Friday, October 31, 2014

Healing, Part 2

While I love this time of year and enjoy seeing my nephews in their costumes, Halloween haunts me in a way I can't escape. It represents an incident I wish I could forget, but I've not been successful.  I've built such a high wall around it that I've found it impossible to recover from. Like a festering wound, it has lived inside far too long. Telling this story will hopefully rid my soul of some of the poison.

There are things we must first let go in order to make room in our souls for positive, healing energy. I've been haunted by a Halloween from long ago.  The shame and guilt are so heavy it is sometimes hard to move. I laughed in God's face when I inadvertently, but absolutely pushed the envelope of life too far.  I was trying to flee from the pain, not from life. But the outcome was the same, and I have carried the guilt ever since.

It was Halloween 2003, and I was reeling from the loss of my son in my sixth month of pregnancy earlier that year, which was followed by the death of my Nana not even five months later. Losing a child and my spiritual touchstone in such a short time had me overwhelmed with grief. The heartache was bad enough, but tag on the anguish from the physical pain of my disease, and that's where you would find me, barely able to scrape my spirit up off the floor just to go through the motions of real life.

I left work early that day, because my pancreatic pain was giving me fits. I had been experiencing panic attacks and severe depression since losing my son (on top of a bad pancreatic flare), so on the way home I picked up my prescriptions for Xanex and Morphine. I went home and took the appropriate doses, but the panic, pain and depression weren't touched. I remember taking a second dose about a half hour later. And then another dose of both yet another half hour later.  I wasn't trying to end my life, I just wanted the pain to end. When the tears came that day, as they did every day, I remember crying from a place so deep within me, it felt like my heart might truly break. I couldn't take it. So I kept taking the pills, thinking that one more might make a difference.

By some miracle, my mom came home early that day and found me. What went on from there is lost in a memory I can't access. The next thing I recall was waking up briefly in the Emergency Room as charcoal was being pumped into my stomach. There was a doctor who asked me if I meant to hurt myself, and I remember nodding yes, even though it wasn't true. It was hard to communicate anything with a hose down my throat. I vaguely remember being a patient in the Mt. Carmel East observation unit, calling way too many people and saying way too much. I think my mom finally told them to take my phone away. What must have been a day or two later, I realized I was a patient in the psych ward of Mt. Carmel West.
How had I gotten there? I didn't want to die! I just wanted the pain to go away, mentally and physically.  Once I was released from the psyche ward, I returned home full of questions. How much had I taken? How many people knew? I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame.  The ordeal I had put my family through was unforgivable in my eyes. I was afraid to ask what happened in the hours I could no longer recall. My brother Keith was the only one I felt comfortable asking. I thought he would be honest.  As he started filling in the blanks, I became more and more aware of how far I had truly come to the verge of death.

When it all happened, my brother had counted my pills, figuring out how much I had taken in the span of about seven hours of time. The grand tally was: 40 Xanex, 50 Morphine. That's how much I had taken, and yet I'm still here to tell this story.  God has spoken to me via various life events, but this one ranks pretty high. I could easily have died from this unintentional overdose, but I hadn't. Someone thought I should be here, and I've been grateful ever since.                            
 The memory of that Halloween has haunted my memory for eleven years.  It was undeniably a defining event in my life, yet it goes against everything I have become.  Like a festering wound, it became glaringly clear to me in this past year that the story needed to be told so that I could finally be free of it.  I've never wanted to embrace life more, to enjoy the precious moments that happen in the blink of an eye.  This Halloween is about healing, especially about healing from old mistakes. In the grand scheme of things, my soul needs as much room as possible for positive, loving, healing energy.

I've apologized to my family for all this put them through, but I'll probably always feel some guilt about the scariest Halloween any of us ever experienced.  Somehow by sharing this, the shame is slipping away. Surely someone else out there in chronic pain can understand this, too. There may even be some who have gone through a similar experience. I chose to write this story as much for those who can relate as for myself. We all have times of weakness.  We all makes mistakes. That's what make us human, after all.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Healing, Part I

This time of year as darkness comes earlier and the shadows move through leaves that are constantly changing shades, I am reminded of the start of my disease. It is my favorite time of year because of the beautiful changes that occur, but the pain was not one of them. It invaded like an atomic bomb, and suddenly I didn't recognize my life. With every year, the pain intensified, and I didn't know how to survive. I woke up terrified of every hour and the pain it held. I would hope that the next hour would be better and would count the minutes until it's arrival, yet when it would arrive, the pain would be just as severe   Nothing could take it away, but I tried. Oh, how I tried. And how I failed.

