At 9:15 pm I walk into a hospital.
I am not bleeding. I am not in pain. None of the things that make you know you should go to a hospital is happening. So it is with great internal conflict that I ask the person at the desk to admit me for brain surgery the next morning.
When I awaken after seven hours of surgery I am being rolled into the ICU. I am extremely groggy. All the lights are too bright. I have tubes in both arms with IV bags attached, EKG badges on my chest, monitors all around, and a larger tube that goes in my nose and down to my stomach. My head hurts, the sort of pain you cannot imagine if you have not had it and cannot remember if you have. I have two full-time nurses. When I turn my head slightly, I puke through the nose tube.
My girlfriend tells me I look great. I know this cannot be true; what she means is she is grateful I am alive. I am too. I try to say “right!” and a hoarse growl comes out. Later she takes my picture: my shaved head has 37 staples in it, starting in front of my right ear and running in a big arc on the side of my head. It is an eight-inch incision, made in a curve to avoid cutting the large chewing muscle on the side of my head. In my post-anesthesia coloring, I look like a baseball that has been left in a swamp.
I have survived surgery for a brain tumor.
Most brain tumors are malignant, personality altering, life changing, life ending. I am extremely lucky. Mine is life changing but none of the other three; it was benign and has been successfully removed. I have lost the balance center on my right side and all of the hearing in my right ear. Puking through the tube illustrates the state of my balance. I don’t need to go whale watching, just a small head move is enough to set me retching.
This is my starting point.
The surgeons are optimistic that I will recover enough to get down to the kitchen and out to the car without hurting myself. Sobering news, based as it is on their direct experience of hundreds of patients with my same tumor. Still, I recognize that they are speaking in the language of averages. Even if a lot of patients land close to the average, there must be some whose results are far from that – in both directions.
As I make my first tentative steps in the hospital, I have a walker, a physical therapist holding tight to my arm, and the room spins crazily.
Being out of one’s psychic comfort zone means being in uncertainty, and that is my situation. Beyond the physical discomfort, which is dramatic but hardly vague, is the unsureness of my future. I don’t know if I will ever meet the goals the surgeons have for me, or whether I will be able to achieve more.
I have met other people who, having survived the same tumor I did, were so desperate to get back to their comfort zone that they quickly made their life small by creating constraints. I will never forget one of them telling me earnestly: “I knew I couldn’t do this, and I knew I had better not try that.” She had her results firmly in mind from the beginning, defined narrowly enough to supply her with a sense of certainty.
My instinct is different. To explore my new reality, to see what might be possible, I have to be willing to stay in the uncertainty. This is where I can learn and grow. By the third day I am strolling the hallways in my robe, gripping my rolling intravenous bag holder like a crazy staff.
The surgeons give me one thing I can use: they tell me I have to put my brain “in the stress” for it to rewire, make new connections, adapt, improve.
Out of the hospital, able to walk unaided, I still cannot turn around quickly. I either fall down or become painfully disoriented. Stress! I put on a hockey helmet and get into a racquetball court. I hit the ball, turn around, hit the ball again, turn around the other way. By then the floor has hit me in the shoulder. It looks to me like a wall I am leaning on. I was not even aware I was falling. This is funny! I get back up and try again.
My one-sided hearing is a separate journey. Evolution did not give us two ears so we have a spare. We need to tell where sounds are coming from, and to separate those from background noise. Loud restaurants are suddenly an undifferentiated din, from which the voices of my companions seem impossible to separate.
To mute my frustration I take off my shoe, wiggle my toes, and remind myself that I am lucky; there are people who can’t do that. Even now, when I am well used to it, hearing enough to stay present in restaurant conversations is a challenge. Reminding myself that I am lucky is still helpful.
I go to the racquetball court three times a week for months. I walk a lot, weaving like a drunk. I go skiing four weeks after surgery. No one else thinks this is a good idea. My vision becomes a giant blur as soon as I start moving. I have found another way to be “in the stress”! To be safe I give trees and obstacles a wide berth. When I stop I fall over. I get back up and try again.
I walk on logs, park benches, anything that will test my balance. (I still do.) I hire a trainer, improve my diet, lift weights twice a week. (I still do.) The idea that I might not have been able to do any of these things heightens my appreciation of every moment. (It still does.)
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I make notes to remember what I am learning:
• When you are thrown out of your comfort zone, be willing to stay in the uncertainty that is there. Rushing to resolve it will not serve you.
• If life doesn’t push you into uncertainty, step out of your comfort voluntarily in different areas of your life. The size of your steps should suit your disposition but make sure you feel uncomfortable. If you do this often your response to change and fear will become powerful and elastic.
• Try things before you decide what your limits are. Be open to what happens.
• Remember every day that it is great to be alive.
I begin going to steep skiing camps, getting coaching from pro skiers. With no expectation of a particular result, over six years of camps and disciplined practice I am able to raise my skiing enough to go helicopter skiing in Alaska every year, to ski the extreme. Later I take up paragliding, a magical sport. In ten years I progress enough that I now compete on the Paragliding World Cup circuit. Currently ranked 10th in the US, I continue to learn every day.
I still don’t know what I will be able to achieve.
James Bradley intentionally and instinctively brings entrepreneurial spirit and athletic determination to all aspects of his life. Professionally, he is a partner at Hitchcock Partners, LLC, a new firm focused on business growth consulting.
© 2013 James Bradley
Photo: The author, racing above Dunlap, CA, in May 2013. Photo by US World Team pilot Josh Cohn.