I know this syndrome, born of shock and denial. Even while waiting out the standoff that would result in my first husband's suicide, I kept thinking: as soon as I get home, I'll file the newspaper article that had been due that day. Our plans are important. They organize our lives and make us feel safe; we know what to expect.
So when I broke my ankle two weeks before the fall Writing Partner retreat I was to host at our summer home, my immediate inclination was to forge on. For a variety of reasons I'd had to work hard to do it but I'd finally pulled together an awesome group of women. And after planning my father's memorial service, living all summer with my mother who suffers from dementia, and working 12-15 hour days to catch up with the most editing work I've ever had in a year—adding to that now, the ankle injury—I really needed to retreat, in every sense of the word.
I assured everyone, even from my hospital bed, that the retreat would move ahead as planned. I had two whole weeks to get better. I could do this, I thought.
That was before I realized just how far I would have to retreat.
My first inkling was how exhausting it was for the fiercely independent woman I'd become to ask for every little thing I needed: That a pillow relocated to another room be delivered. My pills, please. More water. Food? My whole life my mom had been dutiful in the nursing department, and she still was, but she couldn't remember where to find anything; I constantly had to fight through my medicated brain-numbness to find the words I needed to help her locate what she needed. Often more than once. Then again.
And let's just say that to depend upon a walker, using only one leg, was akin to walking on your legs your whole life and then being told to instead walk on your hands. Muscles rebelled.
Although I ferried between only two locations—the bed at night, and the couch on the porch by day—at every meal my mother would set me a place at the table, sometimes even starting her meal before saying, "Oh, you're going to eat over there tonight?" As if I was inconveniencing her by my sudden decision. And here I was supposed to be taking care of her. Dave was a big help, but caring for me in such a way was new to him, too. Rather than patronize me, he erred on the side of waiting to be told what to do.
Even as guilt and impotence drained me, lack of sleep screwed with my head. Part of me felt I had to stand guard all night lest Dave—who has no trouble sleeping despite his jumpy leg syndrome—strike out at my ankle. Yet I wouldn't ask him to sleep elsewhere. What if I needed him? I sandbagged a barrier between us with an extra pillow but couldn't fall asleep. And when I finally would I'd jerk awake with continued flashbacks—the slip, the sudden fall. The snap of the first bone, the crunching of the others. The rain, the shivering. In the middle of the night, with nothing to distract me from my hot ankle pain and stranded between pain pill dosages, I'd lie there softly crying for as much as an hour and a half.
My days, once a multi-tasker's mishmash (blogging, social networking, writing on my own book-length projects, editing for others, booking future speaking gigs) were now simply mash: clomping to the bathroom, sponge bathing, getting to the couch, eating, resting, and trying to find new ways to get up from the couch. Every single thing required creative problem solving that sleep deprivation left me poorly equipped to tackle, from washing my face (I put a stool beside the sink to kneel on, effectively creating for myself another leg) to tentative forays into food prep (I could chop veggies if someone washed and dried them, brought me a knife and a cutting board, then came to retrieve them).
It was clear I couldn't provide the type of bed and breakfast retreat experience my ladies signed on for. So I could contact them Dave rigged up this system so I could sit at my computer: a bench-like coffee table shoved beneath my desktop table, with a pillow on it that I could slide my foot along as he pushed in my chair. I went online to negotiate with my retreaters. I'd go ahead with the retreat and return some of their money, I said, if they'd agree to an alternative, commune-like experience where all pitched in.
Turning on the computer meant hitting the wall of hundreds of e-mails missed during the three days I was in the hospital. I opened a few, wondered how the hell I'd ever handled dealing with so much mail, then shut it off. Ten minutes sitting up had my ankle throbbing; I needed to lie down and elevate it. Above my heart; above my passions.
My awesome retreaters quickly agreed to the new terms. But as the days wore on, I was still only capable of staying up until 8 pm, the time when our evening readings would usually begin. My sleep was so fractured I couldn't make it through the day without a nap, either. I felt incapable of leading anything. And for the first time in many years, I needed rest more than I needed to write.
Uncle. I had let go in stages, but I finally faced my limitations: this retreat would not be anything like the experience I wanted for my guests, and further, it would fail to feed my own writing soul, now held captive and inaccessible in some parallel universe. I canceled the retreat, and while I was at it, all but one of my fall speaking engagements.
I had to face my new reality: not only was I no longer the multi-tasking modern writer, I couldn't figure out how I'd ever even lived that life.
For now, I was a simply a woman trying to figure out how to survive, and how to ask for help doing so.
I love that saying, "Life is what happens while we're busy making plans." Have you ever tried to hold onto a plan despite an extreme change in circumstance? I'd love to hear your story.