Trisha Meili: "I have continued to grow in my recovery by pushing
to the edges of what I thought was possible." David Hathcox
Her name is Trisha Meili, and psychiatrists at APA's 2005 annual meeting in
Atlanta got a glimpse of the person behind the moniker by which she became
known to millions as a symbol of brutal urban violence—"the
Central Park jogger."
Delivering the William C. Menninger Convocation Lecture at the 49th
Convocation of Distinguished Fellows, Meili described a remarkable journey
toward recovery following the heinous 1989 attack in New York's Central Park
in which she was raped, severely beaten, and left for dead. The attack made
headlines around the world.
At a meeting focused on psychosomatic medicine, Meili's story of recovery
demonstrates the need for general medicine and psychiatry to intersect. Her
journey back to health and wholeness has involved the collaborative work of
psychiatrists, social workers, experts in rehabilitation medicine, neurology,
ophthalmology, internal medicine, and others.
Fourteen years after the attack, Meili revealed herself and her story in a
best-selling memoir, I Am the Center Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and
Today, she speaks at universities, brain-injury associations, sexual
assault centers, and hospitals about her recovery. She also gives her time to
the Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in
New York City; to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn., where she received
much of her rehabilitative care; and to the Achilles Track Club, which helped
her run in the New York City Marathon in 1995.
In her lecture, Meili distilled her experience into four vital lessons: the
importance of "feeding the psyche," the power of living fully in
the moment, aggressively pushing the boundaries of what is considered
possible, and self-acceptance.
Meili said the prayers, gifts, and warm words of encouragement that came
from family, friends, and strangers from the around the world—even when
she was in a coma and unable to speak—fed her psyche.
She recounted with special feeling the care she received from a West Indian
nurse in the very early days of her recovery, when she was still in a coma.
When doctors would stand over Meili's bed discussing her bleak prospects as if
she were not in the room, Meili's nurse would cradle her in her arms and
whisper in her ear, "Don't pay them any mind. What do they know? You are
"Later, when I did begin to talk," Meili recounted, "she
would ask me, `Who is the captain of the ship?' I would say, `I am,' and she
would say, `You're absolutely right!'
"In hindsight," Meili said, "it was exactly what my
psyche needed to hear."
The power of living fully in the present moment was brought home to Meili
by virtue of the fact that as she was painstakingly recovering the use of body
and her mind, "nothing came naturally," she said.
She recalled a rehab exercise she practiced with a nearly meditative
intensity, a task designed to help her regain manual dexterity requiring her
to remove and replace nails in holes drilled in a wooden board.
"I wanted to regain the full use of my hand, so I was entirely
focused on the task directly in front of me," she said. "I wasn't
thinking about what had happened to me. The past I couldn't change, and I
didn't seem to be preoccupied about the future. Working in the present moment
was the right place to focus my energy."
The third lesson Meili imparted was about the need to push the boundaries
of what one is capable of, and in her recovery she discovered that
neuroplasticity was no mere theory.
"I have continued to grow in my recovery by pushing to the edges of
what I thought was possible," she said. "Small improvements
motivated me to keep pushing ahead, and the process of growing and healing
never stopped. From the improvements over many years I became more confident
of what I could do, because I learned to live inside this body and
Self-acceptance, especially in terms of accepting that the attack had
permanently altered some aspects of her cognitive functioning, was the most
difficult lesson that recovery from trauma taught her.
"I came from a family that valued intellect, and I was proud of my
academic achievements," Meili said. "I heard many messages growing
up, spoken and unspoken, that smart was good....
"Mentally I will never be the same as I was before the attack. To
acknowledge this to myself is, to say the least, not a great feeling. But in
another way it gives me peace. I accept it. I can live with it. It's a giant
step in my healing. It's part of the woman I have become, and, most days, I
like that woman." ▪