Today we’d like to introduce you to Victoria Livingstone.
HOW CATASTROPHE CHANGED MY LIFE – FOR THE BETTER
There are distinct periods in the breath of our lives when we learn that fate has a funny bone. I had been bestowed, by what-ever powers that persist, a tranquil, mostly trauma-free experience on earth. That is, until a couple of years ago. When a twist of fate hits, it can hurt so much that we must laugh with the pain of change and struggle, lest we cry and succumb to self-pity. If we survive, these experiences are the trials that define us, strengthen us, and enliven us to “actuate” our own lives. But, most importantly, they will make for a great story.
Having always possessed an artist heart, creative soul and a streak of dogged stubbornness, I reliably spurned traditional ideals and expectations in pursuit of my own interests as a small child. Through the fulcrum of luck and a well-funded public school, I was introduced to the unbounded joy of bringing inanimate objects to life and then creating films utilizing this godly power from the age of 10. In college, I explored drama, fine art, photography, the humanities, helped found a radio station, and spent a formative year abroad in France, where I was impressed with the power and importance of leading a passionate life. Upon returning, I decided my passion was film and fully committed myself to my childhood aspirations. Due to much luck, keen timing, and some talent, I was duly whisked into a career in feature film animation.
I hadn’t intended to be “just” an animator, as much as I enjoy animating. My interests always had been of a broader focus, yet I never truly tested my talents. The “Goldbergian” rules of happenstance just kept gifting me incredible opportunities to work with inspiring individuals on films that alighted the hearts and imaginations of people across the globe. And, I did love it! There is definitely fulfillment in my having a small hand in bringing these projects to reality. However, where I had started out learning, expanding, and heightening my skills, twenty years later I awoke to a voice that was whispering to me that something was as yet missing. From artist to supervisor, I was proud of these promotions, enjoying the work and challenges, still the little voice called to me from within – “I have more to give.” I felt as if I were treading water in life, neither walking upon it nor drowning beneath. However, it was clear that the fully passionate life that I had set out to engage in had somehow been waylaid as I continued to put off my own aspirations until “tomorrow” in deference of the offers at hand. I was ripe for a change.
The funny thing about change is that one rarely sees it coming. It may appear innocuous when it first knocks at your door, or it may be camouflaged, presented in the most prosaic dull paper when handed to you. It may just arise one day, a feeling deep within, like an arthritic bone before weather, when little did you know you even had arthritis. Two years ago, I had just wrapped up a job where I was Animation Supervisor for a major director’s studio, assisting on some hi-profile projects. Finally freed from the demanding production schedules, I went to the dentist for a slightly tardy annual deep cleaning. They gave me a novocaine shot. When the effects of the shot wore off, one side of my face was still somewhat numb. Thinking the hygienist had hit a nerve with the syringe, I saw a neurologist, who agreed with my “one plus one equals two” deduction. I swallowed the fact that I may just have to live a life from now on feeling like I had just returned from the dentist. This was a bummer, for sure.
With a half-numbed face, I decided to heed my internal voice and take a few months off for personal creative time. Soon thereafter, since I wasn’t working, I was free to go up to San Francisco to help my father with a medical appointment. Although he was spry for his 84 years, he had difficulty hearing most people. But he could hear me. I accompanied him to his test results where I had to relay the doctor’s surprising findings that he had severely metastasized cancer in his lymph nodes, chest, and kidneys. That day, I had to tell my father that he had an estimated six months to live.
Leaving the hospital, I turned to my dad, trying to brighten the dark decree. “Okay!” I said, “So what’s on your bucket list?” Thinking that, as the stereotype has it, if you’re given a cataclysmic diagnosis such as death, that the “bucket list” is something one would want to fill. He turned to me, laughed, and shook his head. “I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve lived a good life. All I want to do now is go to A&W and get a Coney Island hot dog and a root beer float.”
I had been quite astounded then. What an incredible response he had. To be given an end date and be fine with it. My father lived seven more months. I remained in San Francisco for the majority of time to be by his side, hanging out with him as a friend, assisting him when he needed help, making arrangements when he eventually needed nursing care. My sister and I were at his bedside the morning he passed away. It took three more months to sort out his affairs. After the ten-month transition, I finally returned to Los Angeles to resume my life, my first parent now deceased.
The experience changed me. I had scant dealings with death. But my father had faced his cessation of being on this earth with dignity, laughter, and kindness. He had left fulfilled. Taking this legacy as a cue, I decided that, as much as I enjoyed what I had been doing for the past twenty years, I needed to adjust my own life. To align it. It was time to do that which I had been putting off till “tomorrow” and live a more “actualized” existence of my own creation.
