Monday, July 30, 2012

Funny Things People Say

Usually other people, perfect strangers, are more than kind to me. Without fail, someone offers to help me as I put the wheelchair in or take it out of the car. I hardly have to wait for a fellow shopper to ask to reach the tomato paste or green onions. Little children will hold doors and ask to carry things.

But, on the rare occasion, someone will say something to me that seems so unfiltered and ridiculous, I wonder if he or she is home at night asking, "Why on earth did I say that today?". I'm not easily offended by the comments...usually I can barely restrain myself from bursting with laughter.

While driving through the most wonderful drive through ever, Starbucks, the boy who handed me my grande iced coffee, who was all of about seventeen, asked me what the hand control in my car was. More specifically he asked, "What is that thing, a motorcycle throttle?". Initially, I tried to wrap my brain around why someone would think I would have a motorcycle throttle in my car, but just moved on and very nicely told him I was paralyzed and it was a control, connected to the gas and brake pedals, to help me drive. He pensively looked at me, paused briefly, and said, "Well, I have eczema if that makes you feel any better." I responded with, "put some lotion on it," and drove away dying of laughter. The kind that doesn't stop and keeps creeping up all evening. See, everyone has problems, no matter the size.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Risotto - Not as Hard as You Think

One of my favorite things I've learned to cook is risotto. It took me a long time to try it, but when I finally did, I was pleasantly surprised. Below is one of my favorite risotto recipes. 

I was scared to try risotto because it seems so intimidating, but I realized it is actually one of the easiest things to cook. I am by no means an experienced cook, but this is a recipe I can definitely tackle and you should be able to too!

I love risotto because as long as I have the rice and chicken stock, which I keep on hand, I can make it with just about anything in my fridge. During the summer time I make one with corn, tomato, and basil and the fall and winter I make a risotto with Butternut squash. It is very versatile. I had bacon left from BLTs and onions on hand, so I decided to make this one. I think of bacon as a treat and I buy the more expensive bacon so I don't buy it that often and try to use it in many different things.

The secret I have found with risotto is patience and constant stirring. Don't give up and allow each addition of liquid to absorb or the rice is crunchy. Have a glass of wine and don't rush it. It will take about 40 mins, but will be worth it every time. It will be much easier after the first time.

Carmelized Onion and Bacon Risotto
Serves 3 as a main dish and 6 as a side dish
This is the Barefoot Contessa's method, just cut down and with different ingredients.

1/4 lb of thickly sliced bacon (I use the 365 Whole Foods brand Applewood Bacon)
2 tablespoons olive oil 
1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly 
1 cup arborio rice (risotto) 
1/3 cup good dry white wine 
4 cups chicken stock, heated 
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

First cook the bacon. I used the oven method. Line a half sheet pan with foil and put a rack on it and place the bacon on the rack and put in the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 mins., depending on desired crispiness. When it is finished cooking, remove the bacon, drain on paper towels, and crumble. Set aside. 

In a saucepan, heat chicken stock and set aside. In a large heavy bottomed pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until onion is soft and caramelized. Add rice and stir to combine. Make sure all of the rice is coated in the olive oil. It should all look shiny. Let cook for another minute. Add white wine and let reduce almost all of the way. Reduce heat to medium low. Begin adding chicken stock a large ladle and a half at a time. Wait at least 10 mins between each addition of stock or until liquid is absorbed. Add more stock as the liquid is absorbed. Wait for it to absorb Continue until rice is al dente. Take off of the heat and add crumbled bacon and cheese, salt, pepper, and stir. 

     It will look like this each time you add
     the chicken stock, but be patient and keep stirring.

           It will eventually look like this each time

                 And finally, like this.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Make Do and Move On

One of the most awful things about having a blood infection, for nine years, is the loss of appetite. I used to eat anything I wanted. I didn't really think about food other than consuming it; I didn't care where it came from or what it had in it. If it tasted good, I would eat it. I expected to be able to continue eating what I wanted, when I wanted.

At the beginning of my illness, before anyone figured out what was really wrong, I woke up in the morning and immediately would get sick to my stomach. Then, I took a shower, threw my hair up on top of my head, wrangled on some sweats, and took six Advil because I could feel the fever starting. I usually had about forty five minutes after I woke up before my temperature started rising and if I didn't take a ton of Advil right away, it would easily reach 103 or 104 degrees. After this ritual, I was able to head out the door. I was always a mess and always late. I knew I was barely hanging on, but felt I didn't have a choice and did what ever I could do keep surviving and make it look like everything was fine.

