My Unwelcome Neighbor

 

I have a really annoying neighbor who moved in uninvited three years ago, and just won’t leave.  I’ll call him Mr. V-Stib.  He has a cousin who visits sometimes, and then it gets MUCH worse.  They really partay when they’re together.

The cousin is BPPV,  the most common vestibular problem.  I do exercises every day to mostly keep this guy at bay,  Whenever he comes to visit, which is about twice a year, really bad things happen.  Every movement of my head  results in violent nausea.  But–on the other hand, when he does show his ugly face, we can call my doctor and tell her that he’s here again, and get an order to go back to On With Life and get treated for he/it. Then  I just need 6 or 8 bi-weekly sessions of physical therapy to recoup the ground I lost.

That all sounds simple.  The reality is that, one morning I wake up, start to get out of bed, and immediately the world erupts into violence.  I might throw up, and I might not.  But I definitely feel like it.  Only my husband can take me to get treatment because I am in no shape to travel with anyone else and he has to get a day off.  At the risk of TMI, I always have to take a vomit bowl in the car.  Just saying’.

So usually I’m like this for several days while all these arrangements are going on, and we are getting all the delights of insurance worked out.

The “treatment” involves me laying down, usually with a trash can by the end of the bed (just in case.)  Then they have me roll rapidly from side to side, and several times with my head hanging off the edge,  and  then they watch my eyes spin.  Somehow from all this they can tell which ear canal those darned calcium crystals have migrated to this time.  It’s definitely not fun.  But I’m very very very grateful they can do such an impossible thing.

That episode earlier this summer turned out, despite days of pain-in-the-neckness, to be a blessing in disguise because it resulted in me getting a doctor’s order to go back for some much-needed physical therapy.  This really gave me a good start on my summer. And at the end of all this, I don’t have to deal with the effects of this one every day.  And that is sweet.

My permanent neighbor  is bilateral hypo function.  This one is pretty rare.  They say I have some permanent loss here, but not severe.  This one is low-grade constant all the time, but occasionally I go through periods of weeks where it is much, much, more severe. This  one is so complicated–I guess those of you that are THAT interested can look it up–but among its many personal delights for me are what I call my “personal earthquakes,”, which I think is pretty explanatory.  Or how I constantly feel like I’m walking through a funhouse, and when my hypo function is really acting up everything is in huge motion.  That’s fun. I read one description of it that described it as “always on a balance beam.”  That’s probably the best thing I’ve heard yet.

Another exciting extra I got  with my purchase of hypofuction:  frequently, I feel an invisible  push when I’m walking.  Given that my balance is pretty precarious at the best of times, this feels just plain mean.  So  I’m away from home, feeling sunny and confident, and trying to stride briskly out in public with my hiking stick, and suddenly I feel a hard shove that causes me to stumble.  And the shover just won’t stop.  He–somehow it is always a “he”  (sorry guys, but I guess I picture him as a big bully).

This is not at all funny, no matter how hard I try.  When I  suddenly am afraid it could happen at any time, it’s really hard to be so darn confident.  To not hunch over.  To not frown. And to put my shoulders back.  To take big steps.  To not suddenly become a sniveling heap of whining humanity.

But yesterday I had a revelation.  Earlier this summer, when I had my other reoccurrence, my therapist asked me to step up on a foam pad.  I couldn’t, even with her holding on.   I felt too dizzy still.  Then she went and got a weighted vest, put it on me very snugly, and held on to me lightly  and asked me to do it again.It was much easier that time.  I did it several times, and asked her what the heck was going on?

She explained.  My v-stib occurrence had been so harsh this time  that I had been having mini panic attacks, imagining that they had come back.  My imagined symptoms were maybe worse than my real ones were now.   My paralyzing fear was stopping me from doing things much more profoundly than the v-stibs themselves ever would be able to.

That was another life-changer that my illness has to teach me.  There just seems no end to the lessons that this pile of crap has for me.

So, if God won’t release me from me from Mr. Stupid V-Stib, if he’s here for the duration of my life–as it seems he is–I’m apparently going to have to make peace with him.  He won’t move, and I can’t move.  I’ve tried fighting him, and I’ve lost.  He’s still here.  So I’m going to have to make peace with him.  This is my fifth day of thinking of him as a fairly unpleasant neighbor.  People have them.  We don’t live in a neighborhood, but we hear stories.  And we’ve worked with some unpleasant people before, so it’s not like we’re beginners at this sort of thing.   Apparently God thinks I have something I need to learn from Mr. V-Stib.

