Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My "Instant Happy" Happiness Tool

“Much of the pain in life
 comes from having a plan
 that you’ve fallen in love with,
 but that doesn’t work out.
 Having to find a new
 life plan hurts.
 The trick is not to become
 too attached to any particular
 life plan and to remember
 that there is always a better, 
 life plan out there somewhere.
-Instant Happy 
 Karen Salmansohn

As a young girl, I fantasized about my life as an adult. I imagined my job, my family, and all of the choices I could make without my parents’ or teachers’ approval. I desired a second grade teaching position, four kids, a husband who looked like Luke Perry from Beverly Hills 90210, two cute little dogs, all of the shoes I wanted, and the freedom to do anything and everything I chose. I set up a classroom, in the basement of my childhood home, and gathered all of the neighborhood kids to act as my students. I taught them lessons while I circled the room with a ‘teacher’s copy’ book cradled in my arms and swirled chalk in my hand, just as my second grade teacher, Mrs. Argus, did. I chose all of the names for my future children by the age of ten, decided how many boys and how many girls and hung posters of Luke Perry everywhere, hoping I might bump into him one day. I knew exactly what I planned to do with my life. 

My plans were brutally interrupted. At the age of twenty-one, I woke up one morning walking and went to bed that evening paralyzed from the waist down. A new reality was thrust upon me and my plan, my version of choice and freedom I yearned for as a child, was no longer applicable. For quite some time, following my injury, I desperately clung to this vision of freedom I had so carefully defined, as a child and young adult, that involved only my desires and neglected my body and my soul. I grew angry and resentful of those who seemed to choose freely and without consequence. 

My health declined so rapidly and so greatly, I finally surrendered. Kindness to my body and its needs was imperative. The courage and faith to finally submit to the demands of my health were not found easily. I, reluctantly, tapped into a great deal of self discipline and routine. I began with simple choices, such as food and activity, choosing only what benefited my health the most. And as this practice blossomed, I added prayer, meditation, exercise, and anything that encouraged my physical and mental wellness. I soon discovered my value system was confronted because of my health situation. I adopted a new plan for my life. A plan that involved a level of undiscovered conciseness. A level I knew of, but never explored at any depth. I released the power of choice over to a higher power, instead of my own desires. This discipline opened my eyes to an alternative life plan, one guided by awareness, kindness, intention, and mindfulness. Though not always easy, instead of falling victim to judgement, desire, resentment, or envy, I now calmly surrender to love and servitude and purpose. This new found freedom is true freedom and offers a level of contentment I never knew existed. 

Monday, February 18, 2013


I cleaned my desk last week and came across old photos. Among the papers waiting to be filed, I found a forgotten envelope of pictures. I sat and looked at each one carefully, trying to remember the time, the moment it was taken. I discovered all of these moments in time were captured along my journey of illness and recovery. But instead of feeling sad or upset, I filled with delight and joy because these pictures proved there was so much good along the way. I smiled a lot and escaped my pain. Maybe it was only but a minute, but, in the end, I managed to smile through the tears. These are the moments I am choosing to remember now. Illness took away a lot of my joy, but not all of it, and that is my focus. Sharing these today is to remind myself that a smile goes a long, long way...even when I didn't want to, I tried. There is always light to find...always. Just take a look...

Moments with friends in the hospital following an injury.

The first time out of the hospital...I was given a special pass to attend a party with a special friend.

Or days after I was finally released from the hospital and went to a concert with the dancing girls.

I returned to camp for the first time and saw the pure gentleness and heart of an animal who refused to leave my side.

And during the same return visit, my friend Neely attached flashlights (see pic above), with duct tape, to my wheelchair so we could see while she pushed me across the rugged terrain under the blanket of darkness only camp provides. And I remember how she sat in my other wheelchair, as we hung out with everyone, so I wouldn't feel alone.

Dashing to New York City to see a dear friend after 9/11.

The look of freedom after purchasing a car with hand controls. That smile isn't about the car, it's about the freedom. To go where and when I wanted after relying on the kindness of others for so long...priceless.

And my dad doing what ever he could to give me the freedom.

Taking off to see a dear friend play soccer for the first time, all by myself.

Attending a Christmas tradition I thought would only be a memory.

And cuddling with the cutest Sprite there ever was at said Christmas tradition.

Making gingerbread houses and gingerbread men with my roommate and friend.

Christmas moments with cousins and family.

And although I can see the illness taking its toll in this picture, I also see a smile and remember all of the laughter of this beautiful day. This was just a few short days after a blood transfusion.

