The day I celebrated my first anniversary of life after spine surgery — December 13 — I found out I was going broke. Well, not broke broke, but running out of cash fast. And, over the past year and a half, I had been burning through it hard and without a second thought. It’s not that I had been careless: I’ve made a good amount of money as an adult, and I’ve saved and invested wisely. But 2017 turned out to be a year marked by breakdowns. Not just politically, although that would be an obvious reason to feel unhinged; I had a lot happening personally as well.
For me it was a financial, physical, emotional shit show (and after 2016, that’s really saying something). So, by the time the year was up, I wasn’t just almost broke, I was broken. Because when shit happens, no one necessarily tells you shit can get seriously expensive, too.
Said breakdowns officially began in December 2016. Although I was financially secure at the time, I was untethered to a job and had been since the year before, when Love, Lust or Run ended. That year was always intended to be a kind of sabbatical. But by the end of it, it was clear that after four years of chronic back pain, staved off with steroid shots, I was going to need surgery. And not just any surgery, very expensive spinal surgery. My doctor had to go in and fuse vertebrae that were loose because they were grinding against each other, effectively turning my discs to powder. This is a pretty common surgery, apparently. I was told the recovery time would be about six weeks. I thought, I can handle six weeks. Especially if it would end my chronic pain and set me up for a successful 2017. But the best laid plans don’t always work out. If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have made any plans at all.
The truth is, I didn’t understand the extent to which back surgery would cripple me — emotionally and physically. The time in the hospital alone included some of the most agonizing moments I’ve ever had: There was the pain from the operation itself, the extreme nausea from the painkillers, and, lest I forget, the warm prune juice I drank to help me poop. (Not to get too graphic, but imagine trying to BEND a healing spine over to vomit while having explosive diarrhea. Yep, I got too graphic. I went there.)
Going in, I didn’t know I would be on such heavy medication even after I left the hospital, or that I wouldn’t remember when I had last eaten or had water or who might have come to visit me. I had different nurses, but they were a blur of faces I wrote checks to in amounts I can’t recall either. I underestimated the extent to which my cognition would be compromised. Everything was foggy, like I was under water. And even as the brain fog began to lift, I was still in pain and always tired. I couldn’t even think about work let alone consider tackling any of it.
Which is when I realized I wasn’t just untethered from a job, I was untethered from a purpose. I had nothing to hold on to. And, honestly, I just wasn’t thinking about my finances. In fact, I would have thrown money at anything — material or procedural — to make the recovery process easier.
The problem was that while I had planned financially for the first year off, I hadn’t planned for the second. I felt secure enough not to panic right away — I just had to get through six weeks, right? But it became obvious that six weeks was just the start of my recovery, including the first follow-up visit to my surgeon post-surgery (which I am still paying off). I wasn’t even allowed to start physical therapy yet — only venture outside wearing a brace the size of a jet pack.
Without a job to go to, and with a good enough excuse not to, I started to spend money almost mindlessly: I ordered in food twice a day (mostly Bareburger and mostly with the Caviar app). I bought toys for my dog Dora — toys I could barely pick up. I paid for my housekeeper and a full-time driver I couldn’t take anywhere. And after you’ve binged every available Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon series (old AND new), the next logical activity? Online shopping, of course! (Well, for me anyway.) As a result, my phone is now home to every brand and retail app on the planet, each at the ready for swiping and shopping-cart-filling aplenty. This sounds almost ridiculous as I type it. I consider myself to be a smart person. Smart people don’t spend money recklessly. There are very few things I consider hard to admit, but this is one of them. Always being independent and being on my own has been a point of pride for me. And like eating too many sweets when you’re on a strict diet, there is a deep shame in spending this way. I’m a grown-up, but surgery, sadness, and immobility had me acting like a child: stomping my feet like Veruca Salt. I want what I want when I want it, dammit!
Shopping provided me with a very interesting version of magical thinking at this time. I imagined parties and places I’d go, the people I’d be with, and when I bought this one last dress, shoe, bag, or necklace, my image in these imaginary scenarios would somehow be complete...or whole. I realize now it was just a fantasy future, to distract me from an agonizing present. And it was easy to fool myself. I’ve been in fashion for a long time; having smart, relevant style has always been a part of my job. But those giant vintage sterling chandelier earrings by some fancy Italian designer that were so heavy my lobes literally rejected them?
Some time after the eight-week mark, I started to feel…well, weird. Paranoid in a way I’ve never experienced before. I didn’t want to go outside because my anxiety of slipping or someone bumping into me was too much to bear. I was so anxious it was impossible to sleep; I’d have uncontrollable fits of crying. I didn’t feel sad exactly, I just felt sick. Like something was eating me alive. As it turns out, what I had been feeling was clinical depression (who knew?), which I later discovered is quite common with surgeries involving the spine, brain, and heart. The body is traumatized on a deep, subconscious level. My guess is the body feels like it’s dying. It’s scary. And no one really explained this to me.
