I am absolutely and beyond honored to have Allie McCathren on episode 2 of the Stronger Than podcast. Allie is one of my dearest friends and her story of finding out her son had Craniosynostosis, needing a surgery as an infant, and how the whole experience helped birth what she is so well known for, her quilting, touches my heart. She is an incredible human and I am humbled to be able to call her my friend and privileged to give her the space to tell her story.
I cried MULTIPLE times while we were recording. I'm pretty certain I was able to edit out most of them.
I hope this episode brings you hope and strength.
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Stronger Than Podcast
Season 2, Episode 2
Title: Stronger Than - Craniosynostosis with Allie McCathren
CHRIS: Hi this is Chris Sizemore and you’re listening to the Stronger Than podcast. I have Allie McCathren with me today. She’s an incredible human one of my very best friends. She’s also an amazing textile artist, a wife, and a mom and just this super cool person who I’m very excited to introduce you to today. We both kind of met at the apex of our tragedies.
ALLIE: Hi, thank you Chris. Yeah that never occurred to me before, but we were very much at the height of both of our tragedies. About a month before my youngest son, Jack, was born, my husband was laid off from his job which put us into this huge spot of stress to begin with. And then in my very first indication that something was not right with Jack was as I was giving birth to him, it was very noticeable to me that his head was extremely large, and after he came out a bunch of the nurses were commenting and saying “Wow his head is really, really big”
CHRIS: Which is exactly what you want your nurse to say
ALLIE: Right? I know thank you, I was there and was very aware of that. But then about a week later at our pediatrician check up she looks really concerned and she told me very gently that it was really important for us to go get an x-ray and I said oh like you mean maybe in a week or a couple weeks from now and she said no today That was the first time that I really felt that like gut punch of fear. The next day I remember, I was sitting in my chair in my bed and on the phone with the pediatrician who I’m so grateful to for the level of care that she took with me because she was so completely empathetic and gentle really is the word I keep coming back to. When she said this is really a thing that he has he’s going to need surgery for it and there’s no way around it. The thing that he had is called Sagittal Craniosynostosis and it meant that the plates in his head were prematurely fused. In babies heads, they’ve got these plates that are not fused and that means that they are able to overlap as they’re being born and then it all sort of resettles and it needs to not be fused as they grow because they grow so very quickly their head needs to able to expand and those plates typically are not completely fused until they are six years old.
CHRIS: And you had him completely naturally, yeah?
ALLIE: Completely naturally, zero medication.
CHRIS: As a testament to who you are and your strength on its own, that’s incredible. The whole idea during birth is that their plates in their head are still malleable they’re not fused.
CHRIS: It’s like why babies have pointy heads, this is a thing that we see. That is a normal part of the birthing process and this was not normal. Which is incredible that you were able to do that on it’s own, which I think you had said before that the doctors had even said, “How did you have this baby naturally?”
ALLIE: Yeah, they were all shocked. Like every time I was filling out paperwork later and it would be like, “How was the baby born?” And I would say, vaginally, and they would all just kind of look at me like, “how did you do that?!”
But in this case the ridge down the center of his head was already fused and had been while he was born. So that is why his head was very large. That is why it was so very painful to give birth to him, beyond the obvious, because his head would not shrink down at all.
When I realized we needed to have a surgery that our infant would need to have a surgery I think that’s the moment where I just completely went into shock. We have three children all of a sudden and the youngest one has this special situation where he is going to need surgery. We don’t know how we’re gonna pay for it. We don’t know how we are going to pay for our mortgage. We need health insurance, which we don’t have. We have a continuation COBRA, which is costing more than our mortgage. It was just beyond.
And so what I could focus on at that point was: I am a mother, I need to see my kid safe. That is my number one that’s what I’m doing.