A day at the park even though I wanted to stay in bed.

Tennis with Ashlea. Love.

Volunteering and helping with my church youth group. Fevers dominated these days, but moments with these kids took away the pain...if only for a fleeting second.

And this day. I decided to take a friend's daughter to the Bengals' training camp and the coach and quarterback noticed us struggling to find an accessible seat. The coach waved for us to come down and sit on the field and every player signed our footballs, jerseys, and hats.

And one of the greatest football seasons for the Bengals and we had season tickets. I soon discovered the perks of having a wheelchair...great seats at football games.

Some of these are hard to look at and notice my illness taking over, but then I remember it didn't win. It didn't even win when it was at its worst. I kept going and doing and living and believing. Life goes on.

And the hardest memory of all...with my dancing girls, still standing, and loving every minute of it. See if you can find me. 

Just a story in images today. I will be stopping back by later in the week with many more words, but these pictures say enough. Remember to smile today...whatever the pain or however strong. It helps, I promise.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Hope for Michael, Sweet Hope

There is a pervasive and constant fear that accompanies paralysis. Of all of the warnings and instructions doctors and therapists give, they neglect to share how overpowering this daily fear becomes. I struggle, daily, not to focus on the fear and try to put it in the back of my mind, but much like quick sand, it sucks me in without warning.

There are small fears, like the ever present worry of a fall outside without a cell phone or flinging my chair too far when I flip it over while I'm sitting in my car and putting it together. The fear of dropping hot food or spilling boiling water on my lap. And there are large looming fears like the shock of autonomic dysreflexia, which is a reaction to the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system to over stimulation, resulting in severe hypertension or high blood pressure. It is a fatal condition and can occur without much warning at all and happens because of very simple reasons. Simply waiting too long to use the restroom is an example of a stimuli of autonomic dysreflexia. And if it is not quickly treated or noticed, this reaction is fatal. Wounds anywhere below my line of injury can quickly form, in about ten minutes, because of clothing that is too tight or because I sit too long on a hard surface without a proper cushion. Even a regular couch can cause a wound if I am not diligent and remember to switch positions, relieveing pressure on specific points of my body. And when wounds develop, the risk of infection is enormous. Any type of infection, at any time, can sneak in and reek havoc on my body. Preventing infection, especially urinary tract infections, and pressure relief become a part of daily life. And after I finally talk myself out of these fears, I am left with the numerous fears that come with normal, everyday life. Fears I am sure everyone shares, but mine seem to be on a much larger scale. My security is always a risk, both financially and personally. I'm constantly anxious I will run out of money and be too sick to work or worry I can't run from someone who tries to attack me.

And then there are the emotional troubles and fears. I fear someone will never love me or posses the ability to handle such a life on a day to day basis. I trouble myself with others' perceptions of my reality and how they view my struggles. I fear I will get trapped in the deep abyss of fear and loathing and never return.

My newly paralyzed friend, Michael, shared some of his fears and over riding anxieties with me this weekend and he wonders if anyone understands or possibly knows what it is like to live with such mind numbing and debilitating fear. I want him to know I understand. I understand the mind power it takes to overcome these things and to peel myself out of bed everyday. I know the will power it takes not only to propel myself, but also strive for better, yearn for the good. I know the mental battle it is to care for a damaged and broken body and the courage it takes to build a positive fortress out of the wrecked and ravaged bones and soul. But, I also know how to fight the fear, how to allow the goodness to win. I've been a fighter and believer for twelve and a half years and have yet to give up.

I find the flickering flame of faith and hope and stare at it until it becomes blinding. I latch onto the hope and try my best not to let go of it. I focus on the moments my family swoops in and offers assistance financially or emotionally. I focus on the MRIs and blood reports that after twelve years, finally show infection free bones and blood. I try ever so hard not to let go of the joyful and grateful feelings that come from moments with friends or my dog. Or come from a good meal or just sitting and watching a movie or reading a book. I focus on the good, the kindness, and the love that only suffering can plaster so brightly on a billboard. In our darkest moments, we find the greatest strength. I fight the fear with every bit of hope I have inside of me and I have the audacity to believe it will prevail. Because, in the end, hope is the only antidote for fear. Hope, sweet hope.

"You are the community now. Be a lamp for yourselves. Be your own refuge. Seek for no other. All things must pass. Strive on diligently. Don't give up."
~Gautama Buddha 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Hugs, Kisses, Meat Pie, and Downton, Oh My!

*tutorial for Ashlea's Wooden Blocks found at the end of the post.

