PROOF OF NOT GIVING UP
Designer and athlete Alexandra Gutierrez on how she overcame a crippling accident and found healing through perseverance and dance.
Natalie: Before you head off to design in the studio, you start your mornings early with high impact dancing nearly everyday as part of an intense exercise regime, yet it wasn’t that long ago that you were injured severely in a traumatic accident, bedridden an unable to walk. I can only imagine your journey has been exceptionally emotional and mental as well as physical. Are you comfortable with sharing your story?
Alexandra: Of course. First off, I want to start by saying that I am a true believer that things happen how they have to happen, it’s never by choice and how we take it and grow from it is what really matters. The more time passes, the more I realize that things happened actually in a very perfect way. About 8 years ago I was hit by a pick up truck that missed a stop sign. The accident happened next to a dog park, so I had 14 witnesses that knew and saw that it was my right of way.
I was biking home and I had heard a huge engine revving towards me, since he was not looking straight ahead, I tried to hit the hood of the car; which resulted in my right clavicle, second rib bone and right pinky to be broken.
The pick up truck went over me three times and dragged me over 40 feet. I was stuck under the first axle, so the wheels went over me twice. When the driver realized somebody was under and started to slow down, I managed to wedge myself free, falling to the ground, but then the back wheels went over me one last time.
I had 8 broken bones in total and some other bones that had fissures. The crank of my bicycle cut my left calf and fibula, the right leg had a deep fissure in the tibia. Both anklebones were out. Both knees were shattered. My right hip was broken in three. Coccyx and L5 also had breaks in them. Needless to say, it was a life changing moment. My adrenaline had kicked in which made me unaware of how much had happened and the extent of it.
I was on so many painkillers. So many. I am amazed I did not become hooked on them. It sank in after the second week in the hospital that nothing would be the same. I was in the hospital for about a month and then in the physical therapy wing for about a week or two. My breaks and cuts were so deep that they could not cast me, so I was just laid flat on the hospital bed for two weeks. During those two weeks, it was as if I had never walked. It was horrible. I was in a wheel chair for a period, and in intense physical therapy for about three years.
You know what is amazing? You realize what you mean to people when this happens. My younger sister cleaned me, bathed me, blow dried my hair, stayed with me, cleaned my cuts, did my make up, gave me a pedicure, took me out of the hospital. I can never thank her enough. I could not understand at that moment how amazing it was of her to do this. Everyday after work, she came to the hospital to be with me, make sure I was eating, bathing, sane. She would pay attention to what the doctors were saying because God knows I could not with the cocktail of painkillers I was on.
Atrophy in the muscles happens in two weeks. That word. It repeats in my mind ever so often. I didn’t understand it at the time. It meant that muscles forget in two weeks. That was something that I couldn’t understand and that the doctors kept repeating over and over. I always nodded, but I didn’t believe it. Who forgets how to move? Right?? Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is true. The muscles do forget.
I was in a wheel chair so that I could be taken out on my third week and it was so surreal. At 28 years old my rehab included that I learn how to go on sidewalks in a wheelchair. How to go up ramps, how to go to the toilet, how to shower, what do I do when I am stuck. Do you know that all sidewalks have a 30% inclination because of rain? I was painfully aware of how much one arm would be more tired than the other. And how difficult it was to go on streets I had always walked on because some were not made for wheelchairs.
My reality was another. I depended on people to get the wheelchair and me out of the house. I could be on a walker for a certain amount of minutes, but I would get tired. When I finally ‘graduated’ to crutches it was a great moment, because it meant I could bare weight again. I slowly progressed to a cane, which lived with me for almost two years. The nerve damage on my left leg was severe since the leg had been physically cut. It was such a surreal experience. My legs would tremble from the nerve damage and baring weight.
My sisters did everything to make me feel normal. My younger sister got me a leopard print cane so that I could have a ‘going out’ cane and a day cane. I would go out with them and god forbid anybody gave me a look hahahahaha. They really tried to make my life seem as normal as it could be.
