Frida Kahlo and the Battle

Frida Kahlo photographed after car crash

In a few days, I will be standing in front of Frida Kahlo’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW, and it shall feel like a homecoming. When I was introduced to her work as a teenager, it made me feel less alone. The woman with the piercing eyes knew things others didn’t.

Frida Kahlo

The artist Frida Kahlo is treasured in part, because she revealed what suffering a traumatic accident is actually like. She treated us to the exquisite agony via visual depictions. I come to you, twenty years after my fall, seemingly whole, though irretrievably altered. This is my story of recovery.

broken column frida kahlo spine

The battle begins

I had to relinquish my body before the stretcher made it to the ambulance. Unable to even scream, I whimpered, praying that the paramedics were aware of my need of pain relief, and lots of it. At the hospital, needles were scratched along my legs, and I was subjected to many neurological tests, one after another. My clothing was cut off, and a gown thrown over my body. Scans are ordered, and I was carefully loaded in to the machine. Nasogastric intubation was ordered. I found it difficult to talk with these tubes, and lay in agony, awaiting the next lot of pain relief. I had to lay perfectly still, as my spine was unstable.

An hour or so earlier, I was a fit and exuberant fifteen-year-old. Now I needed someone to bathe me, to wash the blood off of my face.

It felt as though I had signed over my life to their care. Some were tender, as though seeing to a newborn, and others were brusque. I had no control, and surrender was hard to accept. Adrenalin kept my heartbeat pounding in my ears, and I felt I had to get away, but couldn’t. Despite having made it to hospital, I still didn’t feel safe.

Recovery from battle

After major surgery, the next few months were spent being measured for a steel brace, and wearing it 18 hours a day. Ted stockings on and callipers fitted to my legs, I learnt to walk again. The first few weeks, I was put into a standing position in my rotor bed, so I could get used to being upright. My blood pressure would plummet. There were problems with my bladder and bowel, and also with my stomach. Everything seemed hard and out of my control. When I walked a few steps, my nurse cried.

Years of daily physiotherapy sessions ensued, and I was in the local pool swimming laps by seven am each morning. There were countless operations and tests, appointments and pain. There were body casts and infections. I exercised up to four hours each day, because I had to. The fight to regain my life took countless years.

Overcoming the trauma emotionally and mentally takes longer. I saw an elderly Welsh therapist, and we would drink tea infused with Blackberries whilst I poured out my heart. I saw her weekly for three years. I am sure it seemed as though I had been repaired after my first operation, as though ‘after a spell’ in hospital, I was okay. The truth is, I had been altered, for both good and bad. I learnt as an adolescent that life can be unpredictable, and that I am not immortal. Bad stuff can and does happen.

People left, seeing the period of my recovery as being all too hard. I was alone for a great deal of the time. I can still recall the loneliness; the realization that life and my friends were going on outside my gilded cage. I felt removed.

The good parts? It has rendered me independent; completely responsible for my own wellbeing.

I may not have had a cheer squad assembled to encourage me, but I appreciated my own hard work, noting my uprising as one of the greatest feats of my life. I did what the experts doubted I could. I have made up for the years of having to be insular, and the months without sunlight on my face by embracing this life. I accept invitations more than I turn them down. I am outside, seeking beauty.

My body has never felt the same since my fall. There is heaviness and agony, and problems arise from its core, encompassing a myriad of organs and bones. The scars read like a street directory, through my stomach, spine, ribs, lungs, heart and hips. They show me where I have been, not where I am going.

frida kahlo monkey portrait self

Injured, wounded but unbroken

When I watch the news headlines, my soul aches for those who have been killed. My heart goes to their families. At the same time, I am drawn to the wounded, whether it be through violence or accidents. What becomes of them? We rarely hear the outcomes of those who survived. Within our communities, we hear that a person suffered trauma, and has been hospitalized. Eighteen months later, we may bump into them down the street. They seem the same, though in truth, are permanently altered. It is a lonely journey, filled with specialists of all descriptions.

To all who face a lengthy recovery after trauma, I salute you. It will take everything you have. You will want to give up. You will get angry and you will weep in frustration. To all those in recovery, I want you to know that you can do it. Dig deep, and you will find the resources you need. You are seen, with your broken wing in a splint. Plenty will come to your unveiling, to celebrate your flight.  There is a secret group who celebrates you as you are right now. You are seen! The days ahead will stretch to weeks, then months and years. You are a survivor. Slowly, you will claim sovereignty of your body.

For now, there is today, and that is enough to pursue. Lastly, I am so grateful we have Frida’s body of work.