Neck-breaking! It happens. It happened to me, and people keep asking for the details, so here’s the Definitive Story of Clarisse’s Broken Neck.
I’ve always been terrified of both biking and driving; I never wanted to learn either skill. One could blame this on the fact that I was in a car accident at a very young age. Or on the fact that I tend to live in my head a lot and I’m not great at staying 100% aware of (or interested in) the physical world around me. Or on the various nightmares about biking and driving that I had as a kid. I kept dreaming that I was in charge of a vehicle that went out of control.
I ultimately learned to drive when I was 21 for work reasons, and also because — while I try to make sure that my risks are very careful and well-considered — I also try not to indulge myself when I’m scared of things. Age 26 was when one of my friends finally managed to teach me to ride a bike. Many had tried before, but I just couldn’t get it until age 26. I gritted my teeth, I learned, and I practiced.
And then, in August 2011, age 27, I fractured my spine in a stupid accident. Maybe the fear itself was what screwed me up. Or maybe my fears were extremely rational; maybe I sensed something about myself and my balance and my own physical awareness that other people couldn’t see, and maybe I should have listened to myself …. Oh well.
Basically, I slammed headfirst into a lamppost late one evening. This would have been much more hilarious if it hadn’t almost killed me.
The accident happened while I was practicing on Chicago’s lakefront path. Other than the broken neck, I was almost completely unharmed. I was wearing a helmet, which is presumably why I survived. I didn’t even know my neck was broken at first. I hit the lamppost, fell back off my bike, landed on my knees, and realized that my neck hurt a lot.
I remember being relieved that my glasses weren’t broken.
I lay down on the path and caught my breath. The pain in my neck didn’t register so much, as long as I lay straight. Then I thought: I’m not in a safe area of the city. I should get home. So I stood up — fuck, my neck hurts — I stood up, took a few deep breaths to power through the pain, and picked up my bike, which was unusable. I decided that I ought to go home and sleep; I figured I’d feel better in the morning.
After walking maybe a hundred feet, I knew something was wrong, like seriously wrong. My body felt dulled and my movements felt uncertain. I ruffled through my thoughts and decided that although I felt like I could remember everything important, something was fuzzy. Maybe I have a concussion, I thought. So I called one of my flatmates and asked him to come get me. When he found me, I was throwing up into a garbage can, and he insisted that we go to the hospital.
I vomited four more times while the hospital kept me in the waiting room; I also started shivering and crying uncontrollably. After maybe an hour, they took me back into the Intensive Care Unit and laid me down on a table, where some doctors gave me morphine and informed me that I’d fractured my spine. I was told to lie very, very still and to quit doing things like standing up and walking to the bathroom. Some doctors were very reassuring, but others were like: “Um yeah, we don’t really know the extent of the damage and you could still accidentally sever your spinal cord, so just lie still, would you?”
That was when I got really scared, and started composing messages for people I loved in case of my untimely death.
I thought about calling my parents, but I knew they’d freak out way more than I was freaking out, and I didn’t want to upset them until I had some kind of solution to the situation. And I updated Twitter, which is ridiculous, but I guess that’s what bloggers do when we break our necks, especially if we only have a text-capable phone rather than a smartphone.
I lay on that table for many hours, until well past dawn.
I had texted my in-case-of-death messages to my best girlfriend, which was sort of a mean thing for me to do, I guess, but I wasn’t sure how else to go about it. Obviously, as soon as she woke up the next morning, she got the messages and freaked out. She was out of town, but she sent her husband to keep me company. As the news got around, other friends of mine came to visit or called or texted. Some of them brought me vegan food, or actually stayed with me in my hospital room on cots, or argued with health care professionals who didn’t seem to be listening to me. The guy I’d broken up with several days before came and fed me smoothies all weekend, which was incredibly nice of him.
Later, word spread even further, and people — some of whom I haven’t talked to in years — sent me cards and candy and all kinds of amazing things. Codename Zach Lash sent me prism glasses and a spectacularly useful nosey cup with a dip in the side, that allowed me to actually finish whatever I drank without tipping my head back. The church where I grew up sent me some Tibetan prayer flags, which is about par for the course for a Unitarian congregation. There is no way I deserve the incredible people in my life, or the compassion they’ve given me during my recovery process. I don’t know how I could have managed without so much support. I feel like I’m going to be paying back this karmic debt for the rest of my life.
Anyway, so finally, in the afternoon of the day after my accident, a neurosurgeon came and told me that he saw two options for me. He said that either they could do surgery, or they could put me in a very unpleasant and uncomfortable apparatus called the Halo brace (pictured at the top of this post).
Option 1: The Halo brace would be screwed into my skull, with actual screws, and would attach to a fur-lined vest that I would wear nonstop for months. But if I chose the brace, then I might eventually gain back almost 100% neck mobility — after months of recovery and physical therapy.
