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Personal Essay | How One Question Turned My Life Around

By M. Terry Bowman

Mark’s eyes locked with mine; a hint of a twinkle was evident as he smiled in anticipation. His girlfriend, Elaine, stood next to him, smiled and stared at me, too, as if she knew his question would affect me in a good way.

“How would you describe your perfect day if money and time weren’t an issue?”

His query caught me off-guard. I didn’t know how to answer it at the time. How could I when my life had turned upside down several months earlier? One morning during the month of my eight-year anniversary as an occupational therapist (OT) in mental health, I was assaulted by a patient. She had been recently admitted in a psychotic state, had wandered out of her room unsupervised, and approached me while I was in the midst of a session. She caught me off-guard. It took seconds for her to push me up against the wall and a couple of staff to peel her off of me.

She had pinned me in such a way that it triggered a memory I thought was buried deep inside of me. A couple of hours passed when I started to experience flashbacks to the time my ex-husband did the exact behavior many years before this attack. I kept my ex-husband’s physical and emotional abuse a secret during and after my marriage, too ashamed to admit to myself or let others know what happened. I mistakenly assumed I had piled enough cement over that dark time in my life. I failed to realize that an earthquake could easily expose things once buried if the magnitude was great enough.

To say that that fateful morning at the hospital changed me would be an understatement. The event rendered me dysfunctional. For an OT to be dysfunctional was poetic, in a sick way, since the crux of our profession was to address function through activities. I was off work for months. It took time for me to build up the courage to leave my condo without being frozen in fear or looking over my shoulder. In my role as an OT I had broken down tasks into manageable pieces to help others develop their skills. The OT in me had to treat the patient in me if I wanted to survive, thrive.

Thankfully, regular sessions with a good psychologist who specialized in trauma helped me to heal, too. Several months later I wanted to venture away from home, take a healthy risk, engage in more activities. I booked a retreat by the ocean at a place run by nuns. That weekend away helped me to diminish my fears although I still suffered from anxiety. A month after that I saw an ad on Craigslist where someone wanted to share a flat in Paris. I responded to the ad, met with the person who posted it, and found an inexpensive flight to the UK and France.

On my last night in London I stood speechless when I heard my friend’s question about a perfect day. The next morning I headed to Heathrow for my return flight home. Although my final destination was San Francisco, I didn’t know where I was going, figuratively speaking. Odds were great that I couldn’t return to my job at the hospital, the same environment that I had been assaulted, nor risk being traumatized again on a different acute inpatient unit. Somewhere 35,000 feet above Earth, seatbelt unfastened, I stared out the window. Billowy clouds seemingly danced by and soothed me. Thoughts about my journey back to good mental health filled my mind. Gratitude swelled my heart. I was finally able to envision my perfect day.

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Wake up on a big comfortable bed. Drink freshly squeezed orange juice, drip coffee, eat fresh fruit and a chocolate croissant. Go for a walk near water. Take photographs. See a film. Visit a museum. Browse a bookstore. Buy groceries and make a meal with others. Laugh with my daughter. Read. Kiss. Make love. Curl up next to a roaring fire. Travel. Meet new people. Thrive despite fear….

I pondered over the list, my life since the patient had attacked me, and my life since my husband abused me. Time, therapy, and healthy risk-taking had helped me to feel not only like my old self, but a new self started to emerge as well.

Elaine and Mark knew I had been assaulted, how I had struggled for months on a path to feeling safe again, and how I was at a crossroads with my job which affected my quality of life. The point wouldn’t just be about my answer to Mark’s question. Once I did that, I would need to figure out how to turn my answer into reality.

A year after I visited London and Paris, I resigned from my job in San Francisco, looked into a couple of jobs in New Zealand and Antarctica, applied to work in the UK, found a position I wanted in England and was offered it (thanks to a recruiter), sold my condo, and said good-bye to my family, friends, colleagues, and psychologist. I did all the things on my perfect day wish list, and then some. I traveled to more countries during my time in the UK than I ever did while living in the US.

Over the years whenever I’ve wanted to get to know someone better, whether the person was a friend, lover, or patient, invariably at some point I’d ask them the same question. The answer revealed so much about the person’s hopes, dreams, desires. Like me, it was a lightbulb moment when they realized they needed to take certain steps to turn that perfect day into reality.

Now you, gentle reader—how would you describe your perfect day, if money and time weren’t an issue? Make it so.

 

Terry Bowman is an occupational therapist, writer, photographer, and filmmaker. Her work has been published in Remembering the Days that Breathed Pink: A Collection of Women’s Poems, Prose and Lyrics, Thanks for the Mammary (both by Quaci Press), ZO Magazine, skirt! magazine and was featured in Forbes.com and OT Practice. She lives in San Francisco, CA. Learn more about her at mterrybowman.com.

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