New Beginnings

Today marks the 15th Anniversary of my accident. Normally I try not to focus on this day and let it pass without thinking about it too much, but this year is different.  I want to stop and reflect on the things I have had to overcome, the people who have been there for me and honestly and truly how lucky I am.  It feels like the end of a cycle of change and transition and the start of a new exciting chapter in my life.

I dedicate this blog post to my family and to love. In my darkest hours the strength of my family and the love and bond we share pulled me through.  They gave me the strength to dig deep and carry on. And today I am a survivor because of it. When I think about this day 15 years ago the thoughts that come to my mind first are my sister being at the hospital before I got there, my Mother holding my hand 24 hours a day and my Father travelling tirelessly to be by my bedside and driving miles around to satisfy whatever food craving I had on any given day.   I think about the friends, some of whom are still in my life and some of whom I have lost along the way.  Everyone had their part to play in making me the person I am today.  Everything that happened set off a chain reaction for every milestone I crossed personally and professionally and at times I tortured myself with the why,  but I knew someday the reasons would present themselves.   And if one of those things happened in a different way I might not be where I am – ready to take on whatever comes my way.

People often ask me what I feel when I look back and the truth is I wouldn’t change the way my life has turned out.  My accident made me who I am and taught me so much about how I want to live my life.  It taught me about people, about disappointment but also about joy and happiness.  It gave me a new appreciation for the smallest kindness and the humanity that exists in everyone.  The people who touched my life and helped me get through probably don’t even realise the impact their presence in my life had on me, even if it was fleeting.  And that doesn’t include my medical team who put me back together, my physio who helped me walk again and my psychiatrist who helped me harness the power of my mind.

My advice to anyone reading this is that life will be tough, it will be disappointing and it will hurt.  But take each of those negative moments or experiences and harness that energy to propel you forward and not hold you back.  Look at every challenge as a way of pushing yourself to achieve something that seemed impossible, even if that is just getting out of bed in the morning. Some days for me showering was an achievement of epic proportions. But I took the win and focused on the progress I was making. That’s what life is about.  Focus on the wins.  You might feel they are few and far between, but they are there.  Everyday.  Don’t take anything for granted, life is there for the taking, and snatching it from the jaws of defeat might be your greatest achievement yet.

4. Stamps of Survival

My scars are not the first thing people notice about me.  Apart from the ones on my knee most of the others are on parts of my body that are normally covered. But my scars not only tell the story of my physical and mental battles, but they are the evidence of my survival.

Throughout the time I was in hospital I never looked at my injuries. I knew seeing the extent of the damage to my body would haunt me forever and as I said in my previous post this was probably the single most important thing that aided my mental healing.

Whether you have scars or not looking at yourself in the mirror and feeling deformed or unhappy with the way you look can have a devastating effect on your mental health.  And often it’s a lonely feeling. People don’t understand what you see when you look at yourself.  They try to be supportive – “you look amazing” or “I didn’t even notice you had scars” but it doesn’t make a difference. You see something completely different staring back in the mirror.

A big part of my recovery was learning to see my scars as marks of survival. That I had lived to tell the tale of everything that had happened to me and that these physical scars were a testament to that. When I look at them now it gives me strength and self-belief that I can achieve anything. That my mind and body are stronger than I ever gave them credit for and that my weakness was not recognising that sooner.

During my therapy sessions my doctor let me sit in on some group sessions with young girls suffering from eating disorders. They had similar issues with the way their body looked and some bearing the physical scars of self-harm. What amazed me was how similar we all perceived ourselves no matter what our story was or how we got there.  Ultimately, we looked in the mirror and saw someone whose physical appearance we loathed. No one person’s pain or perception of themselves was above another as the traumatic impact on the mind was ever present.

