On the Other Side

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for a month, maybe more. The reason it’s coming out today is because I am shamelessly riding the emotional tailwinds I found in this post, which I read this morning while I waited to drive my husband to work in the bitter cold. I’m now in that cliché place where I want to go buy everything Tom Pollock has written, though at this exact second I mostly want to curl up at his feet and put my head on his shoes.

I don’t have bulimia as he does, and I have no big confession to make, no anchor I’m trying to take off my chest and ask the community of strangers to help me carry. In fact, the blog I’ve been trying to write since forever, the thing I’ve barely been able to talk about even with my spouse, is how odd I feel now that I don’t have an albatross around my neck.

On the off chance you stumble onto this post and it’s your first meeting of me, the quick backstory is that for a decade or better I’ve been sick to varying degrees, mostly invisibly. I’ve carried sometimes a staggering amount of pain, usually without saying much. Without quite realizing how bad it had become, I made every day a battle to find a survivable baseline, and my definition of “survivable” became pretty grim every so often. I developed a million allergies. I strategized with my pharmacist husband how to use narcotics effectively without becoming addicted and/or losing their potency. I tried a million healing diets. I went to every therapy: Western, Eastern, and just plain from the moon. I prayed. I seethed. I endured. Then one day last year, I exploded. A pain in my abdomen became so intense I had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital. A few weeks later it happened again, and midnight exploratory surgery revealed I had horrible, unfathomably bad endometriosis. A few months later  I had a full hysterectomy.

After I healed, as more time passed, some of the allergies went away. A lot of the pain has diminished, now more related to inactivity and re-strengthening than chronic illness. I can eat more things and don’t have to have my house kept in a nearly literal hermetic bubble. In short, I’m a lot better.

Which is kind of funny, because sometimes, if I’m honest, I feel more weak and vulnerable and unsteady than I ever did when I was sick.

During that ten years of hell I raised a child. I struggled with the publishing industry, honed my craft, and eventually began a fiction career. I had friends, made new ones, went through some epic ups and downs with many of them. I traveled, even trans-Atlantic. I painted rooms in my house. Tackled the garden. Everywhere I went, people who knew I was sick would marvel at my determination, my strength. I made blogging about being ill a coping mechanism, a way to take back power. I refused in every way to let it cow me, and it never did.

Not until now, when the battle is over. Now I don’t feel like I can take on even a little bit of unexpected conflict. Now the wrong word or threat on social media undoes me. Someone’s bad day and rant can make me so unsettled I need to unfollow them or decide not to be on that platform for awhile, maybe anymore, period. A random pain in my neck or lower back, a shadow of my former trial, will make me rage and seethe or sob over the unfairness of it all. Battles I would have gladly had in the past I can’t fathom letting get off the ground. Sometimes I can talk a good game, but more often than not I can’t even manage that.

Intellectually I understand what is happening to me. To start, there is a very simple chemistry issue: I have removed a gut full of reproductive organs which produced a lot of hormones–organs which would have shut off on their own, given the chance, but on their own terms, not with a chemical injection and then the slice of a knife. From August until November of last year I rode a strange, terrible wave of adjustment–hot flashes were the outward, awful symptom, but inside I felt a cold fury and terryfying instablity which I could not even begin to control. I haven’t had the courage yet to look back at those months and see if I did any damage, because I’m sure I did. Why it stopped was because my doctor prescribed estrogen–ironically the hormone which could make me sick again–to help even me out. It did. I can’t take it forever, and I’m to start trying to taper it in a few months, but right now it is the reason I function. And what that little episode has taught me is how very humbled I am by my chemistry. No matter how smart or clever or determined I am, or even how patient and kind–I am an organism, and if my chemical mixture is poor, I will be poor.

That knowledge has been sobering me for awhile now, but to be honest it was the gateway emotion into a deeper, more terrible sea. The realization that while all that strength and determination was admirable and helpful, it isn’t me either. Not entirely. I am not, much as I would love to pretend it, a pillar of awesome. I am also terribly, achingly human. I am actually quite weak, and after a decade of struggle, I’m very tired.

And I’m sad. Oh God, I’m so fucking sad.

I lost ten years. I didn’t exactly–I lived life during that time, but not the life other people lived. I was not a usual thirty-year-old, and now I’m forty-one. I remember standing in a wading pool while a younger friend asked me to stop a runaway child belonging to a woman five years older than me, and I had to admit I didn’t have the strength or power to bend down and corral a wiggling toddler. I watched people run past my house and wondered what it would be like to feel good enough to do that. I walked through conventions in heels and nice clothes and took Vicodin so I didn’t care so much that my legs and feet were full of shooting pains and half numb. I sat in doctor office after doctor office while they guessed wrong, or didn’t guess at all, or suggested maybe it was because I was fat. Sometimes said it out loud. I did all that, and I endured it.

