First Thoughts: Falling Up

DANA LIESEGANG was a feisty, happy-go-lucky 19-year-old US Navy recruit, when an attack by a fellow seaman tore her world apart.
First Thoughts: Falling Up

She left ship to mail a birthday card to her boyfriend and on her way back, a young male diver from a neighbouring ship offered her a ride. She remembers everything about that night, and still has to compose herself to stop the tears when she talks about it.

“I had a birthday card for my boyfriend back home and went to mail it. As I was walking back, I took a ride from this young man, thinking I was safe. He was another military man on base.

“He had an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the floor and he laughed about how he’d drunk the whole bottle. I thought, ‘whoah, that’s a lot’, but he was driving fine so I didn’t think anything of it. I was 19 — what did I know?”

He drove to Sunset Cliffs, a local beauty spot, where he attacked and raped her before throwing her off the 23m cliff and leaving her for dead. “I did wake up at the bottom of the cliff and it was only when I heard the helicopter above that I completely blacked out.”

She woke up in intensive care at a San Diego hospital, flat on her back and in traction, hooked up to a respirator that was keeping her breathing. She had been in a coma for 18 hours and wasn’t expected to live.

The helicopter had found her during a search conducted when she was reported AWOL. Police had found her clothing and military identification.

“I was paralysed from the neck down. I couldn’t move. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I’m paralysed and I don’t want to live like this’. I tried to commit suicide by biting on the respirator, trying to cut my air off. It didn’t work.”

She had broken her neck and critically injured her spinal cord. Liesegang couldn’t feel or move anything from her collarbone downwards, had to learn to breathe again without a respirator and screws were inserted into her skull to secure a metal brace around her head and chest to immobilise and support her neck while it healed — it remained in place for four months.

Now, on the 25th anniversary of the attack, she has written Falling Up, charting her story from harrowing encounter to miraculous recovery. While doctors gave up hope, Liesegang was determined to walk again. “I was upright as soon as I was able, with leg braces, within the first three years.”

At 29, a decade on, she walked on her own without the braces.

Sport and travel have helped enormously in her recovery, she reflects, both physically and mentally. She became involved with the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, has played quad rugby, been rafting through the Grand Canyon, taken up cross-country skiing and skydiving, sat on the Great Wall of China and enjoyed the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

“I love the adventure of life,” says Liesegang, now 44. “Just because I broke my neck, doesn’t mean my personality went away. “Because of the spinal cord injury, my bones aren’t as dense as they should be, but I can fix that.”

Three years ago she tried to contact her attacker, to let him know she’d forgiven him. “I googled him and saw an article about him kidnapping a woman and holding her hostage for six days. Underneath that was his obituary,” she says.

When she discovered he had died, she had mixed feelings. “I was happy that I was 100% safe but I was sad because I didn’t get to tell him personally that I forgave him.”

Liesegang, who still won’t reveal her attacker’s name, subsequently contacted his mother. “I only talked to her once, to tell her I forgave her son. She asked what she could do for me and I told her to forgive herself and forgive her son. I wanted to make sure she knew I live a good life. He didn’t steal my life from me, I didn’t allow it.”

She views her attack as the day she was reborn into a new life.

“I look at that one night now and think it was the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it was also the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Liesegang.

Falling Up

Dana Liesegang with Natasha Stoynoff

Hay House, €17.50.

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