May 26, 2022
Dear May 26, 2018-Jackie:
Today is one of the worst days you’ve lived through in your life, but you’ll hardly remember it. You can’t read this today, because you’re mostly unconscious. But you’re going to live. And you’re going to see some familiar faces soon that will bring you happiness.
You’re in indescribable pain now. You’re on morphine. People around you think you’re going to die or be rendered permanently disabled. They don’t think you’ll be you again. People are scared for you, but you’re unaware. Rest up. You’ll get it and feel it all soon. It will also hurt in indescribable ways. You’ll soon learn the pain that a broken brain causes.
In a few more weeks, you’ll wake up from all the madness that went on for months and then you’ll learn about it. When you awake, you’ll whole heartedly believe that your life is destroyed. Absolutely no one will convince you that there’s any hope. Just sit with it for a while. Sit with the pain that all is lost for about a month. That’s it though. Then it’s time to hear the words: “The setback sets you up for the comeback.” When Ken says: “The Jackie I know is going to rise up,” you may hate him for it that day, but he’s planting a seed. You see, Jackie, everyone believes in you. And I know it’s weird, because you’ve been uber confident since you were about four, but you’re the only one who doesn’t believe. You’re not sure if you’ll live, let alone come back to who you once were. I can’t lie, there are many obstacles in your way. It’s going to take time. So much time. You’ll learn that patience is action. And the inaction you feel has to last years. Your return to action will be gradual and in all honesty, it will never again be the same.
Your days are going to be full of everything you don’t want: medication, doctors, appointments, and tests. You’re not being irrational, everything you knew is gone. Your job. Your daily fun with friends in the firm. You can’t drive for a long time. Your ability to think, remember, and speak is debilitated. Some of this comes back in time. Some of it is gone and you’ll grieve it like a death. You’ll grieve your own “death” and realize that you can write the obituary for what once was or begin to live again. This process is long. It is arduous.
You feel alone. Lost. Scared. Hurt. Angry. And devastated. You don’t think that’s a powerful enough word, but it’s the one you eventually settle on. Dr. McKeon’s going to look at you six months from now and tell you AE is devastating. He’s right. You’ll have short hair, a moustache, be thirty pounds overweight to where your skin is breaking, and have full body aches when you hear it. Your physical appearance pains you, but just look through it. You’ll like what you see again in time.
You want people to understand, Jackie. But many cannot. You don’t even know AE until you wake up from this nightmare and they don’t either. People will say hurtful things. It’s not an excuse, but it’s life. More importantly, people will say the nicest things you’ll ever hear in your lifetime. Some beautiful things will come from strangers or in anonymous cards. Through your heavy cries, you’ll actually feel like the most special woman in the world.
People are trying. Hard. You’re going to learn the hard way that sometimes it’s not you, it’s them. And then you’ll have to accept it. Moving on is the worst. You’ll know what I mean. But you have to move on.
Radical acceptance is a challenge. But you find a way. You’ll go from hopeless, to dim belief, to fake it until you make it, to finding yourself again. And when you do, you’ll like her. The new you even looks good in navy, a color you hate. You’ll cry through each stage, but it doesn’t matter. It’s okay to be vulnerable. You’ll even come to embrace it.
Everyone has a route they want you to take. And a health tip. They have chiropractors that can massage your brain, scan your brain, and heal your knee. Don’t get mad at them, you’ll see that you used to do it too. People want to fix you, like you wanted to fix them. You have to learn that you’re the only one with the secret tips to repair. And there’s a health coach waiting at every turn. Don’t dismiss it, because you’ll meet one you love. She’ll one day tell you: “You know you can do anything, Jackie.” And you’ll believe it.
You are going to feel so alone. But guess what – there’s an AE family waiting for you. They’re in England, North Carolina, and all over the world. You’ll feel overwhelmed to seek, but once you find you’ll discover knowledge, information, and friendship. You will lose some friends along the way and it hurts, but your new friends are great. They’re fun and interesting, and they’re not lawyers.
You’ll move so far away from your obsession with the law being your identity that you’ll call yourself a recovered lawyer. But it will always sting. And make you cry unexpectedly. You’ll learn that you don’t have an easy answer when people say: “Will you ever go back?” But you’ll also come to embrace that not only will you not go back, you can’t. You have a new full-time job; your health. It’s not desirable, but it’s the way it is.
You’ll find you can’t answer every question. Even for you that’s windy. You’ll learn that it exhausts you. So you’ll create content for everyone to read and listen to and you’ll pray that they really hear you. Some don’t. And that’s okay. Your story is yours no matter what. You’ll share it via blog posts and podcasts.
Yes, podcasts. You’ve never even listened to one. You’ll grow to enjoy them and you’ll become a host. Some even say you’re good at it. You do have a background in conducting direct examinations, so you’ll be fine.
Your musings will reach the globe. It’s really cool, Jackie, you gotta just keep swimming. Even for years when your head barely feels above water.
