Life

Day of Gratitude

Life is filled with choices. We may not always get to choose what happens to or around us but we do get to choose how we respond. We choose where our energy goes. What happens to us doesn’t define us, but how we respond does.

A year ago I was dying. I didn’t know I was dying. I thought I had bad allergies and tension headaches. I was in denial about how terrible I felt, and had felt for months. The morning I drove myself to the emergency room, though, that morning I felt like I was dying. So it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the doctor told me I had a mass on my brain the size of two golf balls, that my spinal fluid was almost completely blocked from my brain, that I had a massive amount of fluid on my brain, and that I needed emergency brain surgery or I would die, soon. And then I was put in an ambulance and taken to a hospital, where my husband met me, and we met the man who saved my life.

I have practiced yoga for many years, but not always consistently. I attended my very first yoga class when I was pregnant with my now twelve-year-old daughter Ava. I lived in a pretty small town and the local community center had a six week beginner hatha yoga class. So I went. And immediately I knew it was something pretty amazing. Through the years I mostly practiced at home, with videos or apps. And I was happy to have that. I longed for more yoga, but life and little kids, and then law school and a divorce, and everything in between, it was always the first thing to get crossed off the list. Along the way, though, my off the mat practice evolved. And was there to help me at every twist and turn, and joy and sorrow. And more than anything in my life, it gave me the tools I needed to find strength and courage and grace and humility along every journey. And the life changing path I traveled all of 2017 was no exception.

My doctors said I should have been paralyzed. That it was unbelievable that I drove myself to the emergency room. They seemed amazed that I could feel my toes, and move my fingers. I remember laying there and just being like WTH. I need to get home. I don’t have time for this. Laundry, kids, dinner. I definitely needed to pump. I was still letting everything that had kept me from seeing a doctor long before I did, control the situation. I was admitted into the ICU. And a crash cart was wheeled in. And went with me to every scan, every test. Suddenly everything got very real. And all I could think was what if I hadn’t gone to the emergency room. For months I was haunted by the image of my daughter coming home from school and finding me dead.

Five months earlier we moved from Minneapolis to Dallas. With four kids, a dog, and a household full of stuff. It was exhausting, but worth every minute. Our youngest, Sawyer, was only four months old. Shortly after he was born I started having pretty constant headaches. When I told my ob she quickly blamed hormones, lack of sleep, allergies, and our impending cross country move. Logical. The headaches got worse over time, and I continued to blame them on those things. Denial. Pure and complete idiotic denial. Five months before the mass almost killed me, I couldn’t even reach into the backseat to help my kids and then lift my head back to center without being in excruciating pain. That was obviously much more than stress, or hormones, or any of the other excuses I came up with because I didn’t want to add another stressor to the pot. Why is it so hard to listen to our bodies?

After a seven or so hour surgery, I woke up with a terrible haircut, an incision that stretched from the base of my neck to the top of my head, and excruciating pain that I’ll never forget. I spent a week in the hospital, where I had to learn to walk, move and use my body, and manage pain. Once I got home, I stayed in bed for two months. At first I couldn’t be around any noise. I have four kids at home. At the time they were 9 months, 3, 11, and 15. My house is loud and filled with beautiful chaos. And I couldn’t be around any of it. I couldn’t be in the same room with any of them for several weeks unless they were impossibly quiet. And when I was finally able to tolerate some noise, it was only for a few minutes. Which made it even harder than not seeing them at all. I spent almost every night crying, all night. Uncontrollable sobs that rocked my whole body. I was so confused, and exhausted and had so much pain. I couldn’t walk without help. I couldn’t spend time with my kids. I was completely dependent on everyone else, for everything. I missed my life. It was dark, and lonely, and full of despair.

I spent half of my pregnancy with Sawyer on modified bedrest. In the middle of a cold and dreary Minnesota winter. After he was born, my baby-blues skyrocketed out of control into post-partum depression. That was by far the darkest and most lonely time of my life. But luckily, with my husband’s love, my therapist’s guidance, and yoga and the person it had helped me become, I fought my way back from the absolute most difficult period of my life. And as I lay recovering from this traumatic brain mass/almost dying experience, I reflected heavily on that time, knowing that if I was able to survive that, I could survive anything.

I almost didn’t go to the emergency room that morning. I was alone, I barely knew anyone in our new community, we didn’t have any family here, and Tom was away at an annual conference (luckily it was local – he’s otherwise always had to travel for it). That morning Emilia, then 3, had to help me off the floor because I was in so much pain. I knew something was wrong. Luckily the little kids had just started montessori and Sawyer was finally drinking from a bottle. So I had no more excuses. At drop off, the teachers wanted to call me an ambulance. So I promised I would go in. I just needed to go home and pump first.

