Rebuilding for Both of Us

Not to be dramatic or anything, but two days after returning from our honeymoon, I got a text from my husband that changed our lives: I need you to drive me to the ER.

A knee to the jaw during jujitsu split Kevin’s lip, but the ER doctor was more concerned about his concussion symptoms, like a dragging right foot and his delayed processing time. We went home with guidelines that basically said, take it easy and don’t look at computer screens.

Ever the warrior, Kevin dutifully took a couple days off then got right back to his 60 hour work weeks. Except after a couple weeks he couldn’t keep going. He couldn’t focus, often losing his train of thought mid-sentence. He was overly emotional and got easily confused during a normal conversation. He started getting migraines and had insomnia.

I started keeping track of his symptoms on a calendar and three weeks post-injury soon turned into three months without major improvement. After a visit to a specialist he was diagnosed with post-concussive disorder. We were given guesstimates from 3 months to a couple years for how long his symptoms might last. This also meant we started making monthly pilgrimages to the concussion clinic at UCSF.

Six months later, with Kevin deep in the throes of post-concussion syndrome, I finally had a rough blueprint for his care. With help from his sports concussion doctor, I’d assembled a full medical team for him: physical therapist, therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist and masseuse. While he was still experiencing a lot of symptoms chronic migraines, insomnia, inability to focus, emotionally unstable, easily confused he at least had the best medical care we could afford.

But there was no blueprint for me. Sure, I had a routine: drive to work, drive home for lunch to check on Kevin, drive back to work and back home, make dinner, take care of Kevin, attend to the household, pass out at 9pm from sheer exhaustion.

But within that routine, there was considerable unpredictability. Some days Kevin couldn’t get out of bed. Other days he seemed almost normal. Some days asking him to put his dish in the dishwasher threw him into an emotional tailspin. Having to constantly be the calm, level-headed one that was keeping track of all life’s details was the easy part. Comforting my black belt husband as he’s sobbing on the floor… that was the hard part. He felt broken and I was doing everything I could to put him back together.

But with no time for myself, I felt like I was slowly being worn down. I tried to stay upbeat for Kevin, but much like our finances, in reality things weren’t as positive as I wanted them to be.

We danced around the issue for a couple months before we finally sat down to talk through the harsh reality: with Kevin not working, rent and the basics used up my entire nonprofit salary. With medical costs already approaching $10k, I now viscerally understood how it was possible for one accident or medical incident to bankrupt a family. We needed to make some major changes if we didn’t want to use up our entire life savings. Normally we’d brainstorm together and come up with a viable option. But nothing about this situation was normal.

So, I took both our futures into my hands and looked for another option.

Miraculously, if we moved back to my hometown, we could housesit indefinitely for a family friend, meaning no rent to worry about, just bills. I’d have to quit my job —which was a relief to stop juggling everything, but meant letting go of a career I identified with. I knew this wasn’t in the original plans and I couldn’t quite decipher the new ones yet, but I could see this was the necessary first step. I cried happy-overwhelmed-exhausted-unsure tears the day I quit.

Once I settled us into our new place, I started sleeping 12 hours a night. I was physically and emotionally spent.

For four months we basically hibernated. I slept a lot and watched more Netflix than I’m willing to admit. But between the naps and Gilmore Girls, I journaled, meditated, went on long walks and thought a lot about what my — our — new life would look like. It wasn’t quite clear, but I could see that this otherwise devastating injury was an opportunity to pivot our life in the direction we’d always dreamed about.

Pre-concussion, even pre-wedding, Kevin and I talked about building a tiny house on wheels, buying land, and having our own little permaculture garden. It was always “someday,” not now. With no jobs, no clear direction, and no real certainty as to what Kevin’s future held, I realized that now was the time to make “someday”a reality. On the one year anniversary of his injury, I signed us up for a tiny home workshop.

Construction started slowly, but a year and half after his injury, I was out there working on the trailer a few days a week. My dad, the handiest person I know, was there every step of the way helping to help me figure things out. For the first couple months I was the one moving progress forward. Then slowly, little by little, Kevin was able to work with me on the tiny house too. On the good days, it was therapeutic for him to be out in the fresh air building something with his own two hands. On the bad days, he could at least hear me out there with the nail gun, building our future home.

Very much like Kevin’s journey back to health, the tiny house construction hasn’t been linear or on schedule. But it has been empowering. It’s forced me back to a regular yoga practice, if only so I’m not completely sore after a day of construction. It’s also been mentally encouraging. Seeing the progress has reminded me that I am capable of taking on major projects and shaping my own life — I once again have business ideas to launch and adventures to plan.

Most importantly it’s reminded me that there is life beyond this concussion.

It took two years, but I can finally see the silver-lining of his injury. Without Kevin’s concussion, we’d probably still be living in the same house, with the same jobs, and no closer to our dream life. Instead, we are building our home and actively re-imagining our careers and lives. While it’s literally taken everything out of me to get here, I can honestly say there’s nowhere I’d rather be and no one I’d rather be rebuilding with.

An edited version of this post originally appeared on Holl & Lane, February 2018.