It was November 29, 2014, a couple days after Thanksgiving and my friends and I were on a rock climbing trip. After our last day of climbing, we decided to venture out into the city of El Paso for a bite to eat in preparation for the long journey home the following morning. Around 7.30pm, we were struck head on by a drunk driver. We were rushed off to the emergency room where they informed me that I had suffered two fractures of my spine, two rib fractures and some lung damage. I spent 4 days in the ICU after which I was discharged to fly home with my family. I was to spend 5 weeks allowing my spine to heal in a brace that went from my head to my waist.
Let me paint the picture for you, remember that scene in the movie Mean Girls when Regina George (Rachel McAdams) gets hit by the bus and shows up to school with a full body brace? That was me.
My life had changed so dramatically in a matter of seconds. One day I am hiking up mountains with 20 pounds on my back, climbing rocks and feeling grateful for nature in its abundance; the next, I am struggling to roll out of bed independently. The days following the hospital stay were the hardest because the trauma was able to fully settle in to my brain and I was able to feel the weight of all that had happened.
Layer after layer of trauma was on constant replay in my mind...the point of impact...being stuck in the car...being separated from my dog and friends at the hospital...CT scan...MRI...vomiting from morphine...my parents reaction to seeing me in the ICU… etc. etc...so on and so forth….
I kept telling myself that if I could just make it through these first 6 weeks, the obstacles for rehab will be removed and from there, I have all the tools I need (as a physical therapist) to get myself to the next level. I even imagined being one of those success stories, the girl who grew stronger from her tragedy.
The truth was a lot less glamorous than I picture. I felt alone. I was stuck at home day after day while everyone around me continued on with their lives. I spent my days exhausting all the shows on Netflix and felt helpless, broken and sad. I would spend my time endlessly searching on google for recovery periods for spine fractures, I pulled out all my text books and polled all my friends on Facebook for any holistic healing tips they might offer me.
As the time went by, my anxiety and pain got worse. My muscles felt tighter, my body felt more stiff and all of the sudden what initially felt like a manageable hurdle started to build up like a brick wall. I felt further and further away from my happy ending.
I started to fall down this path of blaming myself for not getting better. I was resentful towards my body as I overanalyzed and agonized over why I was still in so much pain. I even began to question whether my pain was real, often wondering if all of it was just in my head.
I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate. My relationships suffered. I knew I had to do something to help myself out of this rut.
In the past, when going through challenging times in my life, I had turned to meditation to help me quiet my mind and find peaceful moments amidst the chaos. I was grateful for the time to learn to listen to my mind and body. Diving deeper into this practice helped me gain a greater understanding of the tools that we have at our disposal to help ourselves.
Here are a few of the things I learned:
LET YOURSELF GRIEVE.
The truth was, I went into that car one person and came out a different one. That experience shaped who I would become going forward and it was MY CHOICE. I could sit around loathing the other driver or complain about how I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ponder over why this happened to me OR I could let myself grieve.
I choose to turn towards the pain. I moved through all the phases of loss. At first, I was mad (at everything and everyone). I tried to go back to my normal routine, denying the severity of my condition then I would bargain with myself, thinking if I rested fully then I would recover faster. Eventually, I moved through depression and finally to acceptance.
Give yourself permission to let go and fall apart if that is what you need. Turn towards the emotions rather than shying away from them and process how you feel about your struggle. Allowing yourself to feel gives you a direct connection to your mind-body system which can guide you towards unraveling the knot that may be in the way of healing.
TRUST your body.
I found myself saying things like,
“My body hates me.”
“My stupid back, everything hurts.”
“Nothing is helping, my body is being stubborn.”
As I spent more time thinking about how much my body was betraying me, I started to notice that I actually felt worse. The thoughts I had were eliciting a very tangible physiological response in my body.
The truth was that I was turning my anger towards the whole situation inward. The injustice of my life changing in mere seconds due to someone else's negligence made me angry. Instead of finding a healthy way to channel these emotions, I turned the anger inward and became frustrated that my body wasn't healing faster.
Mindfulness helped me take the pause to understand what this was and how to find a way out of this vicious cycle.
I learned a new dialogue to help me through the hard times. The phrase I repeated to myself was this: My body is perfect as it is today. My body is healing.
Positive affirmations can have a profound effect on the neuroplasticity of our brains and help us to engage in processing emotions rather than suppression of them which can lead to depression.
If you are going through something right now, remind yourself that you are doing all that you can and your body will not betray you. Set backs may happen, this is a part of the process. They do not reflect on you or your body’s capacity to heal in any way, shape or form. Trust the process, and wisdom that the body possesses to heal itself. Learn to see the small steps and you will eventually be able to appreciate the grand victories.
I was navigating through a very serious tornado of insecurity and self doubt. Everything felt hard, life felt exhausting and I literally had no idea who I was anymore. All my efforts to feel better were met with disappointment and I felt myself spiraling towards a life of chronic pain.
As I started to read more about mindfulness techniques, I was able to find a way to insert a little self love and positive thinking into my daily routine. This was the ray of sunshine that I needed to be able to see the other side. When I let go of the negative mental chatter, I allowed myself to navigate my path towards a healthy self.
Loving yourself can feel impossible at times. When the world feels like it is stacked against you, you can’t help but turn on yourself. The truth is, the only person that can help you is you. Learning to love yourself is the most powerful tool you have at your disposal for healing and growth.
Being injured is a challenging time in all of our lives. Learn to listen to yourself and remember that your emotional health directly affects your physical health. Do the things that make you happy, enjoy the sunshine and be kind to you.
Today, I am stronger than I was prior to November 29, 2014. The day will forever be engrained in my mind as the day I started my journey towards truly mindful living.
Please think twice before drinking and driving.