A gratitude list for recovery (arm version)

-Having minimal tingling/nerve pain after surgery
-The ability to move all of my fingers after the anesthesia wore off
-Getting off the pain medication
-Being able to reach and touch my face
-Being able to tie my hair
-Opening faucets
-Being able to drive
-Sleeping without ice
-Biceps and other muscle fibers starting to activate
-Decreased swelling
-Being able to carry heavier things like a full tea kettle
-Closing faucets
-Opening a jar
-Surgery scar becoming less sensitized
-Writing at a faster speed with legible handwriting
-Full extension
-less ulnar nerve pain as strength increases
-No more shoulder clicking
-Reaching my neck on the injured side
-Being able to carry an almost full grocery bag with one hand
-Increasing weight at PT
-Driving a shopping cart with one hand
-Less shakey exercises at PT (eccentric 3lb tricep type)
-12 week post-op x-ray showing no more fractures
-Closer to full flexion (148 degrees)

A toolbox for pain

Pain, expected.

like a frequent customer
late-night television commercial
the mental post-it note
always around, it has an assigned seat at the dinner table
so familiar that it’s left a worn impression on the sofa

Pain, so unexpected it guts you

blooms from the chest
knocks you out
off-kilter, all at once
a vice, a ghost?
a bring-you-to-your-knees, stop time, tunnel vision, vertigo kind of pain–

Go forth

a sea of calm awaits life’s devastating storms
be present, feel your heart thunder in its finality and solidarity
choose bravery despite the odds
your caesura
a personal enjambment

What else are we meant to do?


NZ, 2020

memory notes:

-the first drive from the airport, and just laughing in the car at the hilarity of driving on the left side at 10pm
-Auckland’s anniversary fireworks and the audible ‘wow’ commentators
-the drive to Piha with the windows down, the wall of blue that crept into sight that turned out to be the god damn beautiful ocean, the smell of flowers in the air
-the smell of grass and green walking through the city
-the absolutely, insane, winding, drive to Coromandel
-Ruel’s performance at Laneway
-landing so sleep deprived in Queenstown and laughing at how, insanely, ridiculously, breathtaking it was
-the ducks floating on the water, and the seagull that squawked
-8:30p standing on the dock feeling grounded and present (rare) and the water color was like the same blue
-the stars out the first night, haven’t seen anything like that since 2012 in the woods
-watching the wind blow through the trees, and thousands of leaves, driving to Arrowtown

times i’ve seen the same blue
-Long beach when people were swimming/rowing in the morning
-San diego sea glass collecting
-Ontario rowing at the royal henley

times i’ve seen or felt the same perspective of soul grounding mountains
-san Bernardino hang gliding
-first time driving to Park City for Sundance
-the drive to Bend

a list of setbacks and rebounds

I’m doing pretty good but I’ve suffered, laughed, mourned, and tried to stay present through it all

Here is a list of setbacks and rebounds to catch you up

-laying down in the back of taxis because I just needed a break
-not being able to lift a water jug up to its dispenser (spiraling with a general loss of independence)
-lifting my bags off a conveyor belt and just tasting the essence of regret afterwards
-falling asleep at 8p because of the exhaustion from a day of pain
-not being able to make it to the end of the workday because I couldn’t think through the pain
-tried running 8 weeks in, back and legs said nope
-my bc prescription came late so I was a homicidal hormonal hurricane for a month
-watching my leg spasm during PT and having no control over my body
– just shy of 3 months in, being told no more “jumping” (like…going down stairs)
-3 months in, spraining my ankle, and not knowing just HOW bad it was because I couldn’t feel half my foot to begin with
-tried running again, ankle said no (this was this week)
-finding out I’ve lost a little motor function with the nerve damage too, not just sensory function (this was today)
-about two dozen canceled and declined invitations to be a social human being, usually involving sitting or just. dread of a pain too familiar

