A Lesson In Living / by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

living-life-to-the-fullestI almost died.  I have to keep repeating it to myself because it just doesn’t seem real.  In fact, I kind of feel like an attention fiend even mentioning it.

“How was your day?”

“Oh, pretty good considering that I almost died four weeks ago.”

But it’s true.  My doctors told me that I’m a statistical anomaly.  One in three people who have a single blood clot in their lungs (aka pulmonary embolism) die instantly.  My right lung was so clogged with blood clots that I could only breathe using my left lung.  My left lung had a smattering of clots that were beginning to choke off oxygen on that side.  My left leg was a blood clot factory.  Every time I hopped on a flight, the clots would irreverently traipse along my veins to join their merry brothers for the party in my lungs.  A single one of those clots could have gone straight to my brain or heart.  The generous odds based on my condition: 20% survival rate.

I’m pretty used to being a statistical anomaly.  In fact, I decided at age eight that I would do everything I could to defy the odds.  It was after a video on abuse that my teacher showed my third grade class.

“There’s at least one person in this room who has been a victim of child abuse…”

It was all a well-meaning attempt to let victims know that what they experienced wasn’t acceptable, and they needed to tell someone.  And that might have been okay.  But the video started spouting off statistics about what happens to abuse victims.  Generally, victims of child abuse

  • Become victims of future abuse
  • Abuse others
  • Have difficulty building healthy relationships….

As the list droned on I remember feeling exposed and trapped.  These people I had never even met had already decided who I was and who I would be.  And the stats continued as I grew up and continued to try to find a path that was the antithesis of what was already defined for me.

  • Children of teenage parents are more likely to become teenage parents
  • Children whose parents drop out of high school are more likely to drop out
  • Children of color are less likely to go to college and more likely to drop out ….

But by this time, I had learned to ignore the droning lists and just pursue the opposite outcome no matter what it took.  When I was younger, I was driven by this intense desire to prove my worth to others.  I sought mentors, I did well in school, I tried hard to like others and be likeable.  I woke up every morning deciding that no matter what happened in the past, I was not going to be a foregone conclusion.  As I aged, the desire to prove my worth morphed into the imposter syndrome.  With the support of so many mentors, friends and family, I defied many of the odds.  I pushed myself even harder, afraid that someone would figure out that I just didn’t belong where I had ended up.

The most recent iteration of proving my worth has been survivor’s guilt.  So maybe I earned being where I am, but what makes me so special?  There are so many people in my life just as smart, if not smarter, than me who did not have those privileges or opportunities.  And the reasons why these folks didn’t have access to similar opportunities were negligent at best and unconscionable at worst.

By this time, pushing myself had translated into something a little different.  If I was tired, I would tell myself, “think about the single moms who have three jobs and still push on.”  If I was frustrated, “at least you have control of your own destiny so stop complaining.”  I had conditioned myself decades ago to ignore pain and heartache and replace them with productivity and outcomes.  And in the process I realized that I never truly learned how to enjoy living.  I was too busy proving and doing.

Gratefully, it didn’t take a near death experience for me to start shifting that behavior.  Once again, I have wonderful framily who have gently nudged me in that direction for years. Still, lying in a hospital bed forbidden to do anything for myself further crystallized my needs and wants in ways big and small.  For example, I want to be involved in meaningful work.  I need my son not to look at me with fear and worry about my survival.

While I’ve made considerable progress, I do catch myself being slightly annoyed at some of my new limits at times.  But an unexpected blessing of this whole ordeal is that I can finally put the desire to prove my worth to rest.  The one thing I know as a result of this major life change is that I am loved.  And this is not because I’ve always been the best friend (I forgot two birthdays this week) or because I always had the right answers (ugh, don’t get me started on my list of epic fails).  It’s because somewhere along the way people believe and trust in me more than I mess up.  And it’s because, for whatever reason, people need me as much as I need them.  And while it may have some small part in the work I do each day, it really is more about the connections I’ve invested in for years, even if they were not always for the healthiest reasons.

And so despite these new limits, I wake each morning with an unapologetic focus on living.  If I want to sleep in, I will.  If my get-well-soon orchids need a new pot, I’m gonna buy it.  If my son wants to ride his bike, then I’m putting on my roller blades.  I no longer worry about being indulgent or insensitive because, let’s face it, sometimes we all are.  And while I’m aware of my opportunities and privilege, I sidestep the guilt and worry.  Instead, I wake each day to answer one question.  What must I do to live a full life today?