I have only verbally told this story, so as I am writing this, it is crazy to me to see where I am now. My body and mind are proof of not giving up, even in the dark times.
NW: What was your prognosis from your doctors?
AG: At first they could not really tell whether I would be walking or not, whether I would be bound to a wheelchair/ walker/ crutches or cane because I could not move my toes. It was on the second or third day that I started moving them when they reassessed how to move from there. They didn’t sugar coat anything. They told me it would be hard and that it would not be the same. The nerve damage I had was extensive, between the physical impact of the truck to my right side, to the lacerations and breaks.
NW: How did you find the motivation and discipline to tackle the challenges that were ahead?
AG: My family and physical therapists got me through it. My mother and sisters gave me no slack. They didn’t pity me. They didn’t make it easier. My friends would come over to hang out and make sure I didn’t ‘miss’ things. I have to give physical therapists and nurses huge props, because I was an angry, sad and depressed patient and they always came to the room with a smile and basically ignored my pity party.
It was not easy. Nothing from that time was easy. My whole world seemed pointless. I had worked and survived on my own and now I could not even brush my teeth by myself. I went from being at a healthy weight and an avid 6 minute mile / 10 miles a day runner to being severely under weight and depending on people for everything. It was hard. The painkillers really hurt me psychologically; I couldn’t really distinguish what I was feeling emotionally, meaning I didn’t know whether my emotions were driven by the drugs or by what I was actually feeling.
Seeing that people wanted me in their lives and would go out of their way to come see me made a huge difference. Slowly I started seeing physical therapy as a challenge – God knows I love challenges – and once the PT’s realized that I had a competitive nature, they started keeping scores for my progress and adding new things to keep my attention focused.
Physically, it is because of them that I improved and fought to improve. Mentally, it took a longer time. Being depressed and doubting myself made me go in a rollercoaster of weight gain and loss. As I did more physical therapy I became a bit more confident. The physical informed the mental I think. The more I could see improvements in my gait and range of movements, the more I wanted to continue.
Depression started to disappear, I started working again, trying to do my normal routines, and I decided it would be time to start dating. I felt beautiful, smart and worth it for the first time in 5 years. Like I said, the accident was very emotionally and mentally crippling for me.
I suddenly found myself doing exactly what I wanted for work, my family was doing amazing, and I had a boyfriend. My boyfriend at the time was a huge motivator and inspiration. Unfortunately, we did not work out, but, the drive stayed and that breakup was a huge catalyst for me. I broke up with him because he was not treating himself right, and it started to affect the relationship and it was my AHA! moment. I had grown so much. It hurt like a motherfucker to break up with him. It hurts still today. But I am so proud of myself for finding how to heal myself and how not to get destroyed. My emotional self has grown immensely and I credit that to exercise.
NW: You do the Tracy Anderson Method, workouts from home using choreographed bodyweight resistance on a mat plus intense dance cardio. How did you choose TAM as the best form of exercise for your recovery?
AG: It took a while because I could not do much for about two and a half years. I was solely doing physical therapy until they cleared me for anything that was low impact on my joints. Around this point, my younger sister, Gabriela, had seen the video advertising Tracy Anderson’s Metamorphosis program (I don’t clearly remember how all of this went down, maybe it was the Oprah / Gwyneth interview) and my older sister Marcela ordered it and started doing it. Her physical changes were amazing, so I decided to ask my PT’s if I could try to do it, not really knowing much other than the physical results I saw in Marcela. The PT’s said I could do 2-3 days in the beginning. It was a very slow progress. Since I was out of commission and couldn’t work, I started reading more about TAM and how much it just made sense from what I had learned in PT. I started getting better and better because I was finally understanding my body, my joints, how to take care of them. Overall awareness in whom I am as a person started to develop; which was one of the most gratifying things that has ever happened.