There are two parts to healing from chronic illness. There is the strength it takes to propel yourself forward into a productive and purposeful life . And there is the strength it takes to forget and free yourself of all the shame, guilt, isolation and worthlessness you carried on your back up to this point. I can't explain why I've felt ashamed of and guilty for my disease, but I have. Those are common sentiments among individuals with chronic illness, not that it makes it any easier. In the past fifteen years, I can truly say this is the first time I don't feel shackled to those negative emotions. 

I don't believe there are more than a handful of people who know just how isolated I've been from the world, truly isolated. At the hospital, nurses and doctors alike make comments about how I don't look my age; that I look like a woman in my mid-20's rather than my late 30's. When you don't leave the house except to go to the doctor, your skin does benefit, but your spirit withers. And that's how I've felt. Like a withered flower who hasn't known HOW to be out in the world. And for many years, that hasn't mattered, because I've been too sick to do anything other than stay in bed. But I'm starting to blossom, from the inside.

Hope is a great source of life. It is to the spirit what the sun is to nature. It makes it come to life, makes it shine like a brilliant star. There is a light I feel from within that hasn't been there in fifteen years. I feel like I'm glowing. It's as though I'm coming back to life, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I am starting to feel well enough, and safe enough, to get out and about, to interact, to be ALIVE rather than just surviving. It's time to get out of my bubbleworld, even if it means that I will start looking my age. I've pulled the cord on the propeller, and I'm praying for a divine compass to show me what I'm meant to do and where I'm meant to go. But that's just part one of my healing. Going forward may prove easier than healing backwards. But I'm ready to try.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ice Age

It was around this time of year in 1999 when the first whisperings of disease descended upon my life. I had only been in Washington, D.C. for about a year since moving there after college graduation. My boyfriend at the time and I had just settled into a precious Cape Cod rental house in Alexandria, VA. Between my man, my home, my job and my dog, I felt like a woman of the world, ready to make her mark.

When the pain came, it was like a full eclipse of the sun. My future was paralyzed. Hell, my present was paralyzed.  And that was before things got really bad; before pain, pain doctors and pain pills wrapped around me like vine on a trellis. Necessary evils in the face of a merciless disease.  It was a situational straight jacket.

Who knew life could change so quickly, absolutely, and inescapably? The hopeful 23-year old woman who was looking forward to a career and family was put on ice. I was very sick, and the life I had always dreamt of was the casualty. I came home to Columbus where family could care for me, and here I have remained. I fell into a long, dark night.

Every year when the air turns crisp and the leaves turn shades of crimson and gold, I can hear her voice calling on the wind. There hasn't been an ongoing career, a husband or a home of my own. And the only child I had died inside me. Never in a million years did that hopeful 23 year old young woman think that her battle was just beginning, nor think that it would endure 15 years and counting. Her voice sounds almost like a child longing to be fed. And I so wish I could feed her, but the milk she craves has long dried out. 

This fall is unfolding differently. There is a new voice I hear. It comes from within. The song is full of hope; hope for health and love. The pride and faith I've found as I've battled these wounds merge to form a sweet, yet strong melody. It rides on the wind and sings in the chimes that surround my home. I would be lying to say there aren't days I didn't wish I could start over with my youth and health intact, but I believe that makes me human.

When I think I want her back, I tell myself to look at my soul in a mirror. I am proud of what l I see. I am strong to have survived what I have. Getting sick sure as hell wasn't my choice, no matter how many doctors tried to tell me it was in my head before they figured it out. But I DID choose to survive it. I chose to remain hopeful, and that's no small feat. That young Jessica is gone, but a stronger, prouder, braver Jessica is in her place.

The disease and pain have put me through an ice age. Every part of the illness has carved into me like glaciers eroding rock to form what are now mountain ranges. True, much of the old me has been weathered away. But how can I deny the blessings I've been gifted. I've got mountain ranges ahead of me. Beautiful, glorious, living mountain ranges with infinite possibilities. I'm more than happy with that.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Taste of Life

Of all the unique qualities I have, I believe my taste for a random substance may be my most bizarre traits. I rarely think of it except for when I need to go to the Emergency Room. This past Saturday, my blessed body was dehydrated and needing an IV, so to the ER I went. After 15 years with my pancreatic condition, my veins are shot. My skin has toughened, my veins have scarred over and are tiny and curvy, making it very hard to thread an IV catheter. 

