How an accident made me more compassionate and aware of my lack of self-care.
Most therapists have had to go through their own healing process. I am no exception. My process was a long one, and I am both grateful and mindful that my work is best done knowing that our problems are our path. The care I am now able to give to myself only multiplies that which I can offer to others. My path started with a horse and a strong gut instinct.
One gorgeous July day, I was enjoying a peaceful horseback ride through the Aspen trees. This inner voice was saying, “I could be walking through the trees and still having a good time. Why am I on a horse!?” But this outing was for the younger set in my family. We wanted to give them the chance to experience horseback riding like we had growing up in Colorado. But this nagging sense that I wasn’t having a good time persisted. Into the second hour of this too-long trip, I realized I wasn’t comfortable on my rented horse. It was ill-behaved with a tendency to trot when others were ahead. The wrangler had gotten me set up on the horse in a hurry, and in an effort to please the group and move things along, I had said that everything felt OK even though the saddle and stirrups didn’t fit well.
Cresting a hill, the wrangler signaled to the group that those who wanted to gallop could go for it. That’s all it took. My horse took off in a full-speed gallop to catch up to the others. For 5-10 terrifying seconds, I watched myself lose control. I slipped out of the stirrups, bounced off to the side and hit the saddle hard. Thud! Off the back I fell, snapping my head back in the process.
A minute later, I sat up, shocked but conscious on the ground in a pile of dust and brush. The others came racing up asking , “Are you OK? Oh, geez!!! Are you ok?!!!” I breathed out, “Yeah, I’m OK,” but inside I felt a terrible panic. Heart racing, I was frightened that I fell hard on my back and hit my head on the ground. Grateful that I hadn’t lost consciousness, and embarrassed like most accident victims, I wanted to be anywhere else.
After sitting for a few minutes, brushing myself off and reassuring everyone that I was ok, I got back on the horse and rode back to the ranch. I felt a surreal sense of growing inner fear and chaos. I was shaky, weak and certain that I would never go riding again.
At dinner that night, I got hit with my very first migraine. My head felt like it was going to explode. When my brother suggested that I get back on the horse someday, I snapped and left the table to go sob in the bedroom. My husband, knowing I was struggling, followed. That same night, I found myself in a new world of migraines, overwhelming fear and disabling pain. That should have been the turning point for me to practice self-care – to slow down, get the rest I needed and find a way to heal my poor concussed head. Instead, it was the start of a long and terrible (but wonderful) journey to my own healing path.
Mistakes were made in the days immediately following my fall. The first? When I found myself at the bright and noisy grocery store the following day. I went to pick up items for that night’s large family dinner. Like any newly concussed patient will tell you, being in that environment after getting a brain injury is a terrible idea. The lights, beeping and cacophony of visual stimulation pierced my swollen, achy organ. I ended up in bed that afternoon and wasn’t heard from again until the next morning. My sister took me to urgent care, and while we both knew the injury was a concussion, the doctor said that – other needing an MRI – I should simply rest and avoid sports activity. Not understanding the importance of rest then, as I do now, I continued to operate as usual. Until I paid the price.
Two months later, I was once again on the ground. I’d passed out after taking a previously prescribed narcotic on an empty stomach. I was lying on the doorstep into our house and probably hit my head yet again. This time, I was scared out of my wits.
It took this second fall, and my experience with sudden migraine pain that would come on after working too much, to finally resolve to heal myself. I realized that despite this veneer of optimism and can-do work ethic, I would be at the whim of sudden intense migraines unless I changed. I had been a meditator, but after listening to Jon Kabat Zinn’s MBSR tapes (given to me by a friend), I became a disciplined practitioner of meditation for recovery from pain and injury. I dedicated myself to the practice of yoga, mindfulness and meditation.
I found expert medical care and kept going back, talking with them whenever I needed to. I was aware that I might be seen as a “problem patient” but was determined to keep looking until something worked. I had to make a dedicated effort every week, sometimes every day, to put my health first and let go of the things that were not serving me. I gradually discovered out how to not push myself. I learned how to listen to what my mind was telling me and how to step back and stop being so reactive.
During this time, life went on and my family and I dealt with common life challenges. But I was determined to be kind, compassionate, careful and awake. I decided that I had to go back to my family history of trauma. I thought I had fully explored that, but found that I didn’t yet truly understand it. I hadn’t truly taken care of my inner child who had been so hurt and abandoned.
Finally, 4 years later, I healed. I no longer have to take medication for my headaches. I no longer wake up to pain or end the day in bed with the drapes drawn wondering whether I’ll be able to function the next day.
I am a more compassionate, peaceful and quiet person. I have worked out the anger and frustrations that I used to take out on others. I can more easily let go of my need to be right and have things as I want – rather than as they are.
My long and ego-busting journey was not easy or pretty. But that clonk on the head, that loss of health and vitality, was my moment of groundlessness (as Pema Chodron talks about), and it has come full circle.