The Hidden Gifts of Trauma: A Five Year Retrospective

The journey of self-discovery begins with a single step. Or, in my case, a not-so-gentle nudge from a two ton SUV.

That merits further explanation: Five years ago today, at about 8:10 pm, I was walking to the gym. This was routine for a Thursday evening, and I distinctly remember that on that particular Thursday, I’d had a good day. I’d gotten a lot done at work (and I do mean a LOT), then had managed to give two kittens lime sulfur baths – treating one of them for a ringworm infection, and preventing spread of the fungus to the other. And all of that was done in time for me to walk to the gym earlier than normal so I could spend more time on the Stairmaster, because I’d signed up for Seattle’s Big Climb with some friends.

I never made it to the gym.

Instead, as I was crossing the street near the Olympic Sculpture Park, I looked up to see a RAV4 bearing down on me; the driver looked just as surprised and shocked as I felt. I had just enough time to reflexively take one step backwards, attempting to get out of the way, but the vehicle still made impact.

I remember stumbling to my left a little, thinking “That was it?”

The next memory I have is rolling on the ground, about 10 feet down the hill, facing the opposite direction, apparently coming out of a forward roll I’d learned in Tae Kwan Do 10 years earlier. Except forward rolls aren’t designed to be done at 30mph, and the momentum caused my head and neck to snap backwards, and there was a loud cracking sound as the back of my skull bounced off the pavement. My glasses were no longer on my head – I know that because I remember frantically looking for them – without moving from where I’d landed – while a bystander dialed 911 and reported the incident. It was his dog that located my glasses, which were miraculously undamaged.

Piecing everything together, several weeks after the fact, I realize the vehicle hit me twice. I know this because the impact I remember was the front driver’s side headlight, but the police report said the side mirror was damaged. So, because of the turning motion of the car, it must have hit me again, damaging the mirror and sending me tumbling down the hill.

I’m grateful that I rolled down the hill, rather than falling under the vehicle. My injuries would have been much worse if I hadn’t. Even so, every joint on the right side of my body – including some I didn’t know existed – was sprained. My neck and back were damaged. Bones in my right hip and right hand were knocked out of place. And, perhaps most significantly, I had what was later diagnosed as post-concussive disorder – a diagnosis that describes closed-head brain injury that takes more than a week to recover from. (Oh, about that cracking sound – my doctor and I suspect that my skull was bruised, but without sophisticated, expensive imaging, there’s no way to prove it.)

In my case, it took the better part of a year to be able to work full-time again, and I still felt light sensitivity a year and a half later. The first few months, I wasn’t able to work at all. The only thing I could do was sit in a dark room, try to entertain two rambunctious kittens, and occasionally listen to an audiobook. Light gave me a headache. Thinking gave me a headache. Making decisions made me irritable. It was not a happy time.

Recovering from a brain injury is a bit like aging in reverse. Your memory gets better. You don’t need to sleep as much. You can focus more. So many things that you used to take for granted, then were taken away from you, come back. And you don’t take them for granted anymore. Thinking? Decision making? Yay! I could do them again.

It affects the people around you, too. Four months after the incident, my twin brother mentioned that he wasn’t as worried about me anymore, because I was finally thinking linearly again. My mom was out of touch for a few weeks because she was in another country; she noticed an obvious improvement in my thought and speech patterns when she came back. And even my best friend, who I met about a year after the injury, has commented that she can tell a difference between my thought patterns then and now. It’s not a quick, easy recovery.

That’s what I’m writing about today. The life changes that come from being in it for the long haul. Shortly after this happened, I made a promise to myself. I decided I was too young to be injured and in pain for the rest of my life, and that I was going to do whatever was necessary to make a full recovery. So I went to all of my physical therapy appointments (which continued for over a year). I did all of the exercises he told me to do. I learned more about the musculoskeletal system than I ever thought I’d need to know. I researched concussion treatments, and discovered that the military was using acupuncture to treat it in the field. Good enough for the military, good enough for me. I found an acupuncturist.

After I was released from official, western style medicine, I found other modalities to take me from “not injured” to “functioning properly” – Reiki, marma massage, working with fitness and movement experts through a Pilates studio. And those have continued to lead me down paths I never would have imagined and to explore things I’d never heard of before the accident. I’ve developed skills that allow me to speak – consciously – to my guardian angel, whenever I need to. I’ve learned to trace the mental/emotional/spiritual aspect of physical pain, and change my thoughts and beliefs to aid recovery. I’ve gained knowledge that might be considered magic, or miraculous, or perhaps even witchcraft, though that’s a loaded term. Most of all, I’ve learned to accept myself as I am now, in this moment.

This type of experience also causes one to re-evaluate priorities in life. I used to be an actuary. I may still be employed as an actuary, but that is not who I am. I am a writer. I am a creator. I am a storyteller. I love stories, and always have. Today, I tell my story to the world, and hope that it encourages others to also follow a path of self-discovery, a path that allows them to release the trauma of their past and follow their passions and their dreams. Because I am also an explorer and a guide. And now, I have reached a point in my own training that I can help others explore their own paths, finding their way to happiness and self-acceptance. “If you don’t get lost, there’s a chance you may never be found.” (Anonymous)

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