CHRIS: And I think that is something that I hear in so many tragic stories is that in an in an effort to get through it we just have to like simplify our brains to like these are the tasks at hand, and this is what I can control. Like I said in the first podcast, we need to stop measuring up our tragedies. A tragic event is a tragic event and the brain response is the same regardless of what caused it. and you were already starting on a healthy path by going, “OK I’m just gonna focus on the things that I can do”.
ALLIE: Thank you I did not feel capable or amazing in that time.
CHRIS: None of us do right?
ALLIE: Yeah it was like I think it was a trauma response.
The hospital system was wonderful because it felt like they sort us just picked us up in their big old hospital hands and just carried us forward gently. Over the course of the next few weeks we had a series of scans, and MRIs, and all sorts of, there were a couple more x-rays, it was just a lot. In that time I kept wondering, like second guessing, is this something that really needs to happen? Am I being a bad mom for just going with it and saying “Oh yeah, this one doctor” but it wasn’t just one doctor of course at that point it was all the doctors right?
But in my mind I was like they’re telling us that he needs this thing, but what if he doesn’t and what if he goes in there and dies and it’s my fault? I would just hold him and rock him and just watch him as he slept and just think is this the right thing? Is this the right thing? What am I doing? And over the next few weeks I watched as his head shape changed. It was noticeable because those bones, those plates, were fused already. That meant that the middle part of his head was kind of like this saddle, almost, and the front and the back were elongating because he was growing, but he had nowhere to go.
Part of me was thinking like, well that’s just him. He’s just cute and that’s just what he looks like. This is my son but the I kept thinking like “No no it’s really scary like if we don’t get this, I mean we’re going to get the surgery obviously, but if he didn’t have that surgery if we lived in a place where we didn’t have this access, then his brain would be damaged. He wouldn’t be able to function as he otherwise would have.
So we were in this waiting period where we couldn’t get the surgery immediately because he was too little to handle the anesthesia. So we had to wait for him to grow big enough to be strong enough to handle it, but also not wait so long that his brain was risking damage. So it was this waiting period, and nine weeks I guess now doesn’t sound like that much but it felt like an eternity at the time. And I remember as we got closer to the date, June 9th, it’s just always in my mind, June 9th, that’s the anniversary of it.
As we got closer to that date I just remember thinking OK well now there might be a limited number of pictures of this kid like every picture that I take is it could be one of the final ones. Like if he goes in there and if he dies in surgery like that might happen and I remember there was a point, my darkest point as a mother, where I sat and I as holding him and I told myself if he dies I have to be OK. I have to be OK with that because I have two older kids who need me. They need me to be OK and take care of them and just that was a horrible thought to come to. One that really left me with a lot of damage I think I mean it at the time I think it was it was something that I had to tell myself to keep going forward, but still now I’m feeling the effects of it and that was almost six years ago.
As we got closer to, I would take more pictures of the three of them together, my three children, and there was one that I have the night before the surgery where I have them all sit on this quilt, I wasn’t quilting at the time we will get into that, but it just happened to be a quilt on our floor and I said “OK, just lay down next to your brother, and I wanted a picture of the three of them, because if something bad happened, if the worst happened, I wanted a picture of the three of them together. So I have that picture and, looking at it now, that’s all I can think, is where my mental state was at that time. So it’s not a picture that brings me joy it’s a picture that makes me really sad even though they are all smiling.
CHRIS: I totally get that like if I go into my story history on Facebook it’ll be like: “six years ago on this day…” and legit last night I looked and I wasn’t even specifically looking for that. I was looking for something else and it was like…”six years ago today” and it was just a picture of our garage organized and it was 17 days after that our house burned down. And so I look at that picture and it’s like all these like pre-fire pictures are very much in a little way like revitalizing the trauma a little bit because not only do I kind of mourn a little bit what that was, but also I see it burned. I’m sure that that picture does a similar thing for you. It is this like what if he hadn’t? The emotion and the intensity behind that image.
