By Elizabeth Zinno Ratta
The interesting thing about life is that we get so caught up in our routine, our schedule, our bubble that we sometimes forget to actually live. It often isn’t until we almost lose it all that we realize. This is my story of my journey to live.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida. I was a kid who fell in love with art at a young age as a means of expressing my emotions. After exploring various mediums, I finally found my passion in photography. In 2012 I moved across the country from Florida to the Windy City for college to become a photographer. After 4 years of college, my hustle began. I stayed in Chicago, I worked countless jobs while I tried to figure out how to be a self sufficient adult and an artist. After many successes and many failures, I finally thought I found my career. My dream job. That thing we’re taught to strive for. That defines us. I stopped creating art to be apart of the behind the scenes production of its creation. I worked 12+ hour days, but the truth is when I got home I never shut off. I was consumed. My job was to take care of everyone else, and in doing so, I forgot about me.
On August 28, 2018 my world halted as a mere 28 year old. My full time hours were cut more than in half and I was about to embark back into the freelance world. I was excited about exploring new options with new people, but in reality I was terrified. That morning I had a panic attack, knowing my future was again up in the air. Fearing change and growth and the unknown. Then that evening it all changed in ways I could never prepare for.
People describe a brain aneurysm rupture as the worst headache of your life. “Thunder clap headache.” That doesn’t even come close. It feels like dying, and in 50% of cases, death is the outcome. That evening, while sitting on my bed with my husband, my brain exploded. I fell unconscious for around a minute and luckily my husband was able to bring me back to life. I’ll spare all the messy details. I had no control over my body and the world around me was a complete haze. Knowing I earlier had a panic attack, and am prone to over-analyze, my incredible husband told me he thought I was drugged at my dinner earlier. This thought gave me something to hold onto, to believe I wasn’t dying and that I would be okay. I was rushed to the ER and eventually transferred to the ICU. In the next 24 hours I would undergo countless CT scans and brain surgery to coil my popped aneurysm. I have very minimal memories during this time because the pain was too intense as blood continued to fill up my brain. I am honored to say I survived, but the journey only began there.
I spent 2 weeks in the ICU. My case was incredibly fortunate, my hemorrhagic stroke did not leave any major lasting deficits. Or so they said. I learned to walk again and my motor functions were normal. My processing was slowed down, my strength was weakened, but overall I knew who I was, where I was, and could eat without assistance. A true miracle. What they didn’t tell me was that having a brain injury in itself is a long lasting deficit.
When I got home, I expected life to return to normal fairly quickly. No one told me otherwise. But for months I struggled to be able to move from the couch to my bed. Taking a shower was an entire day’s event. My brain had hit reset and I had no clue how to handle this new existence. Lights and sounds were all so completely overwhelming (still often are). I could only wear certain clothes because fabrics touching my skin was incredibly uncomfortable. Family and friends would visit and after less than an hour I would be drenched in sweat simply from holding a conversation. Nightly I would have excruciating headaches that would lead to PTSD that was I going to die this time. I could barely handle watching anything, reading anything, doing anything. My brain was working overtime to try to be this normal version of myself. I struggled (& still do) through major PTSD episodes, anxiety/panic attacks and debilitating depression. I couldn’t work, I slept constantly, and my days were measured in varying degrees of pain. I wanted to be grateful to be alive, but it wasn’t enough. Surviving was a gift and a hardship.
As time continued on, I kept aiming to be normal. I had glimpses here and there. Recovery is not linear and every set back felt like the biggest weight on my heart. I spent countless of hours alone in silence, missing out on events and parties and trips. But being out in the world, where so much unexpected stimulation was around every corner, was even more difficult. Anything and everything would set off pain flares, or I would push myself too far and zap all my energy away and be bedridden for a week. Even though I felt so much support from my family and friends, it’s incredibly lonely being in so much solitude, having to constantly cancel or decline invites. It leaves you with insurmountable guilt and shame and left me questioning why this had to happen to me.
I had a lot of triumphs too. I worked PT remotely for 5 months at a new job, I traveled some to visit family and took a long weekend trip away with friends. I found pain management through medical cannabis, acupuncture, reiki and meditation. I celebrated one year alive with family & friends, my husband and my love grew even stronger and I turned the big 3-0. But every big milestone led to bigger struggles and all I longed for was some good days that didn’t end in total complete bad days. Progress felt small and my identity turned into a girl in pain who couldn’t do anything anymore. I got used to her, I could hide with her, cry with her and started to accept this was my forever.
Then something shifted. I met more survivors, I gained more knowledge and I decided I didn’t want to accept this complete hermit lifestyle anymore. I could still live a big full life, but maybe I just needed to adjust. Acceptance is half the battle and even though it still comes in waves, I finally felt like I deserved to have things be easier. I do, we all do. I deserve a big full life. And maybe, just maybe, it’s going to be more beautiful than it ever could have been before. Instead of lingering on “why did this happen to me?” I shifted towards “look at how much this is shaping me!”
Accepting my new normal was a complete 360 in my recovery. Shifting my mindset is when the magic was able to start flooding in. I’m not who I was before, I’m stronger, and I just need some assistance. I’m more in tune with my body, my desires, my dreams. I know my heart, deeply. I’ve become more spiritual, more understanding, more compassionate. I’ve become attuned to Reiki, a practice that has given me more energy and power than anything else. I finally feel like I am coming home to my artistic skills in ways I never would have envisioned. I am learning how to heal, and in return, how to heal others as well.
But, yes, it’s all still very hard. I’m 17 months post stroke and as I write this I’m stuck in bed with a headache, adrenal fatigue, my two cats and blackout curtains. On a Tuesday afternoon. But last week I was able to go to a friend’s photo gallery opening in a loud, crowded, overly stimulating space. I’ve learned how to adjust. When to push it, and when to say no. To wear sunglasses at any hour, and to use earplugs that lessen the noise environment around so I can actually function. I leave while I’m still feeling good, and schedule in recovery days (or weeks). Most importantly, I’ve learned that resting IS productive.
I’m living again. And in many ways I’m really living for the first time. It looks different, way different, but it also looks so beautiful. My story may be somewhat unique, but we all go through this. We shed parts of ourselves so we can grow and evolve. We fail so we can succeed. Our struggles build strength. We endure hardships to create space for gratitude. Slow down to develop a deeper understanding of self.
I truly believe I was always meant to go through this, and even during the bad moments, I am so honored to be here to share my story and connect with others. I’m not sure where tomorrow or next month or year will lead me. I’m not sure when I’ll ever exist without some daily pain or be able to work full time again. Or even what work will really look like. But perhaps that’s not the point. Not to race to the finish line, but to enjoy the journey. All of it. Maybe I survived so I can help be a gentle reminder to live, really live. To continuously explore & learn. To not compare or count differences. To embrace and cherish who we are. To live completely in the moment. To eat lots of good food without guilt, full body laugh without shame, cry without hesitation. To take each new day as it arrives, breathe in the gift of time, and tell your people just how much they enrich your existence.
Rebekah is an intuitive reiki healer, empath, photographer and avid taco eater. She survived a brain aneurysm hemmoraghic stroke in 2018 and loves to share the ups and downs of her journey. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two cats, and can typically be found watching The Office. You can connect with her on IG @rebekahzimmwatts