How I Turn The Day I Almost Died Into A Yearly Celebration
Everyone has that horrible day that the simple thought of its anniversary is dreaded because there are terrible memories attached to it. For one, that day may be the day they lost a loved one. For another, maybe it’s the day you got into a tragic accident that left you handicapped. For a veteran, maybe it’s the day you fought in a horrific combat and lost a beloved fellow soldier. For me, it’s the day I was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease that left me with a disability. That day has caused me tremendous ongoing pain and suffering. However, I made a pact with myself before the one-year anniversary that I would always make that date a great day. Here’s how I turn my dreaded day into a day of celebration.
On October 8, 2012 doctors told me I had meningitis. I later found out that my meningitis was triggered from genital herpes that my ex-boyfriend infected me with. My disease eventually progressed from herpes-meningitis to meningoencephalitis and caused brain damage. My brain was so swollen after my initial diagnosis that I was physically unable to sit up in a chair for more than a few minutes at a time for weeks. It also did not function the way it used to. I couldn’t read or write the same way and my memory was shot. I found myself walking into a men’s bathroom for almost everyday for a year. My brain couldn’t process a sign on a door that read: Men’s Room. I lost my jobs working as a journalist and had no choice but to move home temporarily so my parents could take care of me. There wasn’t much I could do for weeks aside from lay in bed with my eyes closed and pray for healing. This was a hard pill to swallow for my type A personality. Before my illness, I enjoyed working long hours and hated to go a day without a cardio workout.
The first day I was able to make it back to the gym I did a StairMaster for about twenty minutes. I climbed it slower than an elderly person moves with a walker. I had to go slow in order to keep my head as still as possible since my brain was still swollen with lesions on it. I’m sure I looked ridiculous climbing in slow motion, but I’ll never forget the gratitude I felt in that moment. I thanked God because even though I could barely move, I was still moving and I still had all my body parts.
My body and brain continued to heal over the next year at an extremely slow pace. However, the closer my one-year anniversary came, I began suffering from a whole new set of symptoms such as: nightmares, night sweats, anxiety, depression, insomnia and extreme fatigue. I exhibited strange behavior in my sleep such as ripping out my hair and both my finger and toenails. My doctors informed me that I was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Since the anniversary of the worst day of my life was approaching, I was flooded with horrible memories that tortured me in both my conscious and subconscious states.
I felt like I had once again lost control of my body. However, I could control how I would spend October 8, 2013. I decided that I would make sure that day would be fantastic by doing something I was unable to physically do that same day a year prior. It would not be a day that I would feel sorry for myself. It would not be a day that I would cry or turn to booze and drink my sorrows away. It would be a day of celebration at how far I had come in my recovery. And most importantly, it would be a day of gratitude that I was still alive.
I decided that I would surf that day. I began taking private surf lessons three years earlier, and I wasn’t able to surf when I was extremely ill. Surfing is one of my favorite activities. I’m an average surfer, and I’ve never gone a lesson without falling at least a couple times. On October 8, 2013, I still struggled with balance issues from my neurological problems, but I was determined to get on that board and have the best lesson of my life. When my instructor and I first stepped into the ocean, I felt my whole body go numb. The Pacific Ocean was freezing. All I wanted to do was run back to my car and ditch the lesson. But I didn’t. I embraced the cold ocean water against my skin because the year before I didn’t know if I’d ever be back in my beloved Pacific Ocean with my surfboard again. I was grateful to feel the blistering cold water pinch my skin. I proceeded with my lesson, and against all odds, I had my first perfect surf lesson of my life. I didn’t fall once. My instructor and I were blown away.
Fast forward to October 8, 2014. I decided to spend this anniversary taking a trapeze lesson. I’ve always wanted to try this even though I have a small fear of heights. At this time, my body was in better physical shape but I still suffered from neurological issues everyday. But, I was determined to swing from the trapeze like one of the Cirque de Soleil stars I’ve seen in Vegas.
At the trapeze school I went to, the general rule is that you can’t try a catch till your second lesson. In your first lesson, the goal is to get you to hang upside down and swing from the trapeze. But I wanted to do the catch. When I first climbed the stairs to the platform overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the trapeze school on the Santa Monica pier, the fear started to kick in. I had to remind myself that two years prior, I literally stared death in the eye and this was nothing compared to what I’d been through. I took a deep breath and a leap of faith and managed to hang upside down on my first attempt. It wasn’t perfect but I did it. Toward the end of my lesson I convinced my instructors to allow me to try that catch. This is when you swing upside down from the trapeze and grab onto another acrobat, let go and swing from their trapeze gripping onto their arms. I was scared out of my mind, but again, I kept reminding myself of what I had survived. On my first attempt, I let go of all the fear and nailed the catch. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that my eyes filled with tears of joy. I had flashbacks to the day two years before when I was in so much pain and unsure of my future in the emergency room at a Los Angeles hospital. But, look at how far I had come.
To this day, I’ve never had a perfect surf lesson and I’m still amazed that I completed the catch on my first attempt at trapeze school. Sometimes I wonder if I had a little help from above on those anniversaries or maybe it’s the extra confidence and belief I had in myself those days that produced two small miracles.
For me, I like to do a physical activity on my meningitis anniversary since I was unable to do any kind of physical activity when I was ill. My mom hates that I do an extreme sport on that day and asked, “Can’t you go to a spa?” Sorry mom, but no. I like to test the limits of my physical body that day since I was so physically impaired when I was ill. That’s my way of reminding myself that I’m still alive and kicking.
To turn a day of dread into a day of celebration, you don’t have to do an extreme sport or something that costs money. If you’ve lost a loved one on that day, do something that you enjoyed doing with that loved one. Do an activity you two loved to do together or maybe an activity you had planned to do together. Run a marathon, take a walk in the forest, pick up a new hobby, take a road trip or face a fear. Don’t drink, don’t do drugs or anything destructive. Do something positive and healthy to ensure it’s a happy day. Or do something for someone else in need on that day. Visit a veteran’s hospital or volunteer at an animal or women’s shelter. To help another person will never make you feel anything but good. If you need to cry, allow yourself time to cry the day before or the day after but not that day. After all, if your day of dread is the day you lost a loved one, your loved one would never want you to be sad on that day or any day for that matter. Give yourself the gift of freedom from the pain for that day.
On my first anniversary I walked on water. On my second anniversary, I learned to fly. Next year, I might just shoot for the moon.