ALLIE: Right it’s just it was, it’s interesting to me how a picture, you think when you take it you think that you’re just gonna see what you see in the photo. I still do this where I think it’s just gonna be: “I’m taking a picture of this subject” and that’s what I’m going to remember, but if it’s a traumatic moment like that, if it’s a high stress moment, you are not just taking a picture of what’s in front of you. It’s like you’re taking a picture of everything. I always forget that that’s a thing. I think, “I’ll just take this for later” and I’ll forget how I was feeling. No! I remember.
The day of the surgery I think I was up for I don’t know I think 30 hours or something for that whole ordeal. I remember every single minute of that day. The night before I knew I had to stop nursing him at midnight because his stomach had to be empty. And I just remember holding him in bed and thinking OK he’s probably gonna wake up at two and he’s gonna be hungry and I can’t feed him. And that’s sure enough what happened and I’m holding him trying to reassure him but he’s next to me. He’s on my chest he knows he’s right next to the food and he can’t have it, so he’s upset, he’s crying I’m pacing around the room. It’s not time to go to the hospital yet. It’s only two in the morning, so I’m walking around the bedroom just holding him as he’s crying.
I’m trying to sooth him. My husband ended up holding him because he at least wouldn’t be next to the boob. And then I think at like 3:30 we drove over to the hospital.
We were in this bigger waiting room, with a couple of other sets of parents, and everything was dark, everything was quiet. We were just pacing around this room holding Jack, who at that time had begrudgingly fallen asleep. Just pacing around and around the room and making eye contact and kind of doing little nods and smiles with the other parents there.
And that was really stunning too. I was very aware that while this to me was this huge traumatic moment and it was, and not to compare trauma, but these were parents who, some of them were there for their kids fifth, sixth, eighth, sixteenth surgery. These were parents who knew the inside of that hospital by heart and didn’t want to. I was humbled to be in their presence, truly.
We then went to a different waiting room, it was just us in there, it was smaller, this was like right before the surgery. We were given this like one size fits all surgical outfit for Jack to wear. He was two months old and this outfit was made for kids up to age 5. So it was basically just like a giant blanket in the shape of clothes for him. I mean it was huge.
And my husband held him because I knew that the next step was that we would have to hand Jack over and I knew that I couldn’t do it. I was not strong enough to do that. In that moment I felt guilty that I was not strong enough to hand over my baby physically to the doctor. I felt like I let him down in that way.
And then the doctors came in. My son had a neurosurgeon and a plastic surgeon. These are also people who live forever in my heart. The neurosurgeon was direct, straight forward, to the point…that’s what you want in a neurosurgeon. She’s gonna get in there, she’s gonna it done, she’s not really there to socialize. Thats OK. The plastic surgeon was the one, she looked at me and she held my hand and she looked right into my eyes and she said, “I know you’re worried, but do not worry because I’m there, I will be his mother and I cried and I thanked her and that will always stay with me that moment. That’s incredible.
They went over the surgery again for like the eighteenth time. We knew exactly what was going to happen. They were going to make an incision at the front part of his head and at the back and then cut out a rectangle of skull like the top middle bit and then remove it through the incision. And then they said OK and up until this point I had had all these tasks, right, there’s the task you drive downtown, you sign in, you write your name here, you go in, you get the x-ray you come back out. Here’s the next task. We make an appointment with this person. There’s all these tasks and that was it. That “OK” all the tasks were done. That’s it. Now we are at the surgery and then I just burst into tears. It was like the floodgates breaking of this is it, no more tasks, now you just have to feel it. Yeah,.
Rob handed him over and we held each other and cried and went back to the main waiting room with all the other parents. There were way more people, there were kids running around, the siblings of the kids in surgery. There were all these parents who were kind of silently supporting each other. We all knew why we were there. Every time anyone made eye contact it was like this unspoken agreement that this was a really crappy day for all of us and we’re all like holding part of our heart in a different room and just there was this tension, but also reassurance, somehow, of being with other people like that.
