Personal Essay

The Anniversary of My Death

A change in perspective helped me join the living again

Mindi Boston
Contemplate

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A woman lays in the middle of a bed, curled up in a ball.
Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

In July 2014, I awoke with a start and found myself staring out a small window at a jumbled sky. The portal must have measured nine inches square, but with the way it jumped around, I couldn’t be sure. The day outside was hot. Inside, it must have topped 115 degrees. I had trouble breathing and I was bathed in sweat. My two kids were in class — one in college, one still in high school. My husband could have been at work, but I found out later that he was racing toward the hospital behind me. I was inside an ambulance, fighting for my life. I had just turned thirty-eight.

For seven days, reality and nightmares swirled in an indistinguishable blur. I would awake, eyes blurry and throat dry, panic in my muddy thoughts. A quick poke in the crook of my arm and liquid sleep would carry me away. Eventually, I was coherent long enough for a stranger to explain that I had suffered a catastrophic injury post-surgery and was extremely septic. My husband gently elucidated, filling in the blanks that shock had erased from my memory.

Most people who survive near-death experiences describe a new lease on life. They want to do, taste, go, and be everything they might have missed. That was not my survival experience. Forty-eight hours after I arrived at the hospital, I woke up a different person. The first time I tried to get out of bed, I discovered an open gaping wound in my middle. It measured roughly seven inches across and four inches deep. My guts, clearly visible, looked like raw marbled steak. A wound vac sucked toxins from my body for the first week, and several additional tubes remained for another couple of weeks. My body took several months and a lot of doctor visits to recover; my mind never did.

A few months before that day in the ambulance, I had been at an all-time high. My kids were successful students, I had a great job and had just married the love of my life. I had so many plans I was sure would come true. Just shy of sixty days later, my mother, new husband, and teen daughter took turns bathing and toileting me. Each traumatic set point came with the realization that life, as I knew it, was over.

This is where my path diverges from the inspiring one I hear so often in support groups.

“Oh, my trauma taught me to live like I was dying.”

“When I woke up, I knew I’d been given a second chance.”

“I’ll never take a single day for granted ever again.”

While others took their near-death experiences as a catalyst to live joyfully, I became aware that there are far worse things than death–like surviving. I saw the risk in everything around me and was terrified of every germ and shadow. I let the fear, anger, and shame take over.

One of the phrases I heard repeatedly throughout recovery was to accept the “new normal.” To this day, those words make me cringe. I wanted my old normal and it took me years to accept it was gone. Like my childhood home, it had ceased to exist except in memory. No amount of meds or rehab would bring back the person I had been before. I became bitter and negative. I was mad at the doctors, mad at my husband for saving my life, mad at my body for failing me.

Every facet of my life changed. My body would never function or feel the same way again. The unstitched wound healed into a jagged ridge that changed how my clothes fit, affected how I ate and drank, and hurt if I bent too far or lifted more than a carton of milk. I required medications that came with side effects, some worse than the ailments they treated. My headaches went from minor annoyances to chronic, daily, excruciating events that kept me down for days or weeks. Even when my surgical scars healed, my body was still broken and painful, necessitating years of hospital and pharmaceutical intervention. Mentally, I struggled with everything the changes meant, from a loss of independence to my tanking self-esteem. Where others seemed to be set free by their survival, I felt as if I’d been locked up without a key.

A series of unfortunate mishaps landed me in the ambulance that day. I was scheduled to have a small procedure, one the doctor assured me was routine and no big deal. Then, just as the anesthesia kicked in, there was a tiny change of plans. The next day, I went home expecting to return to work and my life in two weeks. Three days later, I was bleeding internally and suffering from sepsis, leading to multiple emergency surgeries and a litany of comorbidities. I add these few details to help explain the abrupt nature of how dramatically my life changed.

Where I had been fearless and able before the event — that’s what I’ll call it — I was scared and weak after it. Needing help into the shower or using my walker to stand left me shaking in tears. No woman wants the man she loves to see her at her most disgusting and vulnerable. No adult daughter wants her retired mother to care for her like a toddler again. I certainly never wanted my fifteen-year-old daughter to take over for home health care when the insurance ran out. But it all happened and it changed how I felt about myself, others, and the world.

I returned to work a few months later but couldn’t keep up with the pace of the job I’d held previously. My company found me a couple of part-time positions, but it was still a struggle to show up every day and be a good employee. My mind was willing, but my body wasn’t much of a team player. I would have three more operations, three more recoveries, and two years of staring at the ceiling, wondering why I was still fighting, before retiring at the age of forty. On my last day of work, my youngest child left for college. In the deafening silence, I found the hell I only thought I had escaped in 2014.

To go from an able woman in her thirties, with a full-time job and two amazing kids, to the loathsome thing that lived in bed for six months straight, broke me in a way from which I have never recovered. From the dark of my bedroom, various hospital rooms, or just the abyss of my own thoughts, I watched life around me go on. My son graduated college and I watched on Facetime. My friends went on vacation and got promotions, and I read it on Facebook. My husband gave up his hobbies, friends, and carefree spirit to take care of me as the years ticked on, and I resented it all.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that my old life was gone forever. But I wasn’t. I was alive and had the opportunity to rebuild myself into something new if only I could get out of my own way. I set my first goal post-event: Learn to embrace life again like those Pollyannas in my support group. I owed it to myself and my loved ones to get up, get dressed, and get on with the business of living.

Ten years have passed since I lay in that hospital bed, lamenting my survival. There have been some really hard decisions and a lot of healing. I’ve come to realize how fortunate I am to be here, and how much worse some people have it. I‘ve also learned that it is okay to mourn the life I left behind. Grieving is a cycle — one that I have ridden like a merry-go-round for a decade. It started with denial that things would return to normal, then progressed to anger, mostly directed inward but sometimes at others for daring to live the life I wanted. The bargaining and depression continued, vacillating between giving up for good and convincing myself the negativity was only making me sicker. And, finally, the acceptance that this is who I am, which is more than just my struggle. I am proud of who I have become, not because I chose it but because I had no choice. I am a survivor.

Brand art by Gael MacLean

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Mindi Boston
Contemplate

Mindi Boston is a novelist and freelance writer out of the Midwest. For more information, visit www.mindiboston.com