Ruthie Lindsey, THERE I AM

Ruthie Lindsey, THERE I AM

Zibby Owens: I had the best time talking to Ruthie Lindsey who is the author of There I Am: The Journey from Hopelessness to Healing – A Memoir. A speaker, author, podcast host, and social media figure, Ruthie travels the globe sharing her story empowering others to find purpose in their pain and to “look for beauty in the midst of their sacred wounds.”

Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I am so honored to talk to you. I adored your book. It was so good.

Ruthie Lindsey: Thank you so much. That means so much to me. I’m so appreciative. I receive that. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s funny because when I was first pitched your book, I read about it. It was one of the only books that included a trailer, Jessica Rothe. I was sitting on the floor with somebody who I used to work with. We were sitting there watching your trailer sobbing. I was preparing myself for your book before I read. It was so good. Sorry to go on and on.

Ruthie: Thank you. That is so kind. I’m so appreciative of you taking the time to do this, well, for reading the book in the first place. That’s a big commitment. It’s not lost on me that that takes up a lot of time. The fact that you would choose to do that, it means a lot to me. Thank you so much.

Zibby: I read every page. I was clinging on every word. There were times, honestly, when some of the things were happening to you in the book where I almost couldn’t face it anymore, some of the medical stuff. You have been through so much.

Ruthie: It’s been a journey.

Zibby: It’s been a journey. I should probably ask, for the people listening since I just jumped right into that, tell listeners what your book is about, please.

Ruthie: It’s my first memoir and hopefully my only book. Oh, my god, what a journey. It’s basically me getting to share my story. Everyone has a lot of hard things and trauma and loss and pain if you’re here in Earth school. My story starts out in South Louisiana where I grew up. When I was a senior in high school, I pulled out in front of an ambulance. He hit me on my car door going sixty-five. I broke three ribs. They punctured my lungs. My lungs collapsed. My spleen ruptured. Then I broke the top two vertebrates in my neck. At the time, they told me I had a five percent chance to live and a one percent chance to walk. I was very lucky that I go hit by an ambulance because he knew what to do. They got me to the emergency room and got me on life support. They had to do an emergency surgery for my internal bleeding and put in chest tubes. Then after I was stable, I guess it took about a week before they could get me off life support. They went in to fuse my neck. They took bone from my hip and they wrapped it with wire once they had my neck back into place. That’s what they did back then in the late nineties.

I was in the hospital about a month. I was really lucky I was so young and healthy. I left there with half a shaved head and a neck brace. Otherwise, you would never know looking at me anything had happened. All my scars are hidden from my clothing or my hair. I kind of looked like the picture of health. I wore a neck brace for about five months or so. After that, I did not have any real residual effects at the time. If I would dance too much, I would get sore. That’s about the gist of it. Honestly, I think a lot of times when we’re traumatized, we dissociate to survive. I completely had done that. I would talk about it in third person. I’d always say that it was so much harder on my family and friends than it was on me because I didn’t remember much. I was on life support. I was drugged. I was out of it. I had just completely left my body. I was very disconnected. It was a very third-person thing at the time. I was super lucky. It happened on my dad’s birthday my senior year, which was November 2nd. I went back to school after Christmas. I was able to graduate on time. It’s pretty wild. It was a very speedy recovery. I went on to college. I was still very dissociated, for sure. I definitely had some eating things. I was just trying to stuff my feelings to avoid all of it. I’m very Southern. You show up, you smile. You be sweet. You be pretty. That’s what it was taught to me growing up, so I did that. No one would really know that I was inside struggling because I never showed that part of me at that time.

Then I moved to Nashville right out of college. I was offered a job. I met my first boyfriend. My parents were so stoked he was boy because they were convinced I was a lesbian. I’m like, I wish, that would be such a dream. No, I like boys. I just had never been real interested in dating before that. We were super earnest trying to be Christians, like the Southern thing. We felt so guilty about having sex that we literally got married two months later because we were just little idiots. We were hopeful. He was a musician. I would tour with him, and excited about starting our lives. We bought a house. We had all these dreams. About a year into our marriage, we were so young, one day I was walking in front of a Starbucks. This crazy shooting pain went up my neck. I remember thinking, did I just get struck by lightning? It was this gorgeous day. Or shot? It was that intense. It was so debilitating. I fell to my knees. I remember feeling like I was going to vomit. I was left with this black, inky spot in my eyesight, like this migraine. Of course, it was so scary because I had no idea what that was. After I was able to collect myself, I went home. We started going to all these different doctors. Every time I’d go see a different doctor, they’d have me do a film. I always get MRI and CAT scan confused, but I’m pretty sure it was MRI. Every time the MRI film would come back, there would be this black spot on my film where my spinal cord fusion was. They’d say, “That’s just the magnet in the machine interacting with the wire from your fusion. Everything around it’s fine.”