And there was this wonderful man, who was the patient liaison, and this guy was filled with energy. He was just like this ball of happiness who would come in and say OK what do you need? What have you got? You look like you’re cold. Do you want a blanket? Im gonna get you a blanket. Do you need a coffee? Do you need a smile? Like he was just there to pep everybody up and distract them, and it was wonderful.
CHRIS: Can we have that guy just through like regular life?
CHRIS: Like you’re having a bad day, you need a coffee or a hug.
ALLIE: Here’s a smile
CHRIS: Where’s that guy everyday?
ALLIE: He was wonderful. There was somebody in the room, in the surgery, who’s job it was to text and update this app that we download to say exactly what was happening in there. So I would get a text, it would say right now he’s under, right now they just made the first incision, right now like he’s doing well. This is happening, like constant updates.
CHRIS: That’s amazing.
ALLIE: It was wonderful yes, I’m so glad that’s a thing. But they did pull us in. They said “Ok it’s done.” We met with the surgeons again they said everything went great, it’s all great. They pulled us in and I remember this moment where I was still in complete shock but also the biologist part of my brain was going and I was like can I see it? Like I kind of want to see the skull bit that you took out.
ALLIE: I know. And they were really creeped out by that I think. They were like, no, that’s not a thing we’re gonna do. Which I think is probably for the best looking back but also I’m curious, I wanna know.
CHRIS: No, I get it because after I had Issa I was like can I see the placenta and the nurses were like, “what?!” And I was like, I made that, its gone and I wanna see it.
ALLIE: I wanted to see it too
CHRIS: I totally get that
ALLIE: Its so cool, its like this big tree
CHRIS: I’m sure there are listeners that are like you guys are weird, but then there’s other people who are like yeah, no 100 percent.
ALLIE: But I think they were a little appalled by that question maybe not. I mean they are scientists too, they’re surgeons, it’s whatever.
Then I went up to see him, he was in the ICU and that was that was terrifying because he was completely gray and out of it and swollen. I held him there. I was able to hold him again and at that point you know I’d been awake for I don’t even know how long. My brain is spinning and I just wanted to hold him and not let go.
Finally he woke up and started moaning and they ended up needing to give him more blood. I have a picture of that time too, Rob took a picture of me holding him and we’re both just gray everything is gray. My face is pale, I’m wearing a gray sweatshirt, our son is gray, there’s one line of red going in, its the line of blood going into him and I look like deer in the headlights panic in that picture.
And at this point, its like all of the things were done, all of the tasks were done. We were on the other side of the surgery and this whole time I’d been focused on, what’s the next here’s a thing and now it was like we were in this free floating space beyond the surgery and it’s ”Ok now with the rest of your life” and I was still in a full trauma response for what was happening.
And what had happened and it was fine and for some reason I couldn’t process it yet. But I remember I was walking around like making sure OK where is the nursing room, where’s the pumping room, because I have never been able to pump breast milk. It just doesn’t work, but now we are in a spot where I have to because there’s no way I am not nursing this kid. There is no way I’m going to lose this and he can’t nurse for the next however long. So he’s an infant, you need to support his head but I can’t support it because he’s had this surgery. Everything is swollen. It was this question of like I wanna hold him but I can’t hold him. How do I hold him? And I felt like this, I felt like, I I just didn’t know what to do or how to do it.
One of the nurses on the floor looked at me and she said, “are you a brand new mom,?” It was sort of like, why are you freaking out so much? Calm down. She didn’t say that but that was definitely the tone.
ALLIE: I was like, no this is my third. And she said “it’s fine”. and I was like oh my God the most traumatic thing just happened and you see this every day.
Another thing that happened that I now know was definitely in the trauma space was I had picked out this song and I had it on repeat on my phone, right near his head, and it was just this little piano, gentle song. I had played it beforehand and I wanted him to know that we were there. That was the purpose. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone, we were nearby and hopefully he would be comforted by that. But at the same time, deep down I told myself that if that song stopped playing he would die.
CHRIS: Oh wow.
ALLIE: So we had to keep playing that song.
