still a piece of equipment that needs maintenance beyond my abilities.

For three weeks minus a weekend, she put on pause her own life in order to help me with mine. She took leave from work without pay. Left her girlfriend, dogs and routine to be my personal caretaker, home health aid, nurse, massage therapist, healer, shrink, chef, chauffeur, housekeeper, hairdresser, cheerleader, and more.

Living my life, she wakes the boys up and gets them off to school. Reminds them to brush their teeth. Washes their laundry even though they are fully capable of managing the chore. Feeds them. Ribs them. Loves them.

For three weeks minus a weekend, she has had coffee ready when I got out of bed. A master with eggs and whatever contents of the refrigerator need to be eaten, she prepares my breakfast. She composts and recycles without my having to ask. She washes and styles my hair, even giving me beachy waves one night, prompting Jack to give me the only hair compliment I’ve ever received from him.

For three weeks minus a weekend, we have laughed and cried together over insurance company ridiculousness, heart wrenching books, ugly sutures, crazy cat antics.

For three weeks minus a weekend, she has been my near constant companion. But for a lifetime, we have loved each other deeply, and I know she has not done a single thing for me during this time that I wouldn’t do for her.

My sister leaves me tomorrow, but I know in our hearts, despite the mileage, we won’t be far apart. Part of her lives in me and me in her.

 

the strong but silent type

I don’t remember your cries at birth. I think I was too tired from being in labor for longer than I wanted, which sounds absurd because no woman wants to be in labor for any period of time. But when your brother was born, the nurses told me his birth was so easy my second baby would pop out with a sneeze. Fast forward two and a half years, those three bouts of preterm labor led me to believe you were eager to make your arrival. But oh no, once the real labor finally started, you weren’t quite comfortable with the idea of a whole new world. Until you were comfortable, that is, when you loosened your grip and took us from two centimeters to birth in 20 minutes.

This zero-to-sixty pattern continues to define you. You’re taciturn until suddenly you’re ready to entertain with a story. You resist change, but then on a dime advocate for it fiercely. Some days you barely eat, until without warning I can’t get enough food in your body.

I worried about your reaction to my recent accident. Sensitive at the core, but either unwilling or unable to always show it, I suspected seeing me in a hospital bed would bother you. And I was right. You didn’t cry or ask what happened. In fact, you sat ramrod straight in the chair. You could barely look me in the eye. You asked about safe topics like whether I had any snacks. You hugged me cautiously. But I could read the worry in your eyes.

I feel compelled to constantly reassure you I’m fine.

Until I broke my ankle, I still tucked you and your brother in at night, every night, without fail. It pains my heart that in my current condition I can’t get upstairs for our bedtime ritual. The other night, the thought that you wouldn’t want or need it anymore tugged mercilessly at my heart. As if you heard my anguish, after the lights were out, you came downstairs to tuck me in.

Inside that skinny preteen body a strong, sensitive man is brewing. I love watching your new layers and complexities emerge.

Happy birthday to my baby.

on “doing” yoga

 

“I guess you aren’t doing yoga for awhile,” I frequently hear.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Now is when I need yoga the most.

While a physical yoga practice eludes me for the time being, I would not have survived the hard times at the hospital and since my discharge if it weren’t for the other seven limbs of yoga, the ones we westerners often ignore when worrying about the right Lululemon outfit to wear or complaining about a class that didn’t leave us sweaty enough.

Not that I’m so highly evolved. I own a ridiculous number of expensive yoga pants. I have been known to pass judgement on group classes I like or don’t like and am often reluctant to try new instructors even though I am a new instructor. I choose sleep over meditation on cold mornings when it’s hard to get out of bed. Since shoulder surgery, I’ve had a relentless (yet obviously unachievable) urge to stand on my head. While I hate that I can’t walk/hop/scoot up or down the stairs, I’ve spent equal time despairing over the lost progress I had been making toward hanumanasana (otherwise known as the splits) before a sheet of ice sent me flying. Every bite of food irrationally represents a pound I worry I will have to lose when I get out of the wheelchair. I get angry and frustrated at my current limitations.

Yes, I have the woe is me moments. But my intention is to use my time on the DL to transcend the fixations with my physical body.

I’m still working out exactly how to achieve this…

In my better moments, I close my eyes. I breathe deeply. I direct that breath to the parts of the body that need love: ankle, shoulder, almighty/overworked left side. Inhale love. Exhale angst. When I teach, I constantly remind my students to let go of thoughts, tension, energy that doesn’t serve, but true release is easier said than done. These last few weeks, I’ve had to peel back the layers, protective sheaths that keep me from asking for help, showing vulnerability, accepting unsolicited offers of help, coming to terms with what I can and can’t do.

I have the semblance of a plan. I want to reread the Yamas and the Niyamas, the ethical guide to yoga. During yoga teacher training, a wise soul recommended picking one yama or niyama and dedicating ourselves fully toward it. I focused on practicing ahimsa —or, nonviolence. Now I recognize that what I need in my life is the hardest for me to contemplate achieving: ishvara pranidhana —surrender. I do not control the universe.

