At seventeen years old, Ruthie Lindsey was hit by an ambulance outside of a gas station in rural Louisiana. She broke her neck, punctured her lungs, and ruptured her spleen. Doctors performed a spinal cord fusion using wire and miraculously, she walked out of the hospital within a month.
Only a few years later, newly married and settling into adulthood, a simple turn of her head left her body riddled with chronic pain. Her case confounded medical professionals and in the months that followed, she became addicted to narcotic painkillers, depressed, and bedridden. After dozens of visits to specialists and surgeons, a doctor discovered that the wire holding her neck together was piercing her brain stem. Without another surgery, she would be paralyzed.
As she prepared for the procedure, her father passed away suddenly, her marriage began to collapse, and she surrendered her spirit to dependency and to suffering. The surgery repaired her spine but she was still broken, inside and out. Until she chose to change her narrative.
Ruthie went home to the same town where she almost lost her life. She decided to learn joy again, to retrain her spirit to soothe her physical pain, to salvage strength from her suffering. She traded fentanyl for sunsets and morphine for picking wildflowers on the side of the road. Ruthie stopped using her body as a hiding place and started using it as her bridge to connect with the world.
Now a renowned speaker, host, social media figure, and author, Ruthie travels the globe sharing her story, empowering others to find purpose in their pain, to look for beauty in the midst of their brokenness. Her forthcoming memoir, Salvaged, will be available through Touchstone/Simon and Schuster in 2019. (Read more in Ruthie's words below)
When I was a senior in high school, I pulled out in front of an ambulance that hit me after crushing my car door going 65. I broke three ribs, punctured my lungs, my spleen ruptured and I broke the top two vertebrae in my neck. I was told I had a 5 percent chance to live and a 1 percent chance to ever walk again. After I was stable and off life support, they took bone from my hip and fused it into my neck by wrapping it with metal wire. I was so fortunate to have youth and good health on my side. After a month, I walked out of the hospital with only a neck brace. I was able to graduate on time and I honestly went back to my "happy go lucky" life as normal. I would occasionally get sore if I danced too much (which is often), but otherwise I was able to forget it even happened. I felt very removed from my story. When I spoke about it, it was almost as if I was talking about it in third person, like it happened to someone else.
A year after graduating college, I met my very first boyfriend and we were married within 10 months! A year into our marriage, I was walking out of a Starbucks one day, when a searing pain shot through my neck and into my head. I fell to my knees and nearly blacked out. The pain continued with more and more frequency, and would leave me with horrific migraines. It was so debilitating that I couldn't function. I saw tons of doctors, and each time they would order a scan and an elusive black spot appeared on the film. They simply informed me was the magnet in the machine interacting with the wires from my spinal cord fusion. I tried countless ( unsuccessful) therapies, then was prescribed heavy narcotics for my pain. As a result of the pain, and the medication, I began spending more and more time in my bed. I isolated myself and withdrew from my community and my marriage. I thought of myself as a burden. This continued for over four years, exhausting money we barely had.
After these four years of mental and emotional exhaustion, I saw a new doctor who insisted on seeing what was under that little black spot on all my films. A $50 X-ray showed that one of the wires had broken and pierced my brain stem. What I learned is that I am apparently the only person in the world who has ever had this. Specialists explained the risk of paralysis involved in attempting to remove the wire, but explained that if we didn't try, I would eventually become paralyzed anyway. I was one wrong turn of the head away from never walking again. Insurance wasn't going to cover my surgery, claiming my accident as a pre-existing condition. Two weeks later my dad informed my mother that he was going to sell our farm to afford the procedure.
The night before he came to see me and tell me what he was planning to do with the farm, my dad had a freak accident. After falling down a flight of stairs he passed away shortly thereafter from brain damage. My dad's sudden passing was a massive loss to my family, our community and me. I remember lying in my bed night after night pinching myself until I bled because nothing felt real. I felt I must be in a nightmare. We were all absolutely devastated and heartbroken, but out of that loss something really beautiful happened. My godfather set up a medical fund for me in my dad's honor and money and letters started pouring in. We would get letters that said, "Your dad sent me on my senior trip" or "your dad bought my prom dress" and "your dad paid my tuition" or "your dad fixed my roof," and on and on. When my brothers and I were kids, whenever we left my dad's presence, he would always say, "I love you so much, remember your manners, and always look out for the little guy." He wanted us to see and love the people that everyone else missed, and that's what he did. Because he had loved people so well, this crazy amount of money was raised so that I could have this surgery.