Mental or physical scars might heal but they will always be there. It took me a long time to look at my scars as a sign of my survival instead of a deformity. But as a young woman of only 20 it was a long road to this place. I had fears that if I was ever intimate with someone they would take one look at me and run in the other direction. I sympathise with young people who face so much pressure to look a certain way by magazines and the fashion industry. I understand what it is to look in the mirror and feel disappointment, sadness and see a body that you wish wasn’t yours.  Those reasons may be different – but ultimately the energy and strength required to overcome these thought processes is still immense.  My scars are still the same now as they were 10 years ago but it’s my minds reaction to seeing them that has changed.

If you are reading this and look in the mirror and feel ashamed at what you see remember that you are not alone. So many of us, for different reasons struggle with body image and the daily struggle with accepting who we are and the way we look. I get it.  And nothing anyone told me could change how I perceived myself. But the thing that changed my perspective was not external, it was internal. It was allowing myself to accept the imperfections not as a negative but as positive sign that whatever life threw at me I am still here.  With the scars to prove it.

3. Positive Steps

I had a different blog post planned for this week. But when I learnt about the reemergence of an old friend’s health struggles, it prompted me to think about resilience and perseverance.  I think the hardest moments in any recovery, be it from mental health issues, physical injuries or a disease like cancer is when you think you have turned a corner or that you are over the worst and something comes to push you right back in your chair.  It’s that feeling that no matter how hard you work and how positive you are, you just can’t catch a break.  I had many moments like this, where I thought I was making great progress only to face a major setback.  Or even as recently as 2015 when I thought I was over all the surgery I may ever need for the foreseeable future and then found out I needed surgery for something completely unrelated to my accident.  I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing her say the word surgery and having a melt down.

Through all of this however, I really only had one overwhelming feeling: survival.  Survival is not an instinct it’s a choice.  You decide in that moment am I going to be defeated or am I going to come out on top. You focus on how to take each day at a time, draw strength from wherever you need to and fight.  These moments may come at any point in your life.  Bereavement, injury, heartache, work – whatever it might be – the minds’ power to overcome every obstacle is astounding.  Dig deep, believe in yourself and keep moving forward.  Positivity is not innate, it’s a skill.  It’s not a given, it’s another choice.  When people hear my story the most common thing they comment on is my positivity.  And I tell them – the hardest times were when I gave into the darkness and let the negative thoughts take over.  But when I focused on the positives, on what I had survived instead of what had been taken away, that’s when I made the most progress.  Focusing on what you have achieved and the positive elements in your life, as hard as it might seem, has an incredible impact on the mind’s ability to cope.

One such time was when I had to learn to walk again for the first time.  I subsequently had to go through this process twice over but the first was by far the hardest.   It was about two months after the accident and I had been bed bound the entire time.  I learnt that after 48 hours of not moving, muscles completely waste.  So, my legs were literally skin and bones. Not to mention my blood pressure was incredibly low having been lying down for so long. My physiotherapist came in, with a big grin on her face.  Today is the day she said – you are going to get out of bed! I was so excited.  I had visions of getting up and hobbling around, getting some fresh air and finally feeling a bit more human. I thought I might get some independence back and slowly start to be able to do things for myself, instead of being reliant on my family and nurses for everything.

But as I sat on the side of the bed, mustering every ounce of energy to stand up and make my triumphant first step, I felt dizzy. I was weak, I started to doubt myself, I couldn’t do it.  And as I tried to stand it was all too much and I collapsed back in my bed.

The next few days I remember so vividly for their darkness.  I was inconsolable.  If I couldn’t even stand, how would I ever walk again?  I didn’t want to see anyone and nobody knew how to help me.  My parents and sister, beside themselves with worry called in the cavalry: my Grandmothers.  These women are the most incredible human beings on the planet. My Father’s Mother insisted on visiting me despite being frail herself.  My Nani raised 10 children as a single woman, after losing her husband when the youngest was just 5.  They have seen so much in their lives and yet always had a smile on their face, sage advice and a comforting hug.  As they sat by my bedside trying to soothe me I asked them, why was this happening to me?  What had I done so wrong that I was being punished like this? My Nani turned to me and smiled.  You have it the wrong way around, she said.  “You were saved that day.  All that good karma saved your life.  Don’t waste that opportunity.  You have the strength to get through this.  If you set your mind to achieve something you can.”

