Tag: survival

A love letter to my lungs on this, your eighteenth birthday

Tonight as the waning moon floats between shelves of cloud – the stars liquid and alive – I will whisper, ‘I am still here.’ A bittersweet offering, but one I cast into the world as a call to arms.

With each passing year, I harvest guilt, siphoning off grief as I pick the fruit and plant more seeds for the following year. As I stand under the beating sun, I divine my contrition and cast myself as an apostate, as a modern heretic; nothing but a taker. These aren’t empty postulations. In fact, they are very real, for I’ve watched most of my friends die, and I watch now as others are dying as they wait for a donor that may never come. I should be dead, and be dead many times over, but I am not. Thoughts like these catch my untrammelled breath, lodging like a barbed pip in my throat.

When I listed myself on New Year’s Day, I wasn’t ready for you because I was afraid, but I soon became too sick to evaluate the risk. You kept your first caretaker – a beautiful redhead – breathing for twenty-two years. Yes, I know who you came from. That door was opened long ago, and it is one that can never be closed, never mind how hard I push. For 234 days I was tethered to oxygen tubing like Major Tom on a space walk, until I was cut loose and given new breath.

I think of my family, my friends and my lover in footholds of despair as we braced for the most terrifying, yet exciting news of my life. Then comes the horrible realisation that one family has had to say goodbye to a daughter, sister, wife and friend, while I was given a chance to resurface. It is a notion that can sink a person even with the best of intentions to live.

I have imagined my surgery thousands of times over – of being sliced under my breasts from armpit to armpit, my sternum and ribs lifted so surgeons could drop their fists into my chest to pull out my native lungs – sticky masses, black and Lilliputian, like little lung caricatures. My lungs are curtly dropped into a plastic bucket, and then the magic happens: you’re plucked from your watery grave of preservation solution, slippery as a placenta. Busy hands usher you into my empty thoracic cavity in a highly choreographed animation of fingers, clamps, retractors, clips, wire and sutures.

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Native lung.

Twelve years on I was still tweezing the ends of old suture that had pushed their way to the surface of my skin, as though wanting amnesty from my beating heart. I would look at these tiny black slivers of silk under a magnifying glass and confide, ‘you’re a part of me’, keeping them until I felt strong enough to let them go. Closing my eyes, I would blow them away, never to be seen or touched again. Another part of me gone; my life in a perpetual state of mourning.

I don’t know why I am still alive. Is it luck or chance or something to do with planets aligning? Is it compliance? Am I one of the lucky ones whose immune system is unusually strong, or were you and I such a perfect and indomitable match, that failure was never an option? It’s impossible to say.

I have my doubts that we will be here in another 18 years, although my doctors assure me that there isn’t any reason why I won’t. There may come a time where I need a third set of lungs, but I hope that’s not the case because I’ve grown rather fond of you. In fact, I loved you from the start, even though you tried to kill me.

When you think about it, we’ve had an odd relationship. Where I shook the hand of death, you peeled me away from the death grip I was beginning to see as a friend. The first fortnight, we fought bitterly. I rejected you, or perhaps it was a mutual renunciation. Whatever the case, it was an education in terror and pain we both swiftly learned from, and we never fucked with rejection again.

That’s not to say we’ve haven’t had our fair share of shit. Cancer wasn’t one iota of fun, and you’ve gifted me lungfuls of air when I’ve sobbed through seemingly impenetrable sadness.

The scar under which you lay is now a pale pink seam of refuge, like still water beneath a bridge.

I love all five lobes of you equally, and I will always be your biggest champion. That you must know. Every year, just before (y)our transplanniversary, the weals of scar that have hardened into runes on my trunk begin to itch. I scratch, but it is so far beneath my skin that it cannot be touched. When ‘the itch’ presents, it’s as though you are trying to tell me something. It never fails to make sense, but not before I have scratched my skin until my breasts and that tender seam of scar are raw and streaked with blood.

I acknowledge that my life date is your first caretaker’s death date. The day she died, I returned to life, and ever since I have been making my way all slipshod through a special kind of purgatory. I needed to suffer before I felt worthy enough to commemorate my new life with you, and for many years, I have marked this day timidly, humbly and with a quiet voice. Maybe next year will be different.

And so today, there was no grand celebration. I chose to commemorate you and your original caretaker the best way I know how – by living my life. I enjoyed an ordinary day at work, because I’ve long preferred the beauty of the ordinary, because within that realm of normality, that’s where I chance upon the extraordinary. Ordinary doesn’t have to be mundane or insipid. That I can get out of bed, feed and dress myself, pull on my boots, go to work, and walk around the hospital visiting patients (an ironic reflection of my own life), double back to the bookstore, have a coffee and share a meal with my family is a day meaningfully and well lived.

Tonight I will light you a candle. The flame will thicken in the cool winter air, and I will give myself pause. I’ll sit on my balcony as a retrospective of the last eighteen years  plays across grey hems of cloud, and then I will go to bed with a grateful heart.

Last month when I was beach combing, I found a miniature set of you. Two lungs, the structures of a heart and even the intricate plumbing of the carina of trachea. I held it against my ear and my ears filled with the gentle rush of waves pitching over pebbles.

I listen to you. There’s rarely a rumble. You have held the line and kept me anchored to this life and for that, I owe you everything.

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When you get punched in the face

A couple of years after my transplant, I was assaulted. Had the shit beaten out of me. What made it even more shameful, was that I was beaten up by a girl. Of course this rationale has evolved with the gradual unfurling of my life and hard won wisdom, so I know that it doesn’t matter who hits you. Girl, boy, woman, man – it’s violence and it should never be tolerated.