We were able to go home the next day, which was crazy. His whole head was swollen but definitely noticeably more round than before. It was like this instant change where it used to be super narrow and now it had width to it because it was finally able to relax. But they send you home with essentially some Tylenol and a Band-Aid. And they are like, “OK that’s it, you’re done come in for a check up on this date”, and I was at home holding him after all that trying to figure out how to hold him trying to figure out how to nurse him, and sitting in that same chair again where I had gotten the news just eight weeks earlier that that needed to happen and I had this specific clear thought of “I’m going to stop feeling now I have to stop now because it’s too much”. And I just shut it off. I was able to do everything I needed to do, but I had to remove myself, like physically, mentally, emotionally remove myself because it was too much feeling. That was this active decision that I made and it was very strange.
Over the next few months, he had a couple of different helmets he had to wear. I decorated them that was fun. It was probably about maybe six months after that where I realized it wasn’t healthy like I, I needed to come back online. I couldn’t not feel anymore and so I had to decide “Ok know I’m going to feel things again and that hurt a lot coming back on.”
CHRIS: I keep wondering like what is the timeline of you and I starting to get to know each other because we had we had, just for everybody listening, Allie and I had a lot of the same friends so we had met briefly at parties. I think I had actually been to your house for a baby shower.
ALLIE: A baby shower, yeah
CHRIS: But only had met you in passing and then, and I think the baby shower was before our house fire.
I think it was it a birthday party? And it was shortly after our house fire, and I can’t even tell you who’s birthday party it was or what date it was.
ALLIE: I thought it was post Hurricane Harvey because I remember where you and Bill were sitting. You were sitting in these two chairs in their dining room.
ALLIE: And I remember sitting down next to you and being like “Oh hey, it’s you I remember you from the baby shower” or whatever and I remember you were both looking kind of dazed, understandably, because you were still in this trauma space. And you said “Yeah, our house burned down and we’re kind of dealing with that”. And I just remember being shocked and then I think you said something about “We’re working on helping with Hurricane Harvey and collecting donations” and I remember saying “Oh yeah, sign me up, I’ll show up”. And so that was really the first time we started getting together, was showing up at the donation center and I’m wearing Jack in my baby hammock and I remember wearing him and carrying pallets of things.
CHRIS: Yeah and it was incredible. Jack was wearing helmets that you had painted! Can we just note I remember you having this baby and even during Hurricane Harvey relief you had this baby like in this papoose on your front and he was just wearing the most adorable helmet, like he was a fighter pilot.
For us it was really hard to do social events because I think we were still in such a state of trauma. We hadn’t really started with our, we hadn’t even demoed our house yet by Hurricane Harvey.
ALLIE: Yeah that’s right.
CHRIS: We just threw ourselves straight into helping other people because it was like you were saying you ran out of things to do. We were running out of things to do and I was like well I can go help people. I know what it’s like to have all of what remains of your belongings on your front lawn. I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like for people drive by and be “Oh is this a garage sale?” and you’re “Do you not see the burned house behind in the backdrop?” So like I knew what that was like so we went full force into Hurricane Harvey relief.
But I legit I remember just sitting there at that party, and it’s taking everything in me to just be there. I was like I need to be here for my friend and I need to exist in this space and I need to be ok doing these things. I remember you sitting down next to me and being like “Hi” in your Allie-way, it was just, thank you for doing that. It meant the world to me in the moment and the world to me now, but yeah, you are in this just dead space of — I just need to, all of my energy just needs to go to existing.
ALLIE: Right I just exist right now, I’m not really here, but I exist.
