Before my injury, I had an amazing job. I worked as an aquarist, which is a zookeeper for fish. I got into this career because I loved animals, but I was allergic to most of them! The ones underwater, however, didn’t make me sneeze. I have fed mola-molas, stingrays, moray eels, sand tiger sharks, zebra sharks, nurse sharks, and white tip reef sharks from inside the fishtanks. There’s a youtube video out there of me inside the tanks in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal helping get it set up, and I’m in countless family photos from my time in the water in Spain and Guam. I’ve wrestled sea turtles and sharks for medical treatments, had baby walruses suck on my fingers, and trained a fish to kiss a target on a stick in the water just like how they train dolphins and sea lions for shows. I saved the lives of many animals by noticing and fixing mechanical problems before they were too late, and I did the research and work to extend the lives of animals from electric eels to jellyfish to octopuses by finding out how to take care of them better. I’ve gone into the tropical sea and helped catch new animals for the aquarium, designed exhibits, and diagnosed and treated sick fish, worked feverishly and daringly to save sick and injured animals, rejoiced when they healed, and cried when animals under my responsibility died. In the 7 years I worked in aquaria, I chopped tons of seafood and cleaned square miles of aquarium windows and backdrops.
I went to school two extra years to get into this career, and I worked my butt off in school and in every job I had after school. I was pretty good at what I did, and was always working to become a better fish keeper in any way I could. Before I was an aquarist, I drifted a bit–I majored in biology, worked in a microinvertebrate laboratory, almost wrote a groundbreaking paper on slow loris behavior but got distracted, worked doing field research on playground bullying, and then ended up working phones and reception for a major hospital. I made some of the best money I’ve ever made at the hospital, but I never felt like I was making enough of a difference, and my aquarist career was like finding my life purpose.
Then, on July 5th, 2009, as I was wrapping up for the day, my shoe got caught in some stairs behind a tank and I stumbled down the stairs, twisting my ankle hard at the bottom. I heard something snap. It hurt a lot. There’s another post about how I slowly lost my career and then my ability to work at all to the CRPS that developed from my injury. But when I say I lost my career, I lost something that wasn’t just an acceptable way to make a living. I lost my vocation, my daily love, my purpose in life. Something I had moved across oceans for three times. Something I had given up a relationship to learn how to do. I lost something so precious to me that even writing this right now brings tears to my eyes. I lost, not the 7 years of my life that I threw myself into heart and soul, but I lost the reason for doing so.
Before my injury, I liked to dance. I took hip-hop in University and was in a little modern dance troupe,. While I attended aquarium school, I sang and danced in the chorus of several local musicals. I have been a singer since I was a little kid, and when I moved to Guam, I sang jazz in some of the bars with the local bands on weekends.
Before I got hurt, I would go snorkeling on Friday mornings and take pictures (or try to) of the amazing animals I’d see. I would drive around the island and stop to take photos of the things I found beautiful. I went hiking sometimes, too.
Before I got hurt, I would go on dates with my sweetie. We liked to travel and find ways to enjoy trips together with our opposite traveling styles. I went traveling alone quite a bit too.
Before I got hurt, I would sit at my computer for hours, designing web pages, writing poetry.
Now, if I sit up for more than an hour or two at a time, I start to hurt too much and have to go lie down. I can’t pick up and hop on a plane when the tickets are on sale, walking the foreign cities I love to explore. I rarely go out with friends or on a date. I don’t snorkel or hike much, although with careful planning and luck of a low pain day I can manage something that doesn’t go too far or take too long, as long as I have someone to go with me. I can’t stay out late enough to sing at bars, and I don’t jump or dance anymore. It’s hard to imagine having the energy to be in a musical.
And I’m not an aquarist. I’m not a chemist. I’m not even a receptionist. I’m disabled. Is that who I am?
I have lost so much. For a long time, I didn’t know what I had left. I didn’t know if I had enough left to scrape together a me. I didn’t know who I was now, without the things I used to do. A lot of people with CRPS (and with other chronic pain conditions) commit suicide. It’s not hard to understand why, when we’ve lost so much of ourselves we aren’t even sure who we are anymore. One of the first things a stranger asks to get to know another is, “What do you do?” What do you do when you can’t do what you do?
I couldn’t think about my loss, because every time I did, the negative emotions would make my pain flare. I went to see a therapist. I wanted to know how to move on. She first told me I had to grieve, and I tried, but it just make my pain so out-of-control that it wasn’t worth it. I decided I had to move on. I knew I wasn’t my job, or my body. I knew I needed to accept my new situation and make a new life, but even though I could think it through logically, I just couldn’t move past the feeling that I had lost myself along with the rest of what I’d lost to pain. I was stuck. I went back to the therapist and tried to explain more clearly. I was angry at myself for understanding what I needed to do to take the next step and yet not being able to do it.
I kept saying to myself, “Get over it already! It is the way it is, and you know wallowing is no good for you!”
This wasn’t working.
The therapist explained that without grieving, without acknowledging the depth and severity of what we’ve lost with kindness and understand towards ourselves for hurting, we can’t move on. You can’t bully yourself past the grief step. You just get stuck. And that is what I had done.
My therapist and I set up a safe time to grieve. I could stay away from my loss when I was at home, needing to cope with my pain. I couldn’t afford to grieve full-time. But I could do it part-time, every week, in her office. I had to honestly, mentally pat myself on the shoulder and say, I know, I understand, this really really sucks.
And the moment I gave myself the acceptance and kindness I needed, I started to be able to accept my new life, my new self.
I don’t think I’m done grieving. I think that I’m going to be grieving in little bits for years. Right now, I can’t go to an aquarium, but I expect that won’t last forever. That’s going to be painful and raw for a while.
But I’m also learning how to love my new life. And I can! I love blogging, I love sewing, I love love love yoga. I love finding other people with chronic pain and trying to find out if I know anything that might help them. I was empathic before, and I love that I can be a better empathizer now. And I love the kind of person that learning to live in the moment is making me.
I may get to do some of the things I used to do before, I may not. I probably won’t ever work in an aquarium again. That’s sad, but okay. I have great memories of the time I spent in that dream job. I’m ready to find a new dream. I’m feeling the oceans of possibilities open up around me for a new life that I love. I’m no longer in a rush to get anywhere. But I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.
Everyone grieves at some time. Treating ourselves with kindness and understanding instead of impatience and frustration is the only way to truly move through grief. We may worry that we’ll get trapped in the sadness and not move on–I know I had that fear. But it turned out I was bigger than that. I just needed to trust myself. I hope that by sharing my grief that maybe even that struggle will touch another person in the way they need to help them grieve. And if not, that’s okay too. I learned what I needed to from my experience, and that is one person that is the better for it. Everything else is gravy =-)