How to turn a Vespa crash into a writing residency
That's a lot of lemons you've got there, lady
Last week I laid my Vespa down.
I was riding home from school, it was dark and rainy, and I was going a little too fast because I wanted to get home for dinner. The speedbump surprised me, I hit the brakes a little too hard, the Vespa fishtailed and down I went.
Next stop: trauma center.
As a rule, I only share stories from my personal life on this blog if it's relevant to work, and this is no exception. This was an experience that (I hope) I will only have once, and one-time-only experiences deserve a bit of attention. Even when they suck.
There only so much of life any of us get to live. Writers can pull back the curtain and tell us stories about the bigger, rougher, crazier world that we'd otherwise miss.
I have always wanted to ride along with the cops and the fire department, to see what it's really like to deal with a crime scene or a three-alarm blaze. In some ways this was even better: I had the chance to ride in an ambulance and see a trauma center from the inside. Yay? So in the spirit of Jill Bolte-Taylor -- the neuroscientist who was secretly thrilled to find herself having a stroke -- here are my notes on what it's like to break yourself and need other people to put you back together again.
(Spoiler alert, for any concerned friends reading this: the doctors say I'm going to be fine.)
At the accident site, total strangers will take care of you until the ambulance arrives. All the cars stop, everybody gets out, everybody does what they can. Mr. Rogers was right: look for the helpers. They are always close by.
The EMTs crouched around your crumpled body really will ask you questions like what city you’re in, what day it is, and what your name is. Just like in the movies. One of the questions they ask is "Who is the president of United States?" Your first thought might be "A malignant fucking Cheeto, that's who." But then a little voice inside of you says "Careful, this guy looks like a Trump voter and you need his help right now. Don't start a fight." So you just answer the question. That's the moment you know that your brain, at least, is going to be fine.
Your body, on the other hand, doesn’t make sense. You are afraid to look down at yourself. You concentrate on the ceiling of the ambulance instead and try to guess how close you are to the hospital.
You thank God that someone in this world loves you and is there at the trauma center when you arrive.
They really do cut your clothes off at the hospital. You are sad to lose that shirt; it was new! You don’t realize yet that this is the least of your worries. You left your dignity back on the pavement, sister.
People scream in the trauma center. Sometimes the person doing the screaming is you. This is most likely to happen when a nurse accidentally walks right into your foot, sending shockwaves through your broken knee.
You will meet 75 people in the first four hours you are in the hospital. You will have to tell each of them your name and date of birth.
You want your boo to be there, an inch away at all times, but under no circumstances do you want him to touch any part of you. Everything hurts. You wish you could have an out of body experience, starting Now, please.
It will take a while for the doctors and nurses to figure out what exactly is wrong with you. In the meantime, you just have to lie there in Painville. You will process this pain by panting heavily and making animal noises. It hurts too much to even cry. That comes later. Your only real option is to Surrender, Dorothy.
Drugs change everything. I don't care what anybody says about our current opioid crisis - oxycodone is a g-damn miracle. Because when you're broken into pieces, here's the thing - the drug doesn't get you high: it makes the pain go away so you can sleep. And that is BETTER than getting high, any day of the week. (June update: I'm off the pain meds now. It is possible to take oxy for a while and then stop, without any problems. Rock)
If you have broken bones, like I did, your body will most likely swell up. The doctors won’t be able to operate until the swelling goes down. You may have to spend a few days at the hospital doing nothing except waiting for your body to be ready for surgery. (See comment about Dorothy, above.)
You may have to have more than one surgery. Sometimes, when they give you the anesthesia, it will be like flipping a light switch. You won’t even remember falling asleep or waking up. But other times, you will take a trip to the end of the universe and back. (I experience both.)
Your surgery is scheduled for Monday at 6 AM. (Side note: doctors have terrible work schedules.) Your boyfriend sleeps on the hospital couch overnight so that he can be there when you go into preop. You spend four hours in surgery, and wake up back in your hospital room at 3 in the afternoon, surrounded by so many blankets it’s like you’ve been swaddled by giants.