I got to work. I started by finally writing my own will and trust. For among the lessons gleaned from my father’s passing was that one of the greatest gifts one can leave for your loved ones is to have your affairs in order, as my Dad did. I also created my own production company. An old collaborator of mine hired me to write, direct, and produce a music video for his new album. I was in talks with a writer whose work I greatly admire for rights to produce a film of one of his stories, which I would jump into afterward. I was excited to get back to work after all the time away. To see what I could do on my own. To experiment with life.
But, life decided to experiment with me. What none of us know until we are faced with catastrophe is how we will actually react to catastrophe… how the metal we are formed from might warp or stand erect. Two months later, I was finally feeling back in the saddle of life. About to start work on the first project for my new company, when, out of the blue, I was jolted by an electric shock that seared through my face as I was dressing for a softball game.
The shock occurred in the same area of my face where the numbness persisted from that dental visit a year ago. It felt like I had put my tongue on the wire of an electrified fence. Hoping, in the moments after, that this happening was a fluke of my body, I knew in my being that it was not. The nerve shocks continued. An MRI taken the next day showed that I had a benign brain tumor, called a meningioma, lodged at the base of my skull at the brainstem, nestled amidst important nerves and in a very difficult place to operate. It turned out that the facial numbness that I had first encountered a year earlier was really the alarm call from my body that I had an intruder, adroitly camouflaged and hence overlooked by the dental visit.
Catastrophe is easy. It just happens. And when it does, you realize that all the other “problems” in your life are really not that important. A physical disaster, a dire diagnosis, the loss of a loved one… You cannot really forecast these events. They simply blindside you and then it is all hands on deck. A catalyst which forces us to look discerningly at our mortality. The experience assaults us to rewire the tired ideologies, personal myths and stories, personality traits and chosen personae we heretofore lived by. They all come up for scrutiny under the floodlight of dire circumstances. All of your future plans are blinded out of existence.
As mentioned, none of us know until we are faced with catastrophe, “How will I react?” Hearing my Dad’s diagnosis, it was still someone else’s prognosis. Now, I found myself with the challenge of the diagnosis being my own! When I heard, “brain tumor,” I was strangely not surprised, but accepting. I oddly imagined myself as being on a funhouse ride. After the events of my dad, I realized I had envisioned myself to be approaching what I thought to be the end of the “ride,” getting back to “normal.” I thought my trolley was finally traveling on the straight rail towards the light at the entrance where I’d be able to disembark and resume my life when suddenly, another ninety-degree curve hits, and my trolley dives back down into the darkness and unexpected roil of the ride.
And so, here I was. A feeling of checkmate overcame me, not in a depressing way, though, just in acknowledgment of the reality of the situation. I realized how my dad must have felt that day, driving away from his diagnosis. I understood why he had no “bucket list” to fill. For most people, by the time they recognize their mortality, it is too late to start living. We have each day. With each day, we can choose to live… or merely float. I also found out that having a brain tumor is the best excuse! I had to cancel my project plans due to the uncertainty of the situation. Everyone understood.
Facing a tricky operation which could result in mortality, or have serious repercussions on my life as I knew it, I was thankful I had my “Last Will” already sorted. I was grateful for the support and love of my friends, boyfriend, and family. I decided to laugh with the situation rather than fight it. I joked in commiseration with the Turrets Syndrome patients of the world when I cried out in pain foul words to my “phantom attacker” – invisible electric shocks to the face – and received odd looks. I attended wedding events of friends in Europe knowing that when I returned, I would have my first ever operation, brain surgery(!), and noting to all, that when I do something, I don’t go small! The weekend before the surgery, I sang my heart out with friends Saturday night and Sunday, I enjoyed a bbq with my mom who had arrived for the surgery scheduled the next morning. At the hospital, I said goodbye to my mom and boyfriend as I was administered the anesthesia, not knowing if I would wake up again, and if I did wake up, would I be lobotomized? Would I even be able to tell?
I awoke. I thought… and therefore, was… hey! alive! A brief self-diagnostic check to see if I still recognized myself, or if I felt any different. Check. Recovery was seven days in the hospital. I had to relearn how to stand up, to balance, to walk, to focus. Shared stories and encouragement with my roommates. Came home with an “old persons” walker and a head wrapped in gauze. I had stitches on the side of my skull that would get me a starring part in a Mad Max movie.
