New Year’s Reflection: Slow Down

Living in the chaos that is New York City, breathing the cold, dry winter air, and tumbling around on the subway in rush hour with millions of others, it is often jarring to come to a sudden stop, look around, and realize where I am.

What am I doing? Where am I going in such a rush?

I am a millennial Asian woman, working in a tech start up in New York City.

Every day is a blur as I rush around the city, to and from work, always with my head down, earphones plugged into an audiobook, and making every effort to not make eye contact with anyone, even in the most crowded trains.

In a city that never sleeps and never stops moving, it is very rare for me to stop and take in my surroundings.

I live in one of the most iconic cities in the world.  And yet, I rarely afford myself a moment or opportunity to take it all in and appreciate what my home has to offer.

Thousands of people flock to Rockefeller Center every hour in the evenings to watch the Sak’s Fifth Avenue light show or to take photos of the angels in front of the huge Christmas Tree.

Twice last week, I found myself aimlessly wandering through the crowds of excited tourists and families taking photos of the spectacles.

Some of them in the city for the first time in their lives.  Some of them having saved for years for the special trip.

Some of them on a honeymoon.  Some of them here with their whole family for a much-coveted family vacation.

Why am I not sharing this moment with the thousands of excited visitors here?

——

This past year, I began to embrace the concept of “minimalism.” Not just in the physical clutter in my apartment (which, of course, is still in the process of being dealt with), but in the clutter of my mind and spirits.

I have too many mundane obligations and worries, too many social media apps vying for my attention, and so many relationships that do not serve me or the other parties. It has been a journey, but I am looking to once again find comfort in the most basic things and the simplest joys.

Every once in a while, I find myself needing the reminder to realign my priorities, and to just “stop and breathe.”

It is so easy for me to take my daily life and routines for granted, because of how smoothly every day seems to meld into each other.

Almost as if to chide me for my indulgences, my body periodically reminds me that I am, in fact, on borrowed time, and that I should take a step back and begin appreciating my relative health and the “small things” that make my daily life possible.

I have been very close to having the very essence of having an “independent life” taken away from me many times in the past few years.

Because of it, I have a much closer relationship to the matters of appreciating my body for all that it tirelessly does for me (until it doesn’t).

——

When I was a senior in college, I had a craniotomy.

On December 11, 2011, I lay unconscious on the operating table while neurosurgeons and their team operated to remove life-threatening vascular malformations from my brain.

For 8 hours, family and friends waited nervously in the waiting area, unsure if I would even wake up.

As a 22-year-old, I confronted Death, stared at him in the eyes, and declared, “Not yet.”

On Accepting my Mortality at 22 – #AVMAwareness

In the spring of my junior year of college, I suddenly collapsed and had a grand mal seizure. I was rushed to the hospital, where the neurologist-on-call told us that I potentially had encephalmalacia, also known as “cerebral softening”- an incurable condition of the brain where the brain “softens,” often resulting in death.

Thankfully, he had misspoken, and after months of testing and a half a dozen different brain scans later, I received my diagnosis: Arteriovenous Malformation.

Put simply, Arteriovenous Malformation is a web of overgrown blood vessels, forming a “tumor” of vessels.

It looks like a bird’s nest, and can appear in any part of the body that has… drum roll… blood vessels.

Without capillaries to disseminate the pressure, arteries “shunt” directly into veins, which can cause high blood-flow pressure on the vessel walls, often causing them to rupture. When such a bleed happens in the brain, it is referred to as a hemorrhagic stroke.

Arteriovenous Malformation

——

Because of my relatively young age, there was a fairly high chance of me having a stroke at some point in my life. While many people live out their fullest life’s time without ever realizing that they have an AVM, in my case, it began causing problems when I was 21. If left untreated, it was likely to cause further issues in the future.

Alongside that, even though I was getting medicated with double or triple my body weight’s dosages of anti-convulsants, I had break-through seizures every few months, which sent me to the emergency room (which, as you can imagine, comes with hefty price tags).

As a young adult, still in college, and about to start her “adult life,” this was definitely not an optimal situation.

I was never the type to “sit back and wait,” so constantly being on the edge for the rest of my life, waiting to have a stroke didn’t seem like a good quality of life for me.

So I elected to have open brain surgery.

Leading up to the surgery, every step was a struggle. Walking became difficult, sitting in classrooms became difficult, and by the end of the semester, I had to withdraw from my teaching internship and a few of my more intensive classes as my drug dosages increased, and I could no longer travel the distance from my student housing to the classrooms.