ALLIE: In that space of feeling numb for so long and then finally deciding to wake up out of that numbness. That is where I started quilting. I had decided to kind of come back online, to feel things again. I was up really late one night feeding him, rocking him. I would scroll through YouTube videos and I found this one YouTube series called the “Midnight Quilt Show with Angela Walters”. Up until then, I had one image in my mind of like the old fashioned colors and all that and I was just “Ah whatever, it’s just a quilt, OK fine people do that, whatever.” I just never thought about it. It never occurred to me as a thing that could be fun. But here is this woman on this show who is using these bright colors and the music is upbeat, and she’s bouncing around saying “Hey, let’s do this thing and see what happens. Oh, I accidentally cut wrong, I don’t care. Let’s go!” It was this fun vibrant energy and I thought, “Wow that looks like fun actually.”
So the next day I went out to Joann’s Fabrics and bought some random bits of fabric and got a magazine that had a pattern in it and went home and I happened to have my mom‘s old sewing machine, that I didn’t know how to use. And I ended up burning that one out because I didn’t even know, at the time, that you are supposed to change your needle. I thought that you just use the same needle forever.
So, I made this horrific looking quilt top because I didn’t know anything about anything, but I knew that it felt really really good to take something and cut it up into chaos and then put that chaos back into order. That was what hooked me.
I took that initial one apart, I didn’t even take a picture of it because it was just terrible. I took it all apart and I started making quilts. I started with, I used to buy kits, and then I started playing more with other peoples patterns and I would pick out the fabric and then it sort of snowballed from there. I just kept thinking “Well, what about doing it this way, what about doing it that way.”
Over a period of time it’s definitely evolved. What I am doing now is very different from what I used to be doing, but that same element is still there of taking order into chaos, sometimes a lot of chaos, and then back to order again. It was this repeated healing motion of putting things back together. And so, to me, that’s what really got me started on that journey, was “Yes, I happened to stumble upon that at that time in my life”, but also the way that it healed me, and is still healing me, and is helping me to think in more creative ways. That grew from that.
To me what’s been even much much more of a gift than even that process of creativity of exploring that whole side of me of being artistic in this way, what’s the biggest gift I’ve gotten is this whole community that’s come out of it. I remember at first I was posting my quilts to Facebook and a couple of family members would be “Oh that’s cool, ok, whatever, that’s kind of a lot of quilting, we don’t really want to hear about it.” They wouldn’t say that, but that was what my brain was telling me right.
ALLIE: Ok nobody cares, that’s fine. I just kinda wanted to stop taking up so much space, but I wanted to have a place to post them and I wanted to have this little personal journal of my journey. I remember you saying “Why don’t you post to Instagram. Just make your own little journal on Instagram just for you.” I remember saying “oh, I don’t know. I don’t know how Instagram works. I don’t know, it just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s pictures, then you have words, I don’t know.” But then I said, “Ok fine id like that, ok.” I started doing that and then there were like twelve people following me, then there’s forty, and I was “Why are there 40 people? I didn’t know that many people. What’s that?” And then there were 100, then 500, and it just going and it was insane to me that anybody wanted to see what I was doing first off.
What happened was I started to find like minded artists, like minded people who saw what I was doing and said they were inspired by it. I in turn was inspired by them. I have now met people who live in all different places around the world who are the dearest of friends and I cannot imagine my life without these people in it. And I cannot imagine my life without this community of makers who all understand that side. Like we all understand that side of each other when we get together. There’s no explanation needed. I’m just so grateful for the way that that has gone. It does feel very much like out of this trauma has been this incredible growth.
CHRIS: So do you think that you would have picked up quilting in the intensity that you did and creating if you hadn’t gone through this traumatic experience?
ALLIE: Thats hard to answer. I don’t know. I have always been a very creative person. I’ve always liked diving into things. It’s always been something, painting, drawing, I keep buying wood burning kits and then not using them. That’s probably the one that I’m least drawn to. There’s a summer where I made furniture. And we still have our coffee table, I made that.
But quilting has been different. I thought I would stop after a year because that’s what I do. I get into a thing, I explore all of it, and then I hop out and find the next.
CHRIS: I remember you saying that, this is just for a season.
ALLIE: This is just temporary.
CHRIS: Yeah, and I was like, “I don’t think it is”.