But now that’s all gone. Now it is me in the horrible aftermath, sitting with myself by a still lake in the evening breeze, and every so often I turn to myself and say, “That was really not any fun, was it, what happened to us?”

“No, it wasn’t,” I reply, and then those two conversational selves join together, and we cry. Or we pack up the pain and carry it with us on to something else.

The worst part is there’s nothing else to do but carry it and weep over it. Someday I’ll fashion the pain into a glittering jewel, but right now it is raw material, and it’s heavy and hurts to look at. For the first time in…god, probably ever, I’ve been doing that entirely on my own. Oh, I always hide some of the pain, and I am now too–that’s a coping mechanism of mine, barfing out publicly what looks like oversharing, which is of course a smoke screen for deeper pain. Because if you think I’ve shared too much, you’ll never look deeper to think maybe I’ve kept some back.

But that doesn’t give me much this time, because this is different in ways I’m still sorting out. I think it’s something about it being an end. Most of my being, not just my brain but muscle memory is wired for enduring, and I’m not now. I’m assimilating and healing, or something. And it’s fucking weird. I can’t endure like I used to, to start. I do not have that deep, powerful well of adrenaline. When I reach deep for it, I find this, this sadness and exhaustion, and I get disarmed. I still have a sense of who I am, but I’m realizing I’m less the Amazon Iowan who can fell anything while battling chronic illness and more Heidi, woman who can’t quite understand how so much of her life has gone by already.

And that’s it. That’s what I am right now. Sitting shiva over a false front I didn’t realize wasn’t me, sorting out how much of it was indeed a coping mechanism, how much I might be able to harvest and reform into whatever I am now…how much I even should. But mostly, it’s grieving. Sitting by that lake and saying, over and over again, “That sucked, that did. Yes indeed.”

Don’t get me wrong–I’ll write the shit out of this. I’ve already started. At this point I honestly don’t know what you’ll think of Lonely Hearts, of Baz and Elijah, but I’m very at peace with it because they are my angels, my boys who separated that pain into two halves and danced me through it into a fictional happy ever after. During the drafting of that story I wasn’t able to articulate how much I was mirroring myself consciously, but my subconscious was all over it. That’s clear now as I do the preliminary round of official corrections with my editor–holy mother of god, but I was processing pain on every page. I’ll be pulling from these weird feelings for years, on purpose and as a compulsion.

It’s a new adventure, I guess. I’ve been sitting with one kind of pain for years, and now I am privileged to enjoy another variety. One that is not active, one that requires the challenge of holding and accepting that pain happened, that pain had pain in its wake. That the path to hope and healing isn’t simply passing through it, or owning it. The way out of pain is absorbing it. All of it, every shade. Until you realize that being alive is knowing pain is always with you, always changing and expanding, alive in some ways more than you are. That pain is, essentially, the engine of life.

And that life is so wonderful and sometimes heavy that one can understand that truth as deeply as possible…but pain is still bigger and wiser, and it will always be there to show you that you were not as strong as you thought. It always has more for you.

Because the truth is, of course, I’m not sitting at the lake with myself. Or rather, that other self I’m breaking apart from to speak to is the pain I carry. Whether it was done to me, brought on by me, or if it simply happened with no intent on anyone’s part–it’s all mine. It’s all me. And sometimes it is more real, more anchor than I am.

That’s my post. For me, it feels like standing naked in the cold, with a diagram to all my weak places. I don’t like admitting I don’t feel as strong as I once did. But to be honest, if it’s not already obvious, it probably will be soon. Because I didn’t write this and feel power surging back. In fact, it feels very much like laying down a sword.

But Tom Pollock reminded me that confessing, or rather, sharing, being, is taking control. I still need to be at the lake by myself, but it’s nice knowing other people know that’s what I’m doing. Maybe it feels naked, but it’s mostly admitting I was already naked. Acknowledging.

It helps me see, too, what I’m not. I’m not a mess. I’m not on the edge. I’m simply–understandably–exhausted. Admitting the lake I’m sitting at is composed of my own sea of emotions, my own tears. Dramatic flair that that image is and all.

So, that’s me. At my lake, hurting less, feeling weird. Writing words. Including these.

16 Comments on “On the Other Side

  1. Thank you for your post and sharing your story. I have read several of your books and really like your work. Your characters have a vulnerability (Walter for one). Maybe some of your struggles have found an outlet in them. I think you are going through your own form of PTSD. The war has been won and now you have to find out what that means and how to deal with wounds left behind.

  2. Admire your awareness and acceptness of the journey. I’m still hiding most of mine from myself, and even though I am aware that I’m doing that, I am not able to pull it out and deal with it like you are. Maybe rereading this post a few times will help me too. thank you.

