When life changes in an instant, what do we do?
It started, as the best stories do, with a spider.
Not just any spider, mind you: It was a black orb weaver spider, like Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, and she was deep into building a gorgeous web. In the cool fall morning, it collected dew that stayed close to it, like tiny mirrors reflecting my face and the fiery maple leaves just above it. (I assume she had eight legs, unlike the one above!)
She had built the web between a large branch of the maple tree and the top of the driver’s-side door of the car. I stood for a minute thinking, How can I open the door without destroying this beautiful web? I realized there was no way that would happen. I shifted to: How can I do this without her landing on my head? I’m no arachnophobe, but I didn’t want her hitchhiking on my head to the school where I taught.
I decided to open the door gently, maybe jerk it around a little, to coax her to make her way up the web toward the tree branch. Then, when she did, I would quickly get in the car. Seemed like a solid plan. I opened the door slowly, she worked her way up the web, and I jumped for the driver’s seat.
Here’s what I didn’t take into account: My heavy messenger bag, slung across my body and against my back hip, hit me and propelled me into the side of the car. Instead of getting into the car, my head hit metal and hit it hard. Ever seen those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote sees little stars or birds flying around his head after a direct hit? I’ve lived it.
After making sure none of the neighbors saw this act of humiliation (I’m sure you can relate), I got in the car and drove myself to work. Through the pain, feeling like my head was about to split open, I WENT TO STARBUCKS. True story. There's nothing a little coffee can’t fix, right?
With my head ringing, I got to the school and put my stuff down in my classroom. A fellow teacher and I struck up a conversation in the hallway.
A couple of minutes into the conversation, I became aware that darkness was creeping across my field of vision from the right side, where I had hit my head, and that I wasn’t doing a great job of standing up straight anymore.
My memories of the rest of the day are fuzzy.
My husband took me to urgent care. By the time we got there, I couldn’t remember numbers at all. I couldn’t remember my SSN or my ZIP code, and I had lost all fine-motor coordination. I turned in the world’s messiest intake form and said, with tears in my eyes, “I’m sorry it’s so messy. I can’t remember any of this stuff. I think I have a concussion.” The nurse looked into my eyes and hustled me back.
I must have looked like Bill the Cat. Remember him? Any other ‘80s kids out there?
I was diagnosed with a concussion — no surprise there. The doctor sent me home and told me to take it easy, and I did.
But what they didn’t tell is that for months, I would have trouble focusing. My short-term memory would be toast. I would be prone to emotional dysregulation. This accident resulted in a torn ligament in my jaw that took years to heal. All of these things frustrated and confounded and conspired to depress me. Within a year, I experienced a major depressive episode. I’m not sure whether it was directly connected with the concussion. As I deconstruct that period, however, I can’t overlook the fact that my unexpectedly slow recovery might have contributed to it.
Once I got on antidepressants, life got better and I could see clearly again. I could breathe and begin to work my way out of what felt like a pit. It didn’t even take long.
I didn’t wake up that September morning thinking that the next few years of my life would be altered by a freak accident that happened before 7:30 a.m. But life is like that sometimes. And when it happens, we are faced with a choice. Do we live in a pit of despair forever, or do we try to find our way out of it?
In my case, my choices were to find my way out or die. Quite literally, that was the choice. I’m so glad I chose to find my way out of the pit. I’m so glad antidepressants exist.
I’ve learned three things, and I hope these help you.
Be gentle with yourself. When times are hard, and you know you’re not at your best, go easy. It’s OK.
Choose the direction that goes toward light and growth. Take a breath and make the choice. You’ll be glad you did.
When you jump into the car to avoid a spider, put your heavy bag down!
You CAN do anything.