Pain Into Purpose
Ruthie Lindsey lived a nightmare. Now she's thriving. Here's how a small town Southern girl transformed her pain into power...
The word "influencer" seems to sell Ruthie Lindsey short, even if it's true. She has real talent, after all, and she uses it to create. She’s designed looks for Williams & Sonoma, Amtrak, and West Elm, and developed Instagram strategies for Land Rover. Her work has been seen by millions—the cover art for Taylor Swift’s Red Album was shot at her house.
But there’s another side to her. This one that's landed her speaking gigs at conferences across the country. All different kinds too, from Creative Mornings, to Yellow Conference to Story Gatherings. Why would a designer be in demand as a speaker inspiring people at conferences? The answer is what sets Ruthie apart, and what makes her a Breaker.
You see, Ruthie wasn’t always creative. In fact, she didn’t know she had a creative bone in her body until later, much later than most artists, and particularly the successful ones. To discover that side of herself, she had to go to a very. very dark place. A place most people never see…
Can you tell us about the accident?
So, I grew up in South Louisiana in a small town on a farm, lots of friends—thinking everyone else happy like I was. I was obviously completely clueless. My senior year of high school, an ambulance hit me at about 65 miles per hour. I broke three ribs, punctured a lung—actually they both collapsed—my spleen ruptured, and vertebrae C1 and C2 broke in my neck. I had a 5% chance to live and a 1% chance to walk again. It was the ambulance driver himself that actually ended up saving my life.
I was on life support for a while, but when I was stable, they took a bone from my hip and fused it to my neck with wire. I was really lucky because I ended up walking out of there after only a month. Of course I had a big neck brace, but I ended up graduating on time, and went on living life as usual.
I didn’t really have any residual pains or problems at the time. I went on to college at the University of Mississippi and studied social work and early childhood development, though I was a terrible student. Also, I should note that at the time I definitely didn’t think I was creative. I had a very close-minded view of creativity—I didn't take photos, or paint or sing, so i figured I wasn't a creative. After college, I took a job working with youth in Nashville, met a bunch of people, and met my very first boyfriend, an incredible musician. We got married ten months later.
One day, a little less than a year into our marriage, everything changed. An intense pain shot from my neck up my head, then I was crippled with a migraine. After that day, the pain and migraines got worse and worse. It became very hard because the frequent doctor visits that followed were all out of pocket. It was a huge financial stress. So then came the tests and scans, seeing specialists, etcetera.
The scans always showed a little black spot over my neck but the doctors kept telling me it was just the magnet in the machine interacting with the magnets in the machine. Everything around it looked normal. I tried countless therapies, so many, and nothing helped. Ultimately, their only solution was heavy narcotic prescriptions.
Can you describe the pain?
It felt like an electric shock went up my head, and what was left was an intense migraine. Sometimes I’d blackout, sometimes I’d vomit, but it always stopped me dead in my tracks. This started a bit of a downward spiral, and I pretty much spent the next four to five years in bed. I didn’t know how to handle chronic pain, and the heavy drugs I was taking weren’t helping my cause either.
Was the pain constant, or was it more these little episodes over and over?
Well, yes the shocks were there, but it was the residuals that would follow that would leave me debilitated. And when you’re not moving your body, you’re just achy, so everything just piles up. After five years of living like this, a doctor finally said he wanted to see what was under the black spot. What he found was that one of the wires from my original surgery had broken and was stabbing into my brainstem.
Apparently, I was the only who’s had this happen. I should've be paralyzed, and they told me that if I didn't remove it, I would be eventually be paralyzed. But on the other hand, the procedure to fix it was extremely high risk for paralysis. I went to about a dozen other doctors who all said the exact same thing. I was terrified.
Then, even though it didn’t seem possible, things got worse. A few weeks after finding out I needed the surgery, my dad told my mom and my godfather that he was coming to see me, to tell me he was going to sell our farm so I could have the surgery, since insurance wouldn't cover it. The night before he came to see me, he fell down a flight of stairs and passed away from brain damage. I basically felt like I was living a nightmare.
