Returning to Santa Cruz

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So much has been going through my head lately. I was recovering at my parent’s house for 6 weeks starting July 26th, which feels like a short and long time. I’ve been in Santa Cruz since Wednesday, preparing for work on Monday.

I completed 12 sessions of PT and OT while in Fresno, and I made substantial gains. Seeing objective improvements is important for my motivation, and helps me see the results of my hard work. I increased my walking speed and balance substantially, and my strength is almost equal on both sides of my body. I’m mostly waiting (and coercing) my proprioception and fine motor skills to come back. My right side doesn’t completely know what’s up, but I know my brain is working on building new connections for me.

Before I move on, it’s important for me to note how important my time was at my parent’s house. They provided a safe and cozy nest, and were incredible Mama and Papa birds to their injured abnormally old hatchling. They not only drove me to endless appointments, they also made sure I was always doing something I enjoyed, and provided endless emotional support. I was allowed to be as independent as possible, but they were happy to help when I asked.

How to Talk to Me

Now that I’m back in town and bumping into friends, it’s great and it’s also difficult. I’m more emotional than usual (probably partly my medication), and it takes energy to appear normal. The movements on my right side don’t look smooth, and have a slight lisp because half my face is numb. People sometimes treat me differently, and I just want to be treated the same. I want to hear about what you’re up to, and I would love to make plans with you. I don’t want to talk extensively about my brain, but I’m okay talking about it one on one. You don’t need to say I’m brave, I’m just handling this situation as best I can.

Understanding and Acceptance

It’s been an important experience to be differently abled. I thought I understood what people go through, but I didn’t. As much as I’m certain this will make me a more compassionate, strong, and thankful person, it can feel isolating at times. I’m still feeling very motivated and optimistic about my recovery, but it’s challenging being in a body that’s different than the one I’m used to identifying with. It’s also a journey to love my current body. I’ve been trying to be kind to myself, and being okay with not always being okay.

In the past I’ve mostly focused on being positive, but it’s not always what I feel. It would be weird if it was. Struggling is part of the process, and I’m okay with having weaker moments.

On a more positive note, I’ve developed a list of goals, and I’ll  share some of them with you. I often think about my goals, but I think it’s important to write them down.

Mind

Meditate daily. Body scan, Yoga Nidra, or other.

Visualize what I want in the future.

Body

Do all PT exercises every day.

Do yoga at least 3 times a week, and attend yoga class at least once a week.

Trike more with a goal to be biking in 2 months.

Exercise on beach 2 times a week.

Work on gaining strength at rock climbing gym. Start with weights and yoga, and work towards the wall.

Start surfing/paddling/swimming once every week.

Get 9 hours of sleep. (I know, crazy)

Make healthy work lunches for the whole week on Sunday.

Keep health journal chronicling general health, energy level, and exercise.

Don’t Look Back

 

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Pinnacles at sunset last fall. I look forward to going back soon.

Don’t look back. It’s what has been going through my head the last couple of weeks. I’ve been struggling with the fact that recovery isn’t linear, and that some days are really unexpectedly challenging. While recovery has been going well, I’ve been having some difficulty with nerve sensations, sensory overload, headaches, and at times I just don’t feel good. It sometimes feels like I’m not getting better, and it can be frustrating.

I wrote the above paragraph a few days ago, and things have improved! I haven’t been on any medications (not even a single pain pill) until now. I recently started taking something to calm down my nerve sensations and eliminate my headaches, and I’m feeling the best I have yet! I’ve always been apprehensive to take medication, but it is really helping my recovery.

Something I recently realized is that I shouldn’t wait to get back to where I was. I should strive to get better, and also modify what I love doing so that I can enjoy the present and manifest what I want in the future.

Last week I purchased a rad tricycle, and now I am free to roam the open road. Or, ahem…free to roam the bike trail. I will eventually use it to commute to work, grocery shop, and cause trouble around town.

I also went to Santa Cruz last weekend and paddled my longboard. I didn’t attempt to stand up, but hanging in the morning line-up with friends felt great. Just being in the water makes me calm and reminds me of how little me and my worries are.

I’m preparing to start work in a week, and I’m really excited and nervous at the same time. I’ve been preparing by having more screen time, eliminating my afternoon nap, and reviewing some work references. While I have no cognitive losses, I’ll need some practice to sharpen up.

Today’s post is a jumble of thoughts, which is what I’ve had lately. This next week I’ll be sharing tips for preparing for work, and some ideas for tasty lunches to pack.

A Mile in My Shoes

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At the top of my first crack climb. Joshua Tree Spring 2016. Photo taken by Evan.