They started me on all these therapies. Nothing helped. I was trying every therapy under the sun. Then they started me on narcotics because I was just in so much pain. I didn’t want to hurt all the time, so I took everything they suggested. That started me down a pretty dark path. I eventually found myself in bed for a good part of more than four years. For probably about four and a half years, I was just living in my bed and taking all of the narcotics, not showing up as a partner, watching a ton of TV, eating my feelings, not working, not showing up as a sister and aunt, a friend. My life just halted completely. It felt very dark and very hopeless just because we kept seeing a ton of different doctors and we tried the things they recommended. After about four and a half years, finally a doctor was like, “I can’t tell you what’s happening until I see what’s under that spot.” I was like, oh, right, okay. Basically, a fifty-dollar X-ray. What’s also interesting is my husband’s an artist and so was self-employed. Everything had been out of pocket because it was a preexisting injury. Every time I’d get an MRI, it would be $1,500, $2,000. Finally, this doctor’s like, “We need to do a fifty-dollar X-ray.” Basically, what they discovered is one of the wires from my previous spinal cord fusion had broken and pierced into my brainstem. I’m the only human that’s ever had that. Thankfully, they spared me a lot of the details at the time because I couldn’t have handled it. I was not in a good place. They told me basically, “You’re the only person in the world. You shouldn’t be walking. If we don’t get this out, you won’t be walking.” Surgery itself was super high risk of paralysis.

What I’ve learned since is where my wire was in my reptile brain, our oldest part of our brain. If someone’s on life support, that’s what they’re keeping alive. That’s it. That’s the main source of — I shouldn’t be alive. I shouldn’t be speaking. I shouldn’t be breathing. I shouldn’t be, of course, walking. I shouldn’t be anything like that. It was really scary. We knew I had to have this surgery. Insurance wouldn’t cover it. My dad, who we’d call Papa, it’s so precious, he — it’s hard to describe him. If he walked in the room, you would be drawn to him. You’d want to go stand in his presence. He was the most magnetic human I think I’ve ever known, this larger than life — he was 6’4. His eyes glowed. He just drew people in. He plowed our garden with a mule. It’s so wild. I don’t know anyone else like him. Every time he’d leave my brothers and I when we were children, he’d say, “I love you so much. Remember your manners. Always look out for the little guy.” That was his thing. He wanted us to look out for the people that everyone else would miss. He had told my mom and my godfather that he was going to come see me and tell me he would sell our farm so that I could have this surgery because insurance wouldn’t cover it. On his way, he stopped to visit our Amish friends, because we have Amish friends, as you do, to pick up a donkey or a mule. Who knows?

We don’t know exactly what happened because he was alone at the time. Somehow, he tripped and fell down a flight of stairs and ended up passing of brain damage. We just actually had the anniversary of his death last week. It was such a massive loss. It wasn’t just a loss for me and my family. It was a loss for a massive community. He had touched so many people’s lives and had changed so many people’s lives. He was in education. I just remember I would pinch myself until I’d literally bleed in my bed because I’d be like, wake up. You’re in a nightmare. This can’t be real. This can’t be your life. It’s interesting. Just yesterday, a Facebook memory came up. I never look at those, but I just happened to look. It was the day after we had buried my dad. I’d gone to see a doctor that my brother had set up. They had told me all the details about what we had to do and how bad it was. I posted on Facebook, I was like, “I just had a horrible doctor’s appointment. It’s really hard for me to believe that there is a god that’s good.” I remember I felt that so deeply. I remember feeling so abandoned. I felt so forgotten and lost, which was never true. That’s what my sweet little self felt in that moment. I read that yesterday. It just broke my heart. I wanted to just wrap her up and be like, oh, my gosh, you precious soul. It was heartbreaking and hard.

