Chapter 16
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Healing on Her Own Terms

Ruthie Lindsey journeys through trauma and tragedy to truth and independence

In her memoir, There I Am: The Journey from Hopelessness to Healing, Ruthie Lindsey admits all the ways she was conditioned to find a savior from her problems. “’Fix me. Make me better,’ I used to pray,” she writes, and her life story makes her stubborn desire for deliverance understandable.

Photo: Julia Cox

At the age of 17, Lindsey is given a 5% chance to live and a 1% chance of walking again after an ambulance crashes into her car near her home in St. Francisville, Louisiana. A month in the ICU and a wire that fuses together her C1 and C2 vertebrae allow her to walk out of the hospital and resume life as if nothing happened. But five years later, newly married and living in Nashville, she blacks out from the intensity of a sudden migraine and begins a life of chronic pain management. The scripts of conservative Christianity and Southern womanhood offer little solace, while medical experts advance only more tests, prescriptions, and lessons in modifying expectations.

As her pain rages on, Lindsey spends most of her 20s lying in bed and succumbs to the slow deterioration of dreams and intimacy that come with being numb in body and mind. More loss and unraveling follow as death and depression rob her of the people she once leaned on, and orange pill bottles become the most accessible substitute.

Nearly a decade of dissociating passes when she realizes “you can lie there and hurt or you can live your life and hurt.” She makes lists to retrain herself on the essentials — how to get through the day and how to learn what brings her joy. She starts cutting her medication in half until there is none. She adds sunsets, flowers, and dancing until there is some sensation other than fear in her body:

Magnolia fuscata…The birds sing their summer carols and the tree leaves shrivel on the bottom branches that hang above me. I pluck a bud off the tree and stick it up my nose and it feels sacred, like prayer. Joy lives here; pain lives here too. As I smell the sweet blossom and heat swells up my side, I invite them both to coexist in me.

Beauty opens up possibilities for Lindsey. Even from her bed, she builds a sanctuary sourced from the internet and documents it on Instagram. The spaces she lovingly curates from found antiques and vintage wallpaper catch the attention of Nashville’s recording artists in need of atmosphere for album art and national corporations in search of event design. With the help of social media, she launches a design business from her home, which later leads to a motivational speaking tour.

Reinvention and renewal replace erasure and ennui. What makes Lindsey’s story remarkable is that she doesn’t stop at sobriety or even at success but plunges deeper and more seriously into the work of healing, detangling herself from new dependencies and misleading myths that surreptitiously shift from miraculous salve to numbing agent. Lindsey has a lesson for all of us about how easy it is to sleepwalk through the best parts of life in an effort to protect ourselves from the worst possibilities.

Since physical pain is her constant companion, she cannot deny her needs because of her fears. She must say goodbye to design when the work becomes backbreaking, and she gives up the charades of Instagram when the images obscure the truth of her ongoing healing. Lindsey learns and teaches more than freedom from pain. Her lesson is nothing less than the ability to inhabit our bodies and our lives with grace and forgiveness. Her words crawl across the page tingling the nerves of our spines until we too cannot bear the agony, and they dance in rhythmic sentences inviting us to release our inhibitions in spontaneous dancing.

Ruthie Lindsey writes the way she designs, with an attention to every last detail and a desire to welcome anyone into the space. From the blossoming of sexual desire to her experimental medical procedures and her grace-filled but gut-wrenching goodbyes, Lindsey writes with honesty, humor, and a desire to honor the best part of our humanity.

There I Am is more than a story of recovery. It is a journey towards truth, the kind that will not collapse under suffering or discourage the pursuit of joy.

Healing on Her Own Terms

Beth Waltemath graduated with a degree in English from the University of Virginia and worked at both Random House and Hearst magazines before leaving publishing to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A Nashville native, she now lives in Decatur, Georgia.