  3. This is such a powerful story. People don’t realize how often the way we are /after/ a struggle is more profound or telling than the way we are during.

    Much love to you.

  4. First, a big hug from here. Secondly, I’m stunned. There are very few authors whose books I reread. (Time’s too short, right?, to reread.) But you are in the reread list. Because of how much I enjoy your books and how they calm me, I’ve always thought you too were a calm, soothing person. I know what you’re talking about when you talk about pain. Been there, am there. So I guess the question is–how can those of us who are answering this post help YOU? What can we do beside buy books, which seems kind of flimsy in the face of real pain? Reach out. Grab us. Shake us. And let our strength add to yours. You are loved and admired.

  5. I can’t even….right now…..and that’s just me reacting to the piece. I haven’t lived it….I just can’t right now….air hugs. Will write more later. Just wanted you to know I’ve seen your blog over the last few years, and I know what you’ve been going through (at least, what you’ve shared), and I know it’s been so hard. Just know that I keep you in my thoughts.

  6. ::Hugs you hard:::

    You’re one of the few people who know what I deal with on a fairly regular basis. Oddly, when things are worse, I’m okay because falling apart isn’t an option. When the immediate crisis is over, that’s when it all hits me.

    A doctor once told me that’s part of post-traumatic-stress-disorder—falling apart after because falling apart during isn’t an option. And that has to be worked through in order to find new safe ground but it’s hard, too, and it’s not as easy as saying “okay, moving on now.” (Particularly if the same type of issue is hinted at or happens again, which is why small signs will freak me out.)

    You’re doing awesome. It’s a process, I’m told. Exhaustion is needed to heal.

    • Cory just said it perfectly. While I’m very glad that you’ve reached the other side of a mountain, my heart goes out to you knowing from persona experience what still remains in healing. What will always remain, even healed. I, like many others who love you, am always willing to come sit next to you at your lakeside. Hell, you’ve got a standing invitation to come sit next to me at my lakeside too. No dramatic flair required.

  7. I have a close friend who is recovering and processing things and your stories are of a similar vein. I’ll offer you what I offer her, lots of love, understanding, and support.

    <3333

    Katherine

  8. One of the many reasons I love you to pieces and will never stop loving you is because you are BOTH the Amazon Iowan who can conquer the world with a glare and that little girl whose parents lost the farm where all her Barbie stories started. The last 10 years have been a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I hope you don’t look at them as being lost. We’ve raised an amazing kid who is more and more like you every day and I couldn’t be prouder. What we’ve had is a life, and we’re just getting warmed up.

    The other night, when I was lying in bed, I was listening to Indigo Girls’ “Ghost” and how we always used to listen to that kind of music back when we were first married. The passage of time really struck me – how could that be so long ago? it seems like just yesterday? I’m not sure where I was going with this, but mostly it’s just that our life has been made up of so many instances like this, and I wouldn’t trade a one of them, even the ones that were hard and hurt.

    So you heal as you need to from the ordeal, but know that I am right here standing next to you, supporting you when you need it and letting you fly when that’s what you want too. Together or not at all.

  9. I needed to read this today, dear Heidi. We are certainly very different people and I’m quite a bit older than you are on the age timeline. However, emotionally, I’m barely a teenager. And, we all know what kind of hell that can be and was for some of us. My endurance and strength through continuous heavy shit seems to have lasted a lifetime and now, at this point in my life, it just isn’t anymore. Poof! And now what?

    Has it been mental illness plaguing me all these years? Probably. But, I made the decision to set a goal and focused every ounce of energy I could muster to accomplish that goal and I DID IT. Who knew? I didn’t. I was always one of those people that allowed life to happen to them and took from it what I could. I didn’t set goals and dodged the curveballs by denying my emotions to survive. Many things and the all-important relationships that have been built over the last 8-10 years or so brought me here to Grand Rapids.

    I just cannot seem to wrap my brain around the enormous empty space where endurance and strength lived for so very long. One thing is for sure. I will give myself permission to take the time I need to figure it out. The child within that everyone else seems to know and love hasn’t ever existed for me, but I’ve always done things backwards. So, it makes sense to me that my emotions are barely into their teens/tweens. Dreams and fantasy and unbridled freedom young ones experience unconsciously may just fill that gigantic space. You can’t go back, and I have no desire to relive my pain, but I might be able to feel and learn the gift of discovery of the child in me that I murdered. Perhaps it is long overdue that I find that buried, lost and ignored little person. She could probably use some adventure, kindness, and love.

    So, from me and that innocent child I’ve yet to get acquainted with, thank you. You’re always an inspiration and a light of truth, Heidi.

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