Those words, so simple but yet so powerful started to lift my spirits. That was the turning point.  I saw everything in a different way.  Instead of torturing myself with the Why? I stopped to look at my saving graces.  Her face so earnest and pure, even after everything she had endured in her life made me want to fight.  This was mind over matter.  It was me that was holding me back, not my physical injuries.  If I wanted to walk again, I had to put one foot in front of the other and take a few steps.  I gave myself a pep talk.  Stop wallowing and pull yourself together.  Because the longer I languished in this bed the further and further I drifted from getting out of hospital, from putting my life back together and achieving all the things I wanted to in my life.  I was only 21, I had my whole life in front of me, so how I could look into my grandmother’s eyes for her to see I had given up.  I had to fight.  And within 5 days I was walking around the hospital, with my zimmer frame (tennis balls included!), seeing my familiar surroundings for the first time. If I can pin point a moment where my recovery turned a corner, literally and figuratively that was it.

2. Ignorance is Bliss

When I reached the hospital I think I was in shock and denial.  As it turned out the liquid I felt seeping from under me wasn’t blood.  I was also conscious.  So how bad could it be?  Apparently the first words out of my mouth to my sister were asking if my hair looked ok! Clearly I was fine, my normal self.  They then started doing X-rays and tests and more tests and before I knew it I had 10mg of morphine injected into my leg and the rest is all a blur.

I woke up on the hospital ward some hours later, with my parents and sister by my bedside.  The look of fear and concern on their faces was palpable.  What a horrible journey up to Cambridge from London they had had.

Rena had only managed to get hold of my Dad.  My Mother didn’t have a mobile phone in those days, so it was difficult to get hold of her if she wasn’t at work or at home.  She was working a few days a week for a charity at the time and thankfully she had gone into the office that day.  She was confused.  What had happened?  My Dad didn’t have time to explain he said, just that she should meet him at home immediately so they could drive up to Cambridge.  It wasn’t until they were in the car together that my Dad explained what he knew and that’s when my Mother’s world went dark.  What state would they find me in?  Would I even be alive?  She told me later that the not knowing made that car journey one of the most horrific moments of her life.  She couldn’t have known then, that it was going to get so much worse.

There was good news.  From the tests and X-rays there were no broken bones and no serious damage to my internal organs as far as they could tell.  However, what had happened is something they termed “degloving”.  It’s basically like a massive Chinese burn to the side of my body. The liquid I felt seeping out was internal and the body’s protective mechanism sending fluid to the area to protect it.  Apparently, it was like this enormous balloon was attached to me.  I couldn’t bring myself to see it.  I knew if I saw my wounds I would never be able to remove those images from my mind.  This turned out to be pretty insightful on my part as when I started my PTSD treatment many years later, not having seen those horrifying images of my injured body, would have a massive impact on the speed of my recovery mentally.

The next step was surgery to remove some of the liquid.  The doctors assured me and my family it wasn’t that complicated and I would be in surgery for a couple of hours maximum.  Ok so this seemed manageable.  In my head they would remove the liquid, sew me up and I would be recovered in time to still go to the US with my theatre group.  Brilliant!  As you can imagine I was way off the mark of how my recovery would eventually turn out.

The following hours were torture for my family.  As they sat waiting for news, two hours became five.  Five became seven.  Eventually after 8 hours of surgery I emerged from the operating theatre.  The news was not good.  When they opened up the side of my body they discovered that all the muscle fibers, fat, skin, tissues, everything between my skin and bones was dead.  So they had to remove it all.  This left a gaping hole in the side of my body.  My mother likened it to an animal bite, like some huge monster had taken a chunk out of the side of my body.  It was now an open wound.  They had to do more surgery over the coming days to try to close the area.  I needed skin grafts.  On top of all of this my knee, which I had dislocated at the scene, was also in bad shape.  All the ligaments had torn.  But that was secondary.  The risk of cross infection from my now open wound into my knee was too great so they had to put it in a brace and leave it.  There was clearly no sign I was leaving the hospital any time soon.

