In the final installment of our three-part series on Recovery Nicole tells the story of how she fell apart as soon as she got her happy ending, and unpacks the reality of recovery when you live with chronic illness.
After months of trying to come up with an angle for this blog post, I’ve come to a rather startling realization.
I don’t know how to write about recovery.
Our national narrative about recovery is modeled on the classic hero’s journey: protagonist is struck by illness; overcomes trials; triumphs and lives happily ever after. We see this narrative played out in film, television and book. Most memoirs utilize this basic storytelling structure, as does nearly every Oscar winner for Best Picture. Americans are particularly attracted to the “triumph” stage of the recovery narrative because we’re happy ending junkies. Only recently, in this platinum age of television, have we begun to embrace a less triumphant conclusion, and this is perhaps because we live in a less-than-platinum age of America’s journey.
I’ve been on my own happy ending quest all my life. As an abused child I responded to my toxic home environment by hiding behind the covers of books, particularly the idyllic 19th century worlds created by L.M. Montgomery and Louise May Alcott. The heroine’s journeys of Anne, Emily and Jo gave me hope that I could not only survive my childhood but that there was a happy ending waiting for me on the last page.
I survived my childhood, and in many ways thrived, but while Montgomery and Alcott’s heroines experience very real trauma, their narrators tend to gloss over the aftereffects of that trauma. Anne refuses to talk about her past before arriving at Green Gables. Jo experiences no side effects from the Civil War which nearly killed her father. Even Emily, whose grief over the loss of her father is a pervasive presence in the New Moon trilogy, works through her pain on the page and becomes a professional author by the middle of the second book. In identifying with these girls’ quirks and conflicts, I also bought into the fantasy that once adulthood arrived the pain of my childhood would fade into the glow of success. Career. Marriage. White picket fence. At the age of 12 (with some expansions at 19) I mapped out my life. I followed that map with single-minded purpose until receiving my PhD at the age of 31. I got that certificate, landed my first teaching gig and became engaged in less than a year. The horror of my childhood was over. My happy ending was here.
The next part is almost laughably predictable.
I fell apart.
This spectacular collapse began with the smallest of fissures: a leaking blood vessel in my eye. One day a small grey shadow appeared over the printed page. The next a specialist was injecting steroids into my numb, dilated eyeball. The condition is called PIC; it occurs most commonly in elderly patients with macular degeneration. You’ve never known true celebrity until you’re signing release forms so future optometrists can figure out why your 31 one-year-old, healthy, eye decided to behave like an old degenerate. A year later it happened again.
Then there were the long nights of crippling stomach pain; the cyclical trips the ER; the endless vomiting and dry-heaving; the IVs; the befuddled doctors who wanted to run the same laundry-list of tests and began each consultation with the