-the first night I fell asleep without my leg radiating on fire
-swimming and PT
-stopped taking medication at the end of August
-actually making it through teaching two classes. mentally and physically (Lesson 5)
-the first time I slept on my side Thank God
-i sat through a movie–yes it was Joker–It Was Worth It
-being able to do flip turns while swimming
-my friends and I made a shirt with a picture of our friend and the order arrived. This was the hardest I laughed in 2019
-enjoying work. God, what a concept.
-having a class of funny students and enjoying it
-people I interview getting offered a job
-stabilizing a sprained ankle with freezer wrap and tube socks and having a good laugh
-my friend bought me ace wrap and I used a rolling luggage bag as my crutch. LOL.
-feeling the majority of the top of my foot again (3 weeks ago)
-a random facetime from a really good friend
-friends who don’t drop me even after I cancel 3 times in a row
-bending 90 degrees during PT and not have the feeling leave my leg and foot (2 weeks ago)
-being able to elliptical (this week)

that’s all folks


Autumn, a season of becoming

Autumn’s coming and I’m getting all the feels.

A season that always gets me homesick, but in a good way. Fall in the northeast.

The Earth cools
the wind picks up
and you can hear it
as it starts to move
through the trees
and the leaves

change is coming.

There’s more

Nervous energy
like we’re in it
for the long haul.

The Time
to bed down
and do what needs to be done.

The Chance
to be made


Winter’s impending grind

The trees in my neighborhood turn beautiful reds and yellows. And the smell of sun-bleached grass is replaced by dirt, wood, and smoke, the smell of halloween. Leaves, bigger than my hands, start to cover the sidewalks. Insects quiet their symphony at night to a low simmer.

Riding (my bike) during this time of year has always been, surreal. Almost a movie it’s so good.  The wind feels electric on your face.  I’ll ride with my eyes closed for a few seconds, hoping, of all things lost, that I can save this to memory.

Things that I’m learning:
-how to rest (yes, me learning to rest, better late than never)
-how to be patient (I will be a zen monk after working with 6 year-olds)
-a toolbox for pain (to sit with it, and be a student of it, rather than anesthetize)
-tossing tools that did more damage than good
-an appreciation for life’s misleads

Things that I’m still processing and working through:
-the recovery is slower than predicted
-the transition from an aggressive, toxic, burnout lifestyle to one of stress + rest = growth 
-the undoing of almost a decade’s worth of desexualization endured to become who I thought I wanted to be
-blending in instead of being a novelty in a western, predominantly male, culture
-solidarity replacing crippling imposter syndrome
-agency replacing status

“What if the story you’re desperate to hear is the one you’re meant to live into, and tell?”
-Nicole Meline, Alter Podcast The Mislead – Field Notes from 40

It’s not dark yet. Cheers, to the late bloom.


Yearbook Notes I Wish I’d Written

To coach Jim Villa at Jersey Wahoos Swim Club, where I basically grew up in the water, staring at a black line forever: Thank you for teaching me how to speed up my arm turn-over. And how to improve my backstroke technique. And for that one time you mimed kicking my butt to get in the pool at the start of practice (timeliness). For always saying, “(H)EY! LISTEN”, amplified by both hands on your face, which underwater sounded like “ALYSSA!” so I’d stop swimming and poke my head up.  This is where I learned to wear a watch, to be on time, to swim with high elbows (in the 7th lane, I’ve got a scar on my hand to prove it), to show up, and to do the set that I thought would kill me because I learned afterwards it was possible.

To Mr Semus, at Cherry Hill East: I don’t think I could have learned any math after algebra had it not been for you. Thanks for breaking down an undecipherable language into something I could digest. And being passionate and great at what you do. Thank you for being an approachable, nonjudgmental teacher, who didn’t ridicule me for skipping school.  In high school I hoped as an adult that I’d find something I’m passionate about almost as much as you are about teaching math. Specifically, thanks for teaching me algebra II, pre-calculus, AP calculus, SAT I and II math, and multi-variable calculus. A legend.

To Davyd Booth, my violin teacher and member of the Philadelphia Orchestra: There was violin before meeting you, and violin after. Violin didn’t come easily to me, and I remember after our first lesson, telling my mom that you made everything so easy. Thank you for showing me that you can be the designer of your life. Your birds. Your accordion. Your piano. Your greenhouse. Lessons at the Kimmel Center. Piano lessons! When I told you I was going to USMA and you asked me, “Why??” and really not knowing why. One day when I actually plant myself somewhere and grow some roots, I’m going to design my life with the same style of agency.

