Sticks and stones and broken bones: an anniversary


When I was 11 years old, I broke my back running into a burning building to save a puppy.


That’s a lie.

But it sounds so much better than the truth.

When I was 11 years old, I broke my back falling out of a chair.

I was siting in one of those office chairs with wheels on them. I pushed back to get up, the wheels caught on the carpet, l fell backwards, hit a wall, crushed three vertebrae between my shoulder blades and got severe whiplash in my lower back.

It’s not a good story. In any way.

I spent about five days in the hospital, then they sent me home, wearing a metal back brace and drugged up on liquid codeine. My mother put glittery, puffy stickers on the brace to cheer me up – but the little dolphins and angelfish dotting the icy metal contraption just seemed pathetic. Depressing. Like those velvet paintings of big-eyed children. They’re supposed to be sweet and youthful but instead they stab your heart with a deep and hollow melancholy.

Months passed with me on the couch, counting the flowers on the wallpaper. I needed a wheelchair to go more than a few steps. I couldn’t lift my arms up to read, so I rigged up a cookbook holder that connected to my brace so I could read Sylvia Plath endlessly. I watched Doctor Zhivago and wondered what my recovery would look like. I wondered if I would ever be able to ride horses again (yes) or walk in high heels (no, but I doubt that’s really about the broken back). Mostly, I wondered when the pain would stop.

This Saturday will be the 24th anniversary of my injury. It is always a time of great introspection for me. I have very few lingering signs of the accident. The nerve damage has dissipated in the last 5 years (thank you, yoga) but my left leg still drags a little, zombie-like, when I’m tired. My right hip sits significantly higher than the left. But since my ability to ever walk again was once in question, it seems silly to mention such minutia.

The most notable result of my broken back is this profound sense of the tenuous nature of life. It became clear that one moment, one movement, one chance encounter, one turn to the left when you intended to go right – can change everything.

It can catapult you into triumph or catastrophe.

I know what it is to have my body betray me. To have my arms not be able to lift, my legs give out, and my back shiver with pain. And at a certain point, there is nothing to do but surrender to the tides. To know deeply that you’ll be okay, whatever happens.

So this Saturday, I’ll pay homage to my spine.

Because in many ways, I’m just learning how to use that beautifully strong backbone of mine.

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43 Replies to “Sticks and stones and broken bones: an anniversary”

  1. This is one of the more poignant essays I’ve read about this subject of vulnerability, both physical and mental. Your ability to openly risk yourself is as inspiring as the words you use. Bravo!!

  2. For me it was a scary heart condition that could have killed me. Instead, I made it through and now twenty years later, I’m still kicking. It’s still there, I still have the heart condition, but it’s been managed for years. I don’t let it stop me from doing what I want to do. It seems that you have done the same. I hope you have a great day Saturday! Blessings

  3. Wow! I forgot that you broke your back and the first thing I thought of when I read the title was your back brace covered in stickers! I’m glad you have no serious long term issues.

  4. I do agree with your statement that at any one moment things can change. twenty years ago I went to bed one night and just didn’t feel right. Seemed like I couldn’t close my eye. I got up and looked in the bathroom mirror and my whole face was sagging and , yes, I couldn’t close my eye. I thought I had had a stroke. I went to the emergency room and the doctor told me I had Bell’s Palsy. Never heard of it. I did some studying after that. Turned out that half my face was paralyzed. Dr. said it could be days, months, years or never that I would be back to normal. It went away, about 90 %, after about 6 months. A few years later had it happen again to the other side of my face. This time I at least knew what was going on, but didn’t make it any better.
    I am now 63 yrs old and up until maybe 5 yrs ago I still couldn’t whistle. I couldn’t get my face muscles to work right. Now I can whistle, still not good, but I can.
    So, YES, everything can change in a moment. I’m thankful that it all went away. I now know more about how a paralyzed person feels.
    On a happier note. Happy Birthday to you On your upcoming 35th…….Take care, love your postings.

  5. Masterpiece of an essay. I salute your recovery and triumph and wish you the very best. Our wrong choices, even innocent ones, can often result in tragedy and pain. As you say, life is indeed very fragile, even more so than the thin layer of topsoil which sustains us on this planet. As our bodies were made to repair themselves, sometimes only with help and sometimes not so well as normally, so our broken hearts and broken lives can always be fixed by the One who created life, Jesus, if we but turn to him.

