112 feet South of Biscailuz Drive.

I remember regaining consciousness in my jeep on the freeway. It felt like there were people all around me, and I think someone was above me, talking to me through the hole where the windshield used to be. I felt like I couldn’t move, and I was stuck in a weird angle, my body slumped to the right over the center console. I think they asked my name, I think I told them, I think they were talking to me, telling me they were getting me out. I think I passed out again. I don’t remember the ride to the hospital. I came to in the midst of complete chaos in the ER, with hands all over me and the sound of urgent orders being issued and machines beeping. By some miracle (or app) Greg was already there and when I saw him I felt like everything was going to be ok. It was only later that I realized just how close I had come to dying.

I made it into the local news. There was a picture in the Santa Clarita Signal, apparently, of my smashed up jeep on the freeway. A friend sent me the link. I never opened it, never looked at the picture. My attorney asked for the CHP case number. I looked at the report only long enough to notice that the officer drew little doodles to indicate where the damage to each vehicle was. I read the first line “112 feet South of Biscailuz Drive” and then I closed it and put it away. It was all too overwhelming, and I had to focus on recovery.

It’s amazing how long it lingers, how very sharp my memories still are. They tend to surface at the most random moments and all of a sudden I find myself thinking about some little terrifying, horrific moment I thought I had forgotten. And for some reason, even though I was unconscious for my ambulance ride, the sound of sirens, the sight of an ambulance rushing to save somebody’s life, makes me feel like I can’t breathe.

I’ve always been mindful about not wasting time, and especially not dwelling on unproductive emotions, but that’s been magnified after almost losing my time entirely. Now there is no bigger affront to what I’ve been through. My time is for LIVING. I’m so much better, it all could have been so much worse, there are oodles of people going through far worse things every day. Keeping that in mind, here’s where I stand, on the anniversary of the day I lived. My second birthday, March 1st.

I have a litany of lingering complications from my surgeries, from the metal holding my bones together, and from my facial nerve paralysis. All small things, and most are imperceptible to others. That’s very nice for others. But there’s a lot of them, I notice them constantly, some of them are painful, and cumulatively they are relentless and maddening.

When I’m not frustrated by it, I like my new asymmetrical face. Especially my asymmetrical smile. When they aren’t being painful, nagging, frustrating little assholes, my autonomous nerves and twitchy muscles make me laugh.

The metal plate and long, curving scar along my clavicle is my favorite. I think it’s really beautiful.

After having been so weak, so skinny, and so disabled, strength is what matters to me. I run or ride 4 days a week and do strength training almost every day. It’s the secret to keeping the pain at bay from the massive titanium bolt in my pelvis. It was the secret to healing my bones and making them strong again. My orthopedic surgeon said that most people respond to that kind of pain by becoming immobile, and we shared a moment of head-shaking about the irony that it’s actually consistent and vigorous exercise that solves the problem. I’m stronger and more fit than I’ve ever been before, and I’m grateful for the mobility which makes that possible.

I never used to be scared of driving, and I’m still not, except when it rains.

I have an irrational fear of it happening again, but I like to tell my passengers that they’re safe with me because I’ve met my quota.

There’s an interesting sense of closure that comes with passing this anniversary. The legal case is still pending (!), and I will never fully recover, which has both good and bad implications. But now, a year later, it’s time. To read that article, to read the police report, to look at that picture.

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Here’s to one more hurdle cleared.

Be prepared.

After the lawyers wrap up the case in about a year or so I might write one more post, about the accident itself. I’ve been warned not to talk about it, and that’s fine for now because thinking about it gives me something I’m calling PTSD-Lite. All of it is fading in due time, although I will never be the same person. It’s funny though, how other people seem to expect you to just get right back to it all like nothing happened. I’ll live with it forever and it will always be a part of what makes me who I am now. So I’m gonna talk about it when I feel like it, everyone else’s opinion be damned.

I’ve been working so hard at my art that I have about 7 paintings and 1 pastel in progress right now. Nothing to show here yet, but I expect to take this space back to art very soon. But before I do, just a few semi-final thoughts on the accident. Really it’s more like advice for being prepared for the worst, like the good little boy scout I was raised to be.

There’s a little urban legend floating around that you should put a contact called ICE into your phone. You know, In Case of Emergency. When I was being cut out of my Jeep the paramedics couldn’t have cared less about my phone. And even if they had brought it to the hospital, how would they have cracked the password to get to my contacts? They did care about my wallet, obviously. It’s got my ID, and that’s the information they and the hospital needed. But it doesn’t have any contact information, so finding out who to call would have been a slow process indeed and the fact that we don’t share a last name would have complicated the search I’m sure. So that ICE business, write it down in permanent ink on an actual piece of paper and put it in your wallet with your ID. And bring your ID everywhere.