I had been trying to avoid doing anything  that would bring on the symptom. The repercussions in my head and my stomach were so unpleasant.  But for the last few day days, I’ve been trying not so much to purposefully “lean into it,”, but to just behave normally.  To get on with my life.   And I’m finding, that it’s really not that bad, when you take the fear out of the equation.  Whatever I’m doing, whether it’s washing the dishes, walking to the refrigerator, or putting something away, if I feel something different, I just pause, think about it, and go on with what I was doing.  And already I find that I’m getting a little more used to it, I think.  As my favorite neurologist said, “the brain is a wonderful thing.  There seems no end to what it can get used to, adapt to, or how much it can improve from an injury.”  There seems to be a little of all three of those finally going on here.

OK, those words sound good.  They sound brave.  Here goes.  I almost convinced myself. Plus that last couple of days, he’s been bothering me much less than when I started this post.  That definitely helps my attitude about all this.

But not his cousin, Mr. BPPV.  Anytime he shows up, I’m definitely showing HIM the door!

 

 

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Diving Into a Different Pool of Meta

As I look back over all the essays I’ve written, both before and after the accident, slowly but surely I begin to see vague glimpses to my all-consuming question, “God, what on earth am I good for now?”  I mean, every time I try to talk about this to my family, my friends, my counselor, or basically anyone else they just quickly jump in and say “You’re LOTS of good!  Look at all the things you can do!”  Or there’s the tack of “It’s not what you DO that matters, it’s how you make people FEEL.”  Well, all too often, despite my best intentions, I make the people around me feel like total crap.  How do I justify that?”

I decided this spring that if I couldn’t do much stuff, at least I could make the people that come to me feel good.  Most of the time that works.  Much of the time.  And then……..I suddenly get into a terrible terrible terrible funk and just want to tear everything and everyone down for no reason.  And now I am verbal and clever enough again to get it done with extreme efficiency.

I am NOT a passive person.  I’ve made great strides at waiting,  not pushing, in these past 3 years.  Oh yes.    I’ll freely admit that I was pretty sucky at waiting before.  But I really need, for my family’s sake and myself, to find something productive and creative to do with my time.

I keep trying different things and striking out out at all of them so far except for one:  telling my story.  And wow, do I have a tale to tell now! I suppose it’s just like a good fairy tale, or an adventure story, where something interesting has to happen to the hero/heroine.  Some great cataclysm.  Maybe that’s why He allowed me to live, so that I could testify.  Writing is something I have always loved.  In college I was so freaky passionate about my writing and English classes that I ended up with a minor in English.

But that’s in the past, and a little bit of remembering goes a long way.  No, the very sticky bit is to not get “stuck.”  Stuck in only being able to see things through one lens, from one angle.  That’s why cars have a huge windshield but also are equipped with small side and rear view mirrors.  You’re supposed to spend most of your time looking where you’re going, but sometimes glance back where you’ve been and see what’s coming up from behind.  I just made that up, so possibly it’s the stupidest thing ever.

It’s just how I have to live now, though.  I can’t go back to how  I was.  That boat has sailed.  I have to imagine a new way of being now.

If piano or singing or teaching or choral conducting are not possible right at this time, writing seems to be something that I can do, and from my home.  Goodness knows that I have enough peace and quiet and time to get it done now!  There’s the niggling problem of no income, but I just need to finish my book right now and who knows?

My oldest daughter and my husband bought me this computer which was identical to the one I used to have at school, so I could understand how to use it.  Things weren’t going at all smoothly with our home laptop….so I was really grateful for this computer!  Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks, but very possibly not a brain-damaged dog.  At least not for a good long while.

All my family spent so much time with me, in evenings when they were already tired, editing my feeble beginnings, because I simply couldn’t see much of anything.  I would misspell, use run-on sentences which  I probably never would have before, and I just couldn’t see punctuation  marks at all.  It’s much better now but still a problem.  If you read my blog from the beginning, you’ll see that my entries are getting longer and more complex, although my family kept me from publicly humiliating myself.  They edited out most of the  big glaring mistakes. They are all great writers and I owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.

At first I had to learn the basics of typing and computer keyboarding again, and try to remember how the darned thing even worked. I told my speech therapist that I was working on a book, and I was struggling with typing.  She showed me a wonderful voice recognition software program that we could buy very cheaply, and it all seemed great!  Luckily my husband had me try out the free one that came with my computer first….I sat down to start in great excitement.  I hadn’t reckoned with my newfound autism.  I could not manage somehow to get my thoughts out of my brain and into my mouth in any sort of a fluent fashion.  The minute I would start sitting in front of the microphone I would just freeze up.    So I realized there was no other solution to getting it done than relearning how to type.

This is so unbelievably meta—writing a blog post about me learning to write again, and how this may be my new path towards life.  It’s just like some of my staff developments in the past, where we went “meta” into what learning really is.  But I secretly used to sort of dig that stuff, even though I would always have to make the obligatory “this is such a drag!” groans so the other music staff wouldn’t think I was too much of a geek. Feels really good to be thinking that deeply into things again.  I don’t consider myself “creative” in the sense of coming up with original ideas:  my head has just never been filled with plots, ideas, characters, or situations.  But IDEAS!  Come to me with the germ of an idea, and I can, as my husband has often regretted, build it in a matter of hours into a full-blown skyscraper of a concept, which may or may not ever happen.

