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.