Greg and I use a location tracker on our phones so we always know where the other is at any time. So many people have told me they couldn’t live with that “invasion of privacy.” But I’ve never felt like my privacy was invaded, nor has he, and its original purpose was to help me figure out when to start dinner and so that I wouldn’t have to be one of those annoying spouses who texts him all day, because I know right where he is and when he’s coming home. But the accident changed it from innocuous to miraculous. I was at the grocery store before the accident, so Greg expected me home within a couple hours or so. When I didn’t show up, he texted me. When I didn’t respond he knew something was wrong so he checked the location tracker, and it showed me immobile, on the freeway. He raced down to where my signal was and saw the crushed remains of my Jeep, and knew immediately to go to the hospital. I was only just barely coming to when he showed up, well before I could have expected him if someone had to track him down somehow. And if he hadn’t been with me in the ER, well, let’s just say my PTSD-Lite would probably not be Lite right now. So track your spouse, track your kids. Maybe let them turn it off sometimes with immunity if y’all are really worried about it. But you never know when you might really need to know where they are.

And my last little bit of advice is something we’ve been doing since pretty much the day we met. Always, without exception, give your significant other a kiss and tell them you love them before you walk out the door. Every. Time.

Get lucky.

A lot of people have called me an inspiration, and some have called me a miracle, and some say that I’m strong or amazing. But I know I’m just lucky.

I’m lucky that the accident happened in a somewhat urban area, where there’s plenty of first-responders and they could get to me in time. I’m lucky to have been taken to a modern hospital, with enough well-trained staff to save my life. I’m lucky that the accident wasn’t worse, that the speeds weren’t higher, that I was driving my Jeep and not my Kia. I’m lucky that I didn’t get any brain damage and wasn’t rendered a vegetable for the rest of my life. I’m lucky to have the rest of my life. I’m lucky that the internal bleeding stopped and I didn’t have to have emergency surgery. I’m lucky that my spine was just fractured and not broken, that I didn’t end up paralyzed.

I’m lucky to have a husband who spent every waking moment with me in the hospital, just sitting there waiting, keeping me company, holding my hand, doing everything for me and the nurses’ jobs too. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to cut off all my hair because he spent something like six painstaking hours over the course of the first two days meticulously detangling and washing it. I’m lucky to have friends who visited and brought flowers and fun stuff for me to do. I’m lucky that I have friends who will drop what they’re doing to come to the hospital and cut up my pancakes and feed them to me. I’m lucky to have friends who texted me every day and sent me books and flowers and food. I’m lucky to be a part of a professional association with so many caring people that I got cards from all over the country.

I’m lucky that I had excellent doctors and a rock-star surgeon. I’m lucky that the scar for my massive pelvic bolt is only about the size of a pea. I’m lucky that all my breaks were relatively simple or repairable, and that I could walk just 5 1/2 weeks after surgery. I’m lucky that I can walk at all, that I can ride and run and drive. I’m lucky that I can smile. I’m lucky that only half my face was paralyzed, and I’m lucky that the paralysis isn’t permanent. I’m lucky that I can’t remember the last time I needed a pain pill.

I know how lucky I am. My luck, my life, and my health is a privilege, to be cherished and honored. I’m not going to waste a minute of it. And if my determination inspires a few people to try to become a little bit stronger than they were yesterday, to relish life just a little bit more, then I’m lucky to have made an impact.

Sashay, shante.

Over breakfast at work in the staff break room I filled in one of our security guards on my accident, and told him that I’d lost 25 pounds in the hospital. “Oooooh, so that’s why you been lookin’ like a supermodel” he said. I thanked him, as I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, and I told him that I was trying desperately to gain weight, and laughed about how it was the best job in the world and how much I’m enjoying eating anything and everything I want and all those Trader Joe’s desserts too. He sortof frowned and gave me a disapproving dude grunt and said something along the lines of how I should keep my supermodel figure.

A few weeks later and a few pounds heavier, feeling great because I had finally started to fit into some of my old jeans, I saw him again. I was walking into the building with lunch and he nodded approvingly at my supermarket sushi but when I told him there was fried chicken in the bag he cried “nooooo, you HAVE TO keep that supermodel figure!” I tried not to sound too annoyed when I told him “SUPERMODELS AREN’T STRONG.” Sadly, he isn’t the only one who has expressed disapproval at my desire to feel like a normal, healthy, non-anorexic woman again.

Before the accident I was in great shape. For a little over a year I’d been doing a conditioning routine almost every night. Just a simple 15-20 minute set of situps and pushups and other related exercises. In the late Fall before the accident I started running, and when I injured my ankle I started cycling. The day of the accident I went for a ride and was feeling great about the route I tackled. I made it up a previously intimidating hill and a long loop around the valley, all in a light rain no less. I felt great, and I felt strong.

After the accident I was pretty much immobile for two weeks, and when the physical therapists finally had me sit up for the first time my entire body felt like jello. In my third week of recovery they put me on a walker, at which point I realized how fortunate it was that I had been working on my upper body strength for so long. The physical therapy at the rehab center was spotty, but at least they gave me handouts of exercises that I could do in my room. When I got home and got in-home visits by a physical therapist she gave me more exercises and lots of tips for working on specific problem areas. I did my PT every day, except for one weekend when my back seized up in so much pain that I could hardly breathe. That was solved temporarily with heat and rest, and permanently once I was allowed off the walker.