I know you’re already poking holes in this idea.  “But whatever happened to your supposed need to bounce ideas off other people?  Aren’t you forgetting about that?”  No, I am not.  That is a problem.  A kind of huge one, right now.  But I can always change:  people can.  And as the song goes, “there will be an answer….let it be.” Come on, let’s all sing it.  I can hear you out there humming right now.  Louder.  Take a bigger breath….you’re dealing with a choir teacher here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neck Brace and A Miracle

My neck was came darned near being broken in the car wreck.  I have always struggled with neck pain:  back in high school, I was trying to show off how extremely cutesy and agile I was, and I tried to do a back flip in our gym without a pad.  I had never done one successfully before, even with a pad.  The resulting damage left me in a soft brace for six months, which my mother tried to dress up by covering with attractive fabrics to coordinate with my, of course,deeply  trendy outfits.  Embarrassing epic fail.

 

Anyway, because of that old high school stupidity I have had degenerative arthritis in my neck for years.  Then when I began playing piano for hours at a time a few years ago,  it began hurting terribly, so my doctor ordered a course of physical therapy.  During the PT,  we found out that I needed bifocals, of all things,  I was holding my head at such a weird angle trying to read the music and look at the students, back and forth, that that was triggering this latest episode.

 

So I didn’t start with the greatest neck history.

 

The impact of a heavy truck, hitting my little car, when he drove through what should have been a stop sign at over 70 miles per hour and hit the side of my car, was….very harmful.  Let’s just say he made a very, very bad decision.  But back to my neck.  Never strong at the best of times, it was slammed back over my headrest so that most of my brain damage was to the back of my brain. My neck condition, was for months, critical.  There was virtually no chance that, if I ever got the brace off, I could avoid an extremely invasive neck “fusion” surgery.  I only vaguely understand this, but as I do comprehend it I would have lost a couple of inches of my neck, and much of the functions the neck performs beyond simply holding up your head and being a conduit for food.  Turning your head, looking around, looking up and down…not so much, apparently.

 

And one of my vestibular problems, BPPV, was so drastic that I was simply throwing up anytime they would change my position.  Move me. Try to sit me up.  Turn me over.  Roll me over.  Instant spew.  Again, thank God for the coma because I don’t remember any of this, but my family and the nurses certainly do.  To all of you, I’m so sorry.

 

Then right when I began awakening from the coma, I was moved to On With Life.  Enter Amy, the vestibular specialist.  She watched my eyes, saw me doing all this spewing business and ventured a preliminary diagnosis of BPPV.  But she couldn’t be sure, and she couldn’t treat it.  The diagnosis AND the treatment both required some pretty fast movements involving my neck, which were clearly impossible with the neck brace on.

 

The neck brace came off just before I was released from On With Life in early January.  Until that time, I had been taking motion sickness pills to dampen my vestibular symptoms and make them less noticeable.  The week it came off, I was scheduled for a diagnosis and first treatment.  They put these cool huge goggles on me, brought a trash can over, you know, just in case.  Then you do a whole complicated series of movements, rolls, sitting up, laying down, and all the time people are watching your eyes on a screen to see the fine movements that the nystagmus causes.  I asked Amy one time what exactly they were watching for, and she asked “Do you remember Cookie Monster’s eyes when he would see a cookie?”  “Well, it’s a lot like that.”  Interesting.

 

At first without the neck brace there was a LOT of neck pain.  Because of all the trauma to my neck, and because it had been immobilized for months, my neck was simply unable to support my head.  Its ligaments were basically noodles.    By evening it would be aching really, really badly.  I slept in my old neck brace for months.

 

All the time I had been in the brace, I had had to sleep flat on my back.  My normal sleeping position was on my stomach.  After the brace came off, I couldn’t lift my head high enough to get it on a normal pillow.  We found the coolest travel pillow, very bendy, with the center cut out of it.  I slept on that, flat on my back, for another year.  Now I sleep on a low pillow on my side, but I still spend at least half the night on my back.

People were praying for my neck to heal:  Thousands of people, through my Caring Bridge, were praying,  and for this surgery to not be necessary.

Three months after the accident, I went for my first set of neck X-rays.  It was guardedly optimistic.  Much better than expected, certainly, but far too soon to tell if the weight of my skull would still drive my head down into my neck, making the surgery necessary.  Come back on the one year anniversary.

 

We came back at one year.  More X-Rays.  The doctor came into the room.  Very, very good.  Almost less than one millimeter of my head settling down into my neck during the first year, which was the danger point before my ligaments were strong yet.  Still too early to be absolutely sure, but if the two year anniversary was just as good, he said I would never need to come back again and NOT NEED THE SURGERY.