Option 2: On the other hand, if I chose surgery, then I’d be back on my feet sooner and I wouldn’t have to deal with the brace. But I’d lose quite a lot of neck mobility, permanently. “However,” the doctor added, “nothing is certain. We might still have to do the surgery, eventually, even if you choose the brace.”
I chose the brace. My memory of actually getting the Halo installed is patchy, but I can tell you for sure that it was extremely unpleasant and I hope I never have to have anything screwed into my skull ever again.
Afterwards, I had to get an X-ray, so a few of my friends accompanied me as I was taken downstairs into the bowels of the hospital. It is alleged by one friend that the following occurred:
Clarisse was lying there, totally blitzed on morphine, and we were all feeling terrible for her. I was wheeling the gurney and desperately trying to make sure that we didn’t go over any bad bumps, because those caused her even more pain. Then Clarisse opened her eyes and said in a thin voice: “Guys … I’ve been thinking all day … that I need to go to karaoke … and sing … the Beyoncé song ‘Halo’ ….” And then she started to sing. And her voice kept getting stronger. I had no idea she had a voice like that. It was beautiful! She was lying in this gurney, jamming her own a cappella version of “Halo,” for three full minutes as we traveled the hospital hallways. It was amazing.
I do not remember this, but I appreciate the vote of confidence.
I finally called my parents a few hours after the Halo brace was installed. Both of those conversations started with me saying very carefully, “Hey, I’m sorry to call so late — um, so — I’m in the hospital, don’tworryIfracturedmyspinebutI’mokaypleasedon’tworry.” My parents were understandably upset that I hadn’t called them sooner. My dad took a plane to Chicago the next day, and switched off with my mom the next week. I don’t deserve my awesome parents, either.
Apparently I have a resting heart rate that is usually associated with athletes. The hospital staff kept asking what kind of sports I do. Fuck yeah S&M.
The Halo Brace
Halo braces are not fun. They are basically the opposite of fun. Especially during August in Chicago, because Halo brace-vests are lined in fur, and Chicago August is extremely hot. I was unable to shower or swim for the duration of my several months in the Halo, which was indescribable. The brace was heavy, though eventually I got used to it. The screws in my head required daily cleaning, with which my intrepid friends and parents sometimes assisted me despite the fact that it was completely appalling.
I lost a lot of time and energy to painkillers. (I can’t believe people take Vicodin recreationally. It’s so dulling.) For a while, I set alarms so that I wouldn’t let the painkillers lapse. The worst part of my day every morning was waking up, taking more painkillers, and then lying there convincing myself to sit up. Sitting up hurt more than most things I can think of, even with all the painkillers.
I couldn’t really move in my sleep while I was in the brace, and I had to learn to sleep on my back. I’ve always preferred to sleep on my front, and I’ve always had trouble sleeping in any other position. Due to how this injury eventually played out, I’m never going to be able to sleep on my front again.
Accessories that my friends and I discussed bolting onto to my Halo brace:
* antlers, or triceratops horns
* giant bike helmet
* rearview mirrors
* tassels, or fringe
* little bells
The brace-vest covers much of the torso but leaves one’s nipples bare; therefore, one of my most hilarious friends mailed me sparkly nipple pasties. It was nice to feel sexy in a Halo brace. Actually, a few of my friends seduced me into a foursome while I was in the Halo. I’m not normally into group sex, but I really like those folks, plus when I told other friends about it later I got reactions like: “You rocked a foursome in spinal support?! Have I told you how I idolize your ridiculous lifestyle?”
Seriously though, I’m not that into group sex. I always feel like I might as well try it again and maybe I’ll like it this time, because I know so many people who like it, but …. Eventually, that evening, I concluded the thing that I always conclude during group sex, which is that my best approach is to leave everyone else to it while I go read a book. So much for my ridiculous lifestyle.
On the other hand, an S&M partner of mine dragged me off to make out while I was in the Halo brace, which was definitely very hot. He took full advantage of my limited mobility.
A lot of people didn’t recognize the Halo brace when they first saw it, but when people did, reactions varied. An acquaintance who works in medicine dropped by one day, saw me, and stopped dead. “Oh, my God. Madame,” he said, “please … please tell me this is just some kind of bondage role-playing you’re doing.”
I laughed. “No, but I’ll be fine in a few months.”
It was hard to stay philosophical. I did my best. I do recall one night when I finally snapped and wailed to one of my flatmates, “I just want my body back!”
Throughout this process, it has also been continuously hard for me to tell when I’m being reasonable and listening to my body … and when I’m being lazy or self-indulgent. One evening: “I’m tired,” I fretted absently, while working on my computer in the living room around 12am. (I usually stay up very, very late when I’m writing.)
“Go to bed,” a flatmate said.
“I want to work.”
My flatmate pointed her finger at me. “Did you, or did you not, recently sustain a severe spinal injury?”
“Shh!” she snapped. “Did you, or did you not, recently sustain a severe spinal injury!”
“I want to work,” I protested. She wagged her finger. I hung my head (metaphorically speaking), and I went to bed. Well, I went to bed at 1.