Almost as soon as I was allowed to walk, at about 8 weeks post-accident, I hit my favorite trail. It’s a simple fire road that’s about 2.5 miles long and has some nice elevation change to it. I used to run the entire thing in about a half hour. For a couple weeks I went walking out there almost every weekend day, and took our pups. They’re old and gimpy and for awhile we were on the same level, slowly struggling through half the loop. As I recovered I started to outpace them, and had to separate my exercise from theirs when I finally made it through the whole loop and they looked like they were ready to just lay down and die.

I started cycling again at 3 months post-accident, and I’ve gone for a ride every chance I could get since then. I’ve already surpassed the rides I was capable of before the accident. My last ride was 21 miles, with some nice climbing and a strong headwind seemingly in every direction. I’ve done rides that would have intimidated me before, like some loops on the hilly roads around my house. Not only am I getting much stronger, I’m feeling more comfortable with and asserting more control over the bike itself, something that I’ve always had trouble with.

Just the other day, at 4.5 months post-accident, I went for my first run. My doctor technically hasn’t cleared me to run, but I can feel that I’m ready. When I asked him many months ago when I could ride and run again, when I was still on my walker and sitting in his office in a wheelchair, he kindof laughed at my eagerness and said riding would be at least 3 months, and running at least 6. He said I might never be able to run again, because I might always feel the titanium pin in my pelvis. He said that some people have so much chronic pain from the pin that they have it removed in a year. On my first run I didn’t feel my pin, and I didn’t feel it the next day either. I felt my weak and creaky ankles and aging knees, but that’s nothing new. Mostly I just felt great.

When I first started walking and started to feel well enough to wear something other than yoga pants and tshirts, I tried to put on my jeans and they fell right off. Before I went back to work I had to hit the thrift store for a few pairs of jeans and some skirts in size anorexic just so I’d have something appropriate to wear. I didn’t feel healthy, I didn’t like the way I looked. I remember shopping online at the time for some athletic wear, to replace all the stuff the ER staff cut off me, and for the first time I really noticed the models on these sites, and I noticed that some looked as anorexic as me. Some of them get it right, some look real and athletic, although they also look like they have the luxury of about 10 hours of free-time each day to work out, must be nice. The models in some other online catalogs of athletic gear… not so much. They just look skinny. They look like they couldn’t run a quarter mile without passing out from malnutrition. It’s offensive, that we as a culture promote this kind of weakness in women, and use it to sell athletic gear at that.

I like my body and my weight right where it was before the accident. At 6′ tall, 140ish pounds, usually a size 8 and sometimes shimmying into a 6 on a skinny day, I’ve always felt on the thin side of average, which is maybe why the supermodel comments are a little disappointing. In the few months that I’ve spent in size anorexic I haven’t felt good physically and I haven’t been happy with the way I look. I noticed the affects that a short period of malnutrition had on my skin and nails and hair, and I’m sure it didn’t help my mental state either. Regaining the weight has felt wonderful, and not just because I get to eat as much cheesecake as I want.

I’ve started to fit into my old clothes, and one pair of size anorexic jeans has already been sent back to the thrift store, so I’ll probably slow down on the fried chicken and the extra bacon, but I wouldn’t mind gaining a bit more weight. Before I started exercising regularly a little over a year ago, I was a size 10 and I was perfectly happy there too. My goal now is to put on the weight as muscle as much as possible. Even in my current weight gain regimen, Greg and I actually eat really healthy, mostly home-cooked whole foods. And I’m riding and now running every chance I get, and still doing my conditioning routine and PT almost every day. I feel good, I like the way I look, I’m happy, and I feel strong. You can call me superwoman if you want to. Just don’t call me a supermodel.

On pain and choice.

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer — and yet also, like most things, so very simple, was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger…I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go… And so I walked on.”
–Cheryl Strayed, “Wild”

It took me awhile to realize just how bad my condition was. Maybe it was all the pain medication, but my initial impression was something along the lines of ok, I’ve got a few broken bones, I’ll just lay here awhile and they’ll heal and I’ll be fine. I asked Greg to get me a smoothie and some of my favorite magazines on my first full day in the hospital, as if I just had the flu and I was laid up on the couch or something. I remember trying to read the cooking magazine he brought me and I got frustrated because it all looked so unappealing. Aside from my complete lack of mobility, I had no appetite. I tried the painting magazine and was frustrated by my inability to see the pictures clearly, and painting felt like the most foreign idea in the world. Pain clouded everything I tried to do, and even just holding a magazine with my floppy clavicle was hard. I had no idea, on that first day, what was really in store for me.

Some doctors called them fractures. Some called them breaks. Whatever they were, there were a lot, and they hurt like hell. A piece of my pelvis was completely broken off, there was a fracture higher in my pelvis near an important nerve, I had three broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a fractured spine, a fractured temporal bone, whatever injury leads to head-stapling, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, and a hand so mangled it felt like it was full of glass shrapnel. I was immediately put on Dilaudid alternating with Hyrdocodone. They were very effective hallucinogenics.