You are never not in pain. It’s just a question of how much pain you are in. You learn to answer the question, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?" four or five times a day. Sometimes it's a three; sometimes it's an eight. You learn to make friends with pain. You learn how much you can tolerate without needing to medicate. Pain management becomes the focus of the day. Every day.
Most nurses are young women in their 20s with names like Rachel and Kelsey. But then there's Lucas, the big guy who used to be a combat medic in Iraq. When you get shy, because you need his help, he proceeds to tell you a horrible story about a former patient. This puts your delicate sensibilities into perspective. You are grossed out for hours afterward.
Lucas offers to give you a sponge bath. You pass, which in retrospect was probably a dumb decision because he was the strongest nurse on the unit and you are dead weight.
You do not want flowers. But you would cut a bitch for some dry shampoo.
You will spend most of your time in the hospital thinking like a small child. You will wonder, Do I have to pee? What is a yummy thing I could eat? Can I have some water? Is it naptime yet?
Time slows way, way down. Hospital time isn’t like regular time. It is its own planet, following its own rules and rhythms.
You can’t put any weight on the right side of your body. You learn to think of any kind of movement as dancing - and your dance partner is the right side of your body. You talk to yourself, saying, "Follow my lead." You are now a choreographer. Place foot, move to stand, pivot, descend slowly.
Things that were once simple are suddenly not. For example, you can’t get out of bed, and the electrical outlet is on the other side of the room. How will you keep your phone charged? Will the nurses have to do it for you? Do you need to get an extension cord or maybe move the bed? It takes a long time to figure out a plan, because it's not top of the to-do list, so it just lingers and drives you crazy. That is just one of many, many examples of problems that must be solved. Life becomes a series of experiments for every part of your day. Sometimes you feel like Matt Damon in The Martian.
You have to learn to ask for what you want because you need help with literally everything. You can't lean forward to pick up a glass; you can't turn on a light. You hate this. A lot.
You have never loved apple juice like you love it now.
There is a TV in the room. Because you don’t have cable TV at home, you indulge in your news obsession and watch cable news for hours at a time. After a few days, you realize you have made a huge mistake and should never watch cable news ever again. It is awful.
Instead, you switch to movies and discover that most of the options are films like Creed or The Blind Side or Mission Impossible - stories about people breaking bones in vivid, noisy ways. WTF? Who programmed this? Don't they realize this is a hospital? You reject any movie that even hints of mild violence. You can't deal (and you used to love action movies). Instead, you cackle your way through Legally Blonde and fall asleep midway through Young Victoria.
Physical therapists have to teach you how to work with your body. They show you how to put a shirt on, how to sit up, how to move from the bed to a chair and back again. It takes a long time to do all these things. When you are done, you lie in the bed panting with exhaustion. It takes at least an hour to recover from the effort. When you ask why such a simple maneuver is so taxing, the nurse tells you that your body is constantly working to recover from the trauma even when just lying in bed. (And the surgery was a greater trauma than the accident itself, apparently. Harrumph)
Even in your altered state, you want to know what kind of trouble Trump is in now. You hope Mueller doesn’t make any big moves while you are out of your mind on pain meds. You don't want to miss a thing.
Knee scabs are just as itchy and maddening now as they were when you were six years old.
You no longer bother second-guessing your gut instincts. You know what you want and don’t want. You know who you trust and who you don’t; you know who you want to see and who you don’t. And you really don’t care what anyone else thinks. You don’t have the energy for that. In that sense, you are free.
The cost of your many prescriptions only comes to $16.60. This is amazing.
