25 Was the Worst Year of my Life (Ch. 2)

Seven years ago today – March 19 – I had spine surgery that fused three of my vertebrae together after a cliff jump gone horribly awry on spring break in Jamaica.  I spent one week in the hospital and months in physical therapy over the next year and a half, the length of time it took for my bones to fully regenerate and permanently fuse together.  I left the hospital 25 pounds lighter and re-acquainted with a size 4 for the first time in 10 years, had friends, family and colleagues rally around me in ways I could never have imagined (homecooked daily meals from Nikki, nightly walks with my superintendent’s wife, and the gift of a new tv with remote control from my classmates), and ultimately spoke at my graduation because I addressed movingly and eloquently the care NYU-Stern and its students showered on me.  In red sandals on the stage at the theater at Madison Sq. Garden, no less.  There I was: a skinny, glam 20-something living it up in NYC.  Full of promise.

If only recovery were as easy as watching daily episodes of The Wedding Show on TLC with Nikki, and whiling away Saturdays with my mom admiring the architecture of the Upper East Side on lazy walks around my neighborhood.  Instead, it was a narrow escape from almost being paralyzed, six months of virtual confinement to upper Manhattan, learning to walk without a cane, wearing lace-less shoes and learning to put things on the shelves above instead of in the cupboards below because bending down was both difficult and painful; monitoring my own emotions lest I leave my mother in tears; and managing a general feeling that I’d lost control of my body and that I was responsible for almost permanently injuring myself.  In addition to the size 4 sundresses and b-school celebrity, I gained new fears of heights, enclosed spaces, and falling, and lost my self-confidence and trust in my judgment.  By the time the rest of the country was confronting the random and brutal shock of 9/11, I was navigating my own major trauma from narrowly avoiding never walking again, or the unthinkable worse, dying.

By the winter of 2001-02, with the help of my mom, I’d begun seeing a psychotherapist specializing in trauma.  By the summer of 2002, I’d made arrangements to move in with friends from graduate school, leaving behind my once beloved apartment on the Upper East Side that became permanently colored from my sense of confinement following my accident.  From the shrink I learned coping strategies to learn how to manage my anxiety and panic, especially sleep strategies.  Eventually, I regained the courage to leave a job I was unhappy in and follow my simmering desire to work and live abroad.  Though the experience in Tanzania was not long enough for me, it was certainly long overdue.  In most respects, I resumed a life I believed was put on hold when I broke my back.  Still, I think of the time following the injury as a permanent disruption – two years of my life I’ll never get back. 

And I’m not convinced I made a full recovery from the accident.  For me, the passage of time has definitely helped.  I essentially understand that it was a freak accident – both in its occurrence and my deciding to even engage in the activity of cliff jumping.  And ultimately, I walked away from the fall (with assistance), and was never closer to paralysis than sheer probability and several hours of tingling feet due to bone fragments temporarily resting on nerves.  But still…


My NY shrink urged me not to stop coming to therapy once we had my anxiety management strategies in place; according to her, that was the time to commence the real work of understanding the trauma I’d suffered.  I still fear falling, and have a tendency not to lift my eyes from the ground when walking/running/ice skating.  At a minimum this is a nuisance and a less than stimulating view.  And during those moments of physical and emotional intersection, when a yoga instructor is spouting pop psychology about the body as a storage facility for all our fears, anxieties, etc., I have cried or blinked back the tears in embarrassment at how strongly their words resonate with me.  I hold my body much more carefully now, and though I still love to dance, I know I’ve lost the capacity for release that I used to feel on a dance floor.  One of my greatest psychological needs has become freedom of movement, and this perspective partially underpins my interests in poverty and socio-spatial inequality, given poor people’s reality of limited mobility.

So compelling accounts like this about the dual traumas for today’s military women – from sexual harrassment and combat – and the inability of the military and V.A. to effectively address their unique mental health needs, resonate with me on multiple levels.  May I never know what it’s like to be sexually assaulted or face the violence of military combat.  But their subsequent trauma – from its delayed onset to their confusion over what exactly they’re experiencing so long after triggering events – this I understand. 

Similar to these women but on a much less dramatic level, I had no time or space to comprehend what I’d gone through.  My surgery followed less than twelve hours after I was informed how lucky I was I’d escaped a life threatening injury.  Prior to that there had been only confusion and ignorance (and a misdiagnosis) over what exactly I’d sustained in Jamaica.  It’s only supposed to be muscle pain…why can’t I stand up straight…shouldn’t I be fine…why isn’t the pain subsiding…why is my mother so worried and calling me everyday from the U.S.?  I flew home, was diagnosed twenty-four hours later, and had surgery less than twelve hours later.  By the time I knew what was going on, it was time to recover.  I didn’t start to process what had actually happened in Jamaica until well into my physical recovery.  As the women portrayed here describe:

“while driving a fuel truck in Iraq, she watched her squad leader die in a roadside ambush and another peer have his leg blown off with a grenade. ‘In all those situations, your mind just goes on autopilot, and you just do what you’re trained to do,’ she said.  Another explained, ”’I was not scared a single day I was in Iraq; that’s what baffles me most,’…She developed PTSD after completing the first of two tours in Iraq…’Over there, I would hear an explosion at night and sleep through it. Now I hear the slightest sound and I wake up.'”