My godfather ended up setting up a medical fund in honor of my dad; we started receiving all these letters and support messages, some of which were things like, “Your dad paid for my prom dress,” “Your dad helped send me to school,” “Your dad helped pay my rent.” We always had other kids living at our house growing up, but we never knew about any of this. It was really something special.
How much was the surgery and what did it entail?
I think it was $130,000 or something. It was crazy. It was about a ten-hour surgery; they removed the wire from my previous surgery, and using bone from other hip and six to eight titanium screws, they fused C1, C2 and C3 together. I did leave walking, literally holding the wire that had been in my neck. But my God—the pain that I experienced after leaving was unlike anything before. I mean, I thought I knew pain. I ended up suffering severe nerve damage. It was just as much pain, just a different kind, which left me even more depressed and on even more painkillers. Even today, my entire right side feels like it’s on fire at all times. Honestly, I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again, and for sure had a nervous breakdown.
How did you clamor out of that hole?
Things got worse before they got better. I felt my marriage was coming to an end, I caught a crazy bacterial infection called C-Diff, I couldn't take care of myself anymore. My husband was on tour and everything unraveled. I finally told my family how bad everything had gotten, and I moved home because I was literally broke. I went twenty-something days without sleeping (which makes you crazy) I was on so many narcotics; so hopeless and in a constant state of complete panic. I was a nightmare and so ashamed of who I had become. Hitting that big of a wall was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because it made me want to change everything.
One great thing I did for myself, at least a first step, was wean myself off of the pain meds. That was when I started to really see the beauty in everything and everyone around me, and to look for it and speak it. No one is ever bummed by a compliment. It was so life giving and it helped balance the pain I was always feeling because I wasn't focusing on it so much. The pain brought me empathy. Now, I can walk with other people who are feeling broken and lost, because I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. For so long, I led with my pain, but I didn't want to be defined by my pain anymore. Its just a piece of my story, not who I am.
After almost being married nine years, I found myself single for the first time. I gave myself time to mourn, but I forced myself go through the motions to live—even though I wanted to shut down, isolate and check out, but there is so much grace in learning things the hard way, because now I know what not to do. Turning insular and going back to a life in bed would only make my pain worse because its all I would think about. But when I am out, living my life, I'm not focusing on my pain.
Then what saved me was finding my passion as a creative. Before the surgery, I decided to decorate my room because I figured, “I’m gonna have to be in this room for a long time, especially if this surgery doesn’t go well.” I filled my room with things that were meaningful to me, and a photographer friend of mine came to stay with us and took pictures of what I was doing. Shockingly, it ended up on a lot of design websites—with people thinking I did that for a living. People even started asking for help on their projects.
So I started reminding myself of going through the motions—doing the room design, remembering when other people said “you’re creative,” and chasing that dream. And I mean—I didn’t have the luxury of pain anymore. I didn’t have any clue of what I was doing, but I didn't have any money and i had to pay my bills, so I just started saying “yes!”
I put up a website with photos of the homes I had lived in and decorated, I started an Instagram account and began posting the things I loved, like picking and arranging flowers, hosting dinner parties, setting environments that felt conducive to connection. I began gaining followers from people on Instagram. People started saying things like, “you’re living my dream life,” which made me want to vomit, because I remembered laying in my bed for years looking at Facebook and feeling so depressed. I wished I was out playing with my children and going on adventures, and experiencing life. Not laying in my bed hurting all the time.
So I decided to write out my story. To give people a context for my pain. I needed them to know that my context hadn't changed. I still hurt all the time, I was going through a divorce, and I missed my dad every day. But I had learned to be different. To think differently, seeing the beauty that had come out of my pain. I suddenly felt my purpose in life was to share the message that we can live a rich and beautiful life in the midst of pain.
I’m interested in this moment when you hit the wall and turned it around. How did that manifest and how you get through it?
It was when I moved back home: in the middle of a divorce, the surgery, the pain—that was my nervous breakdown. That was my lowest point. I had to change because I felt like the alternative was death. Everything needed to be the opposite. It was a conscious decision to look for beauty.
What is one thing you can say to others who are also experiencing pain that seems impossible to overcome?
Pain can make you bitter or better, and the more you give into empathy and pour yourself into others, truly seeing another person, as well as being seen by others, is truly… that is what makes my pain feel better. What helps pain is making it purposeful.