One of my earlier childhood memories features a game of freeze tag in the courtyard of our local pizza parlor. My brother was chasing after me, hands inches away from a tag. I was rapidly approaching the small rock ledge that separated the courtyard from the sidewalk, but there was no time to turn. I would not become "it". In the background I heard my mom cry out, "Sarah! Slow down!" But there was no time to waste; I went for the jump. Unfortunately my little body couldn't carry me far enough, and I came crashing down on the sharp rocks, slicing open my forehead and elbow.
Fast forward to high school. In this scene, we see a 15-year-old Sarah sitting at a table working on her homework. I realized I needed something from my room, but rather than calmly stand and walk upstairs, I jumped up and raced toward my room. My dad called from his office, "Slow down, Sarah!" But his warning fell on closed ears. Inevitably I tripped and went flying into the staircase , cutting my knee so deep I could see straight to the bone.
Let's fast forward once more. The month? September. Year? 2016.
Once again, I was moving faster than I could keep up with. I had just started dating my best friend of six years and after two wonderful, but very brief, weeks of exploring that relationship, I was off.
I spent a few weeks solo traveling across Iceland seeing natural wonders I never could have dreamed of, then I was moving into a brand new flat in Edinburgh, Scotland. While trying to move in and make new friends in a city full of strangers, I was also working two jobs and starting Grad school. My classes were full of students with psychology and philosophy and neuroscience backgrounds (which would make sense, since we were in an interdisciplinary program that combined those three fields). Meanwhile, I had a liberal arts background. I loved what I was learning and did great on paper, but behind the scenes I was struggling as I was trying not only to take in all the new information, but I was also desperately trying to fill in the gaps of everything I didn't know that my peers did.
On top of the schoolwork, my freelance job had me working into all hours of the night and my yoga teaching had me waking up at 6 am to walk across town and teach three classes in a row. Plus I was trying to make friends, have a social life, stay in shape, maintain a long distance relationship, cope with the death of a loved one, keep my mental illness in check, and explore Scotland.
In other words, I was slowly killing myself.
About a month after moving in, I decided to hang a tapestry on my ceiling. No big deal, right? Well sure... if you've eaten that day, didn't teach nine yoga classes in 100+ degree rooms that week, and didn't go rock climbing the night before. However, I had not eaten, had taught nine yoga classes that week, and did go rock climbing the day before. Still, I climbed the 8-foot ladder and contorted my body every which way in an attempt to hang my tapestry.
All was going well.
I was on the last corner. It was the hardest one and I was pressing into the wall, one foot almost off the ladder, trying to get the angle just right.
It was at this point that I fell. I don't know if fell is the right word. Flew might be more accurate. I crashed to the floor and the ladder came after.
The ladder landed on my left rib cage, evoking a surge of pain and a loud groan.
My roommate came to check on my and what she found was blood, bruising, and something that looked like a war zone. However, I survived. I not only survived, I healed. The cut became a faint white scar, the bruise disappeared, and the pain went too. Well... at least temporarily. A few months later I turned my head too quickly and my left (same side) neck muscle spasm-ed so violently I could not move my neck for four days.
But that healed too, so I was fine. Right? Right?!
That's what I kept telling myself. That's what I told myself when working out in the morning led to a full day of excruciating pain on the left side of my body. That's what I told myself when a full day of pain became two days of pain. Or three days.
You are fine.
It's what I said when I only got three hours of sleep a night. It's what I said when I didn't shower for days at a time or didn't eat unless my roommate forced me too. It's what I said when I couldn't get out of bed and felt angry and sad all the time. You are fine. I just kept saying it, no matter what my body said to the contrary.
Until May. One day I was sitting at a coffee shop, sipping tea and working on my dissertation, when the sensation of drunkenness overtook me. I felt loopy and confused. The room was spinning and everything around me appeared blurry. I did a quick mental check:
Had I eaten? Yes.
Was I dehydrated? No.
Exhausted? Well... I slept the night before. So... No?
I went through every cause I could think of, but nothing could explain it. The feeling passed and I packed up and went home. A few hours later I was sitting in my bedroom, also working (which is pretty much all I did those days), when out of nowhere I felt an sharp, piercing pain in my left side body. The pain was followed by nausea, dizziness, chills, and very nearly fainting. I shuffled toward the living room in a confused stupor and nearly collapsed on the couch. I looked at my roommate and I finally admitted the truth,
"I am not fine."
We called the emergency number and they told us to come in immediately, but the doctor had little to say. His exact words were, "huh. That's strange". He then handed me some anti-nausea pills and sent me on my way.
Later that week I visited my General Practitioner and he poked around where the pain was (the base of the left side of my rib cage), but he couldn't quite figure it out either. He suggested an ultrasound, but didn't seem convinced.
By July I had seen three doctors, been to the ER a second time, had an inconclusive ultra sound, and was waiting for a call from my doctor to tell me when he could see me again. At this point I was in constant pain. I could hardly walk for 20 minutes without getting the chills and feeling faint. The slightest show of physical activity caused sharp, shooting pains in my side. I was frequently hit with bouts of mental disorientation, dizziness, and nausea. With no word from the doctor, my mind was going crazy, obsessing over tumors, blood disease, organ failure, and any other WebMD diagnosis I could fine.
My boyfriend (who was visiting at the time) and my best friend watched me like a hawk and were (understandably) worried about me. They convinced me to call my parents and give them an accurate description of my symptoms and pain levels.
I did, And then, on July 17th, 2017, I packed up all my bags and moved home.
That's right; I finally slowed down.
I came back to California and saw my family doctor, who referred me to a nerve specialist, who immediately diagnosed me with nerve damage. I was telling my flat mates about the diagnosis when one of them suggested, "Could it have been the ladder?"
It made sense. The nerve damage was in the same location as where the ladder had hit me and the pain had been steadily worsening over the past year (since about when the ladder fell on me). But in reality, I think the ladder is only the first item on a long list of factors. Instead of resting and recovering after the original injury, I kept going at 200%, forcing myself to be some kind of super woman I couldn't keep up with. And eventually, it caught up with me, literally knocking me out of commission and sending me to the hospital.
By August 14th I was in the operating room, undergoing a simple surgery in which my doctor cut three of my left intercostal nerves near the base of my rib cage. After cutting the nerves and burying the live ends in my abdominal muscles, he stitched me up and sent me home to heal.
The recovery process forced immobility upon me. It's not something I am used to. I'm practically always in motion. But the surgery forced me to slow down and finally give myself a chance to heal. And to be honest, I wasn't just healing from the surgery. I was healing from years of pushing myself further and further, ignoring the cries of my body to take it easy, and trying to be something bigger than one person can realistically be.
Since surgery, I've slowed down.
I pressed pause on my school work. I am no longer teaching yoga. I work one job, and it is a job I love and can do from home. I am seeing my boyfriend more regularly (now that we are in the same country) and spending lots of time with my family. The ups and downs of the past year have been exhausting, but they helped me realize how much healing I still need to do. So I've slowed down and finally made some space for me to heal.
I don't know what adventure comes next.
I don't know when I'll return to working on my dissertation. I don't know where my new job will take me. I don't know what city I will move to next or when I will move there. I don't know what country I will visit next or when I will take that trip.
Idon't know what adventure comes next or when it's coming.
What I do know is that my body and I have had some serious time to build communication lines between us and I am going to do a lot better job of listening when it speaks to me from now on.
I also know that sometimes, just sometimes, slowing down is exactly the adventure I need.