What was so beautiful in the midst of that is my godfather ended up setting up this medical fund in my dad’s honor for me to have this life-or-death surgery. People started coming out of the woodwork being like, “Your dad paid my rent. Your dad bought my prom dress. Your dad fixed my roof. Your dad sent me on my senior trip. Your dad sent me on my first year of college.” I need you know that we did not have very much at all. My godfather who owned this bank, he was like, “He would take out loans so that he could go and do these things for other people.” That was him. The full amount of money was raised for me to have this crazy spinal cord fusion because of the way he had shown up and loved people in the world. I feel so honored to be Lloyd Lindsey’s daughter. It’s just such a privilege. He did that for me.

I started being pursued by all these doctors. They get off on being the one person to do a surgery. I was literally like a Beatle. They all wanted me. I was heavily pursued. I ended up choosing Mayo Clinic. This top neurologist and this top orthopedic surgeon did it together. They were like, “We hope it’ll help with your pain, but listen, this is to keep you breathing and walking and living.” I put all my hope in this thing outside of me to help me, make me better. We went in. They took the wire that was piercing my brain stem, took bone from my other hip, and this time they refused it with titanium screws because wires can break. Super rare, but it happens. I’ll spare you all the details of the hospital. It was really hard. I’d been on so many narcotics up to that point that it was so hard for them to get my pain under control. I was on one of the highest levels of Fentanyl patch before going into the hospital, which they give dying cancer patients. I would’ve told you I lived at a ten before that surgery. Then I was like, oh, just kidding, I didn’t know my pain could be this much worse. I remember I had popped blood vessels from screaming in my eyes. It was real hard. After a week, I had my head shaved again. I had another big ass neck brace, and I walked out of there with that wire in my hand and a lot of pain.

After the pain from the surgery died down, I ended up realizing I had pretty severe nerve damage. My whole right side just felt like it was on fire all the time, completely burning fire. The best way I know how to describe it — I don’t know if y’all know about this because I’m from the South, but we have fire ants, red ants. One time, my right foot — because it’s down my whole entire side. My right foot was standing in a pile of fire ants. My brother yelled at me, he’s like, “Babe, move.” I had over a hundred fire ant bites up my right leg and I didn’t know partly because I was dissociated, but also, that’s just what it feels like. It’s fire. I didn’t know. I actually walked straight back to my bed. I was on even more drugs at this point and way more hopeless because that one thing I’d put all my hope in didn’t fix me. I mean, it fixed me in the sense that I was walking, but I couldn’t even see that, really. I was still in so much pain. I was like, these four walls are going to be the rest of my life. That felt so dark and so hopeless. I actually lived in my bed for two more years until a whole other — wild events happened that basically took me to my breaking point.

My marriage was coming to an end. I caught C. diff in the hospital from a different surgery, which is just a whole other story. Whew, that was dark. I hit a wall. It was more than a wall. I had a complete nervous breakdown. I stopped sleeping. My life felt over. My husband was on tour in Australia. He couldn’t deal with it anymore. I didn’t blame him. I had been like that for seven years. Can you imagine how hard that would be for a partner? We were babies. This started a year into our marriage. He was twenty-one when we got married. I broke. Now I love to call it my breakthrough, but it was a breakdown. It was so traumatic. I remember feeling shame on a level that’s hard to even put into words. I felt like I was sweating shame. Every part of my being felt so ashamed of myself. I grew up in a world that was like what you portray on the outside is what matters. What I was portraying on the outside was a complete nightmare. I couldn’t take care of myself. I kept ending up in the emergency room. Someone would have to take me because I was so sick. I was so not okay, which is such a story. It’s not true, but I would just think over and over, I’d have panic attacks all night and be like, my dad is so ashamed of who I am. I had of a lot of very limiting lies in my head that were not true but I believed with every part of me. My family, they were amazing. I had to move in with my older brother. We’ve been close my whole life. He helped raise me. They were going to send me away to get help because I was obviously not okay. Again, because I cared so much what people thought, the next day I literally started weening myself off the drugs out of fear of being sent away and what people would think, which is the most ridiculous motivation, but who cares? It got me to get off these freaking drugs.