You know what is a great salve for depression? Pretending you don’t have it. More fantasies. More shopping. There just wasn’t much else I could actually do to escape what I was feeling physically and emotionally. A kind of hell, really. I begged my surgeon to let me start physical therapy a bit early, which made a difference. In fact, having appointments gave structure to my days and a way to chart my healing. But then...
By the end of February 2017, while I was still wearing a brace, my boyfriend asked for a break. In some sense, I think he thought I would heal more quickly than I did. It’s fair to say that care-taking wasn’t natural to him (a fact he confirmed), and a surgery like mine just doesn’t heal in two months. During that two-week break, I agonized even more — this time, about losing him, not just my grip on my own life. I worried that I couldn’t control the paranoia, the anger, and that ultimately, I was driving him away. I kept thinking that if I could just be cheerier, like my old self, we would get through it.
But as with most of the events that preceded this, things didn’t quite come back together again. When we sat down after those two weeks, he wanted to break up. I have to admit, I didn’t think that’s what he would say. At this point, I was trying to heal two broken things: my spine and my relationship. I managed to convince him we could make it through. So he went to therapy. And I went to therapy. I paid for my chiropractic care, all the while paying for my physical therapy, as many times a week as my surgeon would let me go.
Plus, I still wasn’t working.
By July, I was free from a back brace and getting stronger, so we decided to go on a trip. Despite the ups and downs with my mood, and the fragile state of our relationship, like always, I thought an extravagant vacation could fix things. We planned to go to Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bruges, and Mallorca. Although he never asked me to, I paid for all the fancy hotel rooms. Because I like fancy hotels. I like suites with views. I like really nice restaurants. And, in Amsterdam, I rented a private boat to tour the city. We also wanted to take photographs — not touristy ones but art-y ones. And to do that, I naturally had to find all kinds of “dope” clothing and accessories for just that purpose. God forbid I should take anything I already owned. I brought so much “photo wardrobe” it required its own suitcase.
We did see some great art. We did eat at nice restaurants. We did take pretty pictures. But I don’t think either of us was having fun. In Amsterdam, we made the decision to stay there a few extra days and not go to Bruges. I didn’t just lose the deposit for that hotel, I lost the whole fee. That is the first time I ever remember saying to him (and myself) that maybe I was spending too much money, that I had to watch my budget. It was the first time I suddenly felt aware of my pattern of behavior since the surgery. When we landed in Mallorca, that first night, a friend texted me to ask how the trip was going. We had a week left and I told her the truth: I hadn’t felt that lonely in a long time. The following morning I said it out loud: It wasn’t working. He didn’t disagree. When I left, he stayed behind.
When I got back to Brooklyn, I stayed in bed for two days and that was it. I got up and out and it was over. He knew in February what I couldn’t admit to until July: that we were over a long time ago.
About six weeks after the vacation/breakup, I had what was, I believe, the eighth major flood in my apartment. I had to move with Dora to my parents' house (another kind of humiliation in and of itself) while whole floors in my home were torn up and walls were cut open from top to bottom at no small expense. I started to feel like everything about me and about my life was being unceremoniously dismantled, one floorboard at a time.
I just didn’t think it could get worse.
It was the Tuesday morning the week I was staying with my family that I got a text from a dear college friend to call her. When I did, her voice was shaking and she said I should sit down. Another dear friend of ours from college, whom I dated and lived with for almost three years and had loved very much, had taken his own life the day before. I have never known that particular feeling: a mixture of loss and shock and sadness and pain and anger and emptiness.
If I wasn’t completely broken before, I was now. Life has barely made sense since then. I doubled up on physical therapy sessions. I hired a trainer. I bought oodles of vintage bags and more Zara coats. I even started looking at country houses upstate and apartments in Manhattan...to BUY! Because I was determined to live. I was determined to have a life that made me happy. Why I thought material items had that much to do with it, I can only attribute to wanting things that stay. Because heartbreakingly, people can’t always do that.
That brings me to the morning of December 13, in my accountant’s office, when I got the sobering news: I am not, in any way, as solvent as I thought I was.
Happy anniversary to me!
It took that one meeting to wake me the fuck up. And, like a woman who might actually be going broke, I started purging my house and my closet of everything unnecessary for a mighty big fire sale on the horizon. I suppose the good news is now I know why it’s called a fire sale — because I need to burn this past year to the ground.
Today, though, there is a new year ahead of me. And I am very conscious of my mistakes and my need to rectify them, not just to stay afloat but to banish this serious knock to my own sense of self-esteem. A lot broke last year. And from all that brokenness, there is no other choice but to affirm life. It means picking up the pieces of mine off the floor. There are so many shards, sometimes I feel like it will be impossible to put them all back together. Being broken doesn’t presuppose you can put yourself back together just as you were. It means there will be cracks and wounds, battlecries of a life lived and mistakes made. We move forward, and everything changes. Nothing is static, including me. I don’t know if this new year will be better than the last one. Everyone keeps telling me not to worry. How could things get worse? I honestly don’t want to know the answer to that.
What I want now is some glue. And hope is very sticky, indeed.
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