Guest Guru, Lee Woodruff, Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt from Perfectly Imperfect by Lee Woodruff

After every full- blown crisis comes the moment when the adrenaline
retreats and the shoulders sag.

The person is out of the critical zone. The patient has been discharged from the hospital. The divorce papers are signed. The father has been buried. The chemo has started. This is the moment when the real work begins. This is the “ever after” part—the new life, post- crisis, that cries out for definition.

There are absolutely no shortcuts through sorrow and pain or to mitigating the day- to- day terror of a crisis. There’s no going around it. It’s like a long, dark train tunnel in the Alps. All you can do is go straight through it. Buckle your seat belt, pray, do your homework, stretch, keep breathing, turn to literature, gather collective wisdom for solace, brace yourself, talk it through, hold on. Grief, loss, and the twisting roller coaster of emotions that accompany it are all about endurance. Sheer endurance.

In my own crisis, this new period began the moment my husband was out of the acute- care stage. Bob had woken up from the coma, but he barely resembled himself. His brain was missing words and names, and he was having trouble tracking conversations. He couldn’t say “Tony Blair,” but he could pronounce “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Each day brought new accomplishments and new worries. He was still very much a patient and not yet back to being a husband and father.

By nature I’m largely a happy, positive person. But in the wake of Bob’s injury, I’d been felled by a pretty large ax. There were days when I thought it would be better just to lie down and sleep for a thousand years. Other days I wanted to sell my kids on eBay to a mom who would be more loving and attentive. There were many mornings when I couldn’t wait for bed, when I didn’t get outside once, when my thoughts and fears fluttered futilely against the side of my brain like bats trapped in a loft.

But I wouldn’t allow myself to give in completely to those feelings. For two long months in the hospital I remained up, dealing with doctors, decisions, my four kids, Bob’s whole family. Even after Bob awoke from his coma, I approached his care and my relationship with him like a chirpy Doris Day: determined not to let him falter, guarding against his sadness, constantly pumping him up like a manager encouraging a prizefighter from the corner of the ring. Part of my job was to point out improvements, like a scientist studying tiny molecular changes under a microscope.

In particular, I knew, I had to stay positive for the children. Observant twelve- year- old Cathryn, especially, watched my every move. She examined each facial expression and lurked behind corners when I was talking to other adults on the phone. Once she even listened in on the call when the neuropsychologist from the hospital was talking to me candidly about the likelihood that we might need to park Bob in a nursing home. She was suspicious and terrified.

Which meant that it was that much more important for me never to let down my guard. But for all my natural optimism, the pressure to stay positive was just a little too much, and as soon as Bob was safely on the road to recovery, I knew I was bound to crash. Every time I rocketed down, I struggled back up; if I’d been up too long, I knew the bad days were on their way. Up and down, up and down my emotions traveled, as if they were playing a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Still, by the time Bob had begun the daily, rigorous schedule of therapy, I knew I was hitting rock bottom. The bad days far outnumbered the good, and I felt like I was in free fall. I would wake up in the middle of the night with all of my deepest terrors flying at me like birds, dive- bombing me with their beaks, and I was helpless to shoo these anxiety attacks away.

When I did manage to fall back asleep on those nights, the sleep was usually fitful. In the morning I would lie there leaden, sodden, and have to force my feet onto the bedroom floor, while Bob snored gently next to me with part of his skull missing, needing every minute of sleep for his brain to keep healing.

Those early moments of the dawn used to be my coveted hours, a time filled with the rich possibility of the day. Instead, I now felt our life as a family cinched tight as a belt, circumscribed by Bob’s injury. Those mornings, I barely held it together while I got the kids dressed and off to school and then my husband out the door to his daily rehabilitation therapy. Finally, one morning when they had all gone, I just collapsed, fell onto the couch sobbing in the quiet hush of my home. These were gut- wrenching, back- heaving sobs. I was crying out the whole last few months and tasting the fear of the unknowable coming years.

It was clear now that, after surviving everything else, I had finally hit my wall. For so long, I had been in “go” mode, always moving forward, making decisions. Like an Olympic athlete facing the toughest race of her life, I had cleansed my body of alcohol, soda, coffee, anything that might dull my senses or distort my mood. I was careful to keep all of the practical parts of me alert, but I had not allowed myself to grieve, or to feel from my nerve endings. And now here I was, back home and with the luxury of time, since the immediate needs of Bob’s physical injuries had been handled. The levee was now crumbling.

That morning of my complete despair, my friend Alicia stopped by. She was deeply worried by the new rag-doll me she found on the couch, and as I talked through my darkest fears, I began a spate of fresh tears. What would our life be like? What if his progress just stopped? What if the man who so loved his job, who had functioned as a kind of quarterback, became instead a useless extremity, something resembling more of a mascot than a team player? And the most terrifying question: What if I didn’t love him as much in the end? What if my love for him slowly eroded, little by little, if he remained diminished? “I need some help,” I croaked. “I need professional help.”

“And you may need medication,” she said. “In your place I might need medication too.”

“Maybe.” I nodded, but my one encounter with Xanax, immediately following Bob’s injury, had been a disaster. The pill had made me feel full, useless, and not myself. I’d never liked that out-of-body experience and I didn’t want to consider going through that again. I would have been a dismal groupie at a Grateful Dead concert.

After Alicia left that morning, I resumed crying again. And then the oddest thing happened. I closed my eyes and suddenly, a soft white light blossomed, a burst of enveloping warmth, indescribable but somehow calming. Mysteriously, a feeling washed over me that hushed me, told me I would be okay, this would all eventually be all right. There were no flowing robes and no golden staffs. It was more like an authoritative voice. It was gibber than me, more than me – that’s the only way I can describe it now. And in that moment, the terror subsided as quickly as it had consumed me. Once again, I had gone steeply down a precipice and crept back up.

This excerpt is from Lee Woodruff’s new book Perfectly Imperfect. Visit Lee’s website at Don’t forget to enter to win your signed copy!