I very quickly learned to start tracking my pain medication myself. I clarified with each doctor how much I was supposed to get and how often, and found myself more often than not arguing with nurses who wanted to give me a different dosage. They would tell me that the doctor didn’t really mean what he said and then the doctor would make his rounds and I’d tell him and he’d rip the nurses a new one and tell them to give me the medication he prescribed, rinse, lather, repeat daily. And then there was that one day when my IV stopped working and the Dilaudid just dripped down my arm while my nurses all said it looked just fine to them.

It seems like every day in the hospital I was subjected to some horrific procedure or test. Some of them I’ve conveniently forgotten, just remembering a general feeling of constant mental and physical exhaustion. Some of them are seared into my memory for good. I remember every detail of having my chest tube removed. This doctor was a cranky one, and my nurse at the time was one of the few who was pleasant. He started screaming at her from the moment he walked in the room, and he grumped at me that it was time to take my chest tube out. “Will it hurt?” I asked and he grumped yes, with absolutely no pity. They got ready, he counted to three, and I braced myself and then… There are no words that can describe it. I remember once reading about what happens to you if you get stung by a Tarantula Hawk, an insect which delivers one of the most painful stings on earth. The article said that you are physically unable to do anything but SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF for like two minutes. It was pretty much just like that.

The MRI was just as unforgettable. I asked my nurse to give me my Dilaudid before I headed out and she refused. When I got to the MRI office the tech told me my doctors had ordered a full battery of scans, and each one would take about 30 minutes. Aside from the pain I had a mild blood infection contracted while in the hospital, the doctors think from a contaminated IV line (terrifying when you think about that one for a minute right?), so I was ROASTING hot all the time. And of course I couldn’t close my left eye. So I was a tad bit uncomfortable.

They wrapped me up like a sausage in my bedsheets and slid me into the tiny, claustrophobic oven, for scans that were supposed to take a little over two hours. I didn’t make it. I tried. I literally counted the seconds, to take my mind off the heat and pain and the fact that I couldn’t close my eyes and had to just lay there staring at all the little cracks and scratches in the machine while I dripped with sweat in my bedsheet casing. With just one more scan to go I begged them to take me back to my room. They took me to xray instead (of course), but my nurse met me with the Dilaudid she was supposed to have given me two hours prior and the xray tech was so sensitive he made me cry with relief. He remembered me from some prior xray that I had forgotten, and he kept telling his assistants over and over “BE GENTLE, she has a lot of fractures, she’s in A LOT of pain, move her carefully.”

Waking up from my surgeries was also intense, and the second one was terrifying. They were giving me the maximum dosage of Dilaudid and it wasn’t even touching the pain. During my second recovery I kept setting off all the alarms, and over the incessant beeping my nurse had to keep yelling at me to BREATHE and wake up and open my eyes when all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.

I was always so happy to be done with whatever poking and prodding was on the agenda for the day. Sometimes I couldn’t do anything for hours afterwards but just sit there and stare at the TV, who even cares what was on. As my time in the hospital progressed and as I healed I actually grew less tolerant of all the procedures. By the time I was in the rehab center I could barely even stand getting shots anymore. Granted, they were really painful shots, right to the belly, but mostly it was a visceral reaction. I was DONE. I needed a break.

Being in the hospital and being severely disabled and in constant pain is like that passage in Wild, when Strayed realizes how little choice she has, except when it concerns your health you have even fewer choices. There’s no turning around and going back. You have to have that MRI, that xray, that surgery. You can recover or you can die. And so I walked on.

Recovery is sweet.

I had my first real meltdown at the rehab center a couple weeks after the accident. It was early evening and Greg was sitting with me as I struggled to eat my dinner, some kind of tuna casserole that had been chopped up to accommodate my facial paralysis and milk with a straw for the same, and we were watching whatever horrible reality tv show my roommate had chosen at the loudest possible volume when I was absolutely overcome with grief. I started sobbing and barely choked out “what if I never smile again?” as Greg looked heartbroken and a little bewildered and from behind her curtain my elderly roommate quietly asked if I was ok. I didn’t let it last long. “NO NO NO I can’t do this. I need to eat. I need to heal.”

Recovery has been like a triage of priorities. For the first couple weeks my facial paralysis didn’t rate very high. The pain in the rest of my body was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, I was unable to move, I couldn’t sit up, and every day I was put through some horrific test or procedure that left me physically spent and emotionally numb. But as my body started to heal, my facial paralysis took center stage as the most traumatic part of this whole experience.

Difficulty with eating was the first thing I noticed. You have no idea how many muscles you have inside your mouth until half of them are gone. I could only chew on the right side, and if any food ever made it to the left side it wasn’t just inconvenient it was dangerous, since there weren’t any functional muscles there to keep it from sliding right down my throat. The hospital never did get it. I begged them to put me on a liquid diet for days and they kept sending up food I couldn’t chew, and I couldn’t even cut it up because my clavicle had gotten so floppy and painful that I could barely move my left arm. They kept giving me food that was dangerously high in sugars too, even though I was on medication that made my blood sugar spike, but that’s a whole other story. I think I finally got soup on my last day in the hospital. The food at the rehab center was much better and they were really mindful of my disability. It was sort of a fun game to try to figure out what my chopped up mash had been before being chopped up and mashed. But it was always healthy and I was physically able to eat it. You really learn to appreciate the little things like that.

