GRAVITY: HOW BREAKING MY BACK CHANGED MY LIFE

It’s been ten years since the cataclysmic event that changed everything. They’ve flown by in a blink, much like the incident itself (for me, anyway; my mother holds a different opinion). To commemorate this anniversary, I’m reposting an edited version of my tale from an old MySpace post.

This was me circa 2002. The smile is a tad strained; the eyes with a hint of sadness, possibly boredom.

This was me circa 2002. The smile is a tad strained; the eyes with a hint of sadness, possibly boredom.

I had just started my junior year of college at Ball State. I was working 25+ hours a week at the local gas station. My boyfriend and I had just passed our two year anniversary (which he had said, “If we make it past two years, I’m going to ask you to marry me.”), and I was a bit freaked out. We were talking about moving to Muncie together, but something felt off. I was a bit feistier than I am now. It was easy (and “fun” some people said) to get a rise out of me. I really should have had red hair. I spent most of my time going to class, going to work, and doing homework. My boyfriend would drive up from IU Bloomington to see me on the weekends when we could manage it. Though many people didn’t know it, I was relatively unhappy… and if you had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on why.

A tiny picture of the old barn before it was torn down.

A tiny picture of the old barn before it was torn down. Clearly, I should have known better than to go in there.

I broke my back in late September 2003. When my mom started seeing my (now) step-dad, he had this really old barn. It should have been torn down years before they started seeing each other. The roof leaked, it was falling apart, had holes everywhere, etc. So they built a new one. Around the same time, someone dropped off a calico cat that had the bad habit of getting pregnant and not taking care of her babies. She had a litter in August ’03. She moved them to the old barn. I, being the insane cat lover that I am, wanted to make sure she was taking care of them and that they were safe.

It was a Sunday. I had gotten up around noon. I think my boyfriend (Chuck) had left either the night before or early in the morning. I woke up with some time to kill before work, so I thought I’d go check on those kittens. As I walked to the old barn, I waved to my mom, who was working in the new barn. I found the kittens in the hay loft. Now, this loft had scared the shit out of my mother for years. Because the roof leaked, the floor in it was horrible. It had holes and rotten places galore. The trick was to “test” the floor before you put your weight on it and walk on the support beams as much as possible. I was an expert at this.

I was up there for a good half an hour, making a home for these kittens. I used an old sink turned upside down as a roof, packed in some straw so they’d be warm in the colder nights, and gave them some lovin’. I was attempting to come down out of the loft when I fell through the floor. I find it ironic that I spent a half hour up there and only when I was leaving did I fall.

I don’t remember the actual fall. I remember “testing” a board with my left foot, and then I was suddenly on the floor of the barn, looking up at the hole I had just fallen through. I felt like I’d been tackled by a professional linebacker. I thought, “What the hell?? How did I get down here?” I was covered in dirt, old straw, and bits of wood. (I had fallen about 10 feet and landed on cement. My step-dad said I was just inches from a bale of straw.) I tried to get up. Then I realized that I couldn’t feel my legs.

“Oh shit. I’m paralyzed. I’m paralyzed! I can’t live my life like this!” A million thoughts raced through my mind, and I started to cry. It felt like everything was for nothing. I couldn’t finish at Ball State. I couldn’t work a normal job. Who’s gonna date the girl in the wheelchair? How am I going to live normally? I actually resolved to kill myself in those few minutes… simply because I honestly didn’t know how I could live like that.

Fortunately, I started to calm myself down, thinking, “This is accomplishing nothing. You have to get help.” And as I started to try to pull myself with the absolute zero upper-body strength that I had, I felt it: pain. I would describe it as the pins-and-needles feeling of your limb waking up when it’s asleep, but it was fucking excruciating. But it was also good. Pain was good. No feeling in the legs meant I was probably paralyzed. Pain meant there was hope. This hope fueled me.

I tried desperately to pull myself on the rough concrete with only my elbows. I knew I had to get out in the open for anyone to hear my screams. I think I got maybe 3 or 4 feet before I just couldn’t do it anymore. So I started yelling helplessly. It had begun to rain, and the roof on the new barn was a tin-like material, making it rather noisy when it rained. I yelled and yelled; my parents couldn’t hear me. It was very painful to yell because it elevated my blood pressure. As soon as I finished a yell, it felt like all my blood rushed into my burning legs. I had to take breaks.