ALLIE: I think part of that is because there is such a wide rang of things. Theres so many different things you can do under this umbrella of quilting. There are so many different ways it pulls on my brain. Design and puzzling and all of that. And I’ll switch between something that’s really intricate to something that’s much more loose and sometimes, like this week I randomly made shoes, but they are quilted shoes.
There’s so many different things, but also I think to me it really was that association between this time in my life where I felt completely empty and started to fill it with color and texture. So yeah, to me those two are linked. I definitely would have done something, but the series of events that happened, we were in that space of no income whatsoever for two years, and then with my quilting, I didn’t intend for this to be a business at all, but it developed into one now and it’s been, dare I say, a bit successful.
CHRIS: You’re allowed to say that. It’s been very successful.
CHRIS: People know you.
ALLIE: That just sounds so strange.
CHRIS: It is strange, because in my brain you’re just Allie, you’re my friend.
ALLIE: Yeah, believe me I don’t know what all these people are here for.
CHRIS: Then you go these quilt conventions and they know you and that’s cool and worth celebrating. You get to say it has been successful.
ALLIE: It has been successful, and it’s grown into this thing that has filled me up in a lot of ways.
CHRIS: That’s incredible and I think it’s amazing because in the broad sense of trauma, everything feels so out of control. And you were taking tiny pieces of cloth and controlling them and that’s very cool. In an effort to be in control of something.
CHRIS: When you can’t control what’s happening in a surgery room, or how your son’s skull is growing, or any of that.
ALLIE: As a mother, also, a parent, there’s this permanent chaos in my house. I can clean up the living room, and I have three kids, an hour later it’s going to look like I did nothing. Constant dishes, constant laundry, constant pick up, shoes everywhere. When I make a quilt it stays made. I do it. There it is. It’s not going to unmake itself. So that’s pretty satisfying too.
CHRIS: For sure.
ALLIE: Without the whole trauma level, it’s still a very satisfying thing to do.
CHRIS: Yeah it’s chaos just in regular, its controlled chaos in regular life too. But you also have three boys and somehow I feel like they could possibly undo a quilt.
ALLIE: They could figure it out I’m sure.
Every time I make one, my oldest comes up to me and says “is this for a customer, or is this for us?” And I’ll say “It’s for us” and he’ll say “oh great, thanks” and he picks it up and takes it to his bedroom and I never see it again. They sleep on piles. We live in Texas, I’m in Houston, it’s hot. We don’t need this many quilts. But all of my children sleep on piles of quilts like a dragon hoarding treasure. It’s just quilts and books under there.
CHRIS: Which has spilled over to our household. You made my daughter a quilt. She’s got that, plus her regular blanket, plus a blanket my dad brought her and its just “How many blankets do you need in Texas heat?” Not this many, but she wants them all!
ALLIE: That’s awesome. I forgot about that one.
CHRIS: Something I am trying to ask all of my guests, because I think it is interesting to think about is, if you had control, if you could go back, and he was born with a normal skull and not have experienced all of this, would you?
ALLIE: Oh my gosh, what question. For the sake of him not having to go through that, I would say yes of course. I wouldn’t want him to go through that trauma. He was so young that I would be shocked if he remembers it. And we haven’t spoken to him about it yet, he’s 5 right now. There are lots of pictures of him with, I’ve got some with him with the scars, right after. Not even scars yet, its the incision just stitched up. We haven’t looked at those with him yet, and we haven’t had that conversation with him yet, but I will soon, probably quite soon. So I don’t think he remembers it. For his body to have to go through that physical trauma I wouldn’t wish that.
ALLIE: For me to go through that journey, I grew up a lot during that. I practiced feeling things that I had never felt before. I think it prepared me, in a lot of ways, for other things. So, I wouldn’t undo that trauma for myself, but I would undo it for him.
ALLIE: Does that make sense?
ALLIE: When Covid hit, and we realized ok, this is a thing that we need to quarantine for, my husband and I looked at each other and said “Oh, we went through 2017, so we will be just fine”.