Narcotics, it’s created for acute pain, not long-lasting chronic things because you just need more and more and more. You become a shell. I was a shell of a human. When you numb the hard, painful things, you’re also numbing every beautiful, good, sweet, lovely thing. My life just felt void of all beauty. It just felt dark and hopeless. I started weening off everything. I had to relearn how to live. Again, the motivation is don’t get sent away. I made this list of things to learn how to live again. I remember making a list of, eight o’clock, you get out of bed. You don’t get back in that bed until it’s dark outside. I’m like, what the hell do people do all day? I literally don’t know. I would watch my nephews to see, what do humans do all freaking day long? I’d be like, 8:05, brush your teeth. Scratch that off. 8:15, eat breakfast. Scratch that off. At first, it was literally like that. It was going through the motions feeling dead and numb inside. Then I don’t know if it was my higher self, if it was my dad, if it was God, the universe, whatever, who cares, but something told me to write a list of things I loved to do before I had pain. I remember writing this list. This was probably two or three weeks in. I was like, Ruthie, you love flowers. I’m like, no, I don’t. I’m like, yes, you do, you love them. Then I was like, you love sunsets. I’m like, I don’t care. I’m like, yeah, you do, you love them. I wrote, you love people. I swear to you, I remember having this maniacal laugh and being like, no, I don’t, they’re the worst. I’m like, yes, you do, you love them.

I started making myself each day do one thing on that list that I had loved before I had pain. Now I think the action has to come first. I just was hoping that an emotion would ultimately come, but it was like the emotion had to come first. It took a few weeks. I would do something each day. Finally, as I was coming off of these drugs and able to feel the level — listen, I was feeling my pain very viscerally and de-thawing, I guess would be a great way to describe it. It was very scary and very hard, but I also was able to start seeing beauty. That almost became my new mission. It was like, look for beauty everywhere. When you see it, talk about it, speak it out loud, and experience it, and in people and in things and in places. It was almost like my new drug. I remember in that same time hearing this quote that the deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain, and bawling crying when I read that because I was like, that is going to be my story. I am going to get to experience joy on such a soul level. That became kind of my mission. So much has happened. That was a little over seven years ago. So much has happened since then. My marriage ended. I ended up moving home.

It took me about four months to get off all the drugs, which was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. The thing that I remember feeling, re-falling in with the things around me. I remember seeing my nieces and nephews. Most of them had been born while I was in this state. All of a sudden, I would look at them and be like, oh, my god, you are such a miracle, you precious, beautiful child. They are the most magical kids. I can’t even tell you. I’m so madly in love with these children. I hadn’t seen them. I had just been in this fog only thinking about my pain. I think we teach people how to see us. All I had taught anyone was I was my pain, and I believed that with every part of me. When people would see me, they’d be like, “How are you? How are you feeling?” They felt sorry for me. I felt almost validation in their sympathy. It validated me living in my bed, not showing up as a partner, not working, not showing up as a sister, an aunt, or a friend. All of a sudden, in that time when I was changing my life — it was like, whatever I was doing obviously isn’t working, so I need to do the opposite in every way. I remember being like, when people leave me, I want them to feel seen. I want them to feel heard and loved and not sorry for me. It’s so fun now. It’s not even a conversation.

Right now, it’s a conversation because my book came out today, so I’m talking about my pain more than I — my best friends tell me all the time, “I forget that that’s even a part of your story,” because that’s not what I lead with anymore. I learned so much over the years about mind-body connection and about how our body holds onto trauma and can get lodged there until we learn how to process it. The last seven years have just been this beautiful, hard, painful, amazing, every emotion under the sun because I feel it all now. I’m no longer numbing it. It’s the most glorious, brutal, beautiful, painful experience, but I get to experience life. I get to experience people. I have the absolute privilege — I’m on my period, so I feel really cry-y. I have the absolute privilege of showing up and being like, listen, we were created to heal. I get to do this work on myself and then get to show up and be a mirror of that to those around me. I can’t fix anything. I can’t fix anyone else. I can only do this all myself. What I can do is do that work for myself and then show up and be a mirror of that love for everyone around me and a mirror of, this healing is for you. This love is yours. This divinity is in you.