Whether I can do a headstand or a split is irrelevant. My right side body is down but the left side remains strong. I can breathe, think, love, and appreciate. Kitchen items are going to be out of place, but why? Because kind and generous caretakers prepare my every meal. I’m mostly confined to my house, but I get to avoid cold (icy) winter days. I feel alone deep inside, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

A yoga practice represent more than a series of poses on the mat. It’s a journey toward peace. I will bumble and fall (hopefully only figuratively) on the way to learning to let go. I’m ready to offer myself up to this time and experience.

In all these ways and more I can’t foresee, recovery from my injuries represents the hardest yoga I’ve ever “done.”

Namaste.

Thoughts from the left side body

After spending five days in the hospital and the last two weeks in my modified home (read: first floor conversion to combined living room/dining room/bedroom/bathroom space) I’ve been thinking thoughts I never expected to have. For example:

“I wish I had paid better attention to healthcare policy.” I worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years, but I was so caught up in energy and environmental policy, I never engaged my brain in healthcare policy debates. In fact, I rarely dove into my own health insurance policies, merely opting for what looked like the most generous plan. This strategy backfired on me when the monthly premium for the gold plan I subscribed to for 2015 under the Maryland Health Exchange shot up an additional $200/month for 2016. I opted to reduce to a silver plan, which costs me the same as the gold plan did last year (nearly $400/month, for the curious). I presumed because the new plan was also in the CareFirst family, all my doctors would still be covered. Wrong. My shoulder surgeon is now out of network, as is my physical therapist. The $2400 I “saved” by bumping down to a lower tiered plan will now be spent on out of pocket expenses to keep the doctors and therapists I know and trust.

“I’m glad I don’t have a boyfriend.” While I had some teary why me? moments in the hospital, I never lamented my lack of a romantic partner. My best friend Nancy served as a fierce but loving advocate and constant companion during my hospital stay. She was present for every conversation with the doctors; participated in all the PT/OT sessions; called for the nurse when I needed pain relief, water, or other help; dealt with some security breaches; and on numerous occasions, was present while I performed bodily functions. I’m a rather private person; needless to say, these last three weeks have been a huge test in letting go of any sense of modesty. Since my injury, my friends and sister have helped me bathe. Get dressed. Use the toilet, a flushable/portable one at home that requires periodic emptying (thank you, Meghann). I’m suddenly immune to peeing in front of guests. BUT, would I feel this way if I had started dating someone a few months ago? Or even a year ago? I can’t say that I’d feel comfortable flashing my backside in a hospital gown, perching on a bedpan or using my new potty arrangements in front of a love interest.

“I need help.” I’m independent. I live alone 50 percent of the time. I work out of my solitary home office. I have to muster a lot of courage before asking for help. But I could not live in my own house right now were it not for the constant care and companionship provided by my friends and sister. I could not feed my children without the meals friends, acquaintances, and even strangers generously drop off on a nightly basis. I could not leave my house to get to doctors appointments and PT sessions without the arrangements my dad has made. I hate asking to have my water glass filled or for my toothbrush to be rinsed off, so I wait until the last possible moment to make these small requests. Today I have to ask my sister to wash my hair, no longer a simple task, but it’s been six days. I don’t know when I will step (or roll) into a grocery store again, be able to feed my cats, or tuck my children into bed. I need as much help for the small things as I do the large. And it’s hard, even when those answering my needs insist it’s their pleasure to help.

Each day brings new challenges and thoughts, but also presents countless expressions of love and valuable life lessons I will carry with me as I wheel toward full recovery.

The Great Ankle Break of 2016

Three days before Christmas, I underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff muscle and degenerating tendons.

“I thought this was a story about an ankle break?” I hear you ask…

Hold on, I’m getting there.

Confined to an immobilizer —the sling version of the back brace I donned five years ago after my herniated disc repair— I was limited in what I could do and learning how to perform daily activities with my left hand.

When a record busting 36-hour snowstorm enveloped the DC metro area, I cheered. I baked. The kids shoveled. I drank wine. We watched ten movies, and I completed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.  But then school was canceled for a gazillion days. The pretty white snow started to gray, and the unmelted volume interfered with life returning to normal.

On January 28th, one week after the region collectively buckled down for the storm, I dressed to leave my house. I had a physical therapy appointment for my shoulder, which I was looking forward to after a week of confinement. Metro was still unpredictable, but my ex-husband was venturing to work that morning, and his office is conveniently located across the street from my PT. I begged for a ride.

Traffic was ghastly. After an hour in the car, sitting in gridlock four blocks from my destination, I made a tactical error. “I can walk faster,” I insisted, not wanting to be late. My ex agreed. I hopped out of the car, climbed a snowbank, landed on the sidewalk. Literally. Splat.