The next three weeks are a blur.  I had a further 9 surgeries on the side of my body.  I was on a morphine pump for the pain and I was in a state of delirium most of the time.  There are moments I remember but they are harrowing and disturbing.  Morphine does funny things to the brain.  I had horrible hallucinations and nightmares and for these 3 weeks my Mother stayed by bedside 24 hours a day.  If someone wasn’t holding my hand I would go into a panic.  My sister and Dad would give her a break to get a cup of tea, but I was terrified without her.  I had some of my darkest moments during this time but looking back, the inability to remember a lot of it was a blessing.  Because later, when I would start my physical and mental recovery fully aware of what was going on, that awareness of the darkness, trauma and despair almost destroyed me.  In these three weeks I was just trying to stay alive.

1. What Doesn’t Kill You

It has taken me 15 years to write this blog.  Aside from the fact that my story began in a time when social media hadn’t really taken off (or even existed!) I also wasn’t ready to put my life and experiences out there. Everyday still has its challenges, even though most people when they look at me would see a healthy, active woman, living life to the max.  But I came to the point where I realised that there are so many people out there who might be going something similar to me. Told to “get on with things”, feeling shame about what they are going through and end up hiding away and suffering in silence.  So I decided that if talking about my experiences helped just one person it was worth speaking out.

It was August 2003 when my life changed forever.  I learnt that a split second decision can change the course of everything.  For me, it was as simple as “should I ride my bicycle home or walk?”.  It doesn’t sound like an earth shattering decision right? My gut told me to walk but the lazy person inside me decided I would have to come back for my bike later so I decided to ride it.  Second lesson:  Trust your gut.  No matter how small the decision learning to trust that feeling is the important life lesson I have ever learnt.

I remember everything about what happened next.  From the impact, the passers-by who potentially saved my life, the first responders – everyone and everything.  I even remember what went through my mind as I realised what was happening to me.

I pulled up to the traffic light in my cycle lane.  The light was red.  A large lorry was to my right.  I noticed he didn’t have his signal on so was comfortable with the thought that he was going straight ahead like me.  As the light turned green, I pushed off to go straight ahead on the route home I had taken countless times before.  But suddenly the lorry started to turn.  I tried to speed up but he was already blocking my way.  I had nowhere to go.  Suddenly I was falling to the ground.  That’s when a million thoughts rushed through my head.  This is it.  I am going to die.  But then another thought came in my head.  Keep your head up.  Don’t let your head hit the ground.  And so as I fell I did just that.  And my head didn’t hit the ground.  The lorry was now on me.  I could feel the weight of it bearing down on me.  There were voices in the background.  The lorry driver got down to see what had happened.  Whoever was talking decided that he need to reverse off the right hand side of my body otherwise the weight of the lorry would crush me.  So he did.  As I felt the weight release I could feel liquid seeping out from underneath me.  I really thought I was bleeding out, dying there on the road.

I could hear a voice asking me if there was anyone they could call.  This amazing woman who had stopped her car to help put a blanket on me and tried to keep me calm. Miraculously I remembered the number of my friend Amy who I knew was close by and in no time she arrived on the scene.  There were people all around me now. Fire Brigade trying to cut my clothes free from under the wheel of the lorry (trust my luck all these gorgeous firemen around me and I am lying on the ground helplessly!), paramedics and a doctor.  The doctor was talking to me. My knee was dislocated and they couldn’t move me until they put it back in the joint.  I was inhaling some kind of gas painkiller which was making me feel sick so in the cold light of day I told him to do it.  I sincerely wish no one has to experience the pain I felt in that moment.

I think at this point I passed out from the pain because I don’t remember much until I arrived at the hospital and to my relief and surprise my sister was already there waiting for me.