Last year, around October, I decided to challenge myself to a full month of Tracy Anderson’s 1 hour Masterclass and Dance Cardio workouts 7 days per week and it was crazy hard and somehow I became addicted. I love doing it. I LOVE it. Makes me happy, energizes me, makes me feel complete. If I have problems, they come out on the mat. I really feel in tune with myself. If a workout can make you feel that way, you don’t question it.
NW: Were diet and food choices important to you during your recovery and now?
AG: I was on a lot of heavy painkillers, dilauded, fentanyl, oxy and many many more. It was crazy. My body couldn’t handle it; my liver could not process anything properly. So I went to a nutritionist who basically reset my system – anything that was a slight intolerance became a problem. I avoided all the foods that would irritate me and I learned how to eat again. It was great because I finally understood the benefits of certain foods. I still try to keep as many processed items out of my diet, I would say 95% of my diet is clean but I do not avoid anything as long as it is local, fresh and in season. During the week I don’t really drink alcohol because my rest is not the best when I do. My job is very physical and I am on my feet from 9-5 so I have learned what works through trial and error. Age also has informed me on what I can do and get away with!
The older I get, the more curious I am about nutrition. I recently started reading about adaptogens and their benefits. I want to know how to ‘hack’ my body so that it is always at peak performance. It’s curious how we have always had these tools and information available to us, but it is through our own paths that we have to fall, get up and learn, no?
NW: You mentioned that your job is very physical. Can you talk about what you do as a designer in the fashion industry? Was there a mental or emotional shift in your creative work during your healing process?
AG: I studied Industrial Design and work as a still life stylist. I come up with concepts, direction and style accessories and beauty products. I love doing this, particularly for beauty products. I like the challenge of making an object interesting, giving it life and showing it in an unexpected way. It’s not something we fully think about in our day to day, and I really do love thinking about what can make a perfume more interesting, what type of lighting, what is the mood of it, what can evoke an emotion out of an image for something that is meant to provoke that by other senses (i.e smell in the case of perfumes). Most of my days when I am coming up with concepts, my thought process is like this: if for example I am shooting a perfume, I start thinking of the name, what it means, what is the company image, what colors do they associate with, what ingredients go into this product, what feelings does the smell evoke? When this is said and done, I start looking for images that go along with my brain storming session so that I can translate my idea to the photographers or creative directors.
During my healing process I had so much time in my hands that I think I just started to go deeper into what things made me feel, how images were making me feel, or wondering how something was done. I distinctively remember thinking how much hospitals needed industrial designers, so many things aren’t properly designed with the human body in perspective, I was in a bed for so long that I was fortunate enough to accept that I was an observer and I had time on my hands to think about how things could work better. That is the essence of Industrial Design as a principle. We become problem solvers.
I’ve been innately curious since day one, I think that when I chose to study Industrial Design I did not fully understand how it would shape and change how I viewed the world. I was particularly lucky because the program I went into dealt mostly with post industrial design, which means what happens after the product has been designed, which isn’t your typical approach in the design world, but like I said, the principle itself is about solving. They introduced us heavily to thinking more about our impact and footprint that we were leaving when we designed an object. I became so hungry for more knowledge of that and started changing how I lived my life and thinking about what I can do to help.
NW: Are routine and consistency priorities for you? What does your typical day look like?
AG: So important!!!! As you will see, I am VERY disciplined. I try to not just talk about a way of living, but to actually live it and then talk about it. If it is something that is actually sustainable with my lifestyle then I keep it. My health is something I will never take for granted. My typical day looks like this:
4am – wake up, change, brush teeth
4.30 make a decaf coffee or matcha tea (I’ve been doing decaf bulletproof coffee and adding some moon dust) I just started meditating so I am currently doing 10-15 minutes before I workout.