Just Keep Swimming. You’ll say that a lot. And when the timing is right, you’ll read your psych ward journal and find out that you believed in Better Days Ahead. Someday you’ll have a great shirt that says #StebbinsStrong and it even has your brain on the back. Bismarck and Bowman will be full of them! And a cool tattoo, but don’t freak out now.
The trajectory of your grief, acceptance, and recovery isn’t linear. The path looks more like your two-year-old’s scribbles on a paper.
Ah yes, a two-year-old. I’m glad you’re lying down for this one, Jackie, but God has the biggest surprise yet planned for you. It will make you unsure in ways you’ve never before felt. And then you’ll never have been so sure of anything in your life. You’re going to have an AE-baby. And not only will it turn out alright for you both, but she’s perfect. You’ll call her “Muffin.”
Go easy on Sean. You don’t know this right now and won’t get it all for years, but he worked tirelessly to save your life and return you to normal. By his graciousness, you’ll remain married. He’ll love you with a moustache, without hair, pregnant, sick, and heartbroken. Don’t ever take him for granted. And try not to snap at him. He ages really well through all this. It’s all worth it when you hear him say through tears on your podcast that he just wanted everything the same for you when you woke up. You’ll feel his profound love.
And your children. They’re only five and three now. You’ll awake and wonder just what the hell you’ve done to their lives. You gave them life, Jackie. You’ll meet their needs and get them to school, even when you’re sick. And then you’ll cheer for them at soccer. They’re smart and really kind kids. And even though you’ll miss your job, you’ll enjoy watching them grow like you missed when you were at work. Your love for family will be stronger than ever.
Mom. My God, Mom. She hits it out of the park. As much as you love your children, she still loves you like that. From ages thirty-four until thirty-eight, she takes care of you. She doesn’t move to Bismarck (yet). But you’re as closely connected as if you lived under her roof. It’s really fun. She’ll listen to you ad nauseum, but don’t take it for granted. You need a therapist, stubborn Jackie.
You’ll spend a great time wondering, what is mental health and what is AE? It’s hard for you and it’s time wasted. You can’t accept that part of your health is mental health until it’s too late. It’s going to be another serious burn. But when you finally figure it out, it’s liberating! And you’re going to be so damn brave that you’ll own it and publicly embrace it. You’ll grow to enjoy counseling and realize that learning how to cope with chronic illness can be taught. And you’re still a good student.
You have an exceptional team of medical professionals. You will follow their advice and take control over every imaginable aspect of your health. Sounds crazy right now, but you’ll believe yourself to be very healthy, even when medical records say otherwise.
You’ll learn that if you haven’t asked for someone’s advice you don’t want their opinion. A close friend will tell you practice brought out the worst in you and it will hurt. But you’ll process it. People will tell you not to bank on the book you want to write, and you’ll prove them wrong. You’ll want to renounce all your old ways because you believe you did something wrong. You didn’t do anything wrong, Jackie. You didn’t deserve this. And don’t give up all your old ways. Your will is what takes you over the finish line to recovery.
That happens! You’ll set a goal to survive one year and be in remission, and you’ll make it. After years you’ll finally see that you’ve made a triumphant recovery.
For the next year, you will think about nothing but writing a book. You resurrect that persistence and drive and decide that because the book Brain on Fire exists, you’re going to write one too. It’s much harder than you imagine. You’ll relive the gory details on loop for 365-days, and then you’ll open your laptop and begin. You’ll persevere through the dauting uphill climb of writing with a brain injury and meet your goal – your book will be published. It feels like a crazy dream, but you can do it. Work through the pain, because it’s the only way to process your trauma.
You can’t read this now, Jackie, because you can’t read; can’t write; and your eyes can’t focus. But you’ll see clearly in a few months. And although you can’t fathom this now, as the years go on, you’ll be more of a voracious reader than you’ve ever been in life, and you will write. A lot.
What you will quickly learn as you begin to wake and your brain is reactivated, is that writing is the only thing that will get you through. Words on paper or a screen are the only way for you. Letters that no one sees are your therapy for years. Writings that you eventually share make you feel like you’re moving mountains. It’ll allow you to see and process the obstacles in your way.
I can’t tell you that there will be a day where all of the bad feelings have disappeared. I’m not sure that’s possible. You are going to struggle, Jackie. Greatly. You will have to learn to cope. There’s trial and error involved. There’s a ton of heartache. The isolation is more than you can bear. But you have to get through it, Jackie, because you’re going to have a few strange years stuck in your house. You have to look all around – you have to look straight ahead. The old adage one day at a time is one you’ll live by.
There will be a day when you’ll say, I think I can make it now, because the pain is gone. As I sit here today, I assure you, gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. There’s nothing but blue skies.
It’s really a bright, bright, sun shiny day.
And there’s a lot more ahead. You’re not done yet, Jackie. That book you dreamed of publishing – it’s coming out in six days.
And it’s called … UNWILLABLE.
Resurrect your will, Jackie. You got this.
“I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
“It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
“Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
“It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
“Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies ~ I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash
Photo Cred: Lacie of Loupine Design (my bestie [who also designed that nifty book cover])