I was alone maybe 20 minutes after the fall before the rain let up and someone heard me. Mom says the minute she heard my voice, she knew something was wrong. I think she still has nightmares about that sound–the voice of her daughter filled with such anguish and helplessness. They came running, and I started crying. I didn’t cry because I was scared; I cried because I was sorry. For years, they had told me not to go up into the loft. And I thought I was going to be fired from work because that particular day was mandatory; if you didn’t show, you voluntarily quit. It’s funny what affects you in times like that. “I’m sorry…” I was blubbering. “You told me not to go up there. Please don’t be mad.”

My step-dad stayed with me, making a pillow for my dirty head as my mom ran to the house to call 911. If I ever needed a father, it was then… and he came through. He kept telling me everything was fine, they weren’t mad, and help was coming.

My parents had made many friends in our small town during the 10+ years we had lived here. One of them was on the EMT squad. He just happened to have his scanner on when the call came over the radio. He voluntarily came, and he was the one who took care of me. I think they arrived in about 5 minutes. He took one look at my left leg and decided it was broken due to how horribly twisted it looked and the gross angle it was cocked to. He started to cut off my clothes (which embarrassed the hell out of me), and they put me on an inflatable stretcher.

I don’t remember much after that. I remember the sirens as we raced down the highway, thinking of what it must be like to be a car stopping for my ambulance. We got to the local hospital, and they had no idea what they were doing. In fact, my mom expressly said that it was excruciating to touch my legs, and what did the nurse guy do? He tried tickling my feet when the doctor wasn’t in the room. Had I been able, I would have fucking decked him.

The next thing I remember is them loading me up in another ambulance. One of the guys inside was a friend of my step-dad’s, which should have been comforting, but he just yelled at me non-stop. I was in a lot of pain, and they had given me absolutely nothing for it. So, naturally, I cried. He told me to stop being a wimp and shut my mouth. Lovely. I blacked out the entire ride to Fort Wayne.

And then I lost about 3-5 days of my life. I don’t remember getting to Lutheran Hospital. I don’t remember being put in the bed in ICU. I don’t remember the catheter or IVs. The only thing I remember out of that half a week or so was the very nice nurse washing my hair and allowing me to use her cell phone once. I remember that she liked me, and I liked her. I remember reassurance and trust.

Things I was told about these days: Mom came to see me one time, and I told her that someone had been there, touching my legs. She was infuriated. We had made a sign that said, “Please do not bump my bed,” and everyone knew not to touch my painful legs. I said, “No, Momma, it didn’t hurt. It was a man, and I wasn’t afraid because it didn’t hurt.” She thinks it was Jesus. Also, I was very nice to the nurses. I asked for things; I said “please” and “thank you.” Our neighbor had come to visit me and said I shouldn’t act like a guest–they got paid to treat me well. So I guess at some point, I started getting bossy because she said to (that’s what Mom said I said). And just before I went into surgery, I told Mom, “Don’t be afraid. Aunt Lola is looking out for me. I’ll be ok.” My Aunt Lola had died the summer before. We were very close, and I still miss her a lot.

I had hundreds of x-rays/scans done. I’m surprised I didn’t glow in the dark. My leg was not broken, but I had severe hyperthesia, or hypersensitivity to touch. If you even blew softly on my legs, it was painful. The sheets were painful. That hurt worse than anything else.

The x-ray of my back, post-operation. *thunks on spine* Pure titanium badassery!

The x-ray of my back, post-operation. *thunks on spine* Pure titanium badassery!

