At 4:45 tomorrow morning my mother and I are going to get in a cab to Rush University Medical Center, where I’m going to be probably given a cotton gown and an IV and after that, will wake up several hours later having had two discs between the vertebrae in my cervical spine fused. Here’s the wikipedia article if you want to know all about the procedure. The short version is: two of my discs are pressing on the nerve that goes to my right arm, it hurts a lot, and supposedly this will help.
Without getting overly whiny about it, chronic pain sucks. If you’ve had it you understand, and if you haven’t, you don’t. Maybe more annoying and hard to deal with than the pain, though, is the weakness. Having always been a pretty strong person, I found myself unable to open jars, carry heavy things, sometimes on bad days I couldn’t eat with a fork. I’ve always been a klutz but I knew something was really wrong when I would just suddenly drop a cup of coffee because my hand just quit working. I certainly could no longer do all of the fine hand embroidery and printmaking I had once spent most of my spare time doing. I had to learn pretty quickly how to ask to for help, and I hated it.
I knew I was going to have to make a career change. I had been working in special collections library conservation. When you are holding a one-of-a-kind medieval manuscript in your hand and you’re expected to touch up the paint on it using a fine-haired brush and a microscope, there’s no room for unsteady fingers. While I perused my options, I took the settlement money obtained from the accident which caused these problems in the first place and helped to start a contemporary craft fair in Bloomington, Indiana.
While this ended up showing me that I’m not cut out to be a businessperson, it did show me that there are other things in the world that I love and am good at besides conservation. I discovered a passion for event planning, working with artists, coordinating people, and marketing. I could no longer make art, but I could contribute to the art world in other ways that made me feel useful. I returned to school for a degree in public management.
I am now working in product data management, which may seem – and is – a far cry from either conservation or arts programming. But actually I find that it’s work that is deeply satisfying, and allows me to contribute to all of the areas I love in a positive way. On the one hand, I have the means to financially contribute to organizations that I believe in and support artists whose work I care about. On the other, I have information and database management skills that enable me to assist nonprofits and artists with the tasks that they don’t typically enjoy but which they need to make their enterprises work.
It doesn’t sound very glamorous, but I really like my life now, and I never would have known or pursued any of it if one day in June of 2008 I hadn’t been hit by a van driven by a distracted mother making a left turn. It would be nice if I could have gotten here without all of the pain and struggling, but then again, maybe there’s no way around that. Maybe most importantly, I feel a lot more confident now that I can handle just about anything that comes my way.
After this surgery, it’s hard to say but it’s completely possible I could make a full recovery. I could be able to do all those things I used to do again. I won’t go back to my old life, but I will hopefully get back to making more art. I have read from other accounts of this surgery that it’s entirely possible I could wake up and feel normal – in other words, not wake up in pain for the first time in nearly 6 years. What will that be like? I really cannot even imagine.
What I do know is, even though it’s been difficult, I’m a better person for having gone through this experience. I have more empathy, more compassion for my fellow man, and I have made a lot of discoveries about myself that I never would have had I not had to completely turn my life around. I was lucky that something worse didn’t happen, something completely irreversible. I’m terrified of the journey that will begin with that cab ride tomorrow morning, but also very much excited to find what lies at the end of it. I’m excited to get the person I was and the person I am back together again.