The hospital and the rehab center both had deplorable hygiene standards, which is also another story, but it meant it took me awhile to figure out how much my paralysis affected brushing my teeth. The first time I tried it I suddenly realized I couldn’t swish water around in my mouth, and I couldn’t spit. And I couldn’t apply lip balm the way we’re all used to. I discovered that I couldn’t drink out of a regular glass on one of my first nights in the rehab center, when I took a sip of water in the glass that came with dinner and didn’t expect it to dribble right down my chin. I became fanatical about having straws by my bedside at all times after that.

I was really lucky to get an appointment with one of the top neurotologists in the country, but he told us we had already missed the optimal window for surgical intervention so the best course of action was steroids and watchful waiting. He confirmed what our research had told us. The chances and length of recovery depend on the type of fracture, and whether the nerve was severed or compressed. I had a fracture that was apparently a little bit of both the usual types, and we were pretty sure my nerve was just compressed but there was no way to be certain. Even knowing that, he said recovery is not guaranteed because nerves are dicks and completely unpredictable and if I do recover it will take 6 months to a year and I shouldn’t expect to see any recovery at all for at least two months.

I started to get what I call “twingles” in my face at about a month and a half. Friends said my face was starting to look livelier, which was a sign that the underlying muscles were making connections with the nerve. My neurotologist sent me for an EMG, which is a brutal test where they stick needles in your muscles and move them all around to listen to their responsiveness. I wouldn’t get the results back for another month, and by then they wouldn’t matter. The day after my EMG I saw it. My cheek muscle moved. Just barely, almost imperceptibly, and you had to be in the right light to see it, but it was moving for sure. It seems like my smile recovered fairly quickly since then, although the muscles still aren’t connected properly so my smile sortof drags down at the edge a bit. I’m just so happy to be able to smile that I couldn’t care less. I don’t even care so much about my crooked teeth that I used to be embarrassed by. I realize now what a gift it is to be able to smile at all.

The rest of my face is taking a long time to recover and it’s not making connections as quickly as my smile did. I have difficulty talking, especially towards the end of very social days when my muscles tire. I still can’t furrow or raise my eyebrow. I can’t snarl or flare my nostril. I find all of that rather amusing and appropriate actually, that I can smile but I can’t look angry or sad. I can chew on my left side now, but I still have to be mindful of taking small bites and taking my time. The muscles in my mouth and lips on the left side are still weak so I can’t always keep my mouth closed when I chew. I feel a little like a dog when I eat sometimes, in the best possible way.

I have always had faith that I would recover. I remember telling the doctors in the first few days that when I laid down for awhile and then propped myself up my face felt a little bit lighter. They brushed it off as unrelated and psychosomatic in nature, but I think there was something to it. I did my research on scientific studies and alternative therapies alike, and as soon as I got home I started taking cod liver oil and vitamin b12 every day. And I watched for signs of recovery and rejoiced in every twingle. But at the same time I prepared myself for the worst. I reminded myself how lucky I am to be alive, and that I could live with a half-paralyzed face and I’d be just fine. At each stage of recovery I do the same. If it all stopped right now, I would be alright. I haven’t really been able to explain to some folks just how traumatic and devastating the whole thing has been, and how acceptance with each stage of recovery is a huge part of learning to be ok. I know the folks who say “you’re going to be just fine” or “you’re going to recover completely” mean well, and it’s hard to explain why it’s so aggravating and offensive. I don’t get to dismiss it all so easily, and I will never recover completely, but I know I’m going to be fine. I’m going to be fine even if my face stops recovering right now.

The paralysis also took away some of my taste sensation. Things tasted more bland to me for awhile, and it seemed like my sense of sweetness was most affected, and a bit of savory too. I’ve noticed things starting to taste better and more normal as I recover. I’m able to enjoy wine again, out of a regular glass, and things like cake and cookies are much more appetizing now. Nerves do funny things as they recover, and for weeks now as my ability to taste comes back I’ve had a constant sensation of sweetness. Not just when I eat, it’s there all the time. It’s amazing really. Think about the possible alternatives. It could be salty, bitter, or sour, but it’s not. Recovery is sweet.

My left eye.

I haven’t written much about my accident or recovery because I’ve been so focused on getting better, I haven’t really wanted to think about it, and also partially because my lawyer warned me against talking about any of it online. In fact I was even advised to shut down my facebook account and to delete my entire website. I understand what they’re trying to do, and I’ll stay away from accounts of the accident or liability until they’ve duked it all out, but I don’t think there’s much harm in talking about my recovery. For those who visit this blog for art, please forgive the interruption. Art mingles with recovery in my life now, and so it shall be here too.


Let’s start with my left eye.