The way I interacted with people on the street while wearing the brace was really different. Guys didn’t hit on me, except for one middle-aged dude who said to me, “You in that brace, but you still look good!” But it was more like a friendly thing, a kind of buddy-buddy thing, than the usual mildly-invasive sexualized tone that attends such interactions.
A child once asked her mom if I was Darth Vader. It was awesome.
One day, when I was walking home from the public library, an older woman caught my eye and then looked away. I smiled at her, and she looked back with a mildly distressed expression. “Be careful,” she implored, as if I were her daughter. I was touched.
A lot of people openly stopped me in the street to say that I was fortunate. Strangers told me stories of their own accidents, or people they loved who had died in accidents. I heard over and over again from strangers: “You’re here for a reason. You survived for a reason. Make the most of it.”
After I got out of the brace, I spent a month in physical therapy. I got a big crush on my physical therapist, partly because physical therapy is basically S&M. I mean seriously. This guy would be standing in front of me, holding my shoulders, looking directly into my eyes, and ordering me to turn my head while saying compassionately: “I know it hurts.” Sometimes I’d automatically turn my body as well, to spare myself the pain, and he would tighten his hold on my shoulders to keep me in place, and he’d tell me gently: “Don’t cheat.” I’m just saying.
I became hyper-aware of my body language. I’ve been thinking that I should get better at non-verbal communication, especially body language, and being unable to turn my head provided an unexpected crash course in certain things. I realized very quickly that people often perceived me as snubbing them because I couldn’t look at them when sitting beside them, for example.
After a month, the neurosurgeon took a look at my latest scans and said something was wrong. (Some quick technical details: the original fracture was a Jefferson fracture to my C1 vertebra. The vertebra healed fine, but there were problems with the transverse ligament.) He took me out of physical therapy, at which point I seized the chance to ask my physical therapist out. Alas, he was seeing someone, but he was sweet and awkward about it, so I didn’t feel bad about it at all.
There was more time, more scans, and ultimately surgery. I got second and third opinions of course, but it was pretty clear to everyone that without surgery I was in danger. So I got the surgery last month. As it turns out, major spinal surgery is also the opposite of fun, and I hope I never have to do that again, either. It involved basically bolting together my top two vertebrae to the base of my skull. I lost about 50% of my neck mobility and I will never regain it.
When I was in the Halo brace, people didn’t expect me to move like most humans, but now that I’m out of it, I’ve been having to reconfigure my body language so as to come across like a human does. I really miss some of the expressions I used to have.
The worst moment, emotionally, was when I realized that a numb patch on the back of my skull might be permanent nerve damage rather than temporary damage. It made it uncomfortable for me to lie on my back, and it made it weird for people to touch my hair, which is like the single most comforting thing that my close friends and partners can do for me. My hair is kind of a big deal to me. When I thought that the numb patch might be a permanent problem, I cried in bed for a while. Either the numb patch is healing or I’m getting used to it, though; I’m not sure which. So that’s good.
The weirdest thing is that I can’t open my mouth as wide I used to. I just can’t. I asked the neurosurgeon about it, and he said that although he has a couple theories he’s not sure how that happened, which is kind of how it goes with spinal surgery, I guess. This made eating unexpectedly difficult for a while, but I’m learning. I also suspect that it will reduce my singing ability a little bit. That’s a shame, but I decided many years ago not to pursue singing seriously, so I guess I haven’t lost anything major there.
After I gave oral sex for the first time post-surgery, it was a bit awkward, but my partner seemed to enjoy it. I used to be able to almost-flawlessly detect when a partner is about to come; that’s one thing that’s become more difficult, but there are others. When we were done, I asked my partner about it. “Could you tell?” I asked.
“Hmm,” he said. “I did notice more teeth than before.”
“Yeah, I was afraid of that,” I said. “That was probably unpleasant for you, huh?”
“You figured it out,” he said.
So hopefully that will end up fine. Oral sex is a definite priority for me, so maybe I can just view this as an exciting challenge to my skills! Yes!
And! I have an awesome six-inch scar on the back of my neck. (I’m missing some hair, although the missing hair is under other hair, so it’s not obvious unless you’re trying to, for example, pull my hair, ahem.) I also have two small round scars on my forehead from where the Halo brace screwed in. They’re kind of cute.
I’m doing fine. I’ll continue having followups for a while. I’m kind of learning how to live in my body again; I feel awkward and inhibited, but it’s not so bad. I can still do everything that’s most important to me, such as typing. My mind wasn’t damaged, and that’s the most important thing. Sometimes something will happen that makes me worry that a nerve got crossed somewhere — like, I’ll smell something unusual, or something — and I’ll quietly freak out a little bit because I’ll imagine that it’s the first sign of serious neural decay. But the worst seems to be over.
This has really made me appreciate my life. It’s cliché, but it’s true. I’m so lucky.
Wear a helmet, folks.