 

Two year appointment.  No fear at all in my heart. In the  last appointment I had asked him for neck strengthening isometric exercises he could show me, and I had been doing them regularly with no pain.  I was turning my head so much farther, looking around me so much more normally.  I felt total peace whatever he said.  I knew God had it.

 

After I had the X-rays taken downstairs, we went up and waited a little for him to read them.  Finally he called me back into his off.  He started out, as my husband said he always did, with a history lesson.  I could wait.  I knew it was going to be all right.  Then he got to the point.  He said “There’s virtually no more settling of your head into your neck.”  “You never have to come back and see me.”  And then he kept looking at them, and looking at me.  “It’s odd.  The only explanation for why you avoided injuring your neck more, and didn’t need the surgery, was your coma.  If it had been even a week shorter, I think we would be looking at a very different set of circumstances with your neck.”

 

Sometimes God says “Yes.”   Sometimes He says “No.”  Sometimes He says “Wait.”

 

My husband says that he still wishes when all those panicked prayers were going up to Him….because every single day and hour that you don’t wake up increases the likelihood THAT YOU NEVER WILL!  He’s the Creator of the Universe.  Would just a text message have been too much?  Just an “I got this one” or something?  And I gotta say, that’s a question we’ll ask when we get there.  But not right away.  We’ll be too busy thanking and praising Him for stuff.   Amen.

The Chair

The Chair From The Depths Of Hades.

 

It is called the Rotational Chair Test.  Here is the online definition:

The chair test measures dizziness while the subject is being turned slowly in a motorized chair 

                        and….  

The rotary chair test is used to help determine if your symptoms are due to a disorder of your inner ear or a disorder of the brain. Eye movements are recorded with small electrodes similar to those used during the ENG test. Not all individuals need a rotary chair test to assist with diagnosis and many health care facilities do not have access to a computerized rotary chair. The rotary chair test allows measurement of responses to movements of the head that are closer to speeds encountered in daily activities. During this test, the patient sits in a computerized chair that moves. The rotary chair test is very useful in determining if an individual has a problem with both sides of the vestibular system (bilateral vestibular loss.

I feel my  overwrought hysteria about this test perhaps needs a bit more explanation.  Allow me…

First:  Pre-accident my vision was so  exceedingly poor that I was totally dependent on my glasses.  Almost any physical punishment was preferable to my glasses being broken.  I couldn’t even find my glasses without them on my face.I was very near the “legally blind” parameters.  Because of the goggles they have you wear for the test, you can’t wear glasses.  I am lost without my glasses. Totally vulnerable and afraid to move.  Childishly near tears immediately.    My husband had to help me to step up into the “dark room”, which was a very menacing chair placed on a platform (I know my husband will say it was “just a chair” but I’m sticking with my story) inside a totally closed capsule.  God help anyone with the slightest hint of claustrophobia, because there were no warnings of that at anytime before the testing.

I now see double without my glasses because of the brain trauma.  Did I mention that the test was SANS GLASSES?  Oh yeah, I think I did.

Second:  The accident left me with PTSD.  I was on anti-anxiety drugs, anti-depression medication, sleeping medications.  For this test to be successful, they had stipulated that I was to be drug free for 48 hours before the test.  So, basically, I hadn’t slept AT ALL for 2 nights except for brief naps from total exhaustion.  And just wait until you hear what comes next.

Third:  The test was scheduled for Tuesday.  That Saturday morning, our much- beloved family dog, a yellow labrador retriever named Remo, who was over 12 years old, finally was unable to get up off his fleece in the kitchen.  My husband and our son carried him into the yard and helped him stand so he could go to the bathroom, and then carried him back up on our deck and laid him on a blanket.  The entire rest of the weekend he kept slipping in and out of consciousness.  It was unspeakably difficult to watch.  Monday morning my husband called the vet and they made an appointment for a couple of hours later.  Remo had been our family dog with all that entails. The laughter, faithfulness, joy, stories, parties, camping trips, kayaking, singing along with my voice lessons The morning he was being put to sleep was the first morning I was scheduled to be off of all my medications.  We had waited months for this appointment, my husband had scheduled the entire day off already.  We needed some answers.  We were going.  Come hell or high water, and this was pretty darned close.

Back to the capsule.  I hear the woman’s voice coming through a speaker somewhere in the darkness. I try to concentrate on the directions, but I am so extremely afraid I am having real trouble keeping it together.  I am determined not to break down after we’ve come through all this.  I’m finally here!  I finally am just praying one word with tears running down my face.  Please.  Please.  Please.

