Sixteen years later, still on the road to recovery

On this day 16 years ago, I woke up from a drug-induced coma after surviving a massive stroke and having brain surgery to stop the bleed. I was lucky–the type of arterovenusmalformation (AVM) that almost killed me often kills or leaves its victims seriously disabled. After a month in the hospital, I walked away with some vision changes, a spotty short-term memory, and some serious identity issues. I was only 22 at the time, and I’d just completed my BA in journalism. Adulthood and what I imagined as total independence were just around the corner, and then poof–I almost died.

Those early years of recovery were rough, and I’d be lying if I said every day is a day further from that event and my thoughts of it. Time has given me distance from it, and writing has given me more distance, but sometimes my deficits whack me on the head and I’m back in “why me” mode. Most of the time this happens with my vision. My depth perception tricks me, or I can’t figure out spatially what’s going on with something like assembling a toy or a piece of furniture. Not life-ending things, but if I allow myself to think about why I can’t see well enough to figure out what needs figuring, I can send myself into a real funk.

In 2020, a year of so many losses, medical challenges and personal pain, it feels tone-deaf and downright mean to write something about how things get better. Even if things do get better after traumatic events, I don’t think there’s a prescriptive path or pithy saying that holds true for everyone at every moment. Like anything, the good and bad comes and goes as the days do.

I don’t really celebrate anniversaries of this event anymore, but every milestone day brings up memories of that time. That’s been especially true in the last year, as I’ve worked to complete my memoir about the experience. Every milestone feels big as I’m immersed in visceral memories of waking in the hospital, completing therapies, returning to my parents’ home to recover and then striking out on my own again. I’m hoping soon I can start celebrating other milestones related to this: signing with an agent, getting a book deal, reading a galley copy or an ARC and then seeing the book in stores.

But for now, I’m celebrating in small ways: reflecting on the beauty of light dappling leaves on a quiet road, wincing at the pain in my hip and then reveling in the ability to walk, smiling as my fingers move across the keyboard and the cursor dances across this page. Today, I walked on the beach in Northern California with my son and husband, I drove us home from a family dinner in the dark, navigating portions of Highway 101 and the California Expressway system. They were small portions, but for someone who hates driving at night in unfamiliar places (because of my vision), traversing the slopes and loops was an accomplishment.

Recovery from a life-changing event comes with its own dips and drops and curves, and as much as I want to see this book out there to be done with it and move on, I want to see it out there to give others going through a medical trauma the sense that things can work out OK, even if it takes years or a decade to navigate what that OK looks like–and even then sometimes the vista gets fuzzy.

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