So here’s some back story: I had been at a Cystic Fibrosis luncheon (as was tradition) and I admit that I was intoxicated during the day, but stopped drinking early afternoon. Around dusk, my friends and I hopped on a ferry from Southbank to go to a friends place at New Farm. I was feeling clear headed and had been drinking water for quite a few hours.

When we arrived, there were quite a few people we didn’t know, so we sat around in a circle (old hippie habits die hard), and I got to talking to a guy about where we had been. He seemed friendly – long red dreads, not quite a hippie, but more of what we would call a ‘feral’ (terrible term, I know, but it was a term nonetheless). I explained that I had CF, to which he responded, ‘you look really well,’ so I told him that I had had a transplant and he commented that I probably had some wicked scars.

We engaged for about twenty minutes, but things started to get a little strange and off topic, so I excused myself and walked away. This man’s wife who I thought looked really friendly, for she too had long dreads and was wearing Doc Martens which transported me back to my youth – had seen us talking, and as she turned towards me, a storm rose in her face and she asked me what I was looking at. I replied, ‘absolutely nothing’, picked up some grated cheese that was on a table with some other snacks, and threw it behind me as I walked away. I wasn’t aiming for her, but it was her perception that I was.

The next thing I remember, she was on me and I was up against an old car; punching me in the chest and ribs, and then grabbing my head and smashing it into the car window. My first thought was to protect my face – I was wearing glasses after all. Then a horrific thought crossed my mind – that my head was going to be smashed through the glass (old glass that shatters, NOT safety glass that sticks together), so I just took it.

She smashed my head into the window so hard that my glasses flew off, she lifted me up against the car so that I lost my shoes, and my friends were behind her screaming to leave me be. The thing is, she was Amazonian when I am not, and she just kept the blows coming. Her husband eventually dragged her off, but she was trying kick me in the face. I copped a boot to the chest which took the wind out of me, and I stumbled away while they got in their car and took off. Then they came back. After about fifteen minutes (we were still waiting for a taxi at this point to go to the police station), I saw her get out of the car, light a cigarette and walk back to the party as though nothing had happened. She was so oddly blissed out and mellow, and my educated guess was that she had had a hit of heroin or something similar which had calmed her down.

I don’t fight dirty. Never have, never will. When I was going in high school, my Dad taught me how to box; how to protect myself even though (or because of) I was going to an all girls school. And so that night, I didn’t fight back. I went into protection mode. If I threw some grated cheese behind me that she mistook for deliberate hostility, making her believe it was ok to beat me up, then that’s on her.

My dear friend M (who happened to be a lawyer at the time) and I went to Police Headquarters and I wrote down a preliminary statement. My memory was pretty fresh, but I was in shock, so the statement was brought up in court as being ‘contradictory’ to my official statement that I made about later that week.

When I got home, my Mum took photographs of the bloodied scratches and bruises across my chest and neck. Even more concerning was that I had had a central line removed just two days before and she had scratched the scab off it and drawn blood with her fingernails. Later that night, I struggled to sleep because the attack kept playing like movie reel in my head – a punch here, a kick there.

When I tried to get out of bed the next day, my whole body ached like I had a really bad flu, so I called the transplant unit and they said to come in straight away – I needed to be checked out, x-rayed and have bloods taken. I could barely move and because this girl was possibly a drug addict, I had to be tested for HIV and Hepatitis because as I mentioned earlier, she had scratched the scab off my CV line and drawn blood. I had fourteen x-rays, was checked out by a physiotherapist and then I went home to rest.

It felt like an age waiting for my blood results to come back, and I admit that I was feeling pretty distressed. When they came back clear, my doctor, family and I were relieved to say the least.

The worst thing about the whole situation was that the woman who assaulted me was in the care industry. She was an occupational therapist at a major metropolitan hospital and  she knew that I had had a transplant and therefore was a ‘soft’ and vulnerable target. My transplant consultant wanted her struck off immediately, but somehow that didn’t transpire.

Court was brutal and unforgiving. I felt so terribly guilty that my friends had to testify, but I was determined that this person was to be accountable for her actions. Her husband arrived at court wearing no shoes and repeatedly walked up to the courtroom to listen to proceedings when he shouldn’t have. The lovely detective who took my official statement didn’t think this was right, so he was given a warning to stay away or go elsewhere.

When I had to get up on the stand, I had strips torn off me by her lawyer (I still remember his name), and he manipulated what had happened on the night, where I was a cheese-throwing bitch who provoked the attack. I know that’s what lawyers are supposed to do, but a few minutes into the cross-examination, I was a bawling mess. In fact, he was very capable at making me feel like shit, but I was lucky enough to have the states top DPP who representing me. I also had a wonderful and compassionate detective who actually gave a shit about what had happened. My lawyer made a very strong argument that she was a violent offender, and after an arduous day of court, Mum and I hopped on a train, but as we were nearing home, we were called back.

I had to get on the stand again, and to cut a long story short, the woman who assaulted me was found guilty of grievous bodily harm which meant that she had to pay me a reasonable sum of money and complete 200 hours of community service. What upset and disappointed me the most, was that there was no conviction recorded. In fact, I would have happily done away with the money in place of a conviction. The fact that this person was an occupational therapist working with vulnerable people and who possibly had a drug problem disturbed me greatly.

For the first few months after the attack, I was constantly checking my back, especially when I was at uni. I didn’t feel safe and that really grated me. It lowered my self-confidence and even though I was already hyper-aware of my surroundings after being with my Mum when two piss poor excuses of men who mugged her tried to run her over in a carpark when I was fourteen, I became a little paranoid for a few months and was always at the ready to fight. My nerves were shot, and even someone running behind me was enough to set me off and put me into fight or flight mode – mostly fight mode where my  fists would curl instinctively until the perceived threat had passed.

