Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How to Overdo Gratitude

If there is a way to overdo something - I will find it without even trying or noticing. And after three weeks of forcing myself to be grateful and count my blessings (all very good things), I've realized I've done myself and those around me a disservice.

Three weeks ago today, my mom was on her way up to New York to stay with me and take care of me. This was after I called her from an ambulance, first words out of my mouth being "I'm okay" to tell her through tears and with a shaky voice that I was just in a very serious car accident.

My car rolled more than once. Every air bag went off. Every window broke. Not an inch of the car wasn't damaged. I can still hear the noise of screeching metal and breaking glass - it's so incredibly vivid. I can still taste bits of the windshield in my mouth.

While I was rolling through the air on a back country road with no cell phone service and the nearest hospital a half hour away, I thought, "This is it. This is how it ends for me."

But then I got out of the car and walked away from it with a sightly bloody nose and a burn on my hand from the air bag. Other injuries would present themselves later, but not even one broken bone.

When I got out of the car my first reaction was shame and guilt - I'd just totaled my car! What a dope. (so from the beginning I'm not giving this situation proper respect). A close friend happened to be on the scene and in the most loving way reminded me that I just almost died. The car isn't important.

After being convinced to take an ambulance ride to the ER, I arrived and told the doctor I felt pretty stupid for being there. I was fine. Looking back, I think it's an important message to anyone who is ever in a car accident or responds to these types of emergencies that the person involved is not really the one to make the "I'm fine" assessment - given the level of shock I was in, I really wasn't capable of making any assessment.

My mother insisted on making the four-hour trip up to the mountains where I live, even though I told her there wasn't anything I needed her to do (besides maybe take me to the rental car place). Yes, that day I was driving again, albeit very slowly and cautiously.

The next two days would unfold as a series of agonizing moments of physical pain, debilitating muscle soreness, and many trips back to the doctor to say, "Oh yeah, now this hurts." Shock and adrenaline are amazing medicines, but when they wear off the human body slowly reveals how vulnerable it is.

I was told not to go back to work for a week and half. I decided to go in the day after the accident "just to pick up my laptop" and was promptly escorted out by my boss and sent home. I took 4 days off, out of the 7 I was prescribed. I figured that although I had a headache, I could take breaks if I needed to throughout the day, and besides I sometimes get headaches anyway so this isn't much different. And why be in pain doing nothing, when I can go into work and stay on top of things (and also be in pain)?

It seemed so logical, so reasonable. If I could just get my life to resemble the way it looked before the accident, then I could get back to feeling that way, too.

And after all, as every one who heard about the accident said to me, "I'm just so glad you're okay." I had this sinking feeling the whole time, though. For some reason I wasn't feeling the jubilation of:  "Yes, yes, I'm okay! I'm alive! Thank my lucky stars! Now let me get back to updating my bucket list and calling up old friends and telling them how much I love them! Isn't it great to just be alive!?"

So with that philosophy as my expectation for how I should be feeling, I figured if not consciously, subconsciously, how can I complain about this 24-hour headache, the dizziness, the bouts of insomnia, the neck and back pain? And lets not forget the nightmares and the fear of driving. For some reason, I believed that if I simply kept up with my doctors' appointments and tried everything in my power to regain normalcy, I would actually achieve normalcy.

When someone would ask how I was, I'd usually say, "Surprisingly, I'm okay," or "By some miracle, I wasn't hurt." I want to be clear - I wasn't trying to appear tough or brave when I said this. This is not some rant about how we should feel sorry for people who hide their feelings and are really hurting on the inside - I truly wasn't acknowledging my pain or not willing to. After all, I was grateful to be alive!

As the first two weeks went by and the pain didn't get better, I'd start to be a little more vocal about the headaches and the other problems, probably because I was starting to realize, what I've now accepted, that this was a more serious event than I'd realized. Yet I was very aware that I didn't want to be the friend who's always complaining or drawing attention to herself. I didn't want the be the employee who's always making an excuse. Those are all good things to be conscious of. No one wants to be that person, but I was inadvertently doing myself and those around me a disservice.

My belief that I had to be grateful and live life with a new awareness that every moment is precious, along with my determination to get things back to normal, blinded me from taking the time to experience pain, express pain, and heal from pain. I'm not saying I shouldn't have gone back to work when I did (okay, I didn't need to hobble into the office to get my laptop the day after the accident) or that I should have physically done much else different - I've been very good about taking breaks, following up with my doctor, making appointments with specialists, etc because I am someone who likes order and direction. When it comes to the emotional and the relational part, I haven't been as realistic.

The expectation I set for myself is "back to business as usual" so of course that is going to be the impression I make on others and the expectation they are going to set for me as well. I was recently faced with the very irritating realization that I won't cut myself a break but I will expect others to. That isn't fair to them - how could they know what I need when I won't even give it to myself!? One exception is the people closest to me, who've been incredibly supportive and nurturing despite any mixed messages I might send. For one, I'm more comfortable expressing discomfort and talking about mundane things like doctors appointments than I would be with the average person who asks "how are you feeling?" But secondly, the people closest to you know when you're being an irrational knucklehead (hence, my boss escorting me to my car the day after the accident).

My long-winded point is that this time of year we are inundated with Facebook posts, Hallmark cards, and other messages about how grateful, thankful, fortunate, blessed we are. I AM grateful. I want to make that very clear, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one that guilts herself into believing that because we're so damn lucky to be alive, we should overlook our pain. In comparison to the alternative and how close I came to it, being alive today truly is a blessing. But I don't think it's serving me to live my life based on comparisons. I'm grateful to be alive. I'm grateful I wasn't injured more seriously. I feel most grateful I didn't injure anyone else (somehow that outcome seems most devastating of all). But I need to recognize that feeling grateful and acknowledging pain are not mutually exclusive.

I don't know if I got the sense knocked out of me or into me during the accident, but this Thanksgiving I'm not going to focus solely on how grateful I am. I'm also going to look at the areas of my life that, although they could be worse and I'm thankful they're not, deserve attention and healing.

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