While I’m not doing the same kind of physical training I’ve done in the past, I can easily say that I’ve never trained this hard before. On a given day, I train using a mixture of the following activities:

  • Weight lifting
  • Walking
  • Fine motor exercises
  • Writing
  • Typing
  • Physical Therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Resistance bands
  • Balance drills
  • Shoulder strengthening
  • Water aerobics
  • Yoga
  • Meditation

So far I’ve been hesitant to talk about gains because they’ve been difficult to measure. I guess I’m also worried that I may not get completely better, and I try to accept my body in it’s current state, while working hard to improve at the same time. The brain is mysterious, and while I trust in its ability to re-wire itself, I don’t want to have expectations that aren’t met.

Two weeks ago I was walking 200 meters and was worn out. The last 4 days I’ve walked at least a mile every day. It takes me awhile, but I can do it. I’ve been feeling stronger, and my leg seems to be realizing its purpose. I look stiff when I walk, but I feel much more balanced.

The other morning during my first mile I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Dirtbag Diaries. My boyfriend told me about a story he heard from an adventurer recovering from a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the sternum down. Jim Harris is his name, and he’s walking again and continuing to get stronger. I recommend you listen to his story. I connected with the feelings he had during recovery, and I have great respect for his positive outlook. I especially liked his reminder to focus on little goals. I sometimes catch myself getting too far ahead, and need to remember to celebrate. And I also need to be patient, which I struggle with daily.

I’ve been experiencing small but consistent physical gains, but my speed and proprioception have been holding me back. The several hours a day I spend doing therapy are great, but I also need to be kind to myself and wait for my brain to catch up.

Over the weekend I had a moment where I almost felt like myself. I actually said out loud “I feel great right now?” with a sort of disbelief. It’s been about a month since my surgery, and I feel like my brain is starting to recover from the assault and beginning to have more energy to put towards making physical gains. My energy level, fine motor skills, and mobility are improving. I may not be climbing cracks this fall, but you can bet I’ll be making a trip back to Joshua Tree in the spring.

The Hare Becomes the Tortoise

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Things are different. No surprise, right? Today I’d like to acknowledge how recovery is making my life better. In most cases better and more challenging at the same time.

The most noticeable difference is physical speed. Generally, I’m a lightning bolt. Always walking fast, talking fast, rushing around, and generally anxious to get where I’m supposed to be next. Now, I contemplate what I will do next and the most efficient way to get it done. While I’m mostly independent (no driving or chopping onions…) I’m slow as a tortoise. There are two tortoises that live in my parent’s garden, and I definitely feel an increased affinity with them.

How could this be good?

I need to slow down.

Every morning I wake up early, sit in the garden, and have my morning coffee. I watch the chickens make their rounds for morning grubs, the squirrels do their gymnastics in the plum tree, and the doves visit the bird-feeder. Having a slow start helps me ease into my physical therapy, and ensures that I don’t have a bad day. It has also increased my appreciation of the ordinarily mundane.

The second way my life has changed is my relationships. The interactions with my family, friends, and boyfriend are much richer than they used to be. I have been forced to be more dependent on people, and my usual stubbornness has subsided greatly. I love everyone and everything more, and see more positives than negatives in just about everything.

I guess you could say that I had mindfulness surgery. Which reminds me of the story of how I met Buddha in the ICU. Sort of. I definitely felt spiritually guided, which means a lot coming from me.

I spent all day before surgery reading a book about Zen, which is a distinct subset of Chinese Buddhism. I woke up in the ICU to a very kind nurse. I was pretty low maintenance, so she mostly monitored my vitals and talked to me. I don’t know exactly how the conversation evolved to Buddhism, but it did. She was Tibetan, and Buddhist. She recited teachings to me, but not in a way that made me feel that she was preaching, it was much more her sharing stories that were inspirational to her. She spoke about the Dalai Lama, and how important he was to her.

When I returned home I started looking for talks from the Dalai Lama, and found out he’s really interested in neuroscience. I spend a ton of time thinking about neuroscience and specifically neuroplasticity, because my brain is currently healing and re-wiring itself. His holiness speaks about his passion for science, and specifically about the human mind. If you’re curious, this short article in the Atlantic talks about the Dalai Lama and a brain study involving a group of monks. It’s inarguable that the monks who had MRIs did have brains that were more open to plasticity and capable of change. Why is this? It’s likely that their years of practicing mindfulness and compassion opened up pathways in their brains. Whoa. Here is a quick video about neuroplasticity and how we can all create new pathways. Not just for brain repair, but mind alteration.

Am I Buddhist now? No. But I’m increasingly concentrated on mindfulness, compassion, happiness, and meditation. This has helped me maintain positivity and embrace the process of healing and the changes that I’m experiencing.

Friendship and Wellness

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Flashback to last summer. Simone and I celebrating the marriage of our friends Hilda and Erik.

Close friends are truly life’s treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.
-Vincent van Gogh

I just had an amazing weekend hanging out with a friend I haven’t seen often since college. You know the friends you have that you don’t see frequently, but when you see them you just continue like no time has passed? That’s the way it is for Simone and I. We may not party like we used to, but we have just as much fun. We had a great weekend of catching up, eating, and relaxing. This included a home spa night, lake swimming, yoga, and delicious food.