"Come on Sarahberger, let's go. They said we can run the bases, hurry up, let's go. " I write Sarahberger without spaces because that is what my "kids" used to call me. One word, one breath. We just spent the afternoon feasting on ballpark hot dogs, nachos, and cotton candy, celebrating my dancing teacher's husband's fortieth birthday. I quickly grabbed every bag I could see that was left behind and ran with the kids to the field. I held two, sticky hands in addition to a slew of bags over my shoulders. As it was our turn to run, Declan, who was four at the time, took off in a mad sprint, sliding into every base. I took off behind him, carrying all of the bags and running all the way home. Madeline, his older sister, was running with me as we were trying to stay with Declan and discourage the sliding. Apparently, sliding is not allowed. He didn't care, he was four. This is one of the last photographs taken of me before my accident, running the bases with nine hundred bags. This is who I wanted people to see. I wanted to be the girl who could wrangle the kids, carrying the bags, and run, at full speed, all the way home. I was the girl who pulled up to the dance studio in my old, 250,000 miles old, BMW, either to teach for the afternoon or gather kids to head to Kings Island on a whim or run to the mall for an afternoon of play. They all have memories of driving around the block, changing the gears on my stick shift while I manipulated the clutch, with the sun roof open, and the car stereo blaring Declan's favorite song at the time, Who Let the Dogs Out. My best dancing girlfriends and I started a tradition of leaving late in the evening on Thanksgiving to drive to Detroit or Chicago, wherever the Oireachtas, a regional dance competition, was located that particular year. We always drove way too fast and stopped at Waffle House. At a dance competition in Memphis, we hopped on a boat for an evening cruise down the river filled with music and dancing. And during the ceili dance, Shoe the Donkey, my dance teacher, a few other friends, and I playfully kicked each other's behind as we 'shoed' the donkey. Carefree, fun, and capable. This is how I wanted others to see me. I didn't want to be vulnerable, weak, or needy. I wanted to only show perfection, whatever that word means, and didn't accept anything less.

I assumed friendship needed to be perfect as well. I assumed I needed to give and never ask for help. Asking for help, for me, was a sign of weakness. My hardened armor, developed over time, was pretty hard to chip away. And then, I had my accident. My new normal began with a thunderous bang. Here I was, vulnerable, for all the world to see. I put on a brave face, crying very little, mostly when Justin would visit. He would shut the door of my hospital room, turn on music, sit at my bedside, hold my hand, and allow me to cry the heaviest of tears, without judgement or betrayal. Outside of these few moments a day, I presented, or tried to present, the self I wanted people to see, strong, capable, carefree, and fun. I, especially, didn't want my dancing friends to see my weaknesses. Joy is the only word that comes to mind when I think of these girls and this world. Every day, every moment, is a party when you are an Irish Dancer. I didn't want to be the downer of the group. Every single one of them fought to include me, Kelly even offered to accompany me to a state of the art rehabilitation facility in Georgia and act as my sole care giver and provider. I declined. I couldn't imagine being the weak one, the one with the issues. My first Oireachtas, following my injury, was more than painful. We had to leave early in the morning with the rest of the group and pack my mountains of medical supplies, shower chair, and wheelchair. I knew it wouldn't be the same the instant we first pulled out of the driveway. Kelly had to come running when I fell in the shower and Lisa had to help me get dressed in the morning. I tried to keep my head up, cheer for the dancers, and pretend nothing was wrong, but I could see my soul slipping away. I was no longer myself, the girl I wanted to be. The vision, the plan I had was gone and I was devastated. I returned home from that weekend knowing everything was different, everything was permanently changed. As the months following carried on, I felt the emotional toll of my injury, and finally let go of these girls. I felt I was weighing them down, was making them carry me around the bases and home again.

As I continued with my decade of adjustment, illness, and depression, I learned I had a block up, a wall, when it came to my friends. Any new friends I met, I presented myself as a tough and independent girl. I hid my fevers and my broken heart. Then, one day, I realized, I couldn't hide anymore. This was my life, my new normal. There is a scene in the television show, The Sopranos, where Tony Soprano visits a former mob boss and best friend, who is dying of cancer. Tony wants to gab about the familiar topics, strippers, murder, and money, but his friend continuously checks his temperature and pushes the button for the nurse. His friend is consumed with his illness and can't focus on anything else. Tony learns, during the visit, that his friend is gone, he is a victim of his disease. This is how I felt. There wasn't much else I could focus on anymore. I could try and attend a football game or a night out, but my attention was always on my body and what was happening to it. I ceased asking how others were getting along because I was consumed with my own suffering and survival. I basically stopped many friendships to allow my friends to save themselves from my misery. It sounds so depressing and sad, but I honestly thought I was doing everyone a favor. I didn't know friends could love all of me. I didn't know they were longing to see the weakness and vulnerability too. I just didn't know.

