Friday, September 19, 2008

Flight of my Life

In High School I wrote for the newspaper, played the violin, competed athletically, planned dances, served as a class officer, interned with a law firm, and belonged to a whole host of other extra-curricula activities. It was not unusual to show up for school at 7am and return home around midnight trying to jam-pack everything into a single day. College was no different as I continued to overextend myself, often foregoing sleep to take on another activity, help with another event, and take on a new responsibility. Post-academia this work ethic fit perfectly in the consulting environment, a career path synonymous with long hours and tons of travel. After all those years of burning the proverbial candle at both ends I now strive for a better life/work balance, encouraging others to find their equilibrium. Some people never learn to find harmonious balance between work, volunteering, school, church, family, and friends; others find that balance all too late. My life was on the unhealthy trajectory of a workaholic, but all that changed in an instant five years ago.

September 19, 2003 was the first real crisp day of fall, when even the most rugged and stubborn person trades short sleeves for a sweatshirt. The day followed the rhythm of my normal Friday as a consultant, the start of a fresh new weekend at my home rather then the hotel I called home Monday through Thursday. Recalling the morning is easy since the routine was well established; wake up, go to the gym, shower up, eat a bowl of cereal, log onto the computer, finish up work from the week, join a conference call or two, eat lunch, work a bit more, end the day. There was even one non-routine event in that morning, a doctor’s appointment, which is easy to remember due to the power of the palm pilot. After finishing up work I headed to a friend’s house so we could spend some time relaxing at a local spa, a beautiful way to end the workweek.

Routine and dreams of relaxation ended with a crash that day, literally, as I got into a fender bender on my way across town. No big deal besides the stupidity one feels with the realization that they were the cause of the fender bender. I remember pulling the car over, I remember getting out of the car, I remember making eye contact with the woman whose car I hit, then there is a small gap in my memory because the next thing I remember is flying through the air.

The human brain is amazing in both its ability to block out horrible memories and to respond quickly in times of need. The details of being smacked by a car are quite fuzzy, but I do remember thinking to myself “oh my God I’ve been hit by a car and I’m flying through the air and I need to protect my head or I’ll crack my skull.” The hang-time my body had over the pavement was certainly shorter then the amount of time it took to think that sentence, yet that split second thinking resulted in a reflex to tuck my body and cover my head with my arms. My left side slammed into the street, my neck whipped to the side, throwing my head against my arm and my arm (and not my head!) against the hard pavement. I went into a roll, cocooning my head into my chest and arms, the physics of friction eventually stopping my body, instincts kicking as I crawled to the sidewalk’s safety. Hunched over on the sidewalk, surrounded by people expecting to find a body, I sat stunned, unable to hear voices and sirens but acutely aware of the sound of my heartbeat pulsing in my ears and a faint birdsong in the distance; alive.

Leaping from the ground I could tell I was hurt but adrenaline surged through my veins, masking the extent of my injuries. My focus; making sure the woman I was in the initial fender bender was okay. Imagine her horror with a front and center seat to witnessing a pedestrian car accident. After confirming she was okay, more shaken witnessing my acrobatic flight through the air then the fender bender, I realized that I should probably get to a hospital; my shoulder and foot hurt terribly and witnesses were convinced I must have suffered internal injury.

The hospital receptionist, nurse, ER doctor, intern, orthopedic, heck event the janitor, looked at me like I escaped death and reminded me how lucky I was. It took a few hours for everything to compute. The car hit my leg, leaving a football sized bump but no break. Road rash was minimal, jeans and a long sleeve shirt donned to protect me from the sudden fall weather responsible for protecting my body from harm. Shoulder separated, not broken. Foot cleanly broken in 3 spots and required nothing more then a walking cast and physical therapy. It took a few days to realize the worst injury was not to my body, but to my mind.