It took awhile for me to realize that the left side of my face was paralyzed. Over the course of the next couple weeks after the accident, the timing of the onset of the paralysis became a topic of discussion and concern amongst my doctors. Could I or Greg remember whether the paralysis was instant or had it taken a few hours to set in? The former would indicate a severed nerve and a grim prognosis, while the latter would indicate a compressed nerve and something like a 50% chance of recovery. We both felt like the paralysis must not have been instant. Even in the chaos of the ER, wouldn’t we have noticed something of that magnitude? Even though my condition was critical and the doctors were solely focused on saving my life, wouldn’t they have noticed a symptom that resembles a stroke? I seem to remember talking to Greg in the ER without difficulty in my facial movements. But at the time I felt like I had hands all over me and there was the chest tube OMG THE CHEST TUBE and people sticking things in me and a million people talking to me all at once and overall general disorder, so am I remembering it correctly? I seem to remember that when the CHP officer took my statement while my head was being stapled shut I was only annoyed with his apparent lack of compassion but I wasn’t aware of any difficulty with speaking. Later that evening in the ICU, one of my doctors told me that I would need to protect my eye since it wasn’t closing, and I adamantly denied it. “See, I can close it” I said as I struggled to get it shut and then realized that something was very wrong.

I don’t remember when we learned about taping my eye shut. I was on so many drugs that the line between being awake and being asleep was a thin one. I do know that we hardly got any information from the doctors about how to manage the paralysis. Greg had to do his own research and find the right tape to use on my eye, and we started a little routine that we would stick to for many weeks to come. Every night before he left the hospital he would tape my eye shut. Sometimes I would leave it taped most of the next day because it was hard for me to tape it shut again and there was no napping without tape. When I finally took the tape off I would have double vision for awhile, and then eventually everything would go back to normal. It wasn’t until I got to the rehab center two weeks after the accident that my doctor there started to get insistent about getting a specialist to take a look at my eye.

I still wasn’t walking when I was transported to the first ophthalmologist. I was transported on a gurney in an ambulance, to an office that clearly never sees patients in my condition. They didn’t have room for my gurney so I was moved to a wheelchair, and then the exam chair. At that time moving and sitting were both excruciating. I explained my case to the assistant, and then waited and waited and waited some more for the doctor, out of my mind with pain in the stiff exam chair. The only helpful information I got from that visit was when he told me to keep my left eye over-medicated with drops or ointment or whatever works. “Don’t worry about seeing out of that eye for awhile” he said, right before he told me that he wanted me to see a plastic surgeon to have it SEWN SHUT IMMEDIATELY. I was in so much pain that it was hard to digest this rather devastating assessment, but once I was safely back in my bed at the rehab center and had a chance to mull it over with Greg, we decided it was completely absurd. Not only was I at that point DONE with medical procedures, it had never come up as an option in all of our research. Even the most severe cases, with no recovery of the nerve, are treated with small weights implanted into the eyelid. And that’s after waiting over a year to make sure all recovery is complete.

After I was out of rehab we got a second opinion and this ophthalmologist was much more reasonable. He confirmed everything we had learned so far. Keep the eye all lubed up, tape it shut at night, reassess in three months. If no improvement has been made after three months, we’ll talk about the next steps. I asked him about special dry-eye glasses I’d found online, which have silicone cups around the eyes to protect from sun and wind and he just shrugged and said I could try them. Yet another example of us having to do our own research, no doctor ever suggested these glasses. Once I got them and had them fitted with prescription transitions lenses, I knew they were one of the best things to happen to my recovery so far. Even with my left eye wide open for months, they’ve allowed me to go outside and do all the things I normally do, without fear of damaging my eye. I still use oodles of ointment, which makes my left eye constantly cloudy, but the consequences of that are minor compared to what life would be like if my eye were sewn shut.

My face has started to recover (I’ll get into more about the rest of my face and the complications and consequences of the paralysis in another post), but the nerves around my eyelid are taking forever. I can see and feel my eye trying to blink, and just recently I was able to force my eye all the way shut for the first time in months. But I can’t hold it there, and without the ability to blink I’m still a slave to my ointment and my goggle glasses. I still can’t see very well overall, which complicates everything I do. If I don’t get enough sleep it hurts for the entire day. It makes art hard, and seeing in weird lighting situations (like a recent trip to an aquarium) is really difficult. Working at the computer is stressful, and trying to see anything in detail is nearly impossible. Strangely enough, driving and riding my bike haven’t been all that challenging, I’m not really sure why.

I was feeling great about the recovery in my face so far, until I went to see a facial physical therapist. She was so blasé about the whole thing, acting as if my recovery wasn’t fast but rather fairly average or even slow. I’ve found this to be common amongst doctors who are used to treating Bell’s Palsy, which is related to my diagnosis of 7th Facial Nerve Palsy, but has a much better prognosis and shorter recovery time. She suggested that I should consider the eyelid weight implant right now. “It becomes a quality of life issue” she said when I asked her if I shouldn’t wait at least a year to see how far my recovery will go. And then she told me that the implant procedure is irreversible.

It won’t be the first time I haven’t taken a doctor’s advice. I’m going to blink again someday, I can feel it. In the meantime, I’m starting to like my goggle glasses.

First world debt.