I have always been a stubborn pain in the ass. Ask my parents. Ask my husband. Ask anyone who knows me. I don’t plan on changing. It has served me well. And no brain surgery was going to change that. Thankfully. Because five months after my surgery, shortly after I started a new job and was starting to find my new normal, a check-up scan showed that the mass was growing back. So five months and a day after what I truly thought would be my only brain surgery, I had to undergo it again. And then, five months after that, again.

Prior to my first surgery my doctor warned me that because of the location of the mass, how severely it had shifted my brain, and the compromised brain tissue, I would struggle with fine motor skills and would have long-term balance and coordination issues, among other things, the extent of severity unknown. Prior to my second surgery he warned me that because they would have to go deeper into the brain tissue, those issues would likely be more severe. Having to learn to walk and use my body again made these warnings real. But yoga had saved me so many times before and I was hopeful it could save me again. So when my body was ready, I forced myself to roll out my mat. And I sat on it and cried. And I rolled it back up. A few days later, I rolled it out again. And I cried.  And I rolled it back up. And then one day I added movement. Gentle, small movement. And this became my practice. Roll it out, cry, move, cry, roll it up. Roll it out, cry less, move more, roll it up. And then just like that, I was able to get through the pain and finish a five minute sequence, then ten, then fifteen. Every additional minute made me feel stronger. My spirit was returning. My light was brighter, my energy felt lifted. I used the hallway to help me add poses that required balance, mostly warrior II and a pretty wide-stanced crescent lunge. I was finding me. And it was beautiful. When I was brave enough, I tried the poses without the wall support. And although a bit wobbly, I stood fearless in warrior II, ready to fight through the pain, the darkness, the loneliness of recovery. I felt empowered. I was far from a one-legged balancing pose, but I believed I could get there. So when a follow-up scan showed the mass had returned, it took my breath away. I knew how bad recovery sucked and I couldn’t believe I had to do it again. I had worked so hard, physically and emotionally. I didn’t want to start over.

I woke up the morning after my second surgery to the same massive incision and unbelievable pain. But out of the window in my hospital room was the most beautiful sunrise. And I was breathing. A privilege many don’t get. I couldn’t walk, and I was of course worried about what my doctor had warned, but I was breathing. So I reminded myself that I am a warrior and that the only thing I needed in order to practice yoga was my breath. That I would be fine. And that’s when I decided I was going to be a yoga teacher, so I had no choice but to get back up and keep fighting. That all the hard work I had done over the prior five months would serve as my foundation, that I would continue to practice self-love and self-study, and I would eventually find a different new normal. I reminded myself of that often, through another challenging recovery, and this time it wasn’t quite as dark, or lonely, or so full of despair. I showed myself grace. I found courage. I practiced compassion. And I continued to grow as a person. And when I was ready, I rolled out my mat. And I sat on it and cried. And I rolled it back up. A few days later, I rolled it out again. And I cried. And I rolled it up. And when my body was ready, I added movement, slowly and mindfully. The walls again served as my support. And one day, without the walls, I stood rooted to the Earth balancing in Vrksasana (tree pose), feeling brave and so proud. Every time I picture that moment I cry, and my heart fills with even more joy and gratitude. It was one of my most defining moments.

I found a yoga studio and in early September I attended my first yoga class of 2017. I was terrified, but I knew there was no safer space to be than on my mat surrounded by other yogis. It was soon obvious that the studio was filled with amazing people, and because of that and how it made me feel just being there, that is where I decided to do my training, which I started in October. I was so worried that I wasn’t physically strong enough. But luckily, yoga is so much more than poses, and I was at the exact right place in my life for the exploration and growth that my off the mat practice needed. It is far from easy, and usually leaves me physically and emotionally exhausted. But I love every second of it. The instructors and the other trainees have become like family, and they inspire me and give me courage. I am a better person because of each of them. I’ll finish in April, and am so excited for the journey that will follow.