——

Perhaps because Death was so close to me every day, not knowing if I would wake up in the next day in my own bedroom, the emergency room, or perhaps not at all, I began to take every step with gratitude.

I took my time, expressing my wonder for nature, crying over a flower I saw growing from a crack in a sidewalk, and marveled at the peacefulness of hundreds of foxtails all gently swaying in sync with the wind.

With Death whispering into my ear every day, I was finally able to appreciate Life for what it was: an Enormous Web of Miracles.

Without Darkness, there is no Light, and I was suddenly appreciative of the smallest miracles, extending to my ability to walk unassisted, and still enjoy study sessions with my friends in the library.

I woke up from the surgery a different person, but as my own small rendition of a Miracle. I woke up from the surgery with brain injury, unable to move a finger, much less sit, walk, or feed myself.

But I woke up from surgery, and immediately spoke to my mother in Japanese, and her friends and the doctors in English. I told them that I was feeling ok, and hoped they didn’t actually shave my whole head like they said they would.

I woke up from surgery, and despite spending the rest of the night puking up blood in the ICU, declared to the world that I wasn’t ready to go just yet.

In the upcoming months and years, I came to learn that because of the location of my brain injury (frontal lobe), I would be experiencing mood instabilities, executive dysfunction, memory issues, and cognition problems.

My background in Special Education served me well, as I became my very own student with special needs that required my support.

Life took on a huge struggle, but I was determined to keep on moving forward. I had found a light within myself demanding to continue living and pursue more for myself, and I wasn’t about to give that up after so much was done for me to allow me to live.

I modified, accommodated for, and worked around my new-found limitations and disabilities, and a year and a half later, graduated with my Bachelor’s of Science in Special Education. The year after that, I graduated with a Master’s of Education in Special Education.

Having spent the previous 2 years being told that I will never achieve independence or full-time work because of my brain injury-related deficits, I decided that the only way for me to “break out” of the grip of society to label me as “unable to work” and limit my potential was to literally move myself out of the insulated bubble that had formed around me.

Photographic Journey of Brain Surgery Recovery

After my graduate school graduation, I packed up my suitcase, backpack, and favorite pillow, and moved to New York City on a bus.

I spent half a year looking for a job, and almost by accident, received an offer to work in IT despite my complete lack of experiences. I ran with it, and it has turned into an exciting and engaging career since then.

I fought so hard in the first few years to establish my independence and ability to function, despite my disabilities. I always felt like it was me against the world, with the world always trying to tell me, “No, you can’t.”

Along the way, trying so hard to convince the world that “I can, and I will,” I lost sight of the Light and Darkness, and the small miracles of the world that makes it so beautiful.

I began to take my abilities that I fought so hard for, and the life’s routines as a self-sufficient adult with a work life for granted, and forgot to remind myself that I was here, living this life, only because I was once so close to Death.

So with the new year, I want to promise myself to take a step back, “stop and breathe,”
and allow myself to marvel at the simple and yet amazing miracles that feed the reality of Life and this world.

It’s so easy to become caught up in the whirlwind of life, whether it be relationships, careers, family, or health.

But when was the last time you had the opportunity to just step back and marvel at the fact that the sun comes up every morning, and the birds know it’s coming?

When was the last time you had the opportunity to watch a sunset happen, from beginning to end?

When was the last time you stopped and looked up at the sky, just watching the clouds sail slowly across the sky?

When was the last time you sat back on your chair, and marveled at all the fine-tuned ways your body works for you every day, tirelessly pumping blood, and coordinating with your brain to allow you to read this text on your phone or computer, and scroll through the text?

——

My body and mind reminds me to take it slow, and appreciate everything that my “borrowed time” has to offer to me.

Recently, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

RA is thought to be hereditary, but often triggered by stress. Half-year into my chemo treatment, I am embracing meditation, minimalism, and appreciation for nature and life.

It is definitely difficult to assess what we take for granted until it is stripped away from us.

When moving became so painful that I was crying every morning as I tried to brush my hair and open the bedroom door, I was overcome with appreciation for how hard my body had been working all my life, even to make the simplest tasks possible.

Take it from me, whose body seems to be very good at reminding me when I forget:

In 2018, we owe it to ourselves to slow down, take a breath, and appreciate the small things in life, and fully appreciate what our body does for us.

Our society tells us to worry about the superficial, the “big idea,” the chaos that is our ecosystem.

But really, what is more important than our health and happiness? Despite what society tells you, it doesn’t lie in more money (though, to be fair, it’s definitely easier with more money!).

