How I’m learning it’s okay not to be okay
I was having a terrible day. The world felt like it was falling apart politically, personally and professionally. The night before I revealed my more-than-friendship feelings for somebody who doesn’t feel the same. Things couldn’t get worse, right? I had this immense vulnerability hangover. I was embarrassed and heartbroken and feeling generally pretty unworthy of all things. I thought it was impossible for any more tears to come. Best of all, I was supposed to go speak about confidence and collaborative leadership. I felt more like a lumpy pile of feelings than a leader. Nevertheless I hopped on my bike to go to the talk. I thought I was broken. And then I got hit by a car.
In the moments after I was hit the steps were clear.
Step one: make sure my night’s commitments know I won’t be there; immediate text to organizer that I will not in fact be speaking tonight.
Step two: inform friend that I got hit by car and need a buddy.
Step three: call mom.
Step four: is my bike okay?
I tumbled onto the windshield in seconds, cracked the glass with my helmet. Fell to the pavement with my legs in agony. Screaming in pain. I was stuck on the ground. But I’m okay. I’m okay. I can think. I’m okay.
I remember a crowd of passers by. A kind woman named Melissa. Most memorably an Italian man in an apron running out yelling “Is everyone okay?!?!? Do you need a chair?!?”
The paramedics and police officers didn’t really agree with my steps. But all of that was easier than thinking about the agony in my legs and the fact that I can’t get up. The medics lift me onto a stretcher, put a brace on my neck.
I spend all my energy reassuring my friends and family that I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m breathing. I’m lucid. I’m here.
The ambulance carries me to the emergency room where I get morphine and am immediately surrounded not only by nurses and doctors, but by three amazing friends there to support me and another on her way up from New York. I learn everybody at the hospital’s name. I get x-rays of all the bones in my legs. A CT-scan of my head and neck.
With the neck brace still on, I get forgotten in the hallway outside radiology. I’m stuck only able to stare at ceiling tiles. Frightened and in pain — for the first time since the crash, I am alone. Thankfully Kurt, my transportation hero, noticed when I was yelling (okay probably it was a more pitiful soft moan, but it felt like yelling). Patti at the desk was far too consumed on the phone talking about doorknobs to notice how long I had been stuck.
I finally make it back to my A-team, who have been patiently texting my family assuring them that I am okay and in the process of befriending the entire hospital.
We find out none of my bones are broken — a surprising and delightful victory.
Even my head seems to have come out unscathed. Though the pain in my legs is steel screaming through the morphine.
I desperately seek the bright side. No bones broken, my head is ok, I can use most of my body, I lived, I can breathe. I don’t want anybody to worry about me. I don’t want to be an inconvenience. I don’t want to take up any more space.
The doctor wants me to stand up and walk over to the bathroom.
I sit up. My head is flushed, my body tingly. I lean forward to stand up and there are pins and needles everywhere. My body covered with sweat. Chest tightened. I ask what’s happening. My hands feel weird. I lose hearing. I lose vision. Suddenly everyone is a million miles away. I hear echoing through the distance a voice yelling ELIZABETH!! Suddenly I see the voice is coming from inches away from my face, there are so many hands on me but I can’t feel any of them. The voices ask me if I know where I am. I do? Apparently it takes me some time to answer. The pain, stress, trauma was too much to stand. I drink water. I move my legs. I build up confidence to stand — at least enough to get to a wheelchair.
I get to go home. Julia, one of my oldest and dearest friends, has arrived from New York and is sitting on my stoop with Popeyes waiting for me. (Fried chicken seemed like it might help?) As we arrive home I immediately regret that I’ve recently moved to a historic walk-up apartment. I struggle up my stairs and make it triumphantly to my bedroom where I am surrounded by fried chicken and some of my favorite women. They take shifts, for the first 18 hours I am never alone. My magnificent roommate does homework by my bedside overnight. I wake up to bagels and smiles from another dear friend. I get visitors, texts and emails.
During the day, I’m determined since I’m so okay that I’ll just be in bed for a day or two. I wake up in the middle of the night in pain, distraught that I’ll be stuck there forever. But no, I’m okay.
I wake up on my second day of recovery determined that I am well enough to go to at least half of my day. I stand. I successfully PUT ON PANTS, eat, take medicine. It all feels like an Olympic sport. I realize that being out in the world outside my apartment is challenging with every step. My pain is public, difficult and present in everything I do. I get help, hugs and ice packs to make it through the meeting. The group is seated in a circle, eyes looking at me in pity. We talk about politics, our lives since the election and how we’re feeling we can or cannot move on. After about an hour of heated discussion, one of the leaders leads us all in a group breath. I breathe in deep and realize this is the first breath I’ve taken since the crash.
The trauma and reality creeps in. I start shaking and my eyes fill with tears.
I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.
For the next hour I’m woozy, shaky. I lose focus and struggle to be present. I go home at lunch. I am alone. I’m breathing. I got hit by a car. I cannot move. It hurts. I remember my confession from earlier in the week. It hurts.
I’m not okay. I’m not okay. I’m not okay.
I shake. I feel that feeling from before passing out. I’m hurt. Now I’m alone.
I call friends. No one answers, everybody is at work. I ask people over, nobody can come. I’m alone. I’m hurt. Then he texts and I remember again that hurt. I breathe. I cry.
I finally get a call that Julia is on her way — will be here in a few hours. I won’t be alone. She comforts me.
I’m not okay.
And I suddenly realize that maybe sometimes we need to be not okay. I acknowledge I’m not. I’m scared. I’m fragile. I’m both unlucky and lucky. I’m loved. I’m healing. I’m in the process of being okay. I’m just not there yet.
I forget that that is how pain works. It’s information. It’s our body screaming that something is wrong. It’s a call for healing. And in order to be okay our bodies need that call.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last weeks sitting in bed and alternating between thinking about pain and trying desperately not to. Counting my blessings has been important — but it’s hard to ignore the many kinds of pain this last year has brought. And the pain in my legs. And my arm. And my back. And spirit.
I can’t help but make the analogy to the pain and division our country is feeling right now. Our country as a whole has been in traumatic pain since our violent birth as a nation. We’ve been broken for a long time, and if the pain of this election is the call for healing we need, than so be it. It’s past time that we start acknowledging that so that we can empathize with the wounds it’s caused for everyone — especially those most affected. We can’t try to mask the pain, or pretend it isn’t there — pretend that we’re okay. We have to acknowledge that we are not okay so that we can begin that process. (Don’t know what national pains I’m talking about? Check out some of the amazing work at the Equal Justice Initiative)
Each day I discover new aches pains and frustrations of healing. As one part of my body is less swollen, another aches more. It will be months before I can ride my bike again and another week before I can even start physical therapy. My pride is wounded. I’m tired all the time. And it sucks. It’s hard to maintain an optimistic look at the healing ahead.
I know that now more than ever my body needs me to acknowledge pain and allow healing to happen. This is forcing me to learn how to take a break. Take time off work. Re-prioritize. Focus on healing fully. Practice gratitude. Read. Learn to spend time with myself. I know that I’m not okay yet, but I will be.
I know that our country, our world is not okay right now. But it can be.
Originally written in December 2017. Today I was discharged after seven months of physical therapy. When I started I could barely move. New Years Eve was my first night out without my cane. Today I can ride my bike, walk where I like, get up to go to the bathroom without thinking about it. I still have to go to orthopedic specialists and jumping jacks are really hard. The road to 100% is bumpy and indirect, and seriously sucks sometimes. Sharing this terrifies me, even if nobody reads it. Today, after this milestone, this little victory, I feel ready to share this story with you.