In the fall of 2009 our tenuous grip on financial solvency broke, leaving us with very few choices other than bankruptcy. Bankruptcy actually might have been the smartest choice, financially speaking. We knew other folks, and read about many in the news, who declared bankruptcy or went through foreclosure, and gamed the system brilliantly. I’m not saying that all those who declared bankruptcy or went through foreclosure were abusing the system, but some did, and they made me wonder if they actually had the right idea in a very self-serving kind of way. I remember one story in particular, about a local couple who simply stopped paying their mortgage, bought a brand new BMW instead, and waited for the overwhelmed bank to kick them out about a year and a half later. Can you imagine living rent/mortgage-free for a year and a half? I sure could do a lot with that money, and it wouldn’t involve buying a BMW. Our focus though was on keeping our house, and even though one type of bankruptcy makes such accommodations, we also didn’t ever want it on our credit record. So in a last-ditch effort to save our house, our credit, and our sanity, we entered into a debt management program.

Being in the plan is no cake walk. You have to commit to about 5 years, during which a significant chunk of your salary is automatically withdrawn from your bank account and sent to your various creditors. You can’t miss a payment, you can’t use any credit cards or any line of credit, and you can’t open any new lines of credit or you’ll be kicked out of the program.

When I think about what we gave up when we entered into the plan, it starts to sound like what the kids these days call “first world problems.” I cancelled my wine clubs. I cancelled all of our magazine subscriptions. I stopped buying chocolate. I turned off the heaters at 65 instead of 72. We stopped traveling together. We stopped going to starbucks. I reduced our netflix, our emusic, and any other variable subscription down to the most basic level. I stopped buying clothes. We stopped eating out. Doesn’t sound so bad right? Except it’s relentless. It’s not like you get to start buying clothes and wine again in a month or even a year. And there have been plenty of situations that have felt more like living in poverty than a bad joke about suburban excess. I had to take a second job for about a year and a half, and Greg took so many side jobs he sometimes worked 7 days a week. We had to use up all the allowed forbearance time on our student loans. I’ve had to delay some bills to pay others, barely making the deadlines and in some cases missing them by months. I’ve had to leave my groceries at the checkout because some unexpected bill caused the debit card to be rejected. I’ve had to feed us on big batches of bean soup because groceries are the only variable part of our budget, so sometimes that money went to pay bills instead. We’ve had to delay veterinary care for our animals, unless it’s life-threatening, and in that case or in the case of any other true emergency we’ve had to borrow money from friends. I am forever grateful to the people in our lives who were there for us in this regard, and to my friend who hired me for that second job, for being our lifeline. I’m not even sure they will ever understand how much of an impact they made on our lives. Without them we would surely be in bankruptcy right now.

There are so many things I don’t take for granted anymore. Simple things, like having a functioning heater in my car or being able to buy a new pair of jeans or being able to get bloodwork done on our sick kitty without having to wonder how we’ll eat for the next two weeks. We’ve always lived pretty simply and thriftily. Most of our debt came from gilding our little shack with “luxuries” like drywall and a roof. But this experience has pushed us to a whole new appreciation about what it means to do without. While I’m left with so much troubling doubt about our economy, and humanity’s unsustainable consumption and reproduction, I can only say that I know what the moral of the story is on a personal level. Maybe declaring bankruptcy and having our debt cleared would have been the right move, for selfish financial reasons, but it feels amazing to know that we got ourselves out of this situation (with a little help from our friends) and the experience was worth far more than a brand new BMW.

The expense of beekeeping.

I never got into bees to make money. I don’t even think the professionals get into bees to make money. Yes, you pay a lot for great local honey at your farmer’s market, but beekeeping is more expensive than most folks realize. Ever since I put my honey on the (underground) market, friends have made a lot of comments about how much money I must be making. So let’s review some of the expenses.

To get started, you need $300 minimum, for a suit, equipment, and your first hive. Your first hive will just be a single brood box, with frames, and a top and bottom board. Bees are extra. $60 if you can pick them up yourself at a bee farm like Koehnen in Chico (plus your travel costs), or up to $125 if you buy them (with frames included) from a local beekeeper. Your new bees will outgrow that single box within a couple months. Another brood box will run you about $100, with frames. There are ways to make this cheaper by buying the box and frames in pieces and assembling them yourself, or starting from scratch and building your own, but it is merely a substitution of your very valuable time for money. An uneasy tradeoff for anyone with a full-time job and a farmlet.

An example of a single hive just starting up, and an established hive with two brood boxes and a super:
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Later in your first year you’ll probably find that you need some added equipment, and you’ll be lucky if you have a local beekeeping supply shop, so every time you order from Dadant shipping is at least $15. You’ll have to replace old brood comb occasionally, so you’ll need to buy new foundation, plus the special wire and tools to mount it on the frames. And you’ll need chemicals to treat for Varroa Mites, possibly antibiotics to treat for Nosema, Bt to keep your stored frames free from wax moth, and maybe pollen if your bees are having a bad winter. I never get out of Dadant’s website without spending at least $50. Speaking of a bad winter, you’ll probably have to feed your bees during their first winter, and maybe subsequent winters if you’re in an area experiencing a drought. You’d better get a Costco card for all that sugar. In the hardest months of winter I was buying 30 pounds of sugar every two weeks.