4.45 I am a bit more awake and I start working out
6.30 finish and prep my lunch and breakfast – post to instagram
7am put on face mask and meditate again (it really has had an amazing impact the past two weeks to add it three times a day)
7.20 shower and wash my clothes
7.30/45 get dressed, makeup and hair
8.20 leave the house
8.45 arrive at work, plan my day
9-12 depends on the day of the week, but shooting hahahaha
12-1 meditation again (I’m hooked guys), then eat lunch
1-5 continue shooting
5-6 finish up the day and plan the next day- allocate the product etc
6.30 DINNER!!!! Decompression with either a book or tv
8/8.30 bedtime! So cleaning face and teeth and sleep! Sometimes a 10 minute meditation before bed also helps me sleep more profoundly
On vacation there are no rules but I do like to wake up and workout first thing.
NW: As an artist and health conscious person, you’re also conscientious of your impact on the environment and choose to lead an eco-friendly lifestyle. Can you tell us how you manage to juggle time for your design work, your workout, and things like hand-washing your clothes?
AG: It’s a puzzle! I love a good schedule. I like to be organized with my time. I wish I could be as organized with my closet hahahahahaha. It has taken me time to understand how to do everything so that I do not feel overwhelmed and I enjoy the process. I always start by researching on the benefits of something and then apply them to my life. It’s like I am my own experiment 99% of the time.
When I started working out, my motives were not necessarily aligned with this. It was more for vanity’s sake. As time has passed and I have grown as a person, I see exercise as fuel for my mind and body. The benefits are incredible. Once that clicked, I started to apply more of those ideas into my everyday life. Such as picking a CSA that has local farmers. I saw a huge shift in my skin just by eating local and in season. The benefits were astonishing. Again, this started with just the premise of helping out communities and then snowballed into being the best decision I ever took food wise.
The eco friendly part of me has always been there with me. The older I get the more aware I am of its impact and the more passionate I become. Working in the fashion industry is very hard because I don’t want to buy in to fast fashion. There is a wonderful documentary called ‘True Cost’ which is hard to watch, but so necessary. This led me to figuring out other ways of buying things I like; for instance, I will go to vintage shops or second hand stores or I will buy on ebay. I am so proud that I have not shopped at a fast fashion company in the last 2 years. It was hard because its so easy to give yourself the excuse of convenience, but once you start making those changes and really living them, you yourself feel so proud of the impact you see in your own household. People will follow. We are slowly waking up to see the harms that we are doing. Many companies are realizing their impact. Reformation is one of the best companies in my opinion, because they truly are an example of how you can be fashionable with new ways of using textiles without the price tag being so high. I could go on this rant forever but I think we can leave that for another time.
It takes one of us to make a change.
NW: Now that you’ve come so far with your healing and achieved such a high level of fitness against great odds, what keeps you going? Do you constantly work towards a goal or is it more about enjoying the moment?
AG: I just want to be the kindest version of myself to myself. I want to be able to live an honest life, in which I not only care about myself, but about my environment. It is challenging to balance it all, but I believe there is a way and it makes everything in life so much richer.
NW: Your story alone is such an incredible inspiration. Do you have any advice to give someone who is facing a long recovery, rehabilitation, or tough road ahead in their journey to health or fitness?
AG: Patience, self love, meditation, good food. Focus on loving yourself. Surround yourself with people that are positive and focused.
NW: I always ask my interviewees to share a favorite recipe. Do you have a recipe to share- perhaps a for a homemade beauty treatment?
AG: I have a hair mask I do once a month:
In a bowl put
• Two eggs
• Same amount of olive oil
• Half the amount of raw honey
Whip them up
Put it all over your hair, then I grab a paper towel, wrap it around the base of my hair and then wrap it all up with saran wrap. Leave it on for an hour. Rinse with cold water (if not the egg cooks K) wash hair and boom, softest silkiest hair ever!
NW: I am in awe of your bravery and strength and can't thank you enough for sharing your story.