Shaken and Stirred

I had 69 metal staples after surgery
Taking off from James Bond’s iconic instructions for every martini he orders (“Shaken… not stirred”) I have had quite the adventure with the whole sequence of my bicycle accident, later loss of function on my left side, emergency cranial surgery to remove a large blood clot, and the subsequent recovery, a midlife crisis manifest, and a “reboot” of sort. As I learned time after time from my dad, life at its best is an adventure, not always fun, not always happy, but a compelling narrative worth living and sharing with others. I have been both “shaken” and “stirred”.

My most recent adventure started on a warm Friday morning the week before Thanksgiving when I was lazily and happily riding my bicycle to Barclay’s (my wi-fi coffee place where I like to do most of my writing) down a small street a half mile from my house, feeling just fine thank you. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the curb, my bicycle helmet split in two, and paramedics were asking me if I knew what my name was as they strapped me to a board and took me to the Northridge Hospital emergency room. I had no memory of the intervening time (and still have none today, five months later).

The CAT scan, MRI, and other tests I had in the hospital that weekend, plus subsequent EEG, halter monitor, et al, were all negative, finding nothing to explain my accident or to find any reason that I was not okay. I had no bruises on my body from the crash, which seemed strange, but just some scrapes on my cheek and wrist on the right side. It seemed like my head (thankfully covered by an old bicycle helmet) took the brunt of my fall. To this day I don’t know if I somehow passed out and then crashed or hit (or was hit by) something and the concussion led to subsequent amnesia. (Someone recently shared a story that their brother had a bicycle crash when they were eighteen and though remembering the crash, subsequently lost all memory of most of their sixteenth and seventeenth years.)

Unfazed by the crash and the amnesia, feeling proud (perhaps too proud) of my resilience, I returned to work the Monday after Thanksgiving prepared to continue with business as usual. As usual lasted until about mid January when I started having fine motor coordination problems on my left (dominant) side, including dragging my left foot a bit and particularly having trouble writing or typing (the last two crucial to my work as a business analyst). Finally my partner Sally convinced me on February 1 to go back to my doctor who gave me another CAT scan. That scan revealed a large three centimeter subdural hematoma (blood clot) inside the right side of my skull (above the ear) pushing my brain down and to the left. They immediately put me in a wheel chair and the doctor herself wheeled me off to the emergency room to be prepared for immediate surgery.

That definitely got my attention (as we say for understatement, though “freaked me out” might be more accurate) though I was strangely confident that I would be okay (I’ve more than once been accused of being an optimist or even a Pollyanna).

My soon-to-cut-my-skull-open neurosurgeon said that I probably had developed a slow brain bleed (not visible on the original CAT scan or MRI) that accumulated over a month or so after my accident. He added to my anxiety and the gravity of the whole thing by having essentially his own anxiety attack around the fact that I had continued to take the baby aspirin (prescribed by my internist) after my crash. He said I had put my life in serious jeopardy by doing so, and that some of his colleagues would not even operate on me under these circumstances for fear I would bleed out when they cut my head open. But he felt that if we waited a week for the aspirin to leave the system I could well die or have serious brain damage from the burgeoning clot. (Thanks for that vote of confidence!)

So they infused me with platelets and I went under the knife, the clot was removed, my head stapled back together, and I somehow did not bleed out. After surgery, I spent five very difficult days in the ICU (I hate the ICU) wrestling with generalized anxiety more than any physical issues, before they finally let me go home and complete the suggested remaining three months of my convalescence.

I have many blessings to count since the surgery… all the assets one could hope for to make a complete recovery. I had a skilled (though anxiety-ridden) surgeon. My partner Sally was a pillar of strength for me and rose to every difficult occasion in every possible way. I had our kids, Sally’s parents and extended family, and beyond that my entire UU congregation visiting me or sending thoughts, prayers, cards, emails and phone calls to wish me well. My boss was very supportive and understanding and accepted my long convalescence and assured me that my job would be waiting for me when I came back. And finally, I had a resilient and forgiving brain that managed to (apparently so far) recover completely (knock on wood) from the trauma.

Watching two kids grow up with their various traumas and illnesses, and my partner Sally (and several other family members and friends) surviving breast cancer, I have come to see illness and other such calamities as profoundly developmental. Maybe it’s just the hubris of struggling for a sense of control, but I believe they can help the person and their impacted circle of family and friends get beyond perhaps a “stuck place” in their individual or collective evolution.

FYI… not everyone agrees with me or is comfortable with this view, concerned it can lead to blaming the victim for bringing the calamity on themselves, which certainly is not my intention. As John Lennon sings in his song “Watching the Wheels” (which I am hearing as I write this) “There are no problems just solutions”. I think I embrace my theory because it is useful in finding inspiration and crafting a path forward after such tumultuous events.

So wrestling with a high level of stress unleashed by my calamity (even though my resilient body quickly recovered), my partner Sally shared the best of the holistic healing wisdom she has acquired, helping me see the whole thing metaphorically, and helping me build a path forward to recovery that would not just medicate or paper-over the deeper issues.

I was 54 years old and had been wrestling with a “midlife crisis” of sorts since I had turned 50. My kids were becoming young adults, so my parent role was much diminished, but many stresses from their upbringing still lingered. There were unresolved stresses as well from accompanying my mom through dementia and the last seven years of her life. Also rekindlings of my own fears and issues I have carried out of my childhood.

Plunging into writing my blog “Lefty Parent” two years ago was an important step towards addressing this situation, to reframe “over the hill” as now no longer having to walk uphill and thus being able to use gravity (or gravitas) to my advantage. I needed to share what felt to me like wisdom I had acquired in the first half of my life, as I set forth into the adventure of the second half.

Somehow, that had not been quite enough, and I was still “medicating” a half-lifetime of un-cleared stresses and strains. So using various techniques suggested by Sally, particularly meditation and “meridian tapping” (aka “EFT”, “Emotional Freedom Technique”), I faced as many of these demons as possible and “cleared” them as best I could. This included a long standing claustrophobia, particularly around having my hands tied behind my back (how’s that for a metaphor!)

I have wrestled with increasingly high blood pressure since age fifty, and better numbers in that area over the past couple months of convalescence are a clear indication to me that I was releasing long-held stuff. In the process, my “life’s work” (beyond parenting) has gotten much more clear to me. Certainly the volume of my writing since my surgery reflects this release as well.

So unlike James Bond, who is never really fazed by anything that is thrown at him, I have been both “shaken” and “stirred” by my recent experience. Stirred to the point of striving to fully understand why it all happened (even though my accident amnesia still persists). Stirred to use the opportunity of an existential crisis and long period of convalescence to try and take that developmental step forward that all this may well be about.

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