Then, in the relative safety of their post-combat lives, these women become forgetful, suffer headaches, develop seemingly irrational fears, become depressed, and are plagued by a bewildered sense of there being something wrong with them.  I am lucky to have a mom who is a nurse and mental health practitioner, as she taught me to recognize all kinds of signs of stress, and has been instrumental in helping me find therapy when I’ve needed it, even if as members of a big Irish family we’re not the best at talking this stuff out.  This lack of expressive space for these women is another huge problem – the military’s enduring code of silence regarding sexual harrassment, the pervasive attitude that they should “tough it out,” the fact that the entire military structure is built on the experiences and needs of men – all of this contributes to and exacerbates their trauma. 

The key to recovering from trauma is being able to process it.  Research shows that actual brain chemistry can be altered from trauma, and one of the therapeutic approaches is ”prolonged exposure therapy,” in which trauma victims “visit and revisit traumatic memories in order to lessen their power over the mind.” 

”It becomes an organized story rather than a fragmented story,” says Edna Foa, who directs the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania and is considered a pioneer in trauma treatment. ”They are able to put things together. They find all kinds of new perspectives to look at what happened to them.”

According to Patricia Resick of the National Center for PTSD…those people who cannot make sense of what happened to them are more likely to continue reliving it through flashbacks and intrusive memories. ”It’s like a record that keeps getting stuck,” she said. ”They can’t accept that it happened because of the implications of accepting it. It means that bad things – horrible things, really – can happen to good people.”

I always feel a little self-conscious when I tell my Jamaica story now.  I’ve told it so many times that it has a definite narrative to it, including people’s responses to it as the story unfolds.  I’m always concerned that I’ll appear to be relishing in the re-telling, too practiced in my telling of it, perceived as attention-seeking, or glorifying my recovery from what was really an idiotic stunt that I shouldn’t have done.  But I can’t help enjoy telling the story as much as I’m uncomfortable doing it.  It’s such a freaking relief talking about it, reliving the story as it plays out from accident to operation to recovery to current good health and mobility.  And the experience has defined me; I’m revealing a lot about myself to you if you’re listening to me recount that period of my life, with a cliched far off look in my eye as I talk. 

Finally, the author here talks about being struck by the isolation of the veterans she profiles here.  She writes, “So many…seemed uncertain of what to do next. It was as if their mistrust of the world had led them to mistrust themselves.”  For anyone who has experienced depression, this sense of isolation is one of the worst aspects, as it circumscribes even further one’s ability to make sense of our pain and seek help.  One of the reasons I love my Stern friends – not just because they’re good, fun and smart people who never miss a chance to affectionately heckle me – is because my Jamaican experience is also theirs.  They have their own memories – from Tergie hearing my bark like a seal when he landed in the water just after it knocked the wind out of me to their varied experiences navigating the Jamaican health care system.  It’s an event that we all talk about, that impacted us all and for that I’m grateful and very fortunate. Especially given that we’re a group that likes to rehash and relive events over and over and over, these friendships were indisputably part of my therapy. In contrast, the VA system is too slowly assembling group therapy programs for women to confront their unique military traumas.  Articles like this address the distinct nature of women’s experiences, such as their primary roles as caregivers subsuming their own emotional needs post-service, and demonstrate the need for tailored communities of care to help them recover.

Of course, March 19 is not only my anniversary, but also the fourth anniversary of our Iraq invasion.  The experience of veterans profiled lately exposes just how unequipped we are as a nation to deal with the aftermath, not only overseas, but also here at home.


4 Responses to “25 Was the Worst Year of my Life (Ch. 2)”

  1. March 20, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    As I said the last time, there’s a part of you that has just gone since the accident – I know that makes you a little sad to hear, but I don’t mean it quite that way. I mean simply that you have become a different person. I kind of miss the old person, but there’s a lot I like about the new one and she wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t gone through what you’ve been through. That said, the dimensions of what you’ve been through are somewhat new to me here… and they make me a little sad – I should never want to see you suffer so.

    I found the Times Magazine article upsetting on several levels (not the least of which being that I think right wing pro-military types will tune out what’s there because of perceptions of antiwar bias on the part of the Times, and they need to hear these stories perhaps most of all).

    In terms of what you say about coping, it’s interesting… I met with the grief counselor they brought in at work after 9/11, partly to be supportive of the effort to bring her in, and she said, very nicely, that she thought I was coping in a normal way, processing much of what happened after the fact. Work required me to focus on immediate problem solving during the event, and I tuned out much of the disaster and death until much later; the net effect being that to this day I cannot predict or control when I will start to weep (as I am, typing this sentence). There are parts of the event, and the days that followed, that I can’t completely verbalize; and there are things – even that small sensation on planes that we could crash or explode – that weren’t there before. It’s true really – talking helps, revisiting it helps (my Mother is always fretting – and so does Jennifer – when I read or watch another 9/11 book or special, because it’s upsetting, but the alternative for me is acting as if everything’s just fine, and I can’t do that). But it’s also true that I’m not who I was before then, nor are many people I know from New York and those days. All you can do is go on.

  2. 2 Leigh
    March 20, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    I was really disturbed by the provocative photo that led the Times piece…seemed rather at odds with the content that followed.

  3. 3 Amy
    March 20, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    You captured the importance of managing trauma so eloquently here. I think the fact that you were 25 when this happened greatly deepened the affect it had on you. Something happened to all of us at 25 — a farewell to that easy breezy twenty something vibe — we had been in NY for long enough that the novelty and shine had started to dull. And then the disillusionment, followed by the reality of “real life”. 25 was a heavy year. The fact that you dealt with near death experience at such a pivotal age –when your literal and metaphorical back was broken — is a trauma that will likely never completely heal. But I believe that what does not kill us will make us stronger – and you have taught us all an immeasurable amount about rising above treacherous waters., even when it hurts like hell. xoxo

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