To Alla Fabrikant, my piano teacher, who taught me on Friday nights, from middle school until I left for college–there aren’t enough words to describe how thankful I am for having been your student. I could be everything I wanted when I sat on the piano bench. And after each lesson, on the drive home (after I got my license), sometimes the stars would be out and I could reflect in my own element. As Charles Bukowski wrote, “there is light somewhere”.

These notes are almost a decade late, but I needed that time to grow and reflect. Do you have anyone you need to thank?

5 Ways to Game Your Bad Days

I recently read somewhere, “you’ve survived 100% of your worst days so far“.  And if you’re reading this, it’s probably be true. You’ve made it here mostly intact.

I’ve had some days when life’s gutted me so badly that I thought:

I’m really not going to make it through this one, am I?

How am I supposed to go on?

Nothing’s going to be the same ever again.

And sure, some bad days are worse than others, but I’ve found that it’s the way I choose to react that makes all the difference.  So here’s my take on 5 ways to game your bad days.

1. Let It Out. Without hurting anyone (no yelling at your colleague and chucking your coffee mug). If this means sobbing in the back of a cab, screaming into a pillow until your throat is sore, scheduling your first appointment with a therapist, taking that boxing class, or talking it over with your friend, get it done. Get it out in the open so it doesn’t fester and actually kill you. Keeping it together will be hard enough, and it’ll leak out of you eventually.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to be out. You are entitled to your feelings. They can’t be wrong, they’re yours.

2. Creature Comforts. Clothes, food, movie, music, sleep, all the above.  For me, I put on my pineapple robe, get food delivered, lie down, and watch Friends/The Office/Veep bloopers followed by stand up specials, play Christmas music, and/or sleep, and get off the grid. It’s like a sleepover but with yourself.  If you can’t go full out at the moment, then at least loosen your tie, undo your ponytail that’s giving you a migraine, take off the blister heels, and drink some water.

3. Make Space. Before flying off the handle.  Sometimes our initial reactions are so extreme that we need to take a step back and come down to earth. In this case, make space, literally and figuratively. Go somewhere else, anywhere else, and let some time pass before you revisit your feelings and decide how you feel. Walk to another room, go for a drive, people-watch in the park. Take things off your mind before you come back with a fresh set of eyes.

4. Go Home. Actually go home, do the things and find the people that were your home before everything went south.  If this means arriving unannounced at your parents’ house, reaching out to a friend you haven’t talked to in years, or going back to the place you spent hundreds of hours at, then that’s home. Life can feel awfully misaligned at times. Revisit who you were when you decided to become who you are now.

5. Share. Sometimes bad days, the ones that you thought would do you in, become bad months. And bad months become bad years. Yet, you survive. For what? To be forever changed by your experience.  There was you, before and after, and it defines you. If this is the case, share the pain. Tell your story, share your truth, and don’t look back. Exchange your bad days for process, release, and closure. What might feel like a deeply isolating experience could develop community for those going through the same thing.

Everyone has Bad Days. Sometimes, bad days are the ones when your alarm doesn’t go off, you burn yourself making coffee, you trip on the way out the door, only to find that you’ve locked your keys inside. Other times, bad days are the phone call you get, and everything changes afterwards.  Appreciate the little things and the people you have now, because “the miracle is the shortest time”.

Let’s talk about your health.

On July 16, I went for a run and 10 minutes in, I felt searing pain down my left leg, like a freight train with its intensity. I limped my way to my room, steps getting smaller until they were a few inches apart, and couldn’t stand anymore because the pain was all consuming. I was immediately scheduled to see an orthopedic surgeon who assessed my symptoms, X-rays, and tests. The doctor just needed an MRI to be 100% certain of the diagnosis.

Based on the pain, I had prepared for something serious. The mental prep paid off, because the first thing the MRI technician repeated as I was coming out, on the table with headphones still on, was that I needed an operation. What? I made him repeat it, not because I was surprised, but because I couldn’t focus.