It's gotten so bad that there is a note in my chart from my primary physician saying that the Doppler must be used to place my IVs.  Even so, most nurses insist on trying to place one without the Doppler first. Who am I to irritate my nurse by requesting she fetch a machine to do something she spent her training and nursing career perfecting?  Especially when she is the one in charge of hanging my saline and administering your meds. She is not a lady to piss off!

Per usual, my dehydration made Saturday's IV placement more difficult. The nurse claimed she didn't know where the Doppler was. So she tried on my right arm, and the vein rolled. She went to my other arm and looked up and down my pin-dotted, scarred skin. By looks alone, I probably look like I've been shooting heroin up and down my arms. The nurse found a deep vein, and she told me to prepare for a big stick.

Here is a side-bar of sorts: I have had IVs placed in my neck, in my inner thigh, in my feet. There is no pleasant IV stick. I learned early on that making noise and moving around only prolongs the procedure. I've taught myself to close myself off from the environment around me, and I elevate my soul up above the pain. I find a safe nook on the ceiling where my angels flutter in place and look over me. When you take your mind away from the pain, it can no longer hurt you. It's just a physical hiccup. It's over soon enough.

I could hear the snap of the IV needle and catheter disconnecting. The nurse flushed the IV with saline. Here is my magical moment, one that I doubt many, if any, share with me, but it deserves gratitude for sure. I can taste the saline in my mouth, and that is the precious sign that my body is going to get the fluids. Whichever parent I have with me always laughs at the moment I can taste it, because they can see the relief and joy on my face. I told my nurse how much I love the taste of saline, and like most I have told, she said she'd never heard that and that it's pretty odd. And it is, for a reason.

This is my routine explanation of WHY I love the taste of saline:
We all have different paths in life. If you are a chef, you probably love the smell of even the most exotic spices and can pick them out with one whiff. If you are a swimmer, you probably love the smell of chlorine. If you are a fisherman, you probably love the smell of the water upon which your boat dances. Much of my life over the past fifteen years has taken place in the hospital. That's been my journey. My body is my vessel and when it is low on fluids, it can't do anything right. So while it may be weird, tasting saline is a sign that I'm on my way back to life.

I can't think of anything better than that.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tree Hugger

When someone has undergone as many surgeries as I have over my lifetime, it's difficult not to look in the mirror and see the resulting scars as imperfections in what used to be a smooth surface.  The idea of anyone seeing my scars, whether it's from wearing a bathing suit that doesn't cover them all or while in the arms of a lover, is enough to cause some insecurities.

I had my first major surgery at 13, during which part of my right kidney was removed. That was before the days of widespread use of laparoscopic techniques rather than open incisions. Instead of a few tiny incisions, I was cut from my back, around my side to my front right side. I recall the first question I asked my surgeon the first day he made rounds.

 "Why didn't you spare yourself some time and effort, and just use a sword?" And to think, those were the days BEFORE my feistiness was flourishing.

Fortunately, I was blessed with several long-term relationships over the years. As I continued to need an operation here, another one there, I started to feel like a tree that had been carved out. When I looked in the mirror, I saw flaws. At that point it was around 2001, and I was still well enough that I was dating and in a few short relationships. I was always self-conscious.

And then 2006 hit, and between then and now, I can't mentally trace my surgical voyage. It's a blur. My body's scars certainly told a tale of medical hardship, but there is unfortunately no timeline carved anywhere. 2006 was the beginning of my unintentional but absolute celibacy. I was too sick, too exhausted and too isolated to even imagine a relationship. It was a lonely but medically active time.

In the last year I have truly started to feel that yearning to get back into the dating scene. Just because I've been faced with my share of medical adversity doesn't make me a sick person. I am not defined by the conditions I have. They are parts of my life, but they are NOT my life. Especially with this most recent surgery, I have hopes for greater healing. My amazing surgeon has remedied issues that were a nightmare to endure. Now the only hindrance is my comfort level with my scar and it's most recent growth.

While I certainly feel modest about it being seen, I am probably more insecure about my weight than I am about my scar. After everything, my carved out tree may not be the prettiest thing, but it sure does carry with it a fair amount of grit and character. A bikini may not flatter me now, but I am proud of my scar and all the bravery and strength it represents. And whoever I am lucky enough to find as a mate will be just as lucky to find me. He'll be more than blessed to hug this tree.