The doctors were able to remove the wire from my brain stem by taking bone from my other hip and fusing my neck back together with titanium screws. Although able to walk afterward, I ended up getting major nerve damage in the surgery, and now my right side feels like it's on fire at all times. While recovering, I ended up contracting a bacterial infection called C. diff while in the hospital for another minor surgery. I was so sick. I stopped sleeping. I had constant panic attacks and ultimately I had a full-blown nervous breakdown. My husband was away on tour in Australia, and I had the feeling my marriage was coming to an end, which sent my downward spiral into a tailspin. I became incapable of taking care of myself, so I moved home to live with my family in Louisiana.
My breakdown made me want to change everything. I realized that I had identified myself with my pain for so long, so that is exactly how everyone else saw me. Every conversation and interaction revolved around my condition. When I would see people, they would ask, "How's your back?" or ''Are you hanging in there?" In some subconscious, gross way I found comfort in that, because it helped to justify having resigned myself to never-ending bed rest.
We teach people how to see us. I don't know what it was, but something changed, and I decided I was tired of people always feeling sorry for me. If we lead from a place of brokenness, insecurity or bitterness, that is exactly who they will think we are. But, if we lead from a place of love and wholeness, with compassion and strength, they are able to see us for who we really are. I started to speak out loud the beautiful things I saw in people, places and experiences I was having. I was looking for it and I was speaking it, and what's so amazing is that as I was looking for beauty all around me I was reconnecting with my community. The more I made myself get out of my bed and connect and love people, the less I was noticing how much I was hurting. The very nature of pain is selfish and pulls our focus inward. When I focused my energy outward, when I was doing things that were lifegiving, things that I loved, I wasn't thinking about my pain.
The best decision I made was to wean myself off of all the pain meds I had been on for so long. It took four months to wean myself off of the meds completely. My marriage couldn't survive under the circumstances, and I found myself single for the first time in a decade, and as a result of my time in self-exile, the bills were piling up. I decided to focus my energy on doing little projects around the house to help me reclaim the space as my own. I didn't think much of it at first, but friends began assuring me that I had a knack for design.
In short time, friends asked me to collaborate on projects. I started an Instagram account and began posting the things I was doing. People started asking me to help them throw dinner parties, arrange flowers, set tables and decorate spaces. I learned to say yes. Around this time I also started having people that didn't know me following me on Instagram. I started getting comments like, "You live my dream life!" And "I want your life!" And to be honest, it made me feel nauseous. I remembered lying in my bed for years, looking on Facebook and feeling so depressed, wishing that was me playing with my children and having all of these adventures, instead of lying in my bed hurting all the time. I needed to give people a context for my joy. I ended up writing out my entire story and sharing it online. I remember feeling so vulnerable and exposed when I hit publish, but I knew I needed to give everyone the full scope of what was going on. The truth was, my circumstances had not changed. I was still in pain every minute, I was handling a divorce and I missed my dad every day, but I had learned to live differently.
We so often think, "I will be happy once I get fill in the blank (that boyfriend, a certain job, a husband, a baby, that house, etc.):' But those things won't fulfill us, until we ourselves are fulfilled. I learned to find contentment despite my hardship. And unexpectedly, I discovered that exposing myself made me feel less vulnerable.
Suffering is one of the things that unifies humanity. At some point or another we all experience loss. Sometimes, feeling hopelessness can give us a new lens through which to see the world because we learn to be more empathetic to those around us. Now when I interact with someone suffering from heartache, loss or unendurable physical pain, I immediately have common ground to stand on with him or her. I would never wish what I've experienced on anyone, and I know that there are plenty of people with even more harrowing personal stories, but if telling my story of overcoming anguish helps just one person feel like she or he is not alone in despair, then at least what I went through had a purpose. It took a long time, but I finally found myself. It's not the version of a life that I fantasized about as a child, but it's better, because it's a life that I earned in triumphing over my misery. I'm proud to say I learned resilience from the unexpected, and now my mission in life is to thrive.