Farewell to Ripley’s Ride

I sold my Honda Civic this week. A very nice man named Agustin bought it for his 18-year-old daughter, her first car. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the entire transaction. Still, as I signed over the title, and handed him the keys, I felt myself fighting back tears. Just a car, right?

No, not just a car. In all likelihood, the last car I will ever drive.

My wife Sabrina gave me this beautiful, new blue manual transmission Civic coupe in 2006. I used it to drive over the country roads from Cloverdale to Calistoga, to my job at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, hugging the curves, loving the way it handled. Ripley was already in my life at the time, as a companion animal. When she became my service dog four years ago, she became my constant escort. We buckled up safely with a back-seat harness, and away we went. Off to work each day, and then all over Napa and Sonoma counties to poetry readings, volunteer engagements, concerts, dinners out with friends. The Civic has always been my Ripleymobile. The trunk held a water dish, an extra leash, her blanket, a towel in case we decided to stop for a walk at the river.

We were a Honda family. Sabrina drives a Ridgeline truck, which is the “family” vehicle. If we’re going somewhere together, Sabrina drives – she has a commercial license, and likes to be the one at the wheel. So the Civic was always just for me and Ripley. Our independent adventure machine, our dynamic duo getaway car. Together, we logged 130,000 miles.

But in November 2012, I lost my license for medical reasons. I had had two episodes which my neurologist and I thought, in all likelihood, were seizures. Back in 2004, I had also had a seizure, and had lost my license . After a medication adjustment, and being seizure-free for six months, the license was reinstated. I anticipated a similar result. This time, I had actually delayed going to see my neurologist, afraid to tell him about the episodes – they weren’t quite as severe, and I was so fearful of that loss of freedom. How was I going to keep my job, now that I was commuting from so far away? Finally, though, I realized I had to do something, for my own health and safety, and went in for a checkup. There were no new episodes, and by early February, I was nearing that six-month mark. My neurologist was in the process of filling out paperwork to reinstate my license.

Then out of nowhere, in a single week’s time, I had more than 30 episodes. They were not quite like seizures, because I remained conscious. But I slumped forward, could not move or speak. As Sabrina put it, it was as if someone pulled my plug. We were terrified. Three times we went to the emergency room, with episodes happening even when we were at the hospital. The first time, I was diagnosed with seizures and they upped my medications and sent me home. The condition worsened and we returned two days later. A new doctor in the ER put me on a different seizure med, much stronger, then discharged me. The episodes continued, but now I also had slurred speech and a drugged appearance from the medication. Two days later, we went in again. The first ER doctor was back on duty. After running tests on my heart and other things, he came in and announced that my condition was psychosomatic. I was furious. I did not have another episode that night in the ER, and he said that proved his point. This left both of us confused, hurt and angry.

For the next year and a half, my life was in turmoil. My neurologist, the chief of neurology at Kaiser, who I like and trust, believed that these episodes were some kind of seizure, but could not understand why they were not responding to any seizure medications. (I do have a seizure disorder, but my regular seizures are controlled by my other medications.) My psychiatrist, who I also like and trust, believed that they were psychosomatic, telling me this did not mean they were not “real,” but that there was an underlying emotional cause, and I needed to work with a therapist to find out what was triggering them. So I threw myself into intense practice with another helper, my psychologist, looking for answers. Still, the episodes continued. My boss allowed me to telecommute for those first few months, until it became clear I was not able to reliably do even that because of the impact of this condition on my life.

In a very short time, I went from logging seventy-plus miles a day to being virtually homebound, on our rural property, more than four miles from town. And the Civic sat unused in the driveway.

I had to turn in my license and get a state ID card. For two years, I paid car insurance and registration fees on a vehicle that was virtually unused. Sabrina would drive the Civic periodically to keep it running, and I made sure it got oil changes. Always in the back of my mind, I thought, “If it’s seizures, we’ll find a medicine. If it’s emotional, I’ll figure out what’s wrong. I’ll be able to drive again.”

Then in May of this year, I went for an appointment with my neurologist, and I had one of my “episodes” in his presence. That is when he made the diagnosis, finally, that has explained everything – and also changed everything. I have periodic paralysis disorder. This isn’t something that is going to go away with medication or therapy. There is no cure. And someone with this disorder is not safe behind the wheel of a car.


“All My Children Have Paws” license plate frame, Animal Rescue Site

As you can see, it still took a while for me to fully come to grips with this. To reach the point of letting go. Even though I have been relying on other people for transportation for two years, somehow having my Honda in the driveway gave me comfort. I still had my car. Someday.

But it was finally time to say goodbye to the Ripleymobile. Thanks for all the great times, for the adventures, for keeping us safe. For the incredible freedom, which I appreciate now only in retrospect.

And a humble, huge thank you to all of the wonderful people in my life who have stepped forward to help me stay connected with the world. Dog hair and all.

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  1. I am so moved by thisi post, Michelle. Terrible situation, beautifully rendered. The gentle, aware way you digest, process and accept experiences is powerful.

  2. Your story made me feel what you went through concerning your seizures and then having your drivers lisence removed. I had to report some of my patients as it was not safe for them to drive any longer. It was a very difficult position to be in and hard to do.

    You know that both Gordie and I are retired if you need a ride to the store or some other reason call us , one of us is most usually home.
    We have done our traveling for this year, next year we have plans but not until Spring. Keep us posted if you do any more readings in 2015.

    Best wishes for a Peaceful Holidays from Astrid and Gordie.

    • Astrid and Gordie,
      Thank you so much for your kind offer. I will definitely keep you in mind. And thank you, too, for your reflection from a nurse’s point of view. I imagine that was difficult for you, having to take that power away from your patients. Losing the privilege of driving has made me very sympathetic to elderly people, who face this as a result of aging. I know that giving up driving was one of the hardest things my grandmother Gladys ever had to deal with. It has made me very empathetic about that. And I will let you know about future readings!
      Best, Michelle

  3. Thank you for this, Michelle. It seems to me that Ripley is the wisest of us all — as she lies dreaming, she is fully experiencing the joy of zooming around Sonoma County with you. She is not conditioned by all this past vs present, imagination vs reality nonsense. It just is.

    • Ah, yes, my wise Ripley! In so many ways, she is my teacher. Thank goodness for this little Buddha dog, who keeps me centered in all things. And for my friends, who remind me of all that I have, all the riches in my life.
      With love, Michelle

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