Looking back, I was so incredibly naive to think that these people were good people. I’ve always looked for the positive in everyone I meet, and while it was a hard lesson to learn, I refused to let my assault dictate who I engaged with, and soon I was feeling more positive about interacting with humans I did not know – I was just a little more selective.

The entire process, from the assault to the court case, exhausted me and my only real escape was studying for my creating writing degree, which ripped me back to my youth where study was my escape from all of the death and suffering that was all around me on an almost daily basis when I was in hospital. Friends deteriorating before my eyes, friends dying, trying to help said dying friends die a more comfortable death, seeing kids pinned down so doctors could shove in an IV or a nasal-gastric tube for feeding. The word brutal  comes to mind again.

I rarely think about my assault, but something a couple of days ago triggered a surge of memories, and I wanted to write about (and share) what happened. Violence is never the answer, and instead of being embarrassed about not fighting back, I’m proud that I protected myself as best I could and that I walked away with grace and my dignity intact.

You may ask why I didn’t just let it go and not report it to the police. I was always going to report it to police because I  was raised to believe that everyone needs to be responsible and accountable for their actions. I found out a few years later that her marriage ended. Did that make me feel good? Temporarily, yes. Now? Not so much. Did I want something awful to happen to her after she assaulted me? Yes. But then I learned that when you dig a grave for one person, you need to dig another for yourself, and that held no appeal for me. Do I hope that she’s now ok? After my own addiction issues, yes. More than ever. I forgave her a long ago, but I will never forget the physical, emotional and spiritual pain she put me through. Spiritual pain? Well, that’s another blog post entirely …

 

 

The power of choice

I made a big decision yesterday. I decided that I no longer need my opiate antagonist therapy. I had planned to stop on my birthday, which just happens to fall on New Year’s Eve, but I’ve been feeling so happy and settled that I knew I could do it. And so I did. The ‘high’ from not having to take the bitter pills I’ve been placing under my tongue for two years was unexpectedly immense. I felt as though I could scale a mountain. I danced and howled at the fireworks that are barnstorming the sky every night before Christmas.

But then the night’s hands stretched towards midnight, and I toddled off to bed where the inevitable withdrawal symptoms began to kick in. I was hot, then freezing cold. I had restless legs and my arms were flailing uncontrollably, so I clamped them shut between my thighs and dealt with it. Because that’s what you do when you make a choice.

I woke up early this morning feeling like I could swoop into the sky with those long gone fireworks, but now I’m a little tired simply because I’m functioning on very little sleep. I don’t know how long these side effects will last – maybe a few days or longer – but they beat being reliant on any substance EVERY FUCKING TIME. I ate a hearty breakfast, downed a legal addictive stimulant coffee and with my full belly and happy heart, I thought I would sleep, but I’m feeling so free and alert that I had to write.

The last two years I’ve been on Buprenorphine have been some of the most memorable and active, simply because I wasn’t wasting my life getting high and sleeping my life away. I got shit done – lots of it – and last year was an incredible year that presented me with some life changing opportunities. This year has been a little more sedate, but just as fulfilling, if not more.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my last appointment with my addiction specialist and we decided that I would stop taking the ‘bupe’ on my birthday so I could start the New Year clean and fresh as a daisy. I won’t go into the specifics of my final appointment, but it was rich with poignancy. I will miss my doctor’s wisdom and his ability to be transparent with the realities about my state of addiction. He has been such a source of encouragement, and when I last saw him, we hugged and exchanged kind words. He also gave me a beautiful healing stone which I’ve added to my mineral collection (or crystals, if you want to call them that).

After ruminating about the supportive relationship with my addiction specialist, I realised that I had met one of the finest doctors who had ever treated me, and I’ve met hundreds – maybe thousands – of doctors. I’ve met doctors who shouldn’t be doctors, but this man genuinely knows how to care for his patients. He knows that their – our – lives are in his hands. He was one of the very few people I trusted to show my TEDx talk to prior to speaking on the day, and he had nothing but lashings of encouragement and praise. He’s the kind of doctor and human being you want as your doctor. He was in my corner from the start and I couldn’t have done it without him. Behold the healing stone …

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Peace. Joy. Liberation. THAT is how I am feeling today, and how I will continue to feel even through the flailing limbs and mad body temperature fluctuations. I will hold that feeling of pride close to me and that is how I will get through, because there is no other way.

I’m excited about a whole gamut of stuff right now, but I’m mostly excited that I can turn that bloody alarm off my phone that used to remind me to ‘dose’ at four-thirty every afternoon. No more alarms. No more bitter pills. No more lining up at the junkie counter at the chemist to be ‘dosed’.

I get to enjoy Christmas with my loved ones with no attachments, and while last year may be tough to beat (I had my sister back, and my parents, her and I danced the night away), I’m not out to break records. I’m here to live, love, be loved and give. It really is that simple. Yes, there have been deep feelings of shame I can attribute to my drug use (and lining up at the junkie counter), but like the scars on my body that whisper to me that I am a warrior, I’m more than happy to share my stories of how I have seemingly conquered my addiction to narcotics.

Now this may or may not interest you, but I’ve been reading a lot of peer reviewed papers and first hand experiences of how psychedelics are used in addiction therapy and to heighten spirituality with the dying. I’m more invested in how psychedelics are used with the dying, and while I wouldn’t do it myself due to the risks to cognitive function and the potential psychiatric issues, I’d probably give it a go if I was at the end of my life. While the potential for dependency is very low, what a ride it would be. Now have a look at this diagram:

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I don’t do alcohol, nicotine and my intake of coffee these days is practically non-existent in comparison to what I used to consume. Prior to transplant, apart from morphine, I would continuously suck on nitrous oxide (Entonox) when physiotherapy became too painful. It helped, but it can cause bleeding, so I was closely monitored and as such never had physio again due to uncontrollable pain. When I was dying, all that mattered was that I was comfortable from both a physical and spiritual standpoint.