Fourth:  Immediately after the accident I lost all concept of right or left.  The first part of the test was showing a tiny red laser light on the wall, which of course I couldn’t see at all, and I was supposed to tell if it was moving right or left.  The woman was given NO IDEA at all of what my medical history had been, she was just to administer the test.  My husband was out there trying to explain, and I was inside having a total meltdown.  Finally he opened the capsule, put my anxiety stone in my right hand, closed my fist over it, and had me repeat after him “right.  Right.  Rock right.”  Finally I had it.  He closed the door again.  Back to the dreadful, terrible, awful, stifling darkness.

And somehow we held it together.  I wasn’t alone in that dreadful place.  Someone was there with me.  Jesus was with me in my childish fear and isolation.

We had been waiting in this particular doctor’s office for several hours.  First one waiting room, then an interview with an assistant, then another waiting room, and so on and so on.  Now it was hours later, both of us were starving and I was scared out of my wits and my husband was worried to death for me, and the doctor had just rushed into the r00m, asked if we had had this particular test yet.  When we replied “No,” he had sent us down to this lab.  The sheet from the morning had said “don’t eat the morning of the test.”  Luckily I had eaten a granola bar because now it was after 2:00 with no end in sight.

 

There were several tests.  The chair kept stopping, turning, the voice kept issuing directions that I would desperately try to follow.  My husband said it was maybe 30 minutes.  It seemed to me like an eternity of pain and chaos.  Tears kept streaming down my cheeks.  The lady kept asking if I needed to stop, and sometimes I would for a bit.  Sometimes my husband would open the door for a while and reach in and hold my hand for a while.  They were both so unbelievably kind and gentle.  The lady was simply appalled that they had sent me down without giving her any warning at all about my situation.  I was just so grateful for the knowledge that both of them were keeping watch out there.

By the end I was just a broken, sobbing wreck.  Praying for Jesus to please hold me.  Which He clearly was.  The lady’s sweet voice would ask me a question, I would breathe and ask Jesus to help me, and He would whisper peace to me.  We got through it.

Then back to the doctor’s office to await the results of the test.  Which was definitely the worst thing ever.  Ever.  Ever.  We had been sustaining ourselves throughout this entire ordeal with the hope of finally getting some answers if only I could just hold on and make it through the test.  And finally I had DONE IT!!!!  Triumph!!!

Back to that  last blasted office.  He rushed in again followed by an assistant or two,  And delivered this verdict.  That he wasn’t sure why On With Life had recommended he see me.  That he could only find a small amount of residual vestibule damage.  What he had found (not him, of course.  One of his assistants.) was significant cerebellum damage which accounted for my balance issues. He seemed surprised that none of my doctors had figured out that the cerebellum damage was responsible for my balance problems.  He seemed to think that, because he could find very little evidence of vestibular damage now, that must never have been my problem.

When I inquired about exercises for the remaining vestibular problems, and the cerebellum damage, he stated that he wasn’t aware of any.  When I asked again, trying to pursue possible places that did physical therapy, or exercises for balance that I could do at home, he just shrugged and would not, or did not, comment.  The unspoken message in the room was that I would never get better than I was.  It obviously wasn’t his issue.  He was in the business of diagnosing problems, not solutions. “Hope” was not his MO.  We’ve run into several doctors like him, and I have come to despise this philosophy.  Medical doctors by no means are required to be experts in rehabilitation but they DO NEED TO BELIEVE IT IS POSSIBLE and be willing to point their patients in those directions  We’ve run into these situations over and over and over again. You would think when they  see and hear my story, they would change their tune, but apparently not.  Apparently not.

That trip was a major setback.  I was sick from the test itself, sick from losing our loved pet, sick from being off my meds for so long, severely depressed.  I lay on the couch for days.  Finally our daughter, who was back in New York, got so worried that she called the vestibular specialist at On With Life.  Amy called me back.

She announced what we had heard from that doctor, about my vestibular problems being almost nonexistent now, was great news.  I said “How is it great news?!”  She said, “It means that our initial treatment worked really well, and also that you have been doing a great job at home with your therapy!  This is really great intel!  Now we know that your problem must be combination of anxiety and cerebellum damage, and there are definitely exercises we can do for that!”  The way she said ‘WE” suddenly filled me with hope.  Along with the “get on with it” tone in her voice.  I sat up on the couch, and asked what the first step was.  She explained, and my doctor certified me for another 3 months of out patient therapy at On With Life.  We got me back seeing  a therapist weekly  for my anxiety.   I had mourned, and rested, long enough.  Time to get back work.

Back on track.  Back moving forward.  Back getting On With Life.  They have a magical way of seeing a diagnosis not as a stopping place, but as just ruling something out, so that you can start exploring other possibilities. When the doctor told us he found very little sign of any vestibular damage, Amy knew how severe mine had been.  I had been throwing up constantly every time they moved my head, until Amy had diagnosed it.  I HAD been doing my exercises multiple times a day!  Amy heard success where I had only heard echoing disappointment.