We also spent time talking about mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and exercise. As my healing progresses, I’ve been more and more motivated to make the above things fit into my life even more. Simone recently finished grad school and moved back to California to start her career. She is working on similar goals, and it was so great to talk about life with her. She also gave me the idea to start going to water aerobics, which I’m really excited about.

It’s really hard finding resources for meditation and yoga online. There are so many available, but it’s difficult weeding through them. Last week I  finally found some tools that have made their way into my everyday life:

Body Scan Meditation

I’ve always enjoyed using guided body scans to relax, and I have been finding them even more useful lately. Gaining more control of the right side of my body includes working on body awareness. The scan I’ve been using is from Palouse Mindfulness, and it can be found here. It is a 35 minute textbook body scan, and it really does a good job of focusing my attention and calming my mind. I usually listen to it at bedtime, and sometimes before my afternoon nap.

Guided Yoga

Being really fit, and suddenly not able to do many of the activities that used to be part of my routine is challenging. I’m also trying to maintain strength and improve flexibility, which will aid in my recovery. I found some great yoga videos by an instructor who does seated yoga classes. Unlike other videos I’ve seen, his classes are challenging for me, but require few modifications. His name is David Procyshyn, and his videos are on Youtube, via www.doyagawithme.com. He has several seated videos, and my favorite is the Whole Body Hatha Flow.

Lastly…Food! We made some chicken yakitori that was so delicious! We grilled the chicken, green onion, and pineapple skewers on a charcoal fire and basted them with a teriyaki glaze. They were served with inarizushi and a simple cucumber salad. As a bonus, we skewered some king oyster mushrooms and served them with a sesame dressing.

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Simple Food

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You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” 
―Julia Child

Cooking has always been an important part of my life. For me it’s meditational, creative, and social.

My favorite part of cooking is the potential it has for making connections. While I’m typing this, my Dad is in the kitchen with his little brother (Big Brothers Big Sisters) pickling jalapeños from the garden. It’s great to hear them bonding while preserving food that will be shared among friends and family. Jayden is lucky to have my Dad as a mentor, and my Dad is equally lucky to have him as a little brother. They have completely different backgrounds and were born more than 50 years apart, but they are good friends. They give each other a hard time just like best buddies do, and they spend lots of time laughing and sharing stories.

I left the pepper pickling to the boys, but I’ve been preparing simple meals at home everyday. I currently can’t cook the same way I usually do, but I’m figuring out how to adapt. I consider it a large part of my fine motor skills physical therapy.

Yesterday I made some hummus, and today I spread it on a toasted flatbread for a snack. I also topped the flatbread with arugula, tomato, red onion, Kalamata olives, and feta. I’m not using sharp knives for foods that aren’t really soft (not ready to go back to the hospital yet), but I managed to steal some chopped tomatoes and onions from my Mom’s cooking project.

The twist is that I made the hummus in a bag. I saw it as an excellent opportunity to put my right hand to work. It took me about ten minutes with a rolling pin and my hands to smash the bag of ingredients to food processor quality. Bag hummus would be a great activity for kids, or for you when the power is out and you need hummus ASAP. I used Mark Bittman’s recipe because he is a master. It has more tahini and olive oil in it than I usually use, which means it’s especially delicious.

I’m feeling really positive about recovery today. I went for a couple of walks (the walker is gone now!) and my at home physical therapy is going well. I couldn’t get an appointment until next week to go back to the PT gym, so I’ll continue doing my own routine. As long as I’m pushing my limits, I’ll continue making progress.

 

A Normal Day

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Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom. –Bhaddekaratta Sutta

Yesterday was not unlike an average day off for me. I woke up at 6, had some coffee, and baked some scones that I prepped the day before. Here is the recipe. It’s originally from Cook’s Illustrated, which is my favorite food resource. I used crystalized ginger and lemon zest, and skipped the blueberries. I even did a quick food photo shoot, which is one of my favorite hobbies.

I was able to make the scones unassisted, but my Mom put them in the oven for me. My right arm cannot be trusted when it comes to fine motor skills. I make sure to use it as much as possible (I type very slowly), but I won’t risk dropping something delicious. The limitation of my right arm is the most challenging part of my recovery, but I’m improving slowly. The muscle control in the arms is especially complex.

I reached a physical milestone yesterday! I ditched my walker. I’ll still use it out of the house, but I’m done with it at home. Last week I wouldn’t have thought this would happen so soon, and it feels great. I can move around more freely, and concentrate more on my form. My right side feels pretty much like it’s asleep, but it is slowly waking up.

Last evening I re-watched a documentary called My Beautiful Broken Brain. It’s an incredible documentary about a woman who has a brain hemorrhage. I can’t even explain how powerful it is. Watch it on Netflix if you haven’t seen it.chicken