The x-rays revealed something else: I had shattered my T-12 vertebrae. This is the analogy the doctors gave me: the spine sort of collapsed like an accordion under the weight. My T-12 took the most impact in this collapse, and when the bone shattered, the fragments were lying against my spinal cord, causing the hyperthesia (and the initial numbness) in my legs. So two doctors had to go in, take all of my organs out, get these little fragments cleaned out, put a titanium “cage” in to replace my broken vertebrae, put everything back in, and stitch me up. I say two doctors because one had to be a heart doctor since it involved removing organs and working around my ribs. The other was my orthopedic doctor who did the actual “cage” work. Also, I was told by several nurses that I looked like someone had taken a bat and beaten me on my lower back. When you’re getting ready to sit in a chair, you know that L shape your upper body and thighs make? That’s how I landed–right above my ass. They said I was literally a very dark black and blue. I wish I had pictures of that.

My memory kicks back in right after the surgery. I remember being in the post-op room. One of the nurses gave me a Bic razor to shave my legs, saying the hospital razors were crappy. When they moved me back to my room in ICU, I had an older lady roommate who had like 5 names… Mary Katherine Ellen something or other. She liked to angrily throw things at the wall at all hours of the night. Despite it being against the rules, they let my parents bring me a CD player. I had A Perfect Circle’s Thirteenth Step playing constantly… along with Chuck’s Type O Negative CDs. Real up-lifting music. ;)

And then there were the drugs. I was on a lot of morphine, but Mom was concerned that I’d become addicted, so I was told not to push the button unless I had to. I can remember being in considerable pain and refusing to push the button. That got me in trouble. And then I started hallucinating. One afternoon, I had a wet towel on my forehead (guess I was hot? narcotics will do that). Everyone had just left, and I put the towel on my chest for a minute. Without growing a mouth, the towel said to me, “Eliot is coming. Watch out for Eliot. He is the devil.” And then I heard it–a voice: “I can take all the pain away… all you have to do is give me your soul.” I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking, “I can make you go away. You’re not real. I have the power to stop time, and then I open my eyes, you will be gone.” Thankfully, I never heard from “Eliot” or the wash cloth again.

I remember not wanting to see people who came to visit me. I’d pretend to be asleep. I don’t know if it made me uncomfortable, ashamed, angry, or a mixture of emotions. Some people I just didn’t want to see me like that. Chuck was one of them. I was a strong, young, independent woman, and here I was, helpless and broken in a hospital bed. And I probably looked and smelled nasty. Really, the only people I didn’t mind seeing were my parents and the nurses. I made a lot of friends with the nursing staff. They were sad to see me go.

I think it was the night before I moved to the orthopedics floor, I couldn’t sleep. I have an on/off relationship with sleep anxiety, and the morphine caused me to sleep all funky. I buzzed the nurse, telling her I couldn’t sleep. It was 2 in the morning. She said she’d come back for me, that some man down the hall had ripped out all of his IVs and was bleeding all over the place. 2 hours later, she gave me some Benadryl. If you can’t sleep, folks, take some Benadryl. Seriously.

And that was the catalyst for me moving out of ICU. I just couldn’t rest, which meant I couldn’t heal. Between the insanity, Mary Frances Sabrina throwing shit and yelling at the wall, and my not sleeping, I had to be on a more peaceful floor. And so I was moved. That’s when the real fun began.

I was being weaned off the morphine, but I was still hallucinating. The first day they put me in my room on the O. floor, they put my legs in this machine to prevent blood clots. God, it hurt like hell. I fell asleep with it on, and I remember dreaming that lions were eating my legs. I refused to use it after that.

I was still having sleep anxiety. I was having “dreams while awake”–not hallucinations but not dreams either. One night, I thought that I had an assignment (I was apparently a journalist?) and was working against a deadline… except my bed was the paper, and the letters were assembled on it. Each time I’d move–even the slightest bit, it would muck up the work–jumble the letters and smear the ink. I was freaking out, trying to be very, very still. Another night, I thought that I was a test-tube baby, raised in the hospital. I knew my name was Ashley, but that was it. I remember thinking, “How can they release me when I have no life to go to?” When I told Mom about this, she said, “Why didn’t you call us?” I didn’t even remember my last name, let alone my phone number. I remember the night nurse hated me because I’d cry a lot. Between the not-dreams-nightmares and the back spasms I was having, I freaked out a lot between 11pm and 5am. I used to wish so hard for the sun to come up because that seemed to make it ok.