I would usually head out to eat with a friend if I wasn't working. There were very few things I could stomach, so I would eat what I could and when I could. I didn't eat well at all. I ate a ton of take out  and restaurant food because I was just too tired for anything else. I became very angry that every single thing I ate would come up later, so I actually started to loathe eating or even discussing food. I wanted meals over with as soon as possible. My dreams of large family Thanksgiving dinners soon disappeared since I couldn't even tolerate most food. I also didn't know much about cooking other than a few casseroles and quick fix meals I learned while babysitting. Tacos, spaghetti, and other simple dishes were about the extent of my repertoire. The thought of learning how to cook at this point seemed silly and unachievable.

Some days I couldn't even make it out of my bedroom. I would have to succumb to the infection and get back in bed. Reading was uncomfortable because it was hard on my burning eyes, so when I wasn't sleeping, I would watch television. I couldn't really sit up on days like these, so the computer wasn't really an option either. I wasn't at the point yet where lying still and thinking were good things; I would just become more upset and feel angrier with my situation, so television it was.

Television is ridiculous and utterly boring when it is on all of the time.  People used to tell me how lucky I was to lie around and watch shows and read all day long, but believe me, it isn't all it is cracked up to be. I eventually learned to watch series like the Sopranos, Northern Exposure, and all kinds of movies, but this was at the beginning, and I wasn't very sick savvy yet. I did, however, watch Food Network and I loved it. I had favorite chefs and I watched their shows and became inspired to cook because I thought I might be able to eat. On days I felt well enough, I would try different recipes or have dinner parties to test out what I saw on Barefoot Contessa or Paula Deen. Cooking and preparing food started becoming one of my favorite hobbies.

I started cooking straight through the Barefoot Contessa books when I wasn't confined to the bed. There were amazing and delicious accomplishments and there were epic fails. Early on, I didn't have a food processor yet, but brilliantly decided to make Ina's Blue Cheese Coleslaw. Well, instead of shredding it, I decided I would slice it as thinly as possible. It basically ended up as huge chunks of cabbage in a blue cheese dressing. Edible, but not well done by any stretch of the imagination.

After my doctor correctly identified my infection and the antibiotics started kicking in, I began to eat again and discover how important nutrition is in my life. I changed all of my food and started eating only organic food that I cooked at home. I started paying attention to which foods offer what health benefits. I signed up with a local organic grocery delivery and drastically increased my fruit and vegetable intake. My love for cooking suddenly became the catalyst for eating well and when I began becoming aware and conscience of what I was putting in my body, I suddenly started healing faster and more consistently. Another bonus is, in the kitchen, it really doesn't matter if I am sitting down or not. I become immersed in the color, the smells and the measuring, chopping, and mixing. I forget about everything else and only concentrate on the food. It is the one place where I rarely have to think about my paralysis. In fact, I don't, unless I drop a huge, glass bowl of flour and it shatters all over the floor because I think I'm fancy and just tried to wheel across the room with the bowl balancing on my lap, while carrying a measuring cup of milk in one hand and wheeling with the other hand.

When I used to drop something or spill, I started cursing and then inevitably complaining to myself about my condition and how it makes everything harder, messier, and more frustrating. I'd think cooking wasn't for me after all. But, then I heard an archived Fresh Air interview with Julia Child. Terry Gross asked her why she wasn't afraid to make such a mess in the kitchen and was comfortable showing so many mistakes to her audience. Julia replied,"Anyone who spends time in the kitchen knows awful things happen and one just has to make do and move on." I felt like she was speaking to me. I was allowing the things I couldn't control affect the very thing I could control, my reaction and how I dealt with it. Now I know the mistakes are part of the process. Learning to deal with them and overcome them is what makes me a better cook.

My life is now harder, messier, and more frustrating. It generally takes me four times the amount of time to do something than it used to. But, this is my life now, and instead of fighting against the new normal and the fear of trying new things, I've finally learned to embrace it and do my absolute best with it. I'm happy and willing to follow the rules to stay healthy. I read all of the books and try to stay self-disciplined. But, I can't control everything. I can obtain as much knowledge and understanding as I want to, but the accidents don't cease from happening. And, when they do happen, the only thing I can do is "make do and move on" the best way I know how. That is all any of us is able to do. We can fight as hard as we want to stop the spills and prevent the illnesses, but when life doesn't work out the way we planned, or the way we want, we can either focus on how imperfect everything is or we can realize everything is already perfect, just as it is, messes and all.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sarah Sitting Down

Twelve years ago, I was involved in a horse back riding accident that left me paralyzed from the waist down. I was twenty one years old at the time. I knew very little about life. I especially didn't have a clue about handling drastic changes to my life. I woke up one day walking and went to bed that evening paralyzed. The years that followed that fateful day have been long and filled with many obstacles and each day still brings new challenges.