Now take a look at where Psilocybin (‘magic mushrooms’), LSD and Mescaline are on the chart. Very low in dependency. It never seemed to hurt Jack Kerouac or Sir Ginsberg and their prolific writing. Until it did. A slew of writers ‘graduated’ to speed, benzodiazepines – and the rest – which inevitably lead to this: ‘Kerouac took so much amphetamine when he first discovered the inhaler high that he lost most of his hair and his legs swelled up with thrombophlebitis.’ Not sexy at all. So while it aided their art for a while, it swallowed them whole and Kerouac was dead at the age of 47. I am eight years away from 47 and do not want to die, so to think I was addicted to narcotics like morphine and pethidine horrifies me, because after heroin, they’re at the top of the list with both dependence and morbidity. Pentobarbital (often marketed as Nembutal) is right up there, too. Nembutal is the choice drug for euthanasia, and cocaine is not far behind.

I’ve spoken at length with friends who have tried all manner of substances over the years: ecstasy, methamphetamine, mescaline and LSD, heroin, morphine, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. That’s right – alcohol is also on the list with a level of high morbidity too. Is this a cautionary tale about drugs? Perhaps.

So enough of the horror for me. Instead, I am going to try to not be horrified with how close I came to death when I was using, but will tap into the subtleties of that emotion when I need to feel proud. Did I win the fight against drugs? Did I win the fight against CF and cancer? Not quite, and for a couple of reasons. I’ve never particularly liked or understood the militarisation of illness or death, and I don’t plan on using that model for how I got through my addiction. I GOT THROUGH IT. And I got through it with support, love, the right medication, meditation, music, writing and fuck off stubbornness. I can’t say that I single handedly came through the other side without help, but I did most of the work myself because I’m not one to ‘lean in’ – I never have been.

Having an addiction specialist and a supportive family was one thing and while I only told a handful of my closest friends, they knew from day one that the only way I get through the really tough shit is on my own. I attribute that to spending so much time alone in hospital once my Mum had to leave so she could love and look after my sister and my Dad. Being alone gives you a tremendous sense of temerity and independence, as well as an imagination to rival Tolkein (although I was never going to be as crafty as he was – not even close).

I’ve never been codependent on another person, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. More often than not, I’ve reasoned that it’s for the best because I’ve always wagered that I will live the rest of my life alone. Except that I’m not. I want to thank everyone for letting me just be. For still loving me. For asking how I’m going. For always asking and accepting that wherever I am, no matter what may be happening, ‘I’m fine, thank you’, even when I’m not.

Endnote: this is what I strutted – really strutted and danced – around the house to last night. Because I’m feeling good.

Why I’m NOT sorry

Today, my friend – the other Carly, Carly Findlay – wrote a shut up amazing piece about apologising and how she no longer wants to apologise for what is beyond her control. Shortly after reading Carly’s piece, I saw the photo Annie Leibovitz took of Amy Schumer in all of her near-naked and non-apologetic glory. I wrote the following on my chasing away salt water page:

I am loving this photograph of Amy Schumer by Annie Leibovitz for the 2016 Pirelli calendar. Beautiful and real, replete with her natural curves and belly. Amy writes on her Twitter account – ‘Beautiful, gross, strong, thin, fat, pretty, ugly, sexy, disgusting, flawless, woman. Thank you.’ No Amy, THANK YOU. 

As a woman with Cystic Fibrosis, I’ve always had a belly (even at 38kg) that I’ve been embarrassed about. Why? The way women who have won the ‘genetic lottery’ are portrayed in the media are partly accountable. Compare the 2016 Pirelli calendar to the 2015 one of highly fetishised shots of ‘supermodels’, and there’s another answer.

I stopped reading ‘beauty and fashion’ magazines many years ago for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there was no substance in the writing, and I felt that the articles were trying to dumb me down even though they carried the token ‘be empowered!’ bylines. They made me feel as though I wasn’t in charge of my life because everything from my personality to my body, my diet and the colour of my skin had to be curated to please others.

The images in these magazines come a close second. They are photoshopped and airbrushed to within a pixel of their life, which is not telling you anything new. Over the last year, I’ve been celebrating my body more and more because it is strong, capable and really fucking incredible. This body with it’s bi-afran belly and beauty marks (scars) has been through dozens of surgeries and survived. It took me a long time to accept – let alone be proud of – my scars, and while these surgeries have shaped me, they do not define me. My body is unique, beautiful, capable and tenacious and that’s something I celebrate every day.

Like Carly, it got me thinking that I’ve been apologising all my life for things that are beyond my control. A prime example is when I would have massive coughing fits for the twenty-one years before my transplant. I would be in a constant state of apology – always to the person next to me (especially if it was a boy) even when they would tell me I had nothing to be sorry about.

But what was I actually sorry for? For not being able to stop the brutal evolution of my dis-ease? For not being able to stop my lungs drowning in mucous where the only way I could get any relief from the crushing pain was to hack up green and brown slugs, or red if I had had a bleed?

I’ve been in bed with lovers and have apologised for my belly and my scars. The thing is – I know they don’t care because orgasms are more powerful than any mark on my body. My scars are a testament to my survival. I started calling them ‘beauty marks’ long ago, but I know that they’re just scars and most humans have them – just maybe not as many as I do. Men are told ‘chicks dig scars’, but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘men dig scars’. These indentations on my body represent my survivorship and they tell me – and others – that I am a warrior.

