One year

There’s something innately human about marking anniversaries. You don’t have to look far to find somebody writing about an event that happened 10, 50, even hundreds of years ago. And this is especially true in sports, where the trivial is worshiped.

For me, this week is an anniversary far from trivial. A year ago Tuesday night, I was attacked two blocks from my house while walking from my car.

This occurrence and its consequences are with me every day. As anyone who’s experienced a horrific event — and certainly anyone who has coped with post-traumatic stress disorder — knows, it is impossible to avoid thinking about its cause.

The legal case has yet to move to trial, after a half-dozen delays of various types, so no closure there. There’s a lot I would like to write about from the past year, but with the case yet to be resolved, I am limited.

It’s been, in that regard and many others, the longest year of my life. Thankfully, I have had plenty of help from my fiancee, Kacey, as well as family, friends, world-class doctors and staff, and legions of people I’ve never met.

The physical reminders have healed to a large extent, but I have had to give ground on some. The fractures in my right hand are just about done stitching themselves back together — boosted either by my diligent, daily use of electric stim therapy or pure chance — though the two fingers will probably always be a little crooked, as will the pinkie finger on my left hand.

Every night, I take out a denture that helps make up for the six missing teeth in the front of my mouth. In November, holes were drilled for implants, and if all goes well, they will be put into place in March and I will be able to complete the simple act of biting into a sandwich. My oral surgeon says I’m getting the best implants in the world. With a name like Nobel, they have to be good.

Back pain that lingered for more than a month after I was tackled from behind onto the asphalt has not returned, nor has a slight popping in a knee that concerned me for a while.

Thankfully, I don’t have to look at the top of my head — and not just because the hair is ever thinning.

I have thought about the approach of this one-year mark for weeks, even months. We tend to frame our lives around mileposts. It’s a tendency that often produces happiness and joy — both at the personal (birthday parties, wedding anniversaries) and societal (holidays) levels, but the other edge of this particular sword is dreadful.

This isn’t my first go-round with physical and psychological trauma, though, and I can now see that I am making progress in learning how to deal with it. The other incident that “it” refers to came on a rainy morning my senior year of high school. It was a car accident that was a sickening product of a blind curve in the road, a pair of teenage boys speeding in a car that needed new tires and another car (the one I was driving) that lacked an air bag. That time, like a year ago, I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m sure that to outsiders, my recovery from that incident, as with last year’s, seemed miraculously swift. That time, in the span of about six weeks I went from lying in a bed, in a medically induced coma with part of the left side of my face caved in, to delivering the salutatorian speech at my high school graduation.

But the psychological trauma from accident stayed with me, especially at the mileposts. I remember thinking about it six months later, as an incoming college freshman, when I really wanted to be thinking about … well, anything else.

Even though I have never had any memory of the car crash itself, I thought about the baggage that came with it — the waking up in a hospital with no idea how I got there, the surgery, the cast on my right ankle — a year later, two years, three years, five years, 10 years. I selfishly wondered, “Why me?” Instead of embracing my identity as a survivor, I more or less shunned it.

If I close my eyes, I can remember almost exactly where I was, running on the track in the field house at Susquehanna University, on March 30, exactly a year after that accident. Two years after that, I was working at an internship at a newspaper in Washington, D.C., once again urging myself, “Don’t think about it. … Don’t think about it.”

But now I know it’s OK to think about it. The key is being able to recognize it, acknowledge it, take a step back psychologically and guide my mind in another direction.

At one of my therapy sessions last summer, the psychologist and I were discussing coping strategies. Then he said something that caught me completely by surprise. “Build a shrine to this,” he told me.

At that moment, I was incredulous. A shrine? I wanted to forget this incident, to have nothing to to do with it, just as I had wanted with the car crash.

A few days later, I started a journal entry that I didn’t post on my blog — and didn’t finish, either. Here’s what I wrote:

 

My therapist said I need to embrace my experiences, as horrible and as unpleasant as they may be.

This is how he recommends I change my philosophy. I was sitting in his office one morning and we shifted to talking, as we did every visit, about my struggles coping with this incident.

I remember one of his recommendations. Mainly because it hit me like an uppercut.

“Make a shrine to this.”

Make a shrine to this? I chewed on his words for a moment. I wanted to spit them back out.

How could I celebrate this, the hardest experience that I’d ever been through and one that had nearly cost me my life, an experience that weighed on me from the moment I awoke to the moment I closed my eyes at night, and one that I ruminated on for hours in between?

How could I celebrate this?

This wasn’t the first time he had suggested an approach like this. His philosophy follows in the Buddhist way of embracing the moment, whether good or bad.

This was, however, the first time he’d put it in these terms, words that struck a chord with me because I’ve heard them so often in my life as a sports fan. People and teams have shrines built to them by devoted, passionate followers. I’m thinking of Yankee Stadium, or in a more twisted sense, outcast kicker Ray Finkle’s bedroom in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

 How do you embrace the worst moment in your life?

*****

It’s taking time, and I have a lot yet to learn, but a year later I’m finally gaining an understanding of what he meant, and what it means to be a survivor.

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9 responses to “One year”

  1. Phyllis Tortu-Sliwecki says :

    Brilliantly written and very inspirational! Thank you for sharing your experience. I am humbled by your strength in dealing with your pain, both physical and emotional.

  2. Jeri Fontaine says :

    I admire your strength and willingness to share your story. While we all have struggles, some large and some small, that we need to learn to cope with, I think by sharing your experience and your journey, you are also sharing a message of hope.

  3. Chris Paprcka says :

    John, Your words are and inspiration to us all. Thank you for sharing them. Hang in there and keep looking up.

    Chris

  4. tracey halvorsen says :

    Thank you for sharing Jon, and best wishes for a continued recovery and a trial that brings closure for you and your family.

  5. April Haley says :

    Jonathan, your story is miraculous. The fact that you are strong enough to share your story and allow others to gain a perspective of how you are doing is amazing. I am so glad you are making steady progress and have embraced yourself as a survivor. There are so many, many people who suffer from PTSD and never move past it. I know your story will inspire many and let them know there is truly a way out of the darkness. This cousin has been praying for you and will continue to do so!

  6. Sarah says :

    Jon you are a brilliant writer and wise beyond your years! Ever since I met you at Susquehanna over a decade ago (gasp, yes we are getting that old!), I was impressed by your quiet confidence and strength. You had this effortless ability to take charge of whatever situation at hand in the newsroom. I see your strength now– through your ability to rise up as a survivor of this horrendous crime. You are facing the memories, the questions and fears head on. There really is no good answer to the, ‘why me?’ questions…all I know is, many people in your situation would succumb to bitterness, anger and fear that comes from being victim to a traumatic event, but I am grateful that you have the strength of character and are surrounded by loving, supportive people who remind you of truth and the good in the world to help you rise up as a survivor.

    Thank you for including us on your journey- I am so glad to hear you are healing–both physically and emotionally. It will come in waves and hit you at the weirdest times. Thank you for inspiring us all to keep going.

  7. Edna Parsons says :

    Very happy to hear your story and that things are getting better. Get better each day. God bless.

  8. Judy Fish says :

    Jon, you are a powerful writer. Maybe your shrine could involve writing a novel where the main character endures what you experienced. I hung on all your words and the pain came through without any gory details. You are a strong man and I continue to wish you well. You are blessed with a sister who loves you very much too. You remain in my prayers.

  9. Auntie Riri says :

    Jon, I am so sorry that you have to deal with this, and glad that you are a strong man and a strong writer. I am so glad to know that you are healing. And that you have a top notch fiance. May God continue to bless you.

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