I even say that in my book. I’m like, listen, when you finish this, forget me. Forget my name. Forget my story. This is for you. Healing is for you. This hope is yours. This love is yours. You don’t need me. I’m going to get the fuck out of the way so you can do this journey because you’re so deserving. I feel like the healing journey is remembering what’s so right with us, not what’s wrong with us. It’s an unlearning more than anything else because I thought I was so broken. I believed that. I thought my body hated me. It was the source of this pain, so I thought my body had just completely failed me. Now I’m like, oh, my god, this beautiful body that’s just been loving me and holding me and holding the divinity within me and calling me home and just protecting me and being so strong and so resilient and loving me so hard when I hated her. I think all of these painful things that happened ultimately were all these invitations to come home to myself and to do this work. If my life had turned out the way I thought it would, I would be a very surface-y human that would never have woken up, that would never have gone so deep, would never have been able to be a good friend, honestly, an empathetic friend. I wouldn’t be able to show up in the world the way that I believe I can now and have the honor of getting to now because all those things happened. I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t change one single thing because I know it all created me to be this human that I have the honor of getting to be today that’s messy and that makes tons of mistakes but also is filled with so much goodness and wonder and beauty just like every other soul on planet Earth. I just talked for a really long time. That’s a bit of the story.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, thank you. Thank you for telling the story again. I know I just read it, but hearing it directly from you and your emotion and your eyes and oh, my gosh. The fact that you would go through all that and say you wouldn’t change a thing, you are, not like Gandhi, but you’re like a spiritual gift to the world now. I think that’s what you’re excited about yourself, the power that that holds and able to help so many people. It’s really beautiful. Your story is unlike anything I have ever heard. My grandmother would say you are one tough cookie, unbelievable.

Ruthie: Thank you. We’re such resilient beings. At seventeen if you had told me what was coming, I’d have been like, just kill me now, bye, gotta go. That’s what’s so amazing. We are so strong. We are so resilient. We are so worthy. We don’t have a tenth of a clue of how resilient we actually are and our power and our strength. You hear people say, I could never deal with that. If it happens to you, yes, you can. Yes, you can. It doesn’t mean it’s not really fucking hard, of course. Everyone’s struggling. Pain is universal. Everyone has loss. Every human has trauma on some level. I don’t care who you are. You can be in denial about it, but you do. I would never look at them and be like, good luck. It’s going to be amazing. You’re going to be able to grow. It’s so hard. It’s so painful. It breaks my heart. I don’t want anyone to have to suffer ever. I would never wish loss or death or divorce or pain on anyone. In the same breath, what I know that I know that I know is these are our invitations. My pain has become my privilege. It doesn’t define me anymore. It’s not who I am. It’s what ended up being the thing that was the catalyst to becoming who I was meant to be. That feels like a privilege to me.

I want to say there’s so much hope. This isn’t the end. I know so many are struggling. I’m a feeler. I feel the collective fear and pain. There’s so much trauma going on right now. I am so privileged. I get to stay home. I can work from home. I have money to pay my bills. There are so many that are just in such painful, hard, traumatic — there are kids that are home right now with abusive parents and they can’t escape. That makes me want to, ugh. In the same breath, I can hold that in one hand. In the other hand, I can hold onto so much hope and know that we were created to heal. Our bodies, our minds, our spirits, we’re longing for homeostasis to heal. This is not the end. This is an invitation. That gives me hope for all of us. It really does. I have to hold on to that when I feel more in the other hand where I’m like, oh, my god, there’s so much pain. Of course, we had this big tour planned, all these things. Everyone’s life turned upside down. No one’s life looks like what we expected. Now I’m like, this is perfect. This is a story about my life turning upside down and finding hope and resilience and healing and joy and all the things. My hope is that this story can be just like a bomb, a healing bomb for those that are in the midst of craziness that we’re living through in a global pandemic. It’s insane. What in the world? I feel really honored that this gets to come out in this time.

Zibby: I feel honored that you spoke to me about it, that you’re speaking to my listeners about it, that you wrote it, and that everybody can have this. Oh, my gosh, you are an incredible person. I am honored to even get to talk to you. Thank you. Thank you for all that you did. Thank you for coming on. I’m sorry for being late.

Ruthie: You’re perfect. Do not apologize.

Zibby: Happy pub day. I’m so excited for you. I can’t wait to follow you forever and be a big cheerleader and supporter in any way I can because you are just the best.

Ruthie: You are so precious. I’m so honored to — this is my first interview on pub day.

Zibby: Yay!

Ruthie: What a beautiful way to start my day with your precious face. I’m so grateful that you would give me the space to get to share my story. Your encouragement, honestly, means so, so much. None of that is lost on me. I’m so appreciative. Thank you for your support and your generosity and kindness. It really means so much.

Zibby: Of course. Enjoy the fruits of your labor today. I know it’s not, I’m sure, what you expected, but I know you will find the joy in it. I don’t even have to tell you. You’re the joy-seeker, but take a minute to just be so proud of yourself because it’s really amazing.

Ruthie: Thank you so much, sister. I appreciate it. Have a beautiful day inside.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. Bye, Ruthie.

Ruthie: Bye.

Ruthie Lindsey, THERE I AM