Adaptation can be painful, but it can also be a gift

Nothing will force you to live life on your own terms faster than almost losing it.

In 2008, I was on fire. My husband and I had just moved, bought a house, adopted a dog – and I started my own consulting business while continuing to write and act in my spare time.  Life was crazy because I was trying to live all of my dreams – at the same time.

While leaving a theatre audition, I thought the stress had finally caught up to me.  As I reached the door, I faltered. The blood in my head felt as if it rushed down to my feet like a released grain chute, leaving me lightheaded. Where one second there had been no pain, a huge spike was suddenly pounded into my head.

I grabbed for a nearby pole. My neck muscles cramped in stubborn agony and soon my entire back seized up as if I had just lifted a huge weight. Nausea set in as I struggled to comprehend what had happened to me in the last five seconds. Swiftly gulping in air in and out, I thought this was just a serious case of performance anxiety.

It wasn’t.

Fast forward through a doctor’s visit, skyrocketing blood pressure and several more severe migraines. My husband decided to come home from work early to take care of me on one particular doozy of a day.

He later found me collapsed and unconscious on the bathroom floor and swiftly dialed 911. Doctors found that an undetected brain aneurysm had ruptured, causing a subarachnoid hemorrhage. This particularly nasty bleed can cause death or severe disability—even when treated at an early stage. Up to half of all such cases are fatal and 10–15% die before reaching a hospital. Those who survive often have neurological or cognitive impairment.

Yeah. Pretty bad.

After six weeks in the hospital, a few surgeries, and dealing with vision impairment that left me blind (surgery and time corrected that for me), my recovery began in earnest. Not just body, but soul. I was on the rough climb back into the saddle of my life. Sure, I had therapists and resources – and the most wonderful husband in the world. But the biggest battle was the one waged inside my head as I initially fought adapting to a “New Me.” My cognitive issues left me struggling with things that were once a snap:  remembering names, finding the right word, keeping up with conversations. And I was no longer as good at multitasking as I used to be. My brain’s frontal lobe “filter” couldn’t handle as much stimuli coming at me at one time.

Emotionally and psychological, I’d suffered, too: depression, anxiety, and more impatience (as if that were possible for a feisty Italian redhead like me.) Focus and living in the moment now became not just empty platitudes but necessities if I was ever going to adapt and get on with my life.

I just wrote a book about my experience. Spoiler alert: I survived. But in looking back while writing, I didn’t just survive all those ups and downs: I thrived.  Adaptation can be painful, but it can also be a gift. In being forced to learn a new way to operate, I actually reframed the way I approach my life and my work.

Quality now trumps quantity. It has to, due to my impairments. One thing at a time. With intent. And you know what? That’s actually a good way to live.

You can chase all your dreams but you don’t have to do them all at the same time. My bucket list does not have to include trekking in Nepal or writing five books before I’m forty – unless I want it to. For too long, I bought into the hype that I had to be Superwoman. Be perfect, be ambitious – but all without help from anyone. “Living your best life” does not mean running yourself into the ground. It means prioritizing and taking steps towards your goals.

There’s no one “right life.” True success means living the life that works for you with the goals that you desire. If someone really wants to be a high-powered, work-90- hours-a-week executive with a corner office and a private jet, I say go for it. It’s just not my yardstick. I don’t wear “busyness” and stress as a badge of honor anymore. I prioritize some goals now and leave others on the list to tackle later – or maybe never. Never again am I going to sacrifice my health – or time with my wonderful husband, friends and frisky dog – to be someone I don’t need to be.

Maria Ross is the author of Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life.

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