But sometimes there are apologies you have to make. I’ve done a lot of apologising over the last couple of years because I needed to say sorry to my family for lying to them about my addiction issues.

I was brought up with a fairly strict hand, replete with a really solid set of manners, and maybe that’s why I’m such a passionate apologist. I apologise a lot to men for no good reason, and as a society we’re conditioned to say ‘I’m sorry’ when someone dies. How about ‘that really fucking sucks – what can I do to help?’ Because you can always help.

I was talking to someone on the weekend about Facebook and how my personal presence on there is very small compared to what it used to be. Instead of having 800 ‘friends’, I now have about 80, and a lot of them are for my deathie work. The reason I deactivated my profile and had a ten month Facebook hiatus after I did my vipassana was because I had essentially turned into many of my Facebook ‘friends’ own private therapist.

I love helping people – it’s my passion and purpose – but when people would message me to help solve their problems, I would do the very best I could until I became overwhelmed and needed time out. Yes, I feel guilty when people work out who I am on social media (I use a pseudonym) and send friend requests which I decline, but I can’t be everything for everyone. I won’t say sorry – I’ll just say ‘no thanks’.

I spend time with my family and friends and I hold a sacred and sometimes all-consuming space for my patients and clients. I have learned to let go and learning that was not an easy lesson. By establishing boundaries, I’m happier and feel more secure than I ever have both personally and professionally, and while I have this blog, there are many facets of my life that remain private – things people will never know.

2016 will be my own year of no apologies because I’ve done the hard yards and have owned my shit. I hope this post doesn’t sound intentionally angry, but I won’t say sorry if you think it does. I’ve only ever been able to be aggressive assertive with doctors who have lots of letters after their names because I’m terrible – really terrible – at confrontation. I am, however, very assertive when it counts, like when I’m sick and I need to self-advocate. I’ve advised several mums who have children with CF to ‘get their bitch on’ because sometimes, that’s the only thing that works. Here is my anti-apologist pictorial*:

I will not apologise for not being afraid of my own shadow or loving rock and roll.

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I will not apologise for my pale skin or wearing a bikini with an imperfect body or the tattoo I have loved since I was 19. Or the vein mapping on the left side of my chest thanks to numerous DVT’s/clots.

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I will not apologise for loving minerals. Or rocks, or crystals if you want to call them that. They give me strength, make me feel grounded and bring me back into my body.

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I will not apologise for my bruises you CAN touch.

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I will not apologise for enjoying using firearms in a controlled environment. And besides, if you need any organs, I’m a crack shot.

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I will not apologise for NOT wearing makeup/face paint, or showing my vulnerability on the shittiest of days.

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I will not apologise for demolishing a ginger bread house come Christmas time.

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I will not apologise for only being able to draw rainbows and saying ‘fuck’ a lot. 

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I will not apologise for eating phallic themed desserts. Or any dessert, for that matter. Ok, ESPECIALLY phallic desserts.

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I will not apologise for being a bit of a hippie and banging on my Tibetan singing bowl. I love ritual and ceremony.

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I will not apologise for asking questions and seeking answers.

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I will not apologise for taking bathroom selfies in hospital clothes after I’ve spent time in isolation.

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I will not apologise for loving flowers. Any flowers. 

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I will not apologise for twirling. It’s my thing and sometimes it’s how I get through the day.

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I will not apologise for hugging the shit out of my best friends at every opportunity. Or hugging anyone I like or love. I will not apologise for public displays of affection. If I really like you, I’ll hold your hand and kiss you wherever and whenever the hell I want, and I’ll never be sorry for telling you how I feel. If I tell you that I like you, then I *really* do, and that’s called being very fucking vulnerable. I won’t apologise for that, either.

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I will not apologise for having a medical history that may scare you. It does not define me or my future, and if you can’t deal with stories about me at my ‘worst’, then you will never know me at my best.

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I will not apologise for being a secular chaplain who is spiritual and does not belong to a church. I belong to myself and the people I serve.

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I will not apologise for taking feet selfies, because they are my most redeeming feature.

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I will not apologise for writing every chance I get.

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I will not apologise for knowing my worth.

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I will not apologise for loving my nephews so much that sometimes it scares me.

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I will not apologise for my rad transplant scar and the free breast lift I got from Medicare (and my new vagina). They might be scars (I call them beauty marks), but they’ve made me into a FUCKING WARRIOR. So yeah, fuck ‘sorry’.

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*not an exhaustive list.

Eight years in remission – viva la vulva!

I never thought I would see another eight years. Really, I didn’t. After my cancer surgery in 2007, my oncologist was certain that more cancer would grow, that the surgery I had wouldn’t hold, and that I’d die. Thankfully that hasn’t happened, and today marks eight years since I underwent the surgery to save my life. The icing on the proverbial cake is that I’ve had no more cancer in my vulva (there’s that word again!). Viva la vulva, I say.

I find it quite incredible that in my immuno-compromised body, that I am still alive. And you know what? After what I went through with that surgery, I can hold my head high and say that I deserve it. If I never have to have life saving surgery ever again, it won’t be too soon.

Below are a couple of photos – the first being just before I started throwing massive seizures and went into a coma. Now, don’t I look fucking miserable here? Well, of course I was. I had a broken vagina which is enough to sink any woman. As well as my broken bits, I had skin grafts that possibly wouldn’t take, and a poo bag that had the tendency to explode several times a day. I clearly have a bowel obstruction in this photo – something that wasn’t picked up until too late – and by the next day, my family didn’t know if I was going to die or live out the rest of my days in a nursing home.

