I’ve never run – or wanted to run in – a marathon, but I have been through a marathon of surgeries – 27 to be exact. Surgeons fondly call me a “surgical disaster” or compare my intestines to “a glob of boiled spaghetti.” These amazing surgeons ingeniously created a digestive system for me after I suffered organ failure and a gastrectomy my senior year of high school. A blood clot had caused both my lungs to collapse and most of my intestines had to be removed after I went into sepsis. Now the job was “hooking me back up” – a surgical reconstruction. What I learned after I was readmitted, reconstructed, re-operated on and “fixed up” several times, is that no surgery is a guarantee.
Because there had never been a case like mine, there were no promises made, and nobody was sure what could last. The day of my 21st birthday, I was able to try my first bite of food in three years after 13 surgeries – a frozen waffle, at my request. After being so grateful I could finally eat and drink again after three years of playing with empty water bottles, I could have never anticipated the 14 surgeries that would follow, each one an attempt to fix a wound that had ruptured or stitch that had burst loose.
Every time I had a medical setback, doctors advised me to just “stop eating and drinking for now”. I was put back on IV’s, and suddenly I had to switch to “machine mode.” Food was suddenly declared a fatal danger, and intravenous nutrition was the only way to “save” my system. The days I received this “clinical advice”, I had literally just had breakfast and now I was to stop experiencing all human instincts, not feel hungry and cut myself off any oral intake until “things healed.” As the obedient patient, I did this for several years. It was an odd mix of staying numb, isolated and distracted, as well as crying with my mother and amazing support system.
But part of feeling human is feeling angry. Part of feeling human is becoming frustrated at, worried and anxious about circumstances beyond our control. Part of feeling human is becoming overwhelmed with the agonizing question, “Why Me?” as we shake our fist to the sky, wondering why life can be so unfair.
In April 2011, I had just been told to stop eating and drinking, once again, in order to heal a fistula. Unfortunately, I knew this routine all too well because I had had several fistulas develop from previous surgeries. I tried to distract myself, numb myself, and get from day to day as diligently as possible.
One morning, I woke up with such a fire in my gut, an anger that was so overwhelming that the energy frightened me. I didn’t know what to do with it and the emotions were too overpowering to try to numb them. My thoughts and feelings were threatening to swallow me whole.
With not a rational thought in my head, I ran out the door and just started running. I didn’t know where, for how long or why, but it was the adrenaline of panic – I felt “unsafe” in my situation and wanted to get as far away from it as I could. I had never felt an energy like this before, a red-hot high through my legs, tingling in my chest, tears caught in my eye-sockets that I hoped the wind bashing across my face might dry up.
I kept running and running, as far away from my life as I could. I was too scared to kill myself, and I didn’t think I wanted to either. I wanted a middle ground – just to exist in another world, and if I ran long enough, I’d get there, somehow, somewhere.
I ran for three hours before I found a highway, and without thinking, I started running onto the shoulder of the road. I thought, “the farther I go, the further this will all be behind me.” Of course, of all days I decide to run for my life, it starts to rain…and thunder. Suddenly, the highway was flooded, I was drenched, and I had cars beeping at me, wondering what a frail little girl in a T-shirt was doing running on the shoulder of the highway.
It was only a matter of time before a police car pulled up to me and asked me to get inside. I was shaking, angry, confused, embarrassed and nervous – like I had just gotten my first detention in school. He said, “I’ve gotten about 30 calls in the past 20 minutes saying this 80-pound-girl is running on the shoulder of the highway. Where did you think you were going?”
I was upset that my escape had been halted, and suddenly very ashamed. Wiping away tears, I stammered, “To the mall.”
“You thought you could get to the mall on the shoulder of the highway?”
He turned around and looked at me for a brief pause and said, “I can drive you to the mall.”
I refused to look at him, pressed my elbows into my sides, and barely whispered, “No, I’ll go home.”
He called my worried parents our way home, saying I was okay and we were on our way home. My mother, after recovering from her concerned rage, asked me what on earth I thought I was doing. I told her simply that I was trying to escape. I didn’t want to deal with this anymore. I was frustrated with my body and I couldn’t take living under these circumstances for an “indefinite” amount of time. All she said was, “But you took your body with you.”
I knew that running on the shoulder of the highway is illegal and there are by far, much easier ways to get to the mall. But what I really wanted, was others to know that I was having such a hard time – that even with my numbness, discipline, and “indomitable” spirit, I needed support. I needed someone to realize I was suffering and talk to me, even if they couldn’t fix it for me. I needed someone to remind me why I should still love life, after 27 disappointments.
I didn’t want to kill myself because in my heart, I knew how much I adored life. But I needed a break. I wanted life to get easier. I was sick of living in fear, wading in uncertainty and reflecting on a former life that I was never able to get back before my coma at the age of 18 – a time when life is supposed to open infinitesimal doors.
When the police brought me home that day, I was furious. I spent the afternoon pacing around the kitchen screaming that I was going to take every knife in the house. I didn’t know what I meant by that, but I wanted a reaction – from others, but also from myself. I wanted to see how much I still cared. I also wanted to remember why I had fought so hard for so long to still be here, and why giving up at this point would cheat me out of any feelings of aliveness that may exist in my future.
What I learned from this experience:
I had no proof that things would get better, but I did have a few solid things at that moment that I could stand on and anchor myself to, just to get me through.
In that very moment:
1. I had my mother who was worried sick about me, and my whole family for that matter.
2. I had my body with a heart that was beating strongly, boldly, proudly and alive.
3. I had the rain on my skin and the feeling of being wet, of feeling sensations on this earth.
4. I had a single tear finally emerge from the numbness, from the anger, a tear that reminded me how much I really do love life, even though it may be hard right now.
5. I had hope. Even if for now, it was just a silly lie I could tell myself. It’s okay to make silly lies. It’s a creative start to cultivating hope.
6. I had life. Whatever it was, I had in my hands, a thing called “life”. An entity that was way too huge for me to make any final decisions about now.
I started with that tear and realized that my tear was not a death-sentence of depression or everlasting sadness, it was a sign to start grieving and mourning my losses. I started putting my thoughts together through song, art, and words that, over time, I was able to share with those I loved.
Through reaching out, I gained understanding and connection. Through connection, I gained a newfound understanding of life. That’s my new runner’s high. It may leave me winded, angry, frustrated, panicked, or overwhelmed with sadness, but it’s the high of being alive. And I’m so glad I stayed on track.