  6. I broke my back in Dec of 1996. I was in the USAF and my career ended that day. I thought my life did too but that injury taught me how to truly adapt and overcome. Your blog put everything that I have ever wanted to express into beautiful words. Thanks!

    P.S.- I went from nursing school to Social Work and after giving birth to the two greatest joys in my life I am finishing my Bachelors. Hang in there everyone!!

  7. Thanks for sharing a “standout” time in your life. My face got cut up in a car wreck when I was 17. I don’t remember the date or reflect on it as much as my family does. It must have jolted them more than I as I did lose a lot of blood. Glad you recovered to go on and do some memorable film work. Sorry I missed meeting you in Elizabethtown. Hope you enjoyed your visit to beautiful Lancaster County, PA.

  8. Check out If you find a doc close to you have him/her see if you can be helped by the technique that they use.

  9. Lisa,
    Thank you for that wonderfully inspiring story. I’ve had my fair share of broken bones and narrow escapes but my moment of greatest danger (so far!) isn’t even a memory for me. I was just under two years old when I contracted pneumonia. One evening my parents called the doctor to come quickly as my temperature had soared and I was in a bad way. In those days there wasn’t that much medical science could do for such extreme conditions. The doctor told my parents that I was reaching the crisis point and if I was still here in the morning, I would make it.
    Next morning he called and my mother confidently showed him to my room. I was standing up, holding onto the cot rail and bouncing up and down whilst gurgling cheerfully, “Ba, ba, ba, ma, ma, ma, doo, doo, doo.” Or ‘words’ to that effect.
    I’m now 71 years old and heading fast towards 72. Just wish I had the energy I had back then!

  10. Having never broken any bones myself (touch wood!) I did have my appendix out last year. That is the first time I have been in hospital in my life! After feeling like death for a day to then have this redundant organ removed and feel great again was amazing. These life events do indeed make you take stock and often re-evaulate where you’re going. Glad to hear you are well healed 🙂 All the best!

    1. Those things are good moments to take stock. Whenever I get the flu, I always am reminded that I should be insanely grateful for every moment I don’t have the flu! Thanks for reading.

  11. Six years ago my, then 14 year old, daughter and I were stopped and a stop light when we were rear-ended by a drunk driver. My daughter walked away from the accident, battered and bruised, but I suffered a broken neck. I had so many guardian angels that night and (in my opinion) the best neurosurgical team in the country to take care of me and piece me back together. I still have issues with my various body parts, but I’m walking and talking so I’m not complaining. Life can change in the blink of an eye. Grab hold of it and wring every last bit of pleasure out of it you can because things can change so quickly.

    Wonderful post, Lisa.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and that you are your daughter are okay. Yep, getting every last bit of happiness out of life is the way to go!

  12. Wow Lisa- We look at a lovely, talented, and intelligent young woman and reckon she must live a charmed life. That moment that alters everything forever is a huge one, thank you for sharing your story. You are an wonderful writer.

    1. Ha! Do people think that? I guess maybe they do. It’s interesting how we always think the grass is greener. Thanks for the kind words.

  13. Walking upright must have awfully good, somehow, for surviving and reproducing; otherwise, such an unstable and problem-prone mechanism could scarcely have evolved. Old theory, due to Darwin, was for making and using tools; newer theory, due to Owen Lovejoy, was for male provisioning: carrying goodies back to females (and dependent offspring).

    Reading Plath at eleven, eh? And I thought I was precocious for reading Dostoevsky at seventeen!

  14. I too broke my back !4 years ago. However, I was 24. Not a day goes by that I forget I am injured. Sometimes I wished I could give it back. I would pay millions to magically not be disabled, but that’s life, and I must deal with it, …and re-adapt. My heart goes out to you.

    1. Sorry to hear about your injury. But you’re right, all we can do is try to learn from it and move forward. All the best to you.

  15. Lisa, what a remarkable story. It’s so true that one’s life can change dramatically in a split second. It’s uplifting to know that you bounced back and became the beautiful, talented actress you are, and the sweet, kind thoughtful person you also are. Thanks for this wonderfully written and told story about your past. It really hit home.


  16. Very significant event and learning opportunity in your life. I’m wondering if you ever tried acupuncture? I tried it as a last resort and it actually worked on a number of different muscle issues , nerve issues. Also got first-hand experience from a fellow that told me it was actually lessening the growth on his larynx . The improvement was he could talk about a whisper.

    Thank you for a very well-written lifetime article Enjoy

    Gary Dirlam

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