At this point I couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds without hyperventilating. All of a sudden it’d feel like the atmosphere disappeared and high tide was coming in fast. The nerve pain felt like a live wire and I was registering information as if I were 100 miles away by semaphore. I was trying to go to my “happy place”, the strategy you plan for to push at the end of a race and disassociate with pain, time, and space. I was wildly unsuccessful. Lying down was the only position that eased the pain to a comprehensible rumble.

The MRI scans confirmed what all signs were pointing to: an L5/S1 disc herniation to the left, severely compressing my nerve, causing what can only be described as a ridiculous amount of pain down my left hip, leg, loss of mobility and sensation, and neuropathy in my foot.

I was prescribed steroidal, arthritic, and nerve pain medication for the next month. My prognosis was to immediately stop current physical activity, start physical therapy, and redesign my life for recovery for the next six months. Surgery was the last resort if symptoms continued to progress for a year. Based on my situation, it was smarter to try conservative treatment first, with a goal to recover and forgo surgery.

The Bad: The first few days I was bedridden. Basic necessities like using the toilet, showering, and eating became accomplishments of the day. I had to get creative putting on underwear (I gave up on socks). The pain was so taxing that I didn’t have the capacity to care about my appearance, elaborate, or cry. I was counting the seconds until I could lie down. The doctor looked at my MRI scans and tried to piece together why my back looked 1-2 decades older than the rest of me. I had a bulging L4/5 disc above my herniated L5/S1 too.

And the Good: I didn’t have cauda equina syndrome, which is a disc herniation in the middle and a surgical emergency because it causes incontinence and potential paralysis of the legs. Not to mention, the pain was so intense that I actually couldn’t dread the future or sift through the past for moments to regret. Those are higher-level thinking skills. I was 100% present, trying to figure out how to put on pants without bending, or brush my teeth lying down. Pain demands that of you and I obliged. Most importantly, in this crazy situation, I found friendship, support, and peace.

You don’t herniate your disc running. You herniate your disc with repeated wear and tear, causing weakness in the annulus fibrosis (tough outer layer of your disc) until the nucleus pulposus (soft jelly part) tears through. This part could happen with little to no symptoms. But, if the herniation becomes severe enough, it can compress a nerve, or your spinal canal, depending on location, and radically inflame everything in its path. I’ll elaborate more later.

There are several factors that contribute to the speed of recovery. Those out of my control included injury severity, physical environment, and genetics. I herniated my disc. I was in Vietnam. And, the curve of my spine, the arch in my feet, and my natural shock absorbing anatomy are what my momma gave me. Yet, my age (so ironically, timing), current state-of-health, access to medical treatment, and emotional support from family and friends gave me a fighting chance. I trusted my doctors and physical therapists. So, I have a decent hand.

Now, in the fourth week of recovery, fifteen physical therapy sessions down, and roughly the same amount of good days and setbacks, I’m comfortable lying down in public (somewhat of a social taboo but pain makes you not care) and capable of standing at the sink to brush my teeth. I’ve spine-proofed my life, purchased orthotics to place in my shock-absorbing shoes, and swum a cumulative 20km for exercise (I’m a swimmer). The pain dial’s been turned down but it’s always present in the background, and the numbness and tingling haven’t improved yet. But, my mobility’s improved, which means I can walk, and psychologically it’s the best I’ve been in a couple years. A good support network, a sense of purpose, and curiosity will do that.

To my family, friends, doctors and physical therapists, (and a handful of strangers) I owe you my health. Without you I could not have broken the vicious cycle of independence to a fault, or asked for help, flown thirty-six hours around the world with a herniated disc so I could relocate and start the next chapter of my life—let alone make it to work and purchased more cellular data. I’ve found solace and refuge in these people. More on this later.

Bulging discs and herniations are incredibly common especially as we age. Take care of your physical and mental health, and spine. You don’t get another spinal cord in this lifetime. And coming from a twenty-something that looks young and healthy, but is doing geriatric stretches– you never know what others are going through, so be kind.

May sound trite, but that’s definitely something.