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.”
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.
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.
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