I did have one friend, Justin, who took the brunt of it. I would call in tears or cry on his shoulder about how broken and worthless I felt. I probably owe him thousands for his therapy and counseling over the years. My waterfalls of tears were met with positive words and passages of wisdom. I felt I was breaking him too, but I didn't have anyone else to call at three in the morning. I had, in my view, released everyone else of this burden.

Recently, due to coincidence or moments of chance, I've mended these lost friendships. I've shared my pain, suffering, and insecurities and have better and stronger relationships, much to my surprise. The once damaged relationships, that were damaged far before my accident due to my obsession with perfection, are now stronger and more genuine. And because I finally opened myself up to honesty, I experienced some of the most love filled and 'perfect' evenings with these people I once thought I didn't need or didn't want to burden. The dancing girls, Monica, Kelly, Katie B., and Sarah all came over to share a beef and onion pie Kelly and I shared on the premiere night of Downton Abbey. As we all sat around my kitchen table eating and laughing, my eyes welled up with tears and my heart felt light again, because I noticed it was as if time stood still. Here we were, years later, a decade of tears later, all sitting around the table experiencing that irreplaceable Irish Dancer joy. I can now see how friendship is multi faceted. Each on of us has pain, suffering, and insecurities and the pain does not have a hierarchy. Our job, our calling as friends, is to witness, aid when possible, and listen to each other. Everyone needs something sometime. If I am feeling too sick to meet them for one of our dinners, I just call and say I can't. There isn't judgement from these girls, there never was. I realized it was only from myself and my need to appear as if nothing was wrong. We share hilarious stories and laugh until our sides hurt. Like the time Sarah and I had a funeral for Madeline's doll in Ireland. Madeline was all of about five and her porcelain doll's head shattered and Sarah and I put her in a shoe box, walked up and down the sidewalks of County Mayo, Ireland, chanting the only Gaelic phrase we knew, over and over while Madeline walked behind, giggling at our antics. There are so many memories, it's hard to believe I ever thought I could live without these girls and these stories. Kelly and I now share our love for Ina Garten and Olay and Oprah. Our relationship took the hardest hit and has made a comeback that deserves a medal of honor. And Monica, remains the carefree and funny girlfriend I once had and knew so well. And Katie, well she has immense suffering of her own and because I let my guard down, we now share a special knowledge of what it is like to have our bodies fail. I even ventured out last St. Patrick's Day, for the first time in years, and sat in a hot and sweaty and favorite Irish pub, one that we have been patronizing since we were small, along side these girls. Monica even stood at the door, protecting me, while I used the bathroom and Kelly found a special parking spot in a friend's driveway and walked me to and from the bar.

And Ashlea. My dear friend Ashlea, with whom I lost a few years because of my depression, we reconnected this past summer, because of Kelle Hampton and the permission I needed from Ashlea so Kelle could post a picture I sent of the two of us. We picked up right where we left off. We understand each other and share so many similar traits. We just get each other and our emotions. A few weekends ago, the same weekend I had the dancing girls over, I went to her house to make holiday word blocks and have dinner with Ashlea and her children while her husband was out for the evening. And as we were making the blocks, our banter and conversation was exactly the way it always was, the way it was meant to be. Our companionship is effortless and she trusts me with her children. She gives me so much help and inspiration, it reduces me to tears. This particular evening, she asked me if I would read to her four year old daughter, Kate, while she bathed Jack and I, of course, happily obliged. As Kate was getting ready for bed, she asked me,
"Are your legs still hurt?"
"Yes," I replied, "Yes, they are."
Kate thought for a brief second and then very surely said, "Well you need to think about getting a new doctor. My doctor could give you a shot or something."
Apparently shots are about the worst thing in the world to Kate, so surely they would fix my paralysis. I left Ashlea's house that evening so full of love and laughter I assumed my heart would burst on the way home.