I was in shock for a lot of what happened next. I remember hearing screams as if they were coming from elsewhere. My vision went a cloudy white. Excruciating pain radiated from the ankle, which I’d seen contort on my way down. The shoulder was fine, but I knew without trying that I couldn’t stand on my right foot. A homeless woman asked if she should call someone for me. I grasped for my phone, but like in a dream when you can’t ever dial a phone number correctly, I couldn’t remember how to work it. After several bumbles, I managed to call my ex, who had only advanced a few car lengths up the street. He pulled into a snowbank and ran to scene of the fall.

He tried to help me up. I wailed. Cautiously, he got me standing on my left foot. Since I couldn’t drape my right arm over his shoulder three-legged race style, our center of balance was off as we hopped a few tentative steps.

“I’ll drive you to the ER,” he reassured me, until we reached the street corner and realized his car sat on the other side of an impassable patch of ice and snow. We called 911.

The ambulance led to the emergency room. The emergency room led to three sets of x-rays and two ankle reductions —a process by which two-to-three doctors push and pull on your ankle to “set” the broken bones. (Yes, there was morphine.) Those procedures led to four hours of reconstructive surgery the next day. Overall, I spent five days in the hospital.

I’m home now, completely non-weight bearing on the right side of my body. I can’t use crutches because of the healing rotator cuff, so a wheelchair is my mode of transport. I’m confined to the first floor of my house since I have no way to go up or down the stairs. My living room has been converted to part bedroom/bathroom, as ADA compliant as possible.

A side note: never buy a house without a first floor bathroom.

From the moment of my accident, friends and family jumped to action. While I was still in the hospital, my sister friends set up my house, organized around the clock care, bought me books and wide-legged yoga pants, stocked my refrigerator, fed my cats, and created a meal calendar. My beloved Weekend Warriors scheduled an impromptu visit to complete tasks around the house to make my life easier. My dad arranged transportation to follow up doctor visits and rented wheelchair ramps to get me in and out of the house.

The prognosis is to be determined. The rotator cuff repair requires four-to-six months, minimum, before I’m back to normal. My ankle surgeon said I have at least two more months to go before I can put weight on my foot. (I thank yoga and barre for giving me a strong core; the left side of my body is doing all the heavy lifting these days.) I learned to transition with ease from bed to wheelchair and back. I’m putting the lap in laptop because there’s no FMLA when you work for yourself. Like it or not, sponge baths have to be my jam for the time being. For all who have offered advice on pain management, I thank you. With the consult of my doctor, I have figured out a regiment that works.

Healing is my focus. I won’t jeopardize recovery of the ankle or the shoulder by rushing the process. As deductibles, co-pays and other medical expenses mount, I won’t panic; top medical care is not worth skimping on, as I now realize after bumping down from a gold health plan to silver, effective 01/01/16.

Thanks to all who have sent healing vibes, prayers, meals, hugs and other forms of support. My heart overflows with your love and warm thoughts. I’m mostly in good spirits, but I slip into inevitable moments of self pity. There are lessons to be gleaned from all of this, lessons I will take to heart.

And when it’s all over, maybe I’ll commemorate the Great Fall of 2016 with a tattoo over the scars that will forever remind me wedge boots are never a good idea in the snow and ice.

 

we all once were refugees

Close the borders.

Build a wall.

Halt resettlement.

As a first generation American on my mom’s side of the family, the anti-immigration sentiment sweeping this country disturbs me. What claim do any of us have on the land of freedom and opportunity except family members of past generations managed to get (or push their way) through the queue?

I understand fear of the unknown. But in the present moment, fear is fueling hatred, which ultimately begets violence. As a nation, we continually exacerbate this cycle with our knee-jerk, isolationist reactions.

I get it. The threat of terrorism is ever present, scary and real. You don’t have to school me on the dangers. I was working in the U.S. Senate on September 11th. If not for the heroes of United Flight 93, the baby I gave birth to four days after the attack, his father and I would probably have our names etched into memorial stone in the vicinity of where the Capitol currently stands.

Bad people are going to cross our borders. But is everyone seeking refuge a terrorist? Let’s remember many Syrian refugees are fleeing the same terror we have waged this unwinnable war against. In my view, their plight is not so very different from my grandfather fleeing both Nazi detainment and Soviet incarceration. He spoke no English and even wore a mustache reminiscent of a certain dictator, but no one denied him entry in his time of need.

I acknowledge the potential for those who mean us harm to take advantage of an unstable situation to immigrate here. Or they could already be within our borders, perhaps legally.

Is the threat posed by a few compelling enough to deny refuge to the many?

And what if we close the borders, build walls, halt resettlement efforts? Are we any safer? Let’s think about that for a hot minute. America has cultivated a culture where a gunman armed to the teeth can slaughter a school full of children or a theater of moviegoers without changes to the laws permitting the carrying of a calibre of weapons that far exceeds the intent of a hallowed amendment. We are willing to take the risk of adhering to the second amendment because the majority of gun owners are responsible. But God forbid we open our arms to desperate people escaping tyrannical governments because of the radical actions of a few.

Fear fuels hatred begets violence. America, you can do better.