Here’s what a frame from the brood box looks like:
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When your bees are healthy and productive, and your local flora is finally producing nectar for them to turn into honey, you have to buy smaller boxes to go on top of the brood boxes, so your bees can store all that honey for you. These are called supers, and usually set you back about $60-$90 depending on whether you need frames with foundation. You need at least two of these per hive, and most beekeepers recommend more. If you do crush-and-strain to harvest your honey you’ll have to buy foundation by the case to keep refilling the frames. Those are about $1 per sheet and you need 10 to fill a super. My bees can fill up a 10-frame super in about 2 weeks. I have 6 supers. You can see how this is starting to add up. If you contract out with an extraction service so that you don’t have to keep replacing that foundation, you’ll be paying a service charge, plus 50cents per pound. And if you want to get your own extractor, be prepared to pay at least $800 for the barebones version. If you’re lucky enough to have $1200 laying around, that’s the one that will actually work.

Crush-and-strain is labor-intensive and expensive:
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Honey and wax returned from the extraction service in buckets, ready to be bottled:
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Now you need to bottle your honey. Mason jars are expensive these days, at a little over $1 per jar. Wholesale will save you some money, but there are big minimums. My orders have to be $75 at a time, and my jars with lids end up costing me anywhere between 50cents and $1 depending on their size. Bottling takes tons of time, sometimes costing me 5 hours to bottle a few gallons, especially when I do crush-and-strain. And time to me is more valuable than money. It is the most precious commodity I have.

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My honey sales right now are going towards recouping some of these costs. I don’t anticipate the demand to stay as strong once the novelty wears off and friends find it easier to just grab some honey while they’re at Trader Joe’s than to email me to arrange a pick-up or drop-off. So as I slowly sell honey in the future, the goal is to save up for an extractor. I’m not getting rich by any means. And neither is your local professional beekeeper, who has the added expense of managing a legitimate business. It’s one reason why beekeepers have been driven to provide pollination services, even though it compromises the health of their bees. But that’s another story.

So, my friends, I’m not trying to make money off of you. Right now I’m just trying to break even. Your local beekeeper is trying to do the same, and he’s also probably trying to keep his business running and support his family. Please support your local beekeeper, whether that’s me, or someone at your local farmer’s market. We promise not to sell you high-fructose corn syrup from China.

Transient bees.

A cool thing happened in our backyard recently. But first, a little background on bee swarms, for those who don’t know how they work…

When a hive feels cramped in its current living quarters, it splits in two and sends its old queen and about 60% of the workers off into the wild to find a new home. That group of bees settles somewhere temporary for about 3 days, while scouts find something more permanent. Once a location is agreed upon, they all move in. So anytime you see a ball of bees out in the open, like hanging in a tree branch or attached to the side of a building, they’re swarming and that’s just their temporary digs while they consult with their real-estate agents.

A few weeks ago, the smallest swarm I’ve ever seen gathered on the backside of one of my beehives. As a beekeeper, I’m always concerned with preventing my own bees from swarming because it kills their productivity, so I suited up the next morning and checked out this swarm. I brushed them into a cardboard box so that I could look for their queen, and I did indeed verify that she wasn’t mine. This was a little wild swarm, perhaps from the wild bees living in our soffit or elsewhere around town. Knowing that they’d be on their way to a more suitable home in a few days, I left them in the cardboard box on top of the hive where they had originally gathered. At least they’d stay warm at night while they were visiting. That evening when I got home from work they were gone.

Everywhere bees go, they leave pheromones. Especially queens. So I shouldn’t be surprised that when I didn’t get around to taking the cardboard box off my hive, a new swarm moved in and this one was here to stay. They’ve been in the box for maybe about a week now and they’ve started building comb. That’s one way to tell if a swarm is staying or moving on – they only build comb when they’ve found their permanent home. Again I needed to check this swarm out to make sure it wasn’t from my hives, and this time I brought my camera and got some neat photos of the early stages of hive construction. Please pardon the photo quality. I’m newly allergic to bees and have to fully suit up anytime I’m around them, while I wait for my HMO to drag its heels on my referral to start allergy shots. Taking photos in big leather gloves isn’t easy.

Here’s the box, right where I left it on top of my hive:
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Peeking inside:
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When bees swarm, they are primed to start making wax since they need to get comb constructed ASAP so their queen can start laying. They extrude the wax through glands in their abdomen. There are certainly better pictures of this online, but it was really cool to see it in person. The bee in the center of this photo is extruding:

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Here’s a close-up:
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And a better view of the comb they’re building:
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I can’t keep them, since I’m maxed out and completely overwhelmed by the number of hives I have already, so I offered them up to my bee club. Of course if there are any interested parties reading this, who live in the LA area and have an empty hive ready to go, email me at robindodge@onesheephill.com and they’re all yours. They seem docile enough right now, but they’re just moving in so I can’t vouch for their long-term behavior.

It was fun to be the host for a swarm for awhile. Maybe I’ll leave a cardboard box bee condo on my hives all the time, for transients and residents alike.