I understand this test is the gold standard of vestibular tests.  We’re definitely fortunate to have a facility in our state that has this test available.  I don’t mean to frighten people away at all.  I know that my circumstances were, hopefully, very, very unique.  I’m just being brutally honest about my perception of this test and its echoing repercussions.  People have this test all the time.  I’m sure the sweet lady was as traumatized as I was.  They should have given her at least some warning.  There’s a an extremely large chasm between me and someone who is experiencing bouts of puzzling dizziness, which was everyone else we seemed to be seeing in the waiting rooms.  The majority of them had driven themselves, or at least were walking by themselves.

Thank goodness the doctor decided not to do the water test, whatever THAT was.  Apparently my results weren’t bad enough for that….we’ve often debated what that would be. I sometimes wonder if it is in anyway connected with how they used to test for witches.  I am just am certain I don’t want to find out, so please don’t tell me if you do know.

 

 

 

Emotionless

I have always felt strangely drawn to children and people with autism.   Somehow I just enjoyed being around them, talking to them.    Through the years,  I read everything  I could get my hands on about this peculiar and often devastating condition.  In 1991, I taught my first special education music class, and I was hooked  Almost every year I seemed to have at least one or more special ed students in choir.   At my last school for seven years I had singers in all my  choirs from our school’s special ed class. It was thrilling  to see how each of them grew as people and musicians during their years in choir, and how the mainstream students would respond to them.

Don’t get me wrong:  I was by no means an expert.  I was simply very interested and really wanted to  help them grow as singers and people.   This led me to  try different strategies with my students, with varying degrees of success.  There was no  guaranteed fix, because they were, and still are, all very, very unique human beings.

I  quickly figured out, largely by trial and error, that emotional subtlety  just didn’t seem to work with students  on the autism spectrum.  That certainly suited  me:   my natural method of communication many people would criticize as “too direct.”  I maintain that being “direct” always is more efficient and more effective than passive aggressive. Maybe my constant smiling is not only a reflection of my positivity, it is also a way of issuing a preemptive apology. Of apologizing in advance for anything upsetting that I might say in the very near future…

As the years passed, working with these students and incorporating them into the life of the choir  became more and more rewarding for absolutely everyone involved.  Especially me.  It wasn’t anything extraordinary, it was just how the world should be.

And then, as all the stories in this blog say…a truck hit me.  I awoke to a world of total fear.  Faces didn’t make any sense, voices and words didn’t mean anything, I couldn’t sort out any kind of sensory input.  Total confusion.

Over the days and weeks that followed, I began to find patterns.     Little by little, I began to recognize my family members again, then to recognize my therapists.  I began to relearn words, and then language.  I learned to swallow and eat again.

After I came home  I continued to have  problems  interpreting people’s facial expressions, especially  those I hadn’t known well before the accident.  I had difficulty “getting” jokes, reading social cues, and just handling everyday social interactions.  I relied on my husband to tell me if someone was being funny, was angry at me, or just what  the heck was going on.

In retrospect I suspect that my brain was doing the best it could with incomplete and confusing input.  Interacting with  people I had known well before, my brain was already familiar with how they would react to certain  situations, so it could fill in the blanks much more successfully. In totally new “after accident”  scenarios, my broken brain had no baseline of data to operate from.  The information coming in often was skewed and incomplete or I was simply misinterpreting some things.  This sometimes led to very, very painful misunderstandings of something that I had said, or done.   These situations rarely came up with people I had known before.  Something must be different now.

Almost 3 years after the accident, there is still a lot of that left.  I make stupid mistakes occasionally now that I would never have made before.  I was pretty emotionally sensitive before, but I misread situations often.

Another thing:  when I first came home, because of my overwhelming all-the-time fear, I was faking every “normal” emotion at a desperate pace.  I didn’t want to let down my family, who I felt had already been through so much all because of me.  I faked happy, nostalgic, hungry, expectant, cheerful, excited.  All I was feeling, underneath my drugged-up calm, was the constant low-grade buzz of anxiety.  Sometimes breaking out into fits of  outright panic  and tears.

Until that summer we went to Shell Lake.  Out on the kayak, I looked around me, and realized I was happy.  Truly happy.  I hadn’t felt anything but fear for so long.  I didn’t recognize it at first….it lasted for quite a while.  That is still a truly beautiful memory.

I’m not autistic.  Autistic people are born that way.  I had an accident that involved brain damage, and because of my years working with autistic students, I am thankfully able to recognize many of these traits in myself.  I regularly check several wonderful autism blogs and websites, and am able to recognize symptoms in myself such as  perseveration which I now wrestle with quite a bit.  These sites fortunately lead me to lots of positive, proactive solutions for my newfound struggles.  I don’t think I would have been able to so quickly recognize these problems in myself, and known where to go to find solutions, if not for the years of struggles that these kids and their parents went through.  Because of that pain, so many of them chose to reach out to help others with autism.  And, I guess, me.

