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.