By Amy Vinciguerra
I felt a jolt as the stretcher popped up. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, but awake long enough to hand my phone to my husband — watching his wife get strapped into a stretcher with tears in his eyes — and asked him to text my boss that I wouldn’t be at work that day. I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face, but he did it. Our choices say a lot about our priorities. And this choice, to think of work before my husband beside me or my own health in that moment, has stayed with me since.
As days in the hospital went by and the fog began to lift, I started to feel awake again — but not from the accident. I’d been sleepwalking through my days for longer than I could remember. I’m sharing what happened and the realizations that followed in the hopes that what I learned will encourage your own reflection — without having an event like this. We’ve all had a long and difficult year, and even if it didn’t end in a hospital bed, I hope you give yourself space to reflect on where you are and where you want to go. We’re all busy, but mindful isn’t the opposite of busy. It’s choosing to be a more aware and active participant in your life, rather than letting never-ending to-do lists and the inertia of everyday pull you forward.
The day after I paid my Stern tuition, I was finally offered a role at a company I’d been interviewing at for nearly a year. I’d interviewed for many roles without finding the right fit — until my last interview. That rejection had devastated me, but was the jolt I needed to finally take the GMAT, apply to Stern, and begin one of the most rewarding experiences. I felt too lucky to realize the fear of starting a big new job and competitive business school simultaneously, so I scheduled it all like jenga and put my head down. The next two years kept me in constant motion. Moments and milestones barreled by, like the view out a window of a fast-moving train.
Two years later, I was limping through December to the holiday finish line like everyone else. I was up for promotion and the need to prove myself had taken over. Like so many of us, after a long day of work, I’d go to class, and often back to work after. I was too caught up in the quicksand of my ever-lengthening to-do list for a break. We’d been quarantined for 10 months so what was the point? To move from the computer screen to the TV screen? I’d rather stay laser focused on what I was convinced I “needed” to do.
We arrived at my parents house for the holidays and had dinner. I sat with the Christmas tree, which had no lights aside from the twinkle of the tree, then went to bed. Around 4 am my eyes fluttered open from a strange dream, but the haze of it never left. My head was floating and nothing felt well. I stumbled to the bathroom for water and as I picked up the glass, pins and needles, like loud static, rushed up my body and into my head. The sound of the glass hitting the sink pierced then faded from my ears as everything went dark. My husband found me and was able to get me conscious, but I kept getting worse. The next thing I knew I was in the living room, the tree moved and replaced by a wall of firefighters and EMTs.
At the hospital a bigger oxygen mask replaced the first one from the ambulance. It was the next of many times throughout my hospital stay I was told, “all you need to do now is breathe. In and out.” Years of attempting to meditate and failing were reset, and my body and mind focused on only that. While I lay in the hospital bed, an email popped up on my phone announcing my promotion to our team. It was such a strange feeling to see this thing I felt I needed so badly, while I was doing the only thing I actually needed to do.
I was told my whole family was on their way in ambulances. Everyone got sicker after I left and my husband somehow realized we may have Carbon Monoxide poisoning and called 911 again. Another crew arrived and the reading in the house was the highest they’d seen. My mom and husband were treated and released and my dad and I were transferred to another hospital for treatment. It was a difficult, up and down time, but we were released about a week later and thankfully, have been recovering since.
I will never know what woke me. Or why the levels in my blood were so high that I collapsed and brought attention to the problem before it was too late. If I’d lost consciousness while in bed asleep, I could’ve died. My whole family could have died. I am very grateful, but it’s difficult to shake the what if’s. Almost as scary was what almost didn’t happen for me. I might still be sleepwalking through my days had this experience not jolted me awake.
I laid in the hospital expecting revelations about life to hit me, but they never did. In the weeks after, my mind was blank and the things I’d been so consumed by all fell away. Through that process, my perspective shifted. I hope these reflections will be helpful in your life, even in small ways, without needing an experience like this to come to them.
Don’t wait for revelations. I realized in the hospital that all we actually need is to breathe. Deeply. Purposefully, rhythmically. You can survive without food and water, but the body will do anything for oxygen. When we let ourselves be consumed by what we think we need to do or to be, not what we ourselves want, we lose ourselves. Stay in constant activity, you can lose your receptivity, missing what’s right there in front of you and inside us.
Create space for reflection and realizations. I’ve never lived without managing a firehose of thoughts, ideas, and to do’s and I value the space and stillness this gave me. We don’t need a hospital stay to prioritize creating space. But without giving it to yourself dots can’t connect. Like Don Draper told Peggy: “Think about it deeply, then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face.” Without the clutter of am I good enough, successful enough, doing enough…what we truly want, and the purpose in what we choose to do, will come. How we construct meaning is a personal, intentional choice. Realization is discovery of truths that have always been there, hiding in plain sight. Do not wait for an epiphany to come. Make the decision to pause, make space, and reflect. And in this space, your thinking, and your life, will shift.
Face and embrace your fears. What do our constant activity and all these needs cover up? Fear. You can’t outrun it and we all have it. But when you face it and put names to it, we can discover the fear of not doing or realizing what you really want in life. The things you wouldn’t want to die not having done. We can focus the fear of “not doing” to propel us, rather than letting the fear of “not being” someone or something we “should be” hold us back.
Seek progress and purpose, not perfection. Staying awake means being aware of the process and focusing on your progress, not a distant mirage of “perfection.” Seeking purpose doesn’t have to mean quitting your job. It’s finding the meaning and intention in what you’re doing and how that thing fits in the story arc of your life. Differentiate between what serves you and what you’re serving. Looking for what purpose something serves, in this moment, helps you to reframe it and see it as part of a whole. It could be a step toward what you want, or clarify what you don’t. It could simply be the paycheck funding what you really know you want. If you can’t find any purpose in what you’re doing, let that go to create space for something that does.
You don’t need a near death experience, or to upend everything, or make a public declaration to change or reorient your life. Self care and awareness need to be ongoing investments in you, not indulgences to put off. We fear stillness, but having it forced on me helped me realize how much we need it to be open to the most subtle, yet fundamental, shifts that change our lives.