Going home was like convincing a parole board to let you out of prison. I was admitted to the hospital on September 28th; it was approaching mid-October. I was going through physical therapy with this cute guy named Chris. He was awesome. I really wanted to go home, and he made me a deal: if I could walk around the block of the O. floor on my walker, I was free. I worked so hard for that. When I finally achieved it, they wanted me to go to some home-type thing for continual physical therapy. I remember Chris telling my mom that I’d “learn how to tie [my] shoes again.” Seriously? I knew how to tie my goddamn shoes. I opted out, saying I could do all of that at home instead of being carted to and from Fort Wayne three times a week. And so I was released on October 10th.

When I came home, my cats no longer knew me. I must have smelled like hospital. Adrienne hissed at me. Once they figured out it was me, they never left my side–especially her. The weird non-dreams continued for a while. I had to sleep with a light on. But eventually, the drugs were out of my system. We had to administer blood thinner shots. Originally, the nursing staff tried to teach me how to do it. I’m deathly afraid of needles, so my step-dad had to do it twice a day. It was like a horrible bee sting for two times a day for 20 days.

My mom took a lot of time off work to stay home with me. I know it was very trying for her. On one hand, the nursing aspect comes naturally to a mother. On the other, there was only so much she could do for me. We had to set up a plastic lawn chair in their shower because I didn’t have the strength to stand (atrophy set in when I was in the hospital bed). She’d have to clean me and brush and dry my hair. But the real test was putting the anti-blood-clot leggings on my legs. Even though the bone was off of my spine, I still had a bit of hyperthesia. Oh God, how I’d wail when she’d put those things on me. But it had to be done. Eventually, other people started staying with me, as Mom had to go back to work. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I remember throwing my walker because it didn’t fit through our doorways. I hated that thing anyway because it made me feel like an old lady. I couldn’t sit for long periods because of my 10-inch scar down my left side. We’d have dinner, and it hurt to sit down at the table but it was even worse getting up. I’d have crying fits because of the pain. It felt like someone put forceps in my scar and was ripping it open again. Adrienne the cat would come running every time this happened, thinking I needed defended.

But, obviously, it got better. And because I never dropped out of college, I had some schoolwork to keep me occupied. 2 out of 5 professors agreed to work with me in a way that was acceptable. And people would send care packages with coloring books, magazines, videos, etc. Cards poured in from everywhere–even people I didn’t know. And some people gave me money/gift cards. It was like Christmas and my birthday at the same time.

The hardest part was October-January, which turned out to be more about emotional and mental healing than the physical variety. I had decided to end it with Chuck. It’s hard to explain why… Something in me clicked when I was in the hospital, and I just knew I had to let him go. I had somewhat been wrestling with it before the fall, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. That was hard on him, making it hard on me. He was my best friend, so I had few people to lean on once I returned home. My life had been turned upside down, and I started spiraling into depression. Winter does that to me anyway, but that season was the worst I’d been through. I seriously thought about ending my life, and I stopped caring about a lot of things. I still wonder if the “personality changes” from that drugs were temporary or if it might have played a part in what I was going through. We never found out for sure.

I felt ugly because of my scar. I remember Mom yelling at me that I had to eat. I had lost about 30+ pounds in the hospital, and she was worried that I thought I couldn’t eat in order to keep it off. I was supposed to wear this obvious back brace thing anytime I wasn’t in bed. It was ugly and made me feel like I had a disability. So I had some understandable self-esteem issues I went through.

And because I spent a lot of my time driving to class, work, and to see friends, I felt trapped since I couldn’t even drive around the block. Driving was my way of working out my life in my head. It was alone time to think or sing at the top of my lungs to release whatever emotion I had at the time. I couldn’t leave the house unless someone else was behind the wheel.

My whole life, I’ve had two extremely rock-bottom low points. This was the worst, by far. Everything felt wrong. Me, my life, the choices I had made, my plans, my relationships… I’m not a very good swimmer, but once I tried to do an underwater flip in my neighbor’s pool. I got stuck mid-way into the flip and started panicking, thinking I was going to drown. That’s sort of what this felt like, except it seemed perpetual.