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As always, my sister was with me. Here she is standing over me in ICU, and just like when I had my transplant, my family played my favourite music, but even on the suggestion of my friend Kate, not even Axl Rose could rouse me out of this fix. Music seemed to be the only thing that would soothe me after both surgeries, especially during the long nights where everything seemed to go wrong. Think collapsed lungs, bleeding, broken beds (and not in a fun way), and uncontrollable pain. I am so grateful for the kindness of the nurses on the broken vagina ward.

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So what am I going to do to celebrate today? I’m going to embrace the ordinariness of life and start my Christmas baking. I did two practice runs last weekend with my very first fruitcakes and they were a hit. I ate the last slice last night with a cup of sweet, milky tea, but to tell you the truth, I gave most of it away to my folks. My old man is quite the human garbage disposal, and that’s where I get my deadly sweet tooth from. Today I’ll get all of my dried and glacé fruit and soak it in rum for the next month, then I’ll bake the cakes and ‘feed’ them with rum until my family can enjoy a slice or three on Christmas day with the requisite custard.

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I’ve never been much of a baker or decorator, so I was thrilled with how these turned out.

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And so that is how I will celebrate today. Eight years of so many experiences that have shaped me – and I suppose ‘baked’ me to a degree. And that’s ok, otherwise I wouldn’t be at this point in my life. I can honestly say that the view from here is fucking spectacular, thanks to my family, friends, doctors and of course, the choices I’ve made to get me here. Viva la vulva!

Trying to breathe when you are drowning

Ever had a newborn baby put into your arms and breathed them in? Like really breathed them in as though it were your last breath? I’ve been thinking of experiences that trump being high, and this is the most powerful that comes to mind. I have four nephews and was lucky enough to be present (and I mean really fucking present) for two of their births. Aside from when I was dying, I’ve never experienced life in such an intense and all-consuming way that would change me, and even alter the course of what I thought I knew.

I remember a life-altering experience with my first nephew when he was a week young. I was laying down on my sisters couch with his little furled up body on my chest. It was just us and I could feel his tiny heart beating the most beautiful tune I’d ever heard. For about an hour our hearts melded together. That seemingly golden hour – as well as feeding him (with a bottle of course), and sharing a bath with him as he discovered his feet could magically splash water from floor to ceiling, replete with squeals of delight – was as close as I would ever get to feeling like a mother.

It was all kinds of wonderful and gave me the slightest glimpse into the all-encompassing blazing, bonding love and emotion a mother must feel for her child. That fierce sense of protection so they are safe from everything and everyone is something I’ve felt time and time again over the years with these boys, and I maintain that I’m lucky to be alive to be here to see their safe arrival and help shepherd their passage through life. That baby is now thirteen – the other three not far behind – and we share an unbreakable bond. Better than any drug, if you ask me.

After publishing my little essay on addiction, I’ve heard from people the world over who have fought and slayed their own demons. I have also been written by people who are still struggling and who asked for advice. While I’m not a doctor, I’ve found the most important thing is to be supported, whether that’s by your family, friends or a health professional. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been supported by the afore mentioned triumvirate, but now it seems I’ve entered strangers into the mix. Over the last few days I’ve laughed and cried along with every emotion in between, as people have regaled me with their stories – some of desperation and others marked with a stark and ironic hilarity that only a fellow addict can appreciate (think intense constipation and exploding bowels, a la Trainspotting).

A close friend of mine called me in tears saying that she wished she could have helped me; that she had suspected I was on drugs, but she never wanted to say anything in case she was wrong, and that she felt guilty because she could have helped. The thing is – and I told my friend this – no one could help me until I wanted to help myself. 

You need to be ready, and in my case, I wasn’t ready until I’d reached my lowest ebb. I reason that sometimes a flash flood is better than a steady storm. Floods get deep into the pain where you didn’t think it could even exist, and flooded rivers are often a ruse. Smooth and placid on the surface, but venture below the waterline and it’s that surge taking everything with it that will kill you. Trying to get your head above water once you’re under is close to impossible. Your best chance of survival is if a lifeline is thrown your way, but that so rarely happens. Sometimes if your body lands the right way up, you can take a breath – and another and another and another – then you can look around and swim towards the shore. My advice is to swim as hard as you can and don’t stop until you’ve reached dry land.

Lifeline – 13 11 14

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46 36.

I am an addict

I posted a rant on my chasing away salt water page earlier today, much of which I’ve included in this piece. It involves the Cystic Fibrosis community – my community, if you will – and my burning question was this: when will people start taking responsibility for their lives? Why are there GoFundMe pages being created to ask for money so that CF’ers can reap the rewards for doing nothing? You are NOT a special fucking snowflake as the late, great Stella Young would say. You can listen to her fuck off amazing TEDx talk here. Her inspiration porn and snowflake theory applies to the entire illness and disability community. No one is exempt #sorrynotsorry.

I see CF’ers who are diabetic with failing kidneys poisoning their bodies by drinking Coke and eating crap for breakfast, lunch and dinner; pumping themselves full of insulin because they’re ‘addicted to sugar’. Trust me – there are worse things to be addicted to and this is where I share my ultimate shame story for the very first time.

MY NAME IS CARLY-JAY AND I AM AN ADDICT.

As some of you may know, I’ve been addicted to opiates over the years due to the pitfalls of CF, transplant and cancer – morphine, pethidine, oxycontin and more. I mentioned my on/off struggle with being addicted to drugs in my TEDx talk, but when I gave that talk, I had been keeping a far deeper secret I’ve not had the courage to write about until now because of the deep shame that feels like burning kindling in my marrow. Seriously – that’s how it feels. 