I am really confused how to feel about this. I guess, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how I feel.  It just is the way it is.  I just have to accept what is and start looking for ways to move forward from here. Those are brave words to say, but sometimes difficult words to act upon.

 

Scars

 

I don’t know where to begin here.  So…feet up?  I prefer ending with the face.

Every time I take off my shoes, my attention is drawn to the fact that my right ankle and foot are slightly larger and more purple than the left.  This is the side that the truck hit, and my injuries were most severe here.   There’s still a lot of pain and tenderness in my right foot, ankle, shin, and knee.   For a long time after I came home, this area was always extra cold. But, unfortunately, it also misinterpreted “heat” as “cold”, leading to some very near mishaps with bad burn situations.  Close vigilance in the way of actually reaching down and touching my supposed “freezing” foot, only to find out it was burning hot, prevented some pretty bad situations.This is a little better now, but still continues to be a problem.  I’m sure the reason I don’t notice it so much anymore is a combination of  gradual improvement, I’ve gotten used to it, and I’ve found adaptations.  Seems you can basically pretty much get used to anything, unless it’s constant disabling pain.  Thank goodness I don’t have that anymore!

More about my temperature:  a common result of brain injury is the body’s inability to control its own internal temperature.  During the fall/winter/spring, or simply anytime I’m indoors, away from the sun and in air conditioning, I’m cold.  Freezing cold.  Sometimes it gets so bad that my body starts shaking uncontrollably and can’t stop.  This is embarrassing for me, and bewildering for strangers.  Fortunately it only happens infrequently, but still…

To counteract this I wear gloves simply all of the time, even indoors.  Except in the heat of summer, I carry a blanket around to throw over my legs while I’m sitting.  I always wear two pair of pants, and often three shirts. Big change for a girl who always called herself hotblooded and used to wear sandals in the depth of winter.

Next comes the scar from the feeding tube.  This is what left me with my “second belly button.”  The feeding tube completely saved my life the seven weeks I was in a coma.  I had the feeding tube in until long after I learned to swallow again.  The doctors had to determine me to be getting enough nutrition from food to not need it anymore.  Getting it out was not fun.  Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

My entire midsection is a network of  scars.  I use lots of lotion to keep them soft, but even so  some of them are raised and hard.  Whenever I am tempted to call them ugly, my husband sweetly corrects me and tells me they are the most beautiful things in the world to him. Because of those scars, I am alive.  I  go along with him,  but  I secretly still think they are ugly.

Sometimes they itch madly. Occasionally, for no reason,  my neck flushes bright red–a side effect of one of my medication.  When this happens, the tracheostomy scar in the front of my neck seems to positively glow white in contrast to the crimson of my neck.  I can feel the heat rising up from my neck, and it quickly transfers to my embarrassed cheeks.  Is there a word for  infinite embarrassment?  That would possibly be me at these times.  But such a trivial thing!

Sometimes I manage (after getting dressed in the morning) to forget about most of my scars for hours.  Then I change my clothes, or take a bath,and am startled to see they are still there.  My short term memory loss continually gives me the gift of forgetting–and rediscovering–over and over again.

For a few weeks, when I first came home, I flirted with the idea of trying to hide  my tracheostomy scar with a scarf.  After all, it’s not very pretty.  Aren’t women supposed to be all about trying to look attractive, hide our  flaws?  Aren’t we taught to dress to minimize our imperfections, not flaunt them?

And then I started thinking about that scar, what it said about me, my life, my experience, what I had been through.  Of all my scars from the wreck, it was by far the most visible.  By trying to hide it with a scarf, wasn’t I saying “No, no, it wasn’t ME that was in that accident!  You must have heard wrong!  That was someone else entirely!”  Wasn’t that sort of pretending that the most significant experience of my entire life was somehow shameful, incidental, something to be quickly forgotten and covered up and brushed aside?

I decided otherwise.  It was hard for me.  I’m pretty vain.   I don’t ever try to purposefully flaunt that scar because I still find it very unattractive, but it is a key part of me and what I’ve come through.  Just like my silver hair, and my lined face.  I came by this silver hair and these lines honestly, and I wouldn’t trade a single day.  So what was I saying about the scar by trying to hide that? After all, I survived what my scars represent.  By not hiding them, especially the visible ones, I hope I’m sending the message to people who see them that they can survive too. Because, unfortunately, bad things are coming to us all.  We have to stick together, scars and all.

 

 

Grandma Harriet

My sister-in-law’s family owns a campground in Wisconsin that we’ve been returning to frequently for nearly 18 years now. The entire surrounding area owns a huge chunk of real estate in our hearts, because of so many shared memories and funny stories.