It’s found within, by learning to appreciate the simple Miracles of Life and Death, and your relationship with the fleeting.

To take care of your body, and showing appreciation for the tireless ways it works for you day in and day out. And to take care of your most important relationships.

Because nothing and no one is “forever,” and no matter how young or old, there is not a day to waste.

I learned this as I faced Death at 22.  And even I need to remind myself.

I hope you crush all those goals and plans you set for yourself for 2018.

But also remember to step back once in a while to ask your body how it’s doing, and what you can do for it so it can continue to work for you.

This article was written for January 2018’s newsletter for the Asian Women for Health blog.
New Year’s Reflection: Slow Down

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21 Comments

  1. Wow girl, thank you so much for sharing this story and reminding us how precious the physical aspect of life is. As a fellow New Yorker, I completely feel working in New York is like a battlefield – if you make it out of your commute unscathed, you get to sit at your desk for 8 hours. And that’s on a good day when there’s no blizzard or sleet. The scary part is how some people truly believe that’s the way life is supposed to be. They call it ambitious, but I call it unrealistic.

    I remember you telling me your story when we met up earlier this year! I understood it a lot better from reading it this time. I feel this connection to your story when you said everybody told you that you can never work again and created this false security bubble, then you proved them wrong by packing your bags and moving to NYC. I’m so proud of you for waiting to get a job and that you made it!

    I’m sorry to hear about your illness this year – I think I saw you mention chemo on Twitter – but you’ve handled it so well. I really think you could be a great pep talker for many people in tech (especially here in SF), who work 24/7 just to prove they are more ambitious than others and forget that we are all human. We can’t do anything if our body does not allow it.

    One of the things I want to tackle in my rebrand is being able to use my work to connect people together, instead of treating work as my isolation zone and using free time to “get away from it.” I’d love to talk to you about the topic of physical health in relation to work! It might be my first or second blog post.

    Happy New Year Hiro!

    1. Happy New Year to you, too, Liv!! Thank you so much for coming by and reading. I would definitely love to work with you on that topic! It’s so important, and I’m always on a search to help people find a place in the world when they are feeling completely isolated, whether it be hardships, illnesses, disability, or general life events.
      People are like that here and SF A LOT I think, especially in Finance and Tech. What they fail to realize is that if THAT’S what it takes to get where they are… They can lose it all in a moment of illness or accident, and there’s literally no way for them to get back to where they were, because they were burning their fuels at 150%!
      There needs to be a balance between overwork for the sake of overwork and accomplishing your dreams and ambitions, to make it healthy for the body. Because without your health, you’re left with nothing… And most people realize too late this very very crucial fact.

  2. You really are an inspiration, with how much you’ve been through, and you’re still going strong!

    And you’re right. People do need to step back and be aware of everything. I hope you have a great year!

  3. You are truly inspiring.

    As someone who also has a chronic illness, I can definitely say that it makes life challenging, and makes you realize that you should take the little things for granted. Sure, there are some days where I’m too exhausted to face the world, but I push through it.

    New York is beautiful, but I couldn’t imagine living there. I guess it would be quite a transition from being a suburban. Life is pretty good down here in Delaware! LOL.

  4. Thank you for sharing your amazing story and everything that you have been through. I can understand that it can be easy to miss the small things, but I am glad you have taken the time to reflect on them! I hope that 2018 will have many positives and you can see the light around you. <3

  5. You’re brave for overcoming that big of an obstacle at such a young age. Thank you for sharing your amazing story. I’m sure it will inspire many people to live their life to the fullest and never take anything for granted. Hope that you are in a much better and healthier state now. Looking forward to reading more of your story!

    Sheena | http://sheenalovessunsets.com

  6. Happy New Year Hiro! I really admire your strength and how you’ve overcome your challenges. You make me realize the while college is tough, it could always be worse. And you’re right, we really should try and slow down and appreciate our surroundings. I think I’m good at the surroundings part but the body part? I need to work on that. I feel like i take my strength and stamina for granted sometimes.

    Happy New Year!

  7. Wow, I’m not sure what brought you to my blog but I’m glad you stopped by so I could visit yours in return and read this beautiful blog post. You have been through so much, more than I’m sure I could ever imagine – I find your determination to be independent and not let your troubles limit you so inspiring.