After I was newly paralyzed I began living as did before, or at least trying to live that way. Much to my dismay, I quickly learned that everything and everyone was different. I couldn't go to the same places, I couldn't wear the same clothes, and I couldn't even eat the same foods. I was suddenly faced with a new lifestyle and had to cope or give up. Giving up is always an option that floats around in my mind, but I never give into it. I have days where I would like to and it just seems easier, but then the thoughts quickly change to gratitude. Gratitude for what I do have and what I can do. I learned to live with my paralysis instead of in spite of it.

When I was newly paralyzed I didn't want anyone to know I was really paralyzed. I was incredibly embarrassed by my wheelchair. I did everything possible not to have to be in it or to be in it as little as possible. I would visit with people and insist I had to be in bed so I wouldn't have to sit in the wheelchair. One of the first parties I went to was at a friend's parents' house. It was a Christmas party. I was injured in July so it seemed like a reasonable amount of time to be ready to attend a party and feel comfortable in my chair. However, exactly the opposite feeling came over me and it began days before the party. My mom rushed out to find clothes I could wear. Sitting down all of the time requires an entirely new wardrobe by the way. I am the first to admit I have a special fondness for clothing, but seriously, sitting down all of the time makes clothes fit completely differently. Try it, sit down and watch how different your clothes fit. Pockets stick out, pants shorten, shirts bunch and when you are already feeling insecure bulging pockets really don't help the situation. So, my sweet mom did the best she could and we came up with an outfit that fit and would cover up everything I was trying to hide. I remember it exactly because it was so silly. The party was a fun, lively, young Christmas party and I wore velvet pants and a huge purple sweater. I didn't want anyone to see how skinny my legs were and I didn't want anyone to see my back brace. All of the muscles in my legs atrophied due to the paralysis so they are skinny and shapeless. This may seem like such a vain thing to worry about after surviving such a huge accident and many injuries, but I was twenty one and vain.

My dear friend carried me into the party and I had him place me in an arm chair. I sat in the chair the entire evening. I didn't want anyone to ask about my wheelchair. In fact, I think my friend took it upstairs. I wanted it out of sight. I remember one person commenting that I should move around and mingle more and not just sit in the same chair all night. I just laughed and didn't tell him why I parked myself in that chair. I couldn't even utter the words. Later, we all went out to a bar. Everyone was gathering on the second level of the bar. Again, my friend carried me up the stairs, but this time I sat in my wheelchair. Restaurant chairs aren't very sturdy and I felt safer in my wheelchair. This was the first time I was in a bar while in my wheelchair. The entire night I looked around thinking about my old self and what I would be doing. I saw a girl sitting on a guy friend's lap and realized I could never do that again...just walk up and sit on someone's lap. I saw girls and guys my age milling about, moving from one group to the other, heading to the bar and ordering drinks and carrying them back to other friends. I would never be able to do this, I thought. I can't see much other than the stools at a bar, so the thought of ordering my own drink was ridiculous. I sat wondering what my life would be like, how I would have friends, how I would go places, it all just seemed too overwhelming to handle. I felt myself begin to shut down in that moment. I started to realize this winning attitude I had in the hospital just days after my accident, was going to be difficult to sustain. I felt I had no idea who I was or what I was going to do with myself.

While I was sitting thinking all of these thoughts, a friend of a friend turned to me and asked, "aren't you the Irish Dancer?". I didn't even know how to respond. I didn't want to tell him I couldn't walk anymore, much less dance. I WAS an Irish Dancer. I loved dancing. I loved being defined as an Irish Dancer and now I was not. I have no idea how I answered.

Later, I confided in a friend. This was the same friend who carried me up the stairs both times. I told him I had no idea who I was or what I was going to do. His reply was so simple. I didn't understand it at the time and it took me twelve years to finally understand it. He said, "You are just Sarah sitting down." As much as I didn't want to be sitting down, I was. I wasn't different, my circumstances were just different. It seems so simple now, but the years that followed this were some of the most difficult and traumatic years of my life. And although this life change has been extremely rough it has also been extremely rewarding. Sitting down for so long has finally made me stand tall.

I hope to use this blog to share my stories of this experience of discovery and living with challenges. I love my life now. I love my wheelchair and all of my experiences because of it. My injury and disability are just part of who I am. I live life well now and have obtained more skills than I could ever have imagined. I have learned to be more forgiving, more accepting, more loving, more gentle, and to say fewer negative things. But mostly, I finally discovered how to be Sarah, while sitting down.