The power of memory

The Power of MemoryNine years ago tonight, almost to the minute that I am writing this, I was rushed to the hospital in screaming amounts of pain.

You see, I had had a migraine at that point for about two days, but I knew all day long that something was very different. I had a set regimen of medications and alternative remedies that I would always use to at least ameliorate if not relieve the pain. This time, not only was nothing making even the slightest dent, but the pain wasn’t moving as it always did. And it would hurt when I made certain movements, which were unusual for my migraines. And that Wednesday afternoon, stuck in an office where I had already lowered the lights as low as they could be without my coworker scrambling for flashlights, I tried even more homespun remedies. During lunch, I had a session with my acupuncturist, and she advised dry rye toast—apparently, something about rye was supposed to help (hallucinations?)…. I had a massage too. I took every mode of pain relief available without a needle. I went home and buried my head in icebags. By 11pm, I started screaming bloody murder for a CT scan.

I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong.

For the next who knows how many hours (actually, it was three days), I was in the emergency room and then in intensive care, hooked up to tubes and monitors galore. I was right (was that good thing?). When I got to the hospital, the CT scan showed a blood clot in my brain. In fact, it was a clot that should never have shown up on a CT scan except that it had gotten so big by that point, the CT scan picked it up. The MRA-MRV (the MRI’s cousin) confirmed it.

I have only fleeting memories from those three days of agony. It took that long to relieve the pain. Somehow, thanks to my brother, a critical care doctor himself, instructed my medical team on a painkilling regimen that they tried that finally did the trick. By Sunday, I woke up in a real hospital room, pretty dazed, but feeling as though I had come through the worst of the battle. A few days later, I went home—dizzy, headachy, and on a regimen of blood thinners for the foreseeable future, but alive. About six weeks later, I even managed to get back to work—after all, I had been braving the subways for my weekly blood tests, a mainstay of blood thinner treatments.

Why do I mention this?

Certainly not for sympathy—my only lasting physical symptom is an even greater tendency towards migraines and an inability to take certain medications now because of my past medical history. I was very very very lucky.

So every year at this time, I make a point of remembering this date, of remembering where I was, of what I went through, and how it changed me. Because sometimes, I forget. Sometimes, I forget the perspective I had then—how I stopped letting stupid things upset me because they honestly weren’t worth it anymore. How I began to realize who my real friends were, because serious illness creates tremendous shifts in the ways people relate—some people who do not know how to relate to those with serious illness disappear, while others who you might not have spoken to in ages come through with flying colors. I had to start letting go of expectations—of other people and of myself and my own healing process. Healing is not linear. I would have good days and bad days. Days when I felt strong and then all of a sudden, I would get a paper cut, and be reminded I was taking blood thinners and have to spend the next hour or two (literally) putting pressure on the wound with my finger in the air. Days when I started returning to my beloved yoga practice—which I believed was what saved my life, because it me learn to be aware of the subtle shifts in my body and my energy—and I couldn’t do anything that I could do before. Patience was a four-letter word, but I couldn’t let it stay that way.

I have to remind myself of this time especially in times of chaos. Who and what do I love? Who and what has my attention? Where am I frittering away my time? Remembering this experience is the physical embodiment for me of the preciousness of human existence. What is yours?

— Sarah Kass

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