My depression started to fade when I got back to normal things. I physically went back to school in January. I no longer had to wear the back brace. And Shannon (my best friend at the time) and I were driving all over the state, looking for trouble to get into. Strangers didn’t know a thing unless I wanted to tell them about it. I was “normal” again.

However, the emotional effects of the accident lasted for at least a year after the fact. I took on a hedonistic attitude. While lying in the hospital bed, I realized that I lived my life by what I was “supposed to” do, not what I wanted to do. I did what other people thought I should. I hardly went out. I didn’t live like a 21/22 year old. I feared that if I didn’t get my “wild oats” out then, I never would. Before the fall, I was an A/B/occasional C student. I was on the Dean’s List. Afterwards, I started blowing off classes and homework. If you look at my transcripts, you can see a marked decline. And while I can use the physical excuse for my first semester back, anything after was just me… trying to adjust and figure out a balance. People who have known me for 5-6 years or more will vouch that I was a different person when I came home. I was trying to figure out who that person was.

I have no physical problems with my back, for the most part. I remember people used to ask if the titanium “felt cold,” which baffled me because it’s IN my back, warmed by my body. I walked away with some nerve damage (mostly on the left side of my body), a gnarly scar, and the occasional backache if I overdo any heavy lifting. But the key words there are “I walked away.” I am so thankful just to have independent mobility; the rest I can deal with.

I had never broken a bone up until September 28th of 2003, and I haven’t broken one since. Mom and I talk about it every year. I remember it more fondly than she does. I can’t imagine being a mother and going through that. People naturally want someone/thing to blame, but really, it was just one of those things that happened. It was an old barn that should have been torn down (their fault); it was a stupid cat that someone dropped off (the cat’s fault; the person who dropped her off’s fault); I shouldn’t have been up there (my fault, though no one has the balls to blame me). Who cares? It happened, and I’m fine. Yes, I still deal with the effects from time to time, but you move on.

In a way, I think I needed this to happen. Like I said in the beginning, I was ineffably unhappy before the fall. After it, I changed. My life changed. The only regret I have is not being more dedicated to my schoolwork. If I had to do it all over again, I’d still go up in the hay loft. I have a slight fear of heights now, but there are plenty of people who have that naturally. And the next time I see you, I’ll happy to show off my kick ass scar. In a way, it’s my proudest accomplishment.

Originally written October 13, 2007; edited September 29, 2013.

I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown
Catch me heal me lift me back up to the sun
I choose to live, I choose to live

One thought on “GRAVITY: HOW BREAKING MY BACK CHANGED MY LIFE

  1. Thanks for sharing this. That’s an amazing story. I think the closest I’ve ever come to that kind of injury was when I was five. I fell off a merry-go-round and literally landed on my head. I started vomiting blood over my PB&J several hours later, was raced to the ER, and lapsed into a coma for a day. I woke up, completely fine. I do have some memory problems and math is harder for me than most, but nothing more than that. I’m grateful every day because it could have been very bad.

    I could relate to a lot of your stuff regarding hospitals and recovery. When I went through my surgery and the associated nonsense of finding out what was actually wrong, I saw things up close and personal. It’s very different when you’re the sick/injured one. I had my laptop while I was in the ICU (never even thought to ask if it was okay–ha!), and I had my own room–but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. I missed everything that was normal. After, I got frustrated because I couldn’t sleep the way I normally do. It must’ve been so scary and frustrating for you.

    The painkillers messed with my brain, too. I started weaning myself off as soon as I could. I also got terrible rashes from them and have felt allergic to everything ever since. I’ve been so surprised by how much surgery really messes with your head. It was very emotional for me, and I can tell already–five months later–that my surgery day really was a rebirth day. It made me take being here a lot more seriously. Though I always was pretty serious, I had this invincibility thing going for me. I was too stubborn and independent to really be life-alteringly ill. Boy did I get a wake-up call. Now, I just have very little time for things that make me really unhappy. I get more angry over things and have a harder time controlling my emotions. I also never thought I’d be this way–but I’m so self-conscious about my three scars. I know I’ll get over it with time, but it messes with me some days.

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