It’s no secret I’m writing my stories down and most people would call what I’m writing ‘memoir’. But it’s a word I’ve long had trouble with so when people ask, I tell them I’m writing my stories down. Ninety-nine per cent of the time I have to elaborate because I look too young to be writing a memoir. The next question I’m most asked is why I write.
I write – have always written – so that I can make sense of what has happened to me and why (and so much more). But some things are beyond understanding, and after meeting with a professor of trauma and post-traumatic growth studies it reinforced that it’s been luck more than anything else that has kept me here; luck and my ability to be resilient. At our most basic level, humans are resilient. I like that word; it covers more ground than ‘brave’ (I’ve never felt especially brave). If I’m being honest, being called ‘brave’ always made me feel like an imposter. The professor tells me repeatedly how extraordinary I am to have firstly survived and then to have emerged as an extremely well-adjusted human who finds joy in helping others. I appreciate how she understands that I have an issue with compliments, and follows up our meeting with a lovely text message – ‘I know you don’t want to hear it, but you are all kinds of awesome.’ Instead of wincing, a little smile makes my lips quiver and I thank my reptilian brain.
It’s like this: when I was dying, I was at peace. I was letting go of the world, but the world wanted me to stay. And so I did. Like an unarticulated vow, I stayed.
I’m reading a lot of books and papers about trauma and what is most fascinating for me right now is how people deal with the ripcord of diagnosis/disaster and subsequent re-entry to the world. Surviving is only the beginning and I’ve asked myself time and again, ‘how do you survive survival?’
My first re-entry when I was twenty-one was unexpectedly violent. I was ripped out of the soft comfort of my dying and thrown back into life – not the usual trajectory for someone who is dying. When you’re dying, you die. Dying doesn’t offer any junctures. You don’t suddenly come back to life because that is not the natural order of things. But that’s what I did, and in those first few months it felt like any evidence of my old life was gone (I often liken it to my ‘native’ lungs being thrown into a plastic bucket).
I was a stranger to myself – a ghost. After going from a place of peace, stillness and acceptance, I’d come back too fast for life like a spaceship breaking up on re-entry. Being literally ripped open and stitched back together was too much; my mind splintered off into the atmosphere and I was gone. It would take three years – maybe more – of processing and reconciling what I’d been through to claw my way back to myself.
I write of the immediate aftermath of my surgery: Doctors are confounded as to how much sedation I need to keep me in an induced coma. My levels of sedation are unusually high – think twenty-five times the amount required to sedate a person of my age and size. Looking at photos, my body resembles a human wishbone.
In the first week, I manage to impress people just by laying awake in a bed. When I fart for the first time, my nurses cheer. The first time I sit in a chair is cause for celebration. My first walk is like a ticker tape parade but I don’t hear it because I am certain I’m going to die. The news of my first shit – brutal in its delivery – garners nods of approval, wishes of ‘well done, girl!’ and fist pumping as though I’ve just won an Olympic medal for queen and country. Seemingly small achievements were big ones. I eat solid food for the first time in months and learn how to walk again. I go home, go out and insert myself into social situations not knowing who the fuck this new person is or how to be in the world.