Jen is one of those very fortunate people who has never had to make even the slightest effort to be in good spirits. Living in gratitude and joy has always just come naturally to her. "I've always been an upbeat person. When I was a kid I didn't understand how people could be unhappy when it seemed to me that there was always so much good, so much beauty, so much pleasure in just being alive." In high school, Jen was named "Most Optimistic" in her senior year, an award that was originated specifically for her.
"There wasn't anything particularly unique or unusual about my family. I guess I was just born lucky. I've always felt a strong sense of appreciation for my life, for the specific things that I've been blessed with, like my athleticism, my love of adventure and excitement, my health, my friends as well as for my life in general. I also love my work. I don't consider it work; it's play. In fact I refer to the workplace as my playground. I've always felt that life is just this extraordinary gift that we've been given to enjoy, just a series of delights and opportunities, that is until the accident."
"The accident" that Jen refers to occurred nearly two years ago and coming to terms with it and its aftereffects would prove to be the biggest challenge of her life. "I was getting ready for my third marathon which was coming up in a few weeks and doing a training run on a fairly quiet road not too far from the freeway. It was an area that was popular with bicyclists and runners because there wasn't much traffic. I was coming up to an intersection where the main road crossed with a secondary road that was controlled by a set of traffic lights. I saw that the lights were in my favor and that it was safe to cross.
Just as I approached the middle of the intersection a car came speeding through the red light without even slowing down. It was coming right at me and I had no time to get out of the way. In the next instant the car hit me and threw me up on the hood and I found myself facing the driver and staring directly into her eyes who for some reason wasn't stopping. She didn't even apply her brakes. I remember thinking: "Oh my God! She isn't going to stop!' and simultaneously I found myself sliding off of the hood. I was terrified that I would fall under the wheels of the car and get run over. There was nothing for me to grab on to to keep from falling off and as I slipped off, my foot went under the front passenger side wheel as I was thrown to the ground.
I never lost consciousness, but I wish that I had. I've always been a very active athlete and I'm not unused to pain. But the pain that I felt lying there in the street was worse than anything that I've ever experienced, worse that anything that I can describe. The paramedics arrived within a couple of minutes and put me on a stretcher to take me to the emergency room. I told them not to touch my pelvis, which had been badly injured by the impact of the accident. I don't know how I even managed to get the words out. The pain was so excruciating that all I could do was wail and shriek.
They couldn't treat me at the first hospital they brought me to so they took me to another hospital that was better equipped to deal with my condition. As luck would have it one of the world's best orthopedic surgeons was there and he offered to care for me. I was told that in all likelihood I would almost certainly require surgery but not necessarily right away. I was put in a full back brace for over four months and told that I would have to have pins put in my spine. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to walk again, never mind run another marathon.
During that period of time I just kept affirming to myself that my injuries could heal without surgery and without pins. I worked diligently with my physical therapist every day, even after my insurance refused to continue to cover the cost of those treatments. I was as completely committed to my recovery as I've ever been to anything I've ever done in my life. I was determined to recover without surgery.
My doctor kept trying to prepare me for what he seemed to think was inevitable but then one day after examining me he told me that he didn't think that I was going to need surgery after all. He was surprised and didn't understand how to account for it but I knew that it was my attitude and belief in my body's ability to heal that had made the difference. I just refused to accept the diagnosis as an inevitability."
But Jen's euphoria was short-lived and within days she found herself in the midst of an ordeal that very nearly cost her her life.
"Although I was grateful not to have to have surgery, I still was having to contend with the pain that began at the time of the accident. I needed to take several different types of meds in order to keep the pain to a manageable level, but it was never enough. My doctor kept upping the dosage, which of course increased the ghastly side effects and my tolerance to the drugs kept increasing with the elevated dosage. I was taking massive amounts of pain-killers including dilaudid, oxycontin, percosset, valium, and others, but the pain continued to be intolerable.
Worse than the physical pain was the mental anguish that I was experiencing. I kept having flashbacks to the accident, was crying every day, and was plagued with nightmares. For the first time in my life I began feeling the kind of hopelessness that I had heard about from others, but had never been a reality for me. Now, I was seeing what it was like to see nothing but pain and suffering ahead of me, and feeling a kind of despair that was truly overwhelming. I became convinced that this was going to be my fate for the rest of my life with no hope of ever getting my body back, never being pain-free again. For the first time in my life I actually wanted to die.
I became convinced that no life was better than this life. This was no life; it was hell. I was plagued by obsessive thoughts about the relief that death would finally bring and gradually convinced myself that it was my time to go. This thought brought me a strange kind of relief. I reflected on my life and felt grateful for the good times that I had had and sorry that the people I loved would be sad and grief-stricken over my death, but I was certain that this was the choice that I had to make. On July 17, 2009, my birthday, I wrote a suicide note explaining why I had to do what I had to do and put it on my desk. I emptied my pill bottles and swallowed over 180 pills, most of them heavy narcotics, and washed them down with ¾ of a bottle of red wine."
That should have been the end of Jen's story. But of course, it wasn't. Nine hours later, the next morning, Jen's close friend Chris phoned to check in with her. When after several calls there was no answer, she drove over to Jen's apartment and found her unconscious, but still breathing. Jen was rushed to the hospital where she was treated and then transferred to the psychiatric unit where she was diagnosed with acute pathological depression. One of the pain meds that Jen had been taking was cymbalta, a drug that had been known to cause suicidal fantasies and behavior in many patients. She was immediately taken off of it and had her medication adjusted to control her pain without life-threatening side effects. Within two weeks Jen's level of pain became manageable, but the dreaded side-effects of the medication relentlessly continued.
"Once the pain was more under control I just wanted to get off of the meds. I hated being numb and foggy-brained all the time. Now that I was no longer in the grip of a crushing depression, I was desperate to get my life back again. My doctor told me that it would probably be at least nine months before I would no longer need the meds and he warned me that getting off of them would be very hard, considering my body had become dependent upon them. I was essentially a narcotics addict.
I put my willpower to work and made up my mind that I was going to kick this addiction and that it was not going to take nine months. Breaking my dependence was one of the most difficult things I've ever done, much harder than running a marathon. I started tapering off the meds on November 26 and by the end of January, I was completely drug-free. It was a horrific ordeal that involved all of the gruesome aspects of detox including horrible nausea, profound weakness and exhaustion, shaking and trembling, DT’s, and more. But I finally got my life and my body back again.
I’m not fully recovered from the accident yet but I’m almost there and I’m training for another marathon. I was out of work for fourteen months and I was ecstatic when I finally got clearance from my doctor to return to my job.
When I think about how close I came to dying I feel a sense of incredible gratitude to Chris for literally saving my life. I also know that it wasn't my time and I'm so glad that it wasn't. The accident has in some ways been a gift for me in that it gave me an intimate glimpse into what life is like for people who live in chronic physical or emotional pain. For the first time in my life I got a taste of what that is like and I have a kind of compassion for others' suffering that I never experienced before. I feel that I have been sensitized to the pain in the world in a way that I never could have been without going through my ordeal. I'm certainly not glad that I experienced what I have gone through but there have been some incredibly valuable lessons for me in the process and for that I am deeply grateful.
There's still so much that I want to do, to experience, to accomplish. Life is so precious, beyond what any words can describe. I've learned that even when things seem absolutely hopeless, and without any possibility of improvement, that miracles can happen. And they do. I'm living proof!”