    I think it’s also interesting how even you, someone who has been so close to death, has to stop and remind yourself to slow down and take it all in sometimes. In movies and stuff it seems like once that moment happens the person suddenly realizes how much they’ve taken life for granted and is a totally changed person for the better. And while I’m sure you’re changed in many ways, (I mean you admitted you did have those moments where you cried at a flower growing in the cracks,) I guess I never thought about how life can still suck you back into the everyday monotony of things. I guess everyone, no matter who they are and what they’ve been through, can do with the reminder every once in a while to stop and appreciate all the things around us. (I definitely do.)

    I hope you’re able to slow down during 2018 and enjoy the moments. Thanks for being an unexpected surprise in the blogging world for me today. I enjoyed reading your post <3

  8. 明けましておめでとうございます, Hiro! One of my 2018 goals is to seriously get back to refreshing my Japanese language, starting with the writing system, so I hope I got the writing down correctly (darn the Kanji lol). 😀

    I remember reading about your struggles with AVM during those years in (one of your?) blogs then, but back then we barely knew each other. I was just another blog reader who happened to be in the same blogging group/community as you. Still reading your experiences also made me feel relieved about my father’s continuing (and hopefully winnning) battle with his Stage 4 lung cancer. Late 2016 to mid-2017 were his most vulnerable moments. Come February 2018, he’ll be traveling with Mom to the Philippines and won’t be back home until March. Just thinking about having to get diagnosed with a disease that would give us a very little chance to live, and then reading experiences such as yours or experiencing what my father’s going through now, miracles do exist.

    But yes, I agree with slowing down. I may have a lot of plans and goals for this year, but in order to accomplish them, I too will have to take the time and dedicate myself to reaching them without any form of distractions or any toxicity trying to get in my way.

    Happy New Year again and may your 2018 be filled with more blessings!

  9. You are my hero, and I don’t say that lightly either and I don’t normally attribute that status to anyone-because honestly, you deserve it. hugs

    I have been enjoying more and more time with Marley and my husband, and just appreciating the time I have with them especially with that accidental suicide in my family last November. You just never know when you’ll be gone or what you lose before it is too late.

  10. Happy New Year Hiro! Lets make the best of 2018.

    Lets hang out again soon when the weather is warmer! (Suppose to be super cold in the next few days)

  11. Such an inspiring post, thank you for sharing this with us.

    I’ve been trying to make these changes to own blog but am yet to find the confidence, I feel like I’m slowely getting there now by reading ones like this.

    Alys / alysgeorge.blogspot.co.uk

  12. You left me with all the #feelz after reading this post. You are such a brave, courageous woman who didn’t let anything hinder you from living with a purpose.

    You’ve gone through so much and yet you didn’t sulk, but chose to be grateful for every little thing. Your heart is pure, and that is a rarity. Please do continue to share and inspire other people with your life. You just reminded me to take better care of my body.

    And yes, I agree, that we don’t always have to be in a hurry, that sometimes, taking things slow works better for us in the long run.

    Have a great 2018! 🙂

  13. This is such an inspiring post. How terrible to have to go through open brain surgery at such a young age, with other things such as RA coming into play. I can’t imagine how awful it would be to be a family member waiting for eight hours unsure as to whether or not you’d even make it, but it’s a real miracle that you did. Things like this really put things into perspective, and moving to New York probably could have been one of the best things to do, to live life to the fullest in such a beautiful and vibrant city.

    Amy;
    Little Moon Elephant

  14. Hiro, I said this on Twitter countless of times but you inspire me so much. When I first started reading your blog and posts about Minimalism and simple living, I really connected with my meditation practice on mindfulness and really knowing what’s important.

    Reading this post today has struck me again and reminded me once again of what is truly important: my health, my loved ones, my happiness and contentness in life. Your story has empowered me to slow down and really take everything in one step at a time, there’s no rush.

    I’m looking forward to reading more from you this year, and connecting with you more on Twitter. I just wish I could hug you and meet you 🙁 I WILL make a trip back to NY again soon to do just that!

    Keep doing what you do, Hiro! I wish you the best 2018 ahead <3

  15. Amazing Hiro! I’ve been reading your past blog posts about fighting death, recovering from AVM and brain surgery, and Rheumatoid Arthritis. 🙁 The story of how you deal with the pain, even though it doesn’t go away, and still keep going in life, and trying to live normally, really reminds me to be thankful always, that life isn’t about the circumstances that are placed on us, but about how we handle them. We are all living on borrowed time, so gotta make the most of it, cherish what we do have, and love the people we share life with.

    Look forward to keeping in contact with you this year!

  16. This topic was really just so refreshing to read as winter really continues hard in the Northeast. It’s back down to 8 degrees in Boston, MA, and this post + hot chocolate = happiness.

    Thank you!

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