The nurses are so kind that it makes you cry. They are willing to help you, and you need them so badly. They always know what will make you feel better. It is a relief to realize that nothing surprises them. This whole thing may be new to you, but it is not new to them. They are the helpers, and they are here for you. xo
Diagnosis: the doctors say I have a fibula fracture, a fracture of the tibia plateau, and a humerus fracture. Translation: I have injuries in my right knee and shoulder.
That is a great diagnosis. Look at what it doesn't say. No concussion, no spinal fractures, no permanent damage. As far as horrible accidents go, I was one of the lucky ones.
Recovery will take a while. Six weeks of bed rest, followed by lots of physical therapy.
I won't lie, it’s been hard at times. The pain for the first few weeks was crazy. And the whole experience is just overwhelming to the system. My new hobby is Crying For No Apparent Reason - not because I'm suddenly sad, but because my body just needs the emotional release, I guess.
But when people ask me, How are you doing? my answer is Pretty good.
My feeling about this whole thing is that this is the price you sometimes pay for living life. I loved that Vespa. It gave me so much happiness. I used to zip up and down the San Francisco hills, free as a bird, and I flew through Austin like a champ. It was 100% Whee! I don't regret it. I knew the risks, and rode it anyway. Bad things happen. It'll be OK.
I owe this Zen attitude to a few things I've been reading. One is The Daily Stoic, which I have been reading over breakfast every morning since January. It always gave me a loving "snap out of it" slap to the face. I loved it, and it prepped me for this insanity.
The other thing I've been reading is the blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree, which is also interested in Stoic philosophy. Here are a few quotes from one of my favorite posts:
"Sometimes life sucks. Bad. Really bad. And you feel like you want a refund.
"But, of course, we need to accept that Life Avenue is going to have its share of potholes. Albert Ellis, one of the most influential psychologists ever, knew that “acceptance” is key to coping with the curve balls life throws at us.
"Many of the greats embraced the concept of “Amor Fati.” To not only accept everything that life brings you, good or bad, but to love it. To embrace it. To revel in it. Every single bit of your life. Yes, even the truly horrible, awful, regrettable, don’t-ever-want-to-think-about-it-again moments."
The whole post is outstanding and worth reading in full.
I'm not sure if I'm at the "Amor Fati" stage, but I *am* going to make the most of my recovery time. Because I have been handed a Get Out Of Everything card. I am officially excused from most parts of day-to-day life. I'm still working on client projects, but now that I don't have to go to the grocery store or sit in traffic or run errands, I suddenly have hours of magical free time outside of work hours. For now, my time is my own.
So I'm going to treat the next six-to-twelve weeks as a writing residency.
"A writing residency is a retreat experience designed to help writers pursue their creative growth. Residencies provide a place for writers to step out of their regular routine and focus on their work without the disruptions of daily life."
I'm scheming plans for the two essential parts of this residency; my input and my output. I'm thinking hard about what I'm going to read, watch, listen to. I'm following the lead of a book I've talked about before: Steal Like An Artist. In it, Austin Kleon writes:
"Nothing is original. The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something 'original,' nine out of ten times they just don't know the references or the original sources involved. What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
"Some people find this idea depressing, But it fills me with hope. As the French writer Andre Gide put it, "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.
"If we're free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.
(Side note: Austin's book reminds me of Lynda Barry's incredible book What It Is!)
"Every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas. You are a mash-up of what you choose to let into your life. You are the sum of your influences. The German writer Goethe said, "we are shaped and fashioned by what we love."
This is where you come in. I'd love your recommendations. What are some of your favorite authors or filmmakers or musicians? What do you love? Tell me in the comments!
I'll keep posting updates every Tuesday, to let you know how things are going. As they say in one of my favorite movies, Hands On A Hard Body, "Let's see what transgresses."
I'll close with this quote from Martha Beck. It landed in my inbox this morning, and her timing could not be better. She writes,
"I see life as a cosmic gymnasium where we have come to be broken and healed, broken and healed, for the joy of the process and because we have decided to become strong."
© 2018 | Susan O'Connor Inc.
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