CHRIS: Yeah, we did the same thing, we went through 2017 with a house fire and Harvey. Hanging out in my house? I can do that.
ALLIE: Yeah. I will say though there was, that was an indication to me when 2020 happened, that I still had some PTSD from this that I didn’t know I had. When we first found out that there was this pandemic going on, the first thought in my head is, “This is when I lose Jack, this is when he dies.” I didn’t realize until that time that I was still hanging on to that. It felt like I had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I had prepared so much for the moment for him to die and me to lose him. It didn’t happen thankfully, but now it was — oh here it is, it’s happening now. That was an indication for me that I still have some stuff here that I haven’t dealt with.
ALLIE: And I still have that a bit when I drop the kids off at school, because he’s in kindergarten now I drop him off at school. I give him a hug, I still do this with all of the kids, but I think more so with him. I wonder if its because he’s the youngest or if its because we went through this. I’ll never know because that’s just our story, but when I say goodbye to him and hug him, I wonder if that’s the last hug. Is somebody going to come into today and shoot up the school? So I’m kind of also poised to wonder if I should be preparing myself to mourn. Which is a weird place to be in.
CHRIS: You’re not alone.
CHRIS: I think that’s anybody who’s gone through trauma. We are all always sitting here waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because one did drop. You know, it’s like “Well we’ve experienced one, so what’s going to keep the other one from falling?”
Well, you know, nothing does, I mean it could. But I think we are also walking around way more prepared than most in a mental state because we have walked that road already.
I’ll never forget we were moving into our rent house and people were giving us things, which just felt weird, and a friend of a friend said “I have this storage unit with all of this furniture, and just come see what you want.” They gave us a mattress and oddly an old Singer sewing machine that had been turned into a table. Which was a thing that I had wanted my entire life.
The guy was quite a bit older than us and when we were standing on the front lawn of the rent house, they had helped us move some stuff in, he was sharing with me that he was a photographer in Vietnam. He flew in planes and took pictures, that was his job. Which, you know, at that time I was just leaving photography as a career and had just lost everything in the fire.
We were talking about photography and all these different things and he was like, “I understand, I have PTSD from that war.” I looked at him and said, “Can I ask you a question?” And he said “Yeah” so I said “When does it go away? When does it stop?” And he was very quiet.
And I very vividly remember being on the front lawn under this tree.
He said “It doesn’t go away. You just learn to how manage it. It’s there every day and you manage it every day. You get better and better at managing it, but it doesn’t ever go away.” I think he was visibly sad to tell me that, but I’m so glad he did because it stuck with me all these years. I see that in everybody else that we’ve interviewed and that I know who has gone through trauma. You learn how to manage it and in a lot of ways it gives you a lot of strength and empowers you to do other things. Which is insane but also very amazing.
Allie, thank you so much for sharing and being vulnerable and being a part of this really crazy, scary adventure of me putting out this podcast. I really appreciate it. Any final thoughts, feelings?
ALLIE: I just want to say thank you for giving me this space to tell this story. It’s one that I kind of hold within myself always and I don’t talk about it very much, and sometimes almost forget that it happened, but I’m honored to be able to tell it and honored to be on you brand new podcast that I am so excited for you to have. I think it’s really cool. Thank you,
CHRIS: You’re welcome, and thank you. So where can people find you?
ALLIE: You can find me in Instagram at exhaustedoctopus. My website is exhaustedoctopus.com. I chose that name to have nothing to do with quilting because I thought, “I’m not going to be quilting in a little while so”
CHRIS: But here you are. Thank you again I really appreciate this.
ALLIE: Thank you, this was awesome.
CHRIS: Thank you some much for being here and listening to my words and sharing in these stories. I hope you will join me in coming episodes as we hear the stories of real people and how they became Stronger Than.
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Stronger Than is real stories from real people edited and hosted by me, Chris Sizemore. Original Music by Rob McCathren.