Grandma Harriet lived in a modest house right on the shores of the lake, and we always had full permission to walk down from the campground and use the beachfront that came along with the house.    I only knew “Grandma Harriet” as a tall, lively, red-haired, former music teacher, who had been married three times (the first two husbands had died) and who would sometimes bring her accordion up to the campground and lead the sing-a-longs they used to have there on weekends.  We always got a kick out of how incredibly spunky she was…she used to get up and dance along with the song, and her current husband (who obviously adored her) was, as far we saw, almost totally silent when they were in public and just sat watching her smiling.  And then one year we heard that her husband had died, and not long afterward Grandma Harriet went too.  The family kept the house and often one of the adult children were living there, so we just kept using the beach and telling stories of Grandma Harriet to our kids.

 

And then came my accident.  At age 52,  I was naturally struggling with depression and feeling that my life was over.  I had recently come to grips with the realization that I would most likely never teach high school chorus again, or play piano at all well or so easily again.  I had most of my identity and self worth wrapped up in that.  I was determined not to be whiney or negative.  I wanted to be someone people wanted to be around, but it was just so HARD!  I kept praying about it and reading only positive things and trying to think only positive thoughts, but I was starting to lose the battle.

And then we were invited to visit the lake and stay in the house for a week with our daughter and her husband. We hadn’t dreamed of having a vacation with our financial circumstances, and with my problems, but this seemed perfect!  We quickly said “yes” and agreed on a week.

 

It was the most magical week ever.  Ever.  The bedroom we slept in had a giant picture window that opened right on the lake, and we went to sleep every night to the sound of loons, and woke up every morning to sunshine sparkling on the lake.  It must have rained sometime, but it didn’t seem like it ever mattered.  And then there were Grandma Harriet’s scrapbooks.

 

Beside the fireplace in the living room were built-in shelves holding a number of photo albums and scrapbooks.  One lazy afternoon, early in the week of our vacation, we were lying around in the living room talking about what might be in those old books.  My husband started pulling them out and looking through them.  Quite a few of them had been compiled by Harriet, and told the story of her life.  In a paraphrase of her words, ” by the time your children and grandchildren become old enough to be interested in your life, you’re not around to tell them stories.”  These books were her way of leaving a story behind so that by the time her descendants were interested enough to want to know more, the whole story would be here for them.

Turns out she was quite a girl with quite a story.  The last line in every one of the books, save one, was “This has been the best year of my life!”

 

When she and her first husband had been married over 30 years and had 2 adult children, he was fixing a gravel truck right in front of their house when it fell on him and crushed him.  She saw the whole thing happen.  That was the only year she left that line out of the book.  She wrote that she took to her bed several weeks with grief, and then one morning she heard her son and daughter in the kitchen discussing who would drive her down to Florida (she and her husband had spent winters in Florida for years).   She lay there thinking “I’m not a baby!  I can drive myself!”  and hopped out of bed and ran into the kitchen and explained that to her children.  They eventually agreed to let her try it, and so started a whole new chapter in her life.  We started seeing many more references to a group down in Florida named the “Sojourners” that was made up of snowbirds, who would have weekly meetings, socials, dinners, eat at restaurants, card games, and in every newspaper clipping and picture about the group there would be Harriet smiling somewhere.  Husband #2 she had met through this group.  He had been a widower, whose wife had been dead several years.  That marriage was a happy one and lasted quite a few years before his death.  More years went by, and then she reconnected with Clark.  He and his wife had been friends of Harriet’s and her husband years before, and the two men had hunted together.  They had lost touch through the years, but reconnected through the Sojourners Group and fell in love.  This was the husband we saw, the quiet man that just sat watching her, quietly adoring. And again, after several years, he died first.  They were all good marriages.  Because her first marriage had been so fortunate, she wasn’t at all afraid to run wholeheartedly toward the next opportunity with no hesitation, no worries about “this time it might not…”.  And so it always worked out.  Who could resist being loved by such a woman?

Harriet had a daughter with polio, she had seen her husband of over 35 years die in front of her eyes:  she had had the courage to remarry, and that had been a strong marriage, but he had died too.  She had still had the heart to risk another time and that had been another win, but he too had predeceased her:  yet at the end of her book she wrote these words which I’ll never forget:  “Life has treated me kindly.”  What a gift to another woman who feared that her life was over.  Harriet started over and over and over, and at the end wrote those words.  I’m certain that it was a God-thing that placed us in Harriet’s house with those scrapbooks and led us to them.

Our last morning, I woke up very early and walked out in the dim early light of morning.  “Harriet?”  I whispered.  “Are you here? If you are, I want to thank you so much.  I think you saved my life.”  But there was no answer, no sense of her presence.  Not that I expected there to be.  Harriet had moved on to better things.  She wasn’t the type to stick around when things were over.