I had to readjust to my newly lacking vestibular sense, that little-recognized sense that keeps our bodies upright without us having to think about it. The world moved around me in a very different and discombobulating fashion, the layers of movement and complexity of depth of field at first confusing. I could see a car driving down the street, yet I lacked the persistence of vision to identify the person inside it. I couldn’t track moving objects smoothly, rather they would jump staccato from one space to the next as if seeing individual frames, not a moving image. If I stood with my eyes closed, I would fall over. This was a new state of being. My new normal, I said to myself.
I focused on the experience. So strange how the brain reacts to its casing being opened. How powerful the plasticity and resilience of the brain. The left side of my face was still numb, sure, but I was full of gratitude to be alive and with mental acuity and somewhat full physicality intact. I moved forward with what I still had, rather than focusing on what qualities I had lost, cognizant that recovery from such a surgery is slow and takes months, not weeks.
Returning home to Venice, my sister took me out for my first walk. Leaning on my “old lady” walker, with a white gauze wrap around my head (it was really covering up seven days of unwashed, unkempt, half-shaven hair rather than keeping my brains in), we “rolled” down to Abbot Kinney to get some ice cream from the obnoxiously busy ‘Ice Cream Shop on the Corner of California and Abbot Kinney.’ So strange and funny how heads turned and people parted ways giving the youngish woman with a walker and a head trauma bandage wide berth on the sidewalk. As if no one had seen a person under eighty with a walker and head bandage before. My sister and I joked and made fun of brain surgery patients – but only because I was one (and, unfortunately, three weeks later I would regret it after developing a transitory case of Bell’s Palsy! That would show me not to make fun of brain surgery patients!). We entered the store and were ushered to the front of the line. Ah! So, that’s the secret to getting an ice cream at this Ice Cream Store!
For the first four months, I was pretty much sacked on the couch with the exception of a daily walk. I enjoyed time as a child does, doing puzzles, drawing and writing when I wasn’t sleeping – which was most of the time. There was no goal to “achieve.” There was a simplicity in just being. The first few months after the surgery, I had a deep sense that all was as it should be, a feeling reported by many brain surgery patients. In this vividly lucid state of mind, I deduced that we cannot push ourselves through time in order to rush our lives into being and I was convinced that each event has its own purpose. Life will unfold as it should, in its own divine timing. Our job is to follow what brings us joy, to live an “actuated” life, for ourselves and to inspire others to, for it really may be over tomorrow. Bucket list be damned.
Sometimes, we need a catastrophe to cause a state change. Sometimes, we need a few to hammer all the lessons home. In reflection, had the tumor’s appearance not coincided perfectly with a random dental visit, I would have had an MRI the previous year. My father would have suffered from both metastasized cancer and his daughter having brain surgery. I would not have been able to help him nor see him through to his final rest. I, myself, would not have been in the optimistic headspace I needed for strength in recovery. I was thankful for the serendipity – for the divine timing – which left the discovery for a year later.
It has now been seven months since my surgery. I have rebounded with a new appreciation for my spirit and my resilience, the strength that comes with facing what could be seen as catastrophic and accepting the challenge – not in fear of dying, but with the force of living fully.
Now, I am back to a more or less functional day to day life, however, I still lack my original mental and physical stamina, the healing brain being like an old iPhone battery that more quickly loses its charge. But, I am driving again. Last weekend, I paddle-boarded without losing balance. I’m engaged and active when I have the energy. Regardless of fatigue, I have a renewed sense of being. I am excited to get back to work, to pick up where I left off, with a new respect for how I choose to spend my time and on what. It will be another six months, I am told before I am somewhere back to “normal.” It will be my “new normal,” without expectations.
I am grateful to my neurosurgeon for his wisdom, talent, and, most importantly, deft hands. My friends, family, boyfriend, and acquaintances for the wonderfully prodigious outpouring of love and support. My yoga practice for instilling muscle memory and training my body so that it could regain balance and vestibular sense so quickly. The practice of Vipassana meditation for having taught my mind to be equanimous in the face of discomfort and, most importantly, the ability to separate myself from the trauma of the experience by becoming an “observer” of the experience. It is through this shift in the prism of my awareness that I have been able to traverse these recent struggles with a hearty positive attitude and still be able to say, “That was good a story. So, what next?”
I don’t know what’s next, but the past few years have awoken me to be more in tune with my existence. I have been challenged to actuate and embrace living in the now, and fully. I am in this funhouse for life – with all its ups and downs. And, now I know – I will laugh when fate hits its funny bone.
For anyone wondering or looking for unsolicited advice on life: Give weight to the voices sounding off inside your head. They are speaking for a reason. Follow your intuition’s requests. Don’t bury your life. Live it. Actuate it! While you still have it. Yes, really. It is yours to embrace.