Many years went by where I thought evenings like these would never happen again. I thought I needed to be perfect for my friends and not broken or needy. How very wrong I was. The more vulnerable and open I am, the better the friendships. The trust is now a deep well, instead of a faulty step. About a month ago, I had an epiphany. Michael, my dear friend, was having a particularly rough time with his new paralysis. Some days are just worse than others. It is just the way it is. He was texting me emotions and feelings he was having and they were taking me back to an ugly and dark place. I work very hard to eliminate the negative from my life now and only focus on the positive. It doesn't mean the negative isn't still there, I've just learned how to combat it and kill it. I tried to share my positive words with him and let him know I understood completely, but also promised things would slowly start to heal and life would be better. As I read the texts I was sending, I couldn't believe what I was reading. I was now answering back with positivity and hope. And then it hit me like a brick, a really, really heavy brick. All of these years I poured my heart out to Justin, using the same heart wrenching and aching words Michael was sending me, instead of responding with the negativity I shared with him at one time,  I was responding the same way Justin taught me to respond to my pain, with words of encouragement and hope. And then another brick came, Justin isn't paralyzed. He didn't have a clue about my suffering, but never took it for granted or judged it. He simply stepped up and was the truest definition of a friend. He eased my pain the best he knew how and even threw in a little humor now and again. I think it took me a good month to stop crying about this revelation. I was shaken by the thought of what Justin did and does for me. And the other night, as we were eating dinner, he saw my Allen wrenches sitting on a chair, asked why I had them out, and when I told him they were out to fix the front wheels on my wheelchair and I was yet to find the time to do it myself,  he said, "Well how about I do it for you?"
I sat on the couch, while he flipped over my wheelchair and fixed the wheels.
And as he was fixing them, he spun the old wheels, which didn't really spin because the bearings were shot, and said, "Have you been propelling yourself all of this time with this much resistance?"
I said, "Yes."
After he left, and as I pushed my fixed and now easy to push wheelchair, I realized, this is why I have friends, we have friends, to help with the resistance we push with...every, single day. Maybe they can't always fix it, but they try and that is what counts. The perfect vision, the plan I once had for my life is different and so much better. There will still be stories, meat pies, craft projects, funny kid conversations, Downton Abbey nights, Real Housewife gossip, St. Patrick's Day festivities, and many, many memories to be made. I don't have to be perfect to have these things, I just have to be me.

And now that I finally have let my guard down and have stopped fighting against the help, I discovered I am still rounding third and heading for home, except the bags I once carried are carried by Kelly, Ashlea, Monica, Katie, Sarah, and Justin, who, at the same time, are pushing me home.

***And for the Downton Abbey finale we will be watching and making Beef and Onion Pie and Eton Mess to celebrate. I will post the recipes and pictures that evening. I read Duchess Kate and Prince William make beef and onion pie and watch Downton so I decided I better learn how to make it in case Prince Harry wants to marry me one day. It is actually quite delicious.

***And here is the how to for the blocks Ashlea creates. I call her Martha Stewart. We had so much fun making them and they turned out so cute. She made some at Christmas time that say Believe and we thought XOXO was perfect for Valentine's Day.


You will need:
*Takes two days because of time to allow the paint to dry. Cutting the paper and placing the letters can be done the next evening. It took us only a short time.

Wooden blocks 
(Ashlea purchased a large piece of wood at Lowe's and had them cut it into two 5" pieces and two 6" pieces. The word or whatever you decide to do will determine the number of blocks you will need. Ashlea likes to stagger the sizes. Lowe's will make the cuts for $0.25 per cut after three cuts)
Latex paint 
(We used satin finish)
Sandpaper fine to medium
Cutout letters
Pad of scrapbook paper
Matte finish Modge Podge
paint roller or brush for paint
sponge paint brush for modge podge
Newspaper for paint drying
Wax paper for Modge Podge drying

First, sand the blocks with the sandpaper. Make sure the surface and edges are relitively smooth.

 Next, paint all the front and back of the blocks. Ashlea's husband, Saint Kyle, sanded and painted our blocks. 

 Then, the edges. Leaving to dry on newspaper.

 Let them dry over night.

 Choose favorite scrapbook papers and see how the letters look on the papers.

 Measure and cut the paper to fit the front of the blocks. We made them a tiny bit smaller than the blocks so a tiny border of the paint would show.

 Paint a thin coat of the Modge Podge on the smoothest side of the painted block. We used the larger blocks for the Xs and the smaller for the Os.

Line up and place your paper on the Modge Podged block. Turn it upside down on the wax paper to dry. This helps get rid of any bubbles from the glue.

After you allow it to dry for 15-20 minutes brush another thin coat of Modge Podge on the already papered blocks.

Then place the letters on the Modge Podge.

Allow them to dry for another 15-20 minutes. And then paint another thin coat over the dried letters to seal them. Allow all of them to dry for another 15-20 minutes.

And they are done!

Ready to display! Store carefully, wrapping them in something like bubble wrap or thick white or brown paper.