In fact, the reason I had to use a lectern during my TEDx talk was because my brain hadn’t recovered from the damage done from the previous two years of drug (ab)use and as such, I felt like an abject failure. I could not learn my eighteen minute speech in the three weeks I had been allotted, and for me this was mortifying. But once I walked out on that stage, I was fine; nerves a distant memory. I owe everlasting gratitude to the very empathetic Lisa Watts from TEDx Brisbane after crying my way through a conversation as to why my brain wouldn’t suck my speech up like the sponge it had once been.

I am well aware that I have paid my donor and her family the ultimate disrespect by getting addicted to drugs. And not just any drugs – schedule 8 controlled drugs as they’re called in Australia. I thought that because I was on prescription drugs and I wasn’t drug seeking on the streets that I was safe; that I wasn’t a drug addict. Except I was.

In fact, I remember my first hit of Omnopon in 1994 after I’d had surgery for endometriosis. It just so happens that the first love of my life was the one who injected me (in a hospital setting, of course), and that’s when the first flush of addiction bloomed. I unknowingly had sent myself to sea in a sinking ship. Marcello said I’d feel a little giddy, but the accompanying rush of ecstasy that washed over me as I sunk into my bed, yet rising into the air at the same time in one beautiful, sweeping motion is something I’ve never forgotten. In 1996, I became addicted to IV pethidine after complications with surgery, needing more and more every day until my doctors brought down my dose enough for me to get home. Funnily enough, I didn’t miss it and got on with life.

It was following my transplant when the seeds of addiction really came alive. My bones were honeycombed from osteoporosis and as such would not heal. My sternum refused to knit back together, and every time I rolled over in bed my chest bones would concertina and I would hear and feel them pop. Up until I had my cancer surgery in 2007, I had never experienced such pain as when my epidural was removed on day five post-transplant. It was as though someone had poured fuel all over my chest and set it alight. When I was discharged, I’d drink my morphine straight out of the bottle like an alcoholic would with whiskey.

After six months, my transplant doctor Scott Bell and my surgeon, Robert Tam sat me down and told me I was addicted to morphine. The first thing I felt was relief, and my first thought was, ‘no shit, Sherlock’. After agreeing to their suggested two week inpatient detox, I went home, poured my morphine down the sink and went cold turkey. I pissed the bed (and the rest), vomited, sweated like a beast in Hades, and felt like I’d been thrown from my skin. When you’re coming down, you get to a point where you feel like you’re climbing out of your own skin and so you actually try. And then, when you’re back in the world of the living, you emerge like a calf being born. Replete with an inevitably messy start, you find your feet, feeling fragile and a little lost. But as the days go on, you get stronger and a little more fearless. On day four, I began to feel human, and for now at least, the ride was over. I had my life back.

My addiction was most out of control when I wasn’t living with my parents. When you have nobody to be accountable to, you can just shoot up and flake out. The second you see that flash of blood in the syringe, you know you’re about to enter heaven, yet you go nowhere. It is like taking the deepest of breaths. That flash of red, so ironically the same colour as the flower it comes from. You feel totally dissociated and disconnected from everything and everyone, but when you’re high you’re hyper-sensitive to other people’s emotions. You laugh and you cry with people and then suddenly, the high has gone and you’re not sure where to go or what to do apart from wanting another hit, although for a few years I went without pain killers altogether. Why? Because I can.

But then 2003 came reeling into me, and sometimes restless rivers run deep. By 2004 I was back in the throes of addiction and I did ridiculous things like inject pethidine and morphine directly into my port-a-cath. That shit was going straight to my heart. Colour me surprised, but I’m lucky that I didn’t stop breathing. Because I’d built up such a tolerance to these kinds of drugs over the years, I reason that that is the only way I’ve survived such reckless behaviour. I have punished myself enough now knowing that I risked my life every day.

2004 came and went and I stayed clean until I was diagnosed with my pre-cancer on my vulva. Yes, my vulva. In order to get the pre-cancer under control, I had to use a drug called Efudix – a topical chemotherapy ointment which is supposed to burn the cancer away. I was on a potent mix of narcotics, but for good reason. My gynaecological oncologist (broken cunt doctor) couldn’t quite believe the doses I could tolerate, but when you have strips of skin hanging off and peeling away from your vulva, you need ALL THE DRUGS.

When Efudix was off the menu as a treatment, I underwent a radical vulvectomy which very nearly killed me. For pain relief, I had an epidural and was on ketamine and morphine, yet the pain team still could not get my pain under control. As I speak about in my TEDx talk, my Dad arrived at the hospital one morning to find me drooling like a vegetable and essentially non-responsive. Not long after I began have tonic clonic (grand mal) seizures and was rushed to ICU. If it were not for my father calling my lung transplant consultant Peter Hopkins, I’d be dead.

Pete told the doctors to rip me off all of the pain medication, which they did. As a result, I went into acute narcotic withdrawal where my body would thrash around the bed – and despite being in a coma – my system was fighting that sudden absence of opiates. To cut a long story short, I survived, had to learn to walk, talk, feed myself and had to deal with a poo bag. I was drug free and wasn’t even taking paracetamol, despite having a few ‘oxies’ left over from before my surgery which I made quick work of in 2008 when I was in the relationship from hell. The ex in question also happened to have a penchant for drugs and ran me dry, which was fine. I didn’t want to be on anything and was happily clean.

In 2013, I’d been back on narcotics for maybe two years. I was going nowhere fast and like any addict, I was always needing more. I would take drugs when I was happy, I would take them when I was sad and I would take them when I was indifferent. I doctor shopped, lied, and had no one else to blame except myself.

