A friend of mine was once a vital, physically dynamic. backpacking, canoeing, outdoors enthusiast and passionate, social worker powerhouse. Then she contracted West Nile virus during one of its earliest appearances in the West, collapsed overnight, and almost died from the severe neurological complications. It was sobering, how a tiny virus can take down a strapping, healthy, wildly intelligent woman in her prime like that. Somehow I had thought that only the young, old, and already compromised were vulnerable.
Fortunately, she survived and has been industriously working to rebuild a new life out of the ashes of devastating illness. One of the biggest challenges has been trying to get to know who she is now as a result of all the neurological damage that took place. Her mind is still as keen, curious, and active as ever, but tends to quickly overload and go smoky with any kind of strain. And while she still loves the outdoors and continues to camp and hike a little, she walks a razors edge in terms of how much physical exertion she can pursue before her brain short circuits from the flood of brain chemicals released by fatigue and stress.
For a woman who largely defined herself by her independence, extraordinary mental acuity, and physical dynamism, the loss of self she’s experienced through illness has been profound and the continuing effort to redefine herself, grueling. But she does it anyway…and inspires me in the process.
We used to talk a lot about how hard it is to let go of who you once were, then try to rebuild a new life according to this other, lesser version you’ve turned into. (At least that’s what it feels like in the beginning.) I experienced something similar during my rapid descent into a long and severe depressive episode twenty years ago, an illness that effectively blew my old life to smithereens. Like most people in our situation I, too, spent the first few years trying to first recover, then return to the old life I’d known. It was only after it grew apparent that could never happen that I finally got on with the job of crafting a new life and a new identity to go along with it.
Any kind of major illness or injury can create this cycle of course, but there was a unique challenge we both faced in that we still looked the same from the outside. All of our injuries are invisible at first glance, which makes our inability to perform certain, standard tasks very confusing for others. And when we frequently failed to meet the seemingly normal, reasonable expectations of people it wound up creating friction in our relationships with them, a fact that then made it even harder to figure out and accept who we had become.
But time is a great healer and has been slowly revealing that we didn’t actually become lesser people after all, just different ones. Our identities have changed substantially–who we are and what we can do in relation to the world around us–but it turns out our essential selves haven’t really changed at all. We still love the same things we’ve always loved, with the same depth. We still strive to give, serve, behave, and belong in a way that nourishes the greater world. We’re still just as committed to the happiness and welfare of our children and husbands, doing whatever we can to support them. And we continue to try and pass along the little tidbits of light, inspiration, and meaning we uncover while sorting through the various piles of debris that now litter our lives.
Today, she sent me the following three minute video and it reminded me again of what an extraordinary gift and accomplishment it is to survive in this world at all. Its many and formidable hardships aside, life is still pretty magnificent and I do so love getting to participate in it, for however long it lasts.
This is footage of an osprey fishing from the BBC archives. First sequence: he catches half a dozen fish in one strike. Second sequence: he dives underwater and plunges talons into a flat fish resting on the bottom. Third sequence: he captures a huge fish that looks as if it weighs more than he does. (How they get this kind of footage is beyond me but they do. Pretty brilliant.)
copyright Dia Osborn 2012