Our latest edition of Off The Shelf is out now and available through Penguin Teachers’ Academy Newsstand in the iTunes store. For those of you without access to Apple devices, we will be sharing the articles in this edition of Off The Shelf right here on the blog, all of this week. In this article Erica Harrison shares her moving and inspiring and very personal journey…
It was a gorgeous evening in the spring of 2008 – one of those balmy nights when the scent of blossoms makes you forget that bad things happen in the world. But then something bad came hurtling through a red light towards my body. ‘This is inconvenient’, I thought, remembering I had a date the next day and wanted to look my best.
Instead, I woke up in a hospital bed, relieved to be alive. ‘I made it’, I thought. At least, some of me made it. Because when I looked down, I didn’t see my legs – the legs of a runner. What I saw looked like the Bride of Frankenstein’s lower half had been sewn onto my body. And I thanked my lucky stars I’d cancelled that date.
I spent the next three weeks in what felt like morphine heaven. I had three rounds of surgery, and in between times I’d lie on a cloud in my room. Angels dressed in white drifted in and out with clipboards. My surgeon – I’ll call him ‘God’ – paid the occasional visit. He delivered commandments and said things that only an omniscient being could possibly know. Like, my diagnosis: apparently I’d been hit by a car.
In the short term, getting hit by a car improved my social life. People are drawn to tragedy – it’s a fascinating thing to watch or hang out with, as long as you don’t get so close you get hurt – kind of like really good looking people.
So as news of my misfortune spread, my hospital room got busy – at first with loved ones and friends, but soon with friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, the guy from the cafe downstairs and some girl I almost met at a party once.
I didn’t feel much like company, so I considered making a Facebook event called ‘My Tragedy’, so people could attend and comment without actually turning up. But before I knew it, I found myself feeling more alone than I’d ever felt before.
Three weeks after my accident, on my 30th birthday, I was discharged by God. He sent me plummeting from my cloud in morphine heaven back to Earth, to my couch, where I didn’t know who I was any more.
Before the accident, I’d been a runner. I ran every day because I loved it. But it was also my identity – the story I told the world about myself. It was my tale. After the accident I dreamt of running every night, and would wake to the nightmare of horrible scars and one leg held together by a rod and screws and plates, but terribly broken, with a gaping gap in the bone the doctors weren’t sure would ever heal.
And I felt the same way about the gap inside me – a black hole had opened where there used to be a runner. Where there used to be joy, there was darkness. My story was broken, and I wasn’t sure it would ever heal.
For a while I was in and out of hospital – I had nine rounds of surgery in total, and in between I was stuck on my couch, trying to find a way to fill that void. Soon, I’d overdosed… on HBO series and realised I’d always suck on guitar, and I found myself staring into the drawer where I kept my stash of painkillers, wondering if it wouldn’t have been better if I’d died.
But it was there, staring into an actual abyss, that also happened to be my sock drawer, that I realised: I’m alive. Clean drinking water comes out of my tap, there’s fresh food in the fridge. I have people who love me, I have a laptop and I have my imagination. I don’t have a void, I have everything. So I closed that drawer and started to write.
During the couch period I made an embarrassing number of crazy, weeping, late-night calls, many of them to my dear friend, Simon Rippingale. Simon is a talented director and illustrator, so as I wrote I shared my story with him, and Simon started sketching illustrations.
What unfurled was a dark funny fairy tale written in rhyming verse; the story of a girl born with a tail that expresses her emotions. As a kid, her tail is a beautiful athletic thing; it’s cool and kind of magical. In a way, it’s her identity – her tail is her story – until that joy gets taken away.
It was about six months before I tried walking – with support, because the bone still hadn’t begun to heal. The idea was that working the leg might stimulate the bone to regrow. And in between rehab and surgeries and sleepless nights, I worked on those rhyming couplets. And I guess it followed a similar principle, because as I worked, it felt like that black hole was closing, something was regrowing, and my new tail was unfolding into the world.
I began writing A Cautionary Tail as a book, but Simon and I soon realised it could also make a great short animation. So we found a passionate producer, Pauline Piper, and with Simon as director and funding from Screen NSW and our generous Kickstarter supporters, we set about making a film.
Three years to the day after my accident – my three-year Acciversary – I walked into the recording studio without a limp. In the past few months two great Australian actors, Barry Otto and David Wenham, had recorded their parts as our story’s villain and narrator. And as I listened to Cate Blanchett voicing our hero, I thought of that day three years earlier when something so bad was happening it felt like a dream.
Three years later, listening to our hero come to terms with her loss and find a new tail, I had that same feeling of being in a dream. But this time, when I didn’t wake up, it was great.
I have a voice cameo in the film. It’s right at the beginning – the sound of a woman giving birth. It’s not a glamorous role, but in some ways, I think giving birth is a bit like getting hit by a car. It’s messy and painful and there’s lots of blood and probably some swearing, and sometimes you wonder if it’s all been worth the effort. But it was – and there were lots of people there to help – and I guess that’s how many worthwhile things come into the world.