There were times when I was using where I had taken far too much because I hadn’t hit that high fast enough. My breathing would become laboured and just to get some perspective, after my cancer surgery I recall having such massive quantities of ketamine, morphine and other drugs that I would often get down to four to six breaths a minute. I remember waking up with a group of doctors and nurses surrounding my bed saying that I’d had ‘a little trouble with my breathing’. They had in fact pulled me back from the brink with a drug called Narcan which is what you see paramedics using on television with people who have needles stuck in their arms (or in Pulp Fiction. That big breath that Uma takes once she’s stabbed through the chest? Bullshit. Sorry to ruin the illusion).

In 2013, I was shaking the hand of death far too often, yet I still persevered with taking as many drugs as I could. I was in Barcaldine when I realised I was in trouble. I was in the middle of nowhere and only had a minute supply of drugs left for the duration of my stay, so I did what any self-serving addict would do and began rationing them out in the hope that my restless legs, vomiting and night sweats would settle down long enough for me to get back to Brisbane to replenish my supply . One of my closest friends and her husband spent some time at my friend’s cattle station with me and while I knew that Nic knew, I said nothing because I wasn’t ready to get clean and as is typical, I refused to ask for help. Nic said later she knew I was in the throes of addiction, but there was nothing she could do until I was ready. I had to be ready, but I needed help like it was yesterday.

A few weeks after I returned to Brisbane, I was having a very casual conversation with my Mum and for some reason I broke down. She asked what was wrong and while she was in the spices section of Coles, I told her that I was addicted again. She lovingly said that she would get me help and that we would get through it. Why we? Because my family and I are a formidable team – my Mum, my Dad, and my sister always offer me a soft place to land.

This confessional does not make me brave. I am not inspiring. I am not that snowflake that so many people wish to be or use as as excuse to be an asshole. I am human and humans are not infallible. I had to earn back the trust and respect of my family which is what hurt the most. My Dad could not believe that I had gambled so thoughtlessly with my life. He said he was disappointed – possibly the most most biting thing anyone has ever said to me. He wasn’t upset, he was disappointed. I cried, said I was sorry, but that wasn’t enough. I am still so, so sorry and am in tears as I write this. You should never have to earn back the trust of your family, but that was something I was so resolute about doing. My sister was incredibly supportive as were the literal handful of friends I told. They let me get on with my recovery, but were there to back me and I can’t thank them enough.

I’ve been clean for two years and while I’ve always maintained I’ve been compliant with my treatment (taking medication, regular check ups, eating well, exercise) I did the unthinkable – I gambled with my life that I’ve nearly lost so many times through no fault of my own, yet here I was throwing it away with every pill I swallowed and every (clean, single use) needle I was shoving into my skin. I only ever took drugs when I was alone.

In regards to the illness and disability community, I see people who are non-compliant with treatment and medication after transplant and other life preserving procedures. Over the years, I’ve seen transplant recipients start smoking again after their lives have been saved and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to keep them alive. Just like my drug addiction, how disrespectful is that to your donor, their family and your medical team? The thing is, I got help because I asked for it. I went to an addiction specialist who put me on opiate antagonist treatment and I’m happy to say that I’m going to be off it for good before Christmas. I saw a great therapist, but after about three sessions my psychologist said I was too well adjusted to keep seeing him. We both believed that I was in a safe space and would not use again. And I haven’t. The only narcotics I’ve had have been when I’ve needed a central line placed in my jugular for IV antibiotics (they can sting and bruise a little like a motherfucker).

So what brought on this confession? This morning as I wrote about Cystic Fibrosis and suffering in general not being a competition, and about the ‘hierarchy of illness’ that has been created over the years, I sensed that I needed to own my shit because I was telling other people to do just that. You have a choice. It’s called being pro-active instead of being a victim. Whether you’ve had a hard life or not, there are many who have had it far tougher than you, but again – it’s not a competition of who is sicker than who, who is suffering more, or who is the most hard done by. If you can get out of your own head and ego, you’ll see that we are surrounded by suffering and we (you) have it relatively easy when it comes to illness. We live in a first world country, have world class medical services and welfare. For fuck’s sake, our transplants are FREE. In the United States, you have to basically crowd fund and hope for the best if your health takes a turn for the worse.

Having an illness or a disability doesn’t entitle you to have a Facebook or GoFundMe page where you’re essentially begging for money, ‘stuff’ and ‘experiences’ like hot laps and swimming with dolphins being given to you for just existing (and shame on you for going to Seaworld. Animals in captivity is cruel. Go and watch Blackfish).

So you – yeah you. Do you actually believe that the world owes you? Because it doesn’t. Life owes you nothing. But you owe life EVERYTHING, so stop being a self-entitled twat. Get a job, get your shit together, get an education or better your skills, get help if you need it like I did (all you have to do is ask), stop the victim blaming, lose the ego and get real. Be accountable and set a good example.

Drugs are a scourge and I know that I will never use again. But how can I be certain? The proof is in the pudding. I’ve achieved so much since being clean. I’ve found my purpose and I am bloody good at what I do. I’ve worked for the first time in years, spoken at TEDx and other events, my writing has been published widely, I’ve been churning out my memoir, poetry and I’m close to having a first draft of a novel I am thrilled with. I’ve made new and lasting friendships with my involvement in palliative care, my death midwifery and the death cafes I host, I started a Masters degree in Spiritual Care and have done my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education so I could become a secular hospital chaplain. Maybe we’re all wounded healers to some degree.

So many opportunities have presented themselves and I’ve been in the right head space to take full advantage of that. Most importantly, I’ve had no cravings for drugs over the last two years because life is enough. I am enough. To be able to write and say that to people is something I’m proud of. Again, it is not so much that I am brave or inspiring. I’m just a human who wants to be a good person – to love and be there for my family and friends, to write like a motherfucker, to care for the sick and dying and to love and be loved. Life really can be that beautifully simple.


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