The accident left me emotionally drained, frazzled, and depressed. Each time I closed my eyes visions would turn violent, my body the target for cars, buses, trucks, and trains. I know other people on the unfortunate end of a vehicle/pedestrian accident who did not fair well, sustaining massive injuries, paralysis, even death. Acutely aware of my “luck,” I shunned most help and sympathy, feeling guilty at my feelings of sadness. I survived, what did I have to be upset about? I broke down with my doctor, hysterically crying and unable to articulate the fear and emotions associated with surviving a “near miss;” anti-depressants were offered as a solution. Medications are an important part of the treatment plans for those suffering from the ravages of depression but the prescription offer made me see how easy it is to receive these powerful drugs for the wrong reason. I was not depressed, I was weepy and treating weepiness as depression would be terrible for my long-term health. Besides risking the side-effects of any medication, numbing the mental anguish of my accident would just delay my dealing with it. Life has highs and life has lows, and dealing with the emotion needed to happen sometime and I decided to face it right away, no drugs; one of the better decisions I ever made.

Rather then canceling a scheduled vacation to Las Vegas a few weeks after the accident, we took the vacation and decided to helicopter into the Grand Canyon. Rather then hide behind an unflattering dress at my class reunion, attempting to hide the broken foot weight gain, I wore a plunging neckline and hobbled the night away. Rather then count the days until I could move back to my friends out east I began making friends in my new hometown. Rather then travel every week to a job I hated, a manager I despised, and a lonely bed in a hotel room, I quit and found local work. We booked a 3 week dream trip in Europe. We got a dog. We bought a bigger house. We got another dog. We went to Australia. We used all our vacation days. I committed to seizing days, opportunities, moments, and life.
Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you're alive, it isn't.
- Richard Bach
I don’t know if I believe in God, or destiny, or being here for a reason, all things people with different beliefs threw at me as reasons for my extra time on earth. What I do know is I am still here and had my “a-ha” wake-up moment to take my life back from work, from committing all my time to things that matter little in the long run, and to make the most of my trips around the sun. I see things much differently now, life through a crisper lens. I am better able to decipher what is important and what is crap. Not only did I stop sweating the small stuff, I spit in the face of the small stuff. Life took on a whole new meaning and my vision of the world around me became so much clearer. I can see through phonies, somehow looking into their soul and reading their insecurities. I can see people’s emotions. I can see who cares and who doesn’t. I can see what’s important in the world, what’s important to me, and take care of those things.

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
- Elwyn BrooksWhite
The hardest thing to work though is seizing the day while still living a life of responsibility, striking a balance between work and play rather then swinging completely to all play because “life is short.” The accident didn’t take my life; it gave me a deeper sense of what was important to me. Life is only short if you spend it unwisely. It was more important to spend every night in the arms of my husband then moving up the consulting ladder. It was more important to share my life with a dog then to earn frequent flyer miles. It was important for me to see the world, foster deep friendships with people who I loved and who loved me back, have a career that engaged my mind and improved the lives of others, read, write, eat, laugh, and to make the most of this body life gave me. I realized that I was in control of my own happiness, the captain of my own destiny.

The most painful part of having my eyes opened to my unhealthy life is witnessing others making unwise decisions about their time. Nothing I say or do will ever change the way people think and live. Everyone has to have their own “a-ha” moment and decide how that moment will change them. The accident did not take my life, it was a moment of time that brought clarity and understanding to my life, and I am fortunate this lesson happened while I am still young enough to make the most of it. There are still times when I have nightmares, get scared on busy roads, or commit too much time to unimportant matters, but all it takes to get back to balance is recalling the day I finally realized that life might be short, but every second is precious.


LucyinStLou said...

What excellent advice! I am so happy that you were able to survive that horrific accident and go on to improve your life as a result.

Katie O'Leary Preston said...

I'm so glad I noticed the link to this post on my Facebook homepage. Your story is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing it, and thank goodness you survived that dreadful day.

Ronald said...

I'm pretty sure you've told me this story before, but it's still shocking to read about your accident. It truly does take a "near-miss" event like this to kick-start one's appreciation for life sometimes. When I suffered the partial paralysis of my left leg following back surgery many years ago, I realized I had been taking mobility for granted. It was only after that setback that I tried learning how to rollerblade, snowboard, etc... The irony is that my physical limitations result in some less-than-successful attempts at such activities (as you've witnessed during our ATP rollerblading outings, haha) but I figure it shouldn't stop me from trying! :)

Explosive Bombchelle said...

Ronald, you continuing to try new things and push your body to take on new athletic challenges (like rollerblading on a really awful parking lot at ATP) is what is truly inspiring. I was at Abbott when I had the accident and it was one of the driving factors to leave CSC (well that and a pretty awful Project Manager).