November came. And we learned I needed a third surgery. Luckily, though, not because the mass had returned. During my second surgery, a shunt was placed in the brain tissue to keep it from growing back. So as long as that does its job, the remaining mass should remain a sad, deflated piece of tissue. The first two recoveries were almost identical, so when I was having consistent pain in my surgery site that I didn’t recognize I suspected something was wrong.  At first my doctor blamed nerve damage and scar tissue, which I absolutely deal with. So I knew that wasn’t it. I persisted. And a scan revealed that one of the two dozen or so screws that secure an iphone-sized plate to my skull had come out and a portion of the plate was lifting. While it was not quite as severe as the first two surgeries, it was far worse than I was prepared for. In addition to screwing additional screws into my skull, my skull was sanded and shaped to create a better surface for the plate. I am still very much recovering from the added trauma. Each of these surgeries takes a good year to recover from, so compounding three into one year hasn’t afforded my body the time it truly needs. Overall I am doing pretty amazing all things considered. Some days are harder than others. My head hurts all the time. I have memory loss that’s emotionally hard to accept. And sometimes it’s all just frustrating. And on those days I allow myself the grace to live in that emotion. I am human, after all. But it’s a dangerous place to stay, so the yogi in me doesn’t let me stay long. And my physical yoga practice is doing better than ever. Even if for only fifteen minutes, I have done yoga every day of 2018. That’s a huge accomplishment for me.

I spent the last twelve months just trying to survive. I spent a lot of time this week reflecting on that, and it has been way more emotional than I was expecting. I shed a lot of tears. Sad tears, happy tears. Tears for myself, tears for my children, tears for my husband. Tears in gratitude to our community, our family and friends, and so many people we don’t even know, who sent us cards, prayed, brought us meals, stayed with us, played with our kids, and gave us their friendship. I’m amazed, to be honest. By all of it. Including me. Grace, courage, and compassion are amazing tools. As 2017 came to an end, someone told me they were sorry for the terrible year I had. Not a single part of me believes I had a terrible year. It was challenging, but it was the opposite of terrible. Even though everything was pointing otherwise, I’m alive. I’m here. I’m breathing. Over the last twelve months, I spent a lot of time with just me, and I finally realized what a kick-ass person I am. I learned to love myself. I found contentment. And for the first time in my life I know that just being me is enough. I can’t believe the Universe thought I needed three brain surgeries to get me here, but I get it. The year I spent surviving changed me. I’m so grateful for it.

So why this? When I look at all of the challenges I have overcome, there’s one common theme that has helped me navigate the journey. Yoga. Whether physically on the mat, or my beautiful practice off the mat, yoga has helped me find the grace, courage, and compassion I need for whatever I might face. And I have so much more to learn, and so much more space to grow. That’s exciting and just one of the beauties of yoga – it’s a practice so it evolves and changes and grows with you. There is no end point. And I want to help people. Now more than ever. I have been pretty open about my recovery and through that, many people have thanked me for my vulnerability and strength, and have told me I inspire them. That’s an incredibly humbling thing to hear.  For some reason I was given an extra chance, and I can’t let that go unnoticed. That would be a waste. So I’m combining my passions, with hopes that I’ll provide some tools along the way that will inspire someone to find joy, to be more wholehearted, to find contentment, to be the best version of themselves that they can be. And if I can do that, then the Universe didn’t waste that chance on me.

I know this is an incredibly long blog post. Thank you for sticking with me and getting through it. I don’t really know the rules. Not that I would follow them anyway. Going forward, I’ll be much more succinct.

My tribe decided that we will celebrate January 27 as our Annual Day of Gratitude. Whatever gratitude means to you, shout it out. Feel it in your breath, feel it in your heart.  A year ago today was the scariest day of my lie. I was dying. I was so afraid. But I am here. And I am breathing. And I am healthy. And today I got to sit by the ocean and watch the sunrise with my husband.

In gratitude,

Jen

6 Comments

  • Nicole B

    Jen-
    I’m crying reading this but they are not sad tears. They are tears of happiness. I feel so blessed to have been given the chance to meet you, get to know you and feeling so grateful that you’re here. I want to spend more time with you in 2018 and beyond and share happy memories together. So incredibly excited for you and your journey and can’t wait to see what you do next.
    Love you sweet friend ❤️
    Nicole xo

  • Kourtney Schniederjan

    Jen,
    This! This is the most profound and REAL piece of writing I have read in a very long time! You are such a testament to survival and living life to its fullest. Thank you so much for being so candid. I feel lucky to have you as a friend!
    ~Kourtney

  • Randi

    Such an amazing journey Jen. So grateful to God for giving you a path to healing and restoration. I am excited for this new chapter for you. Hope your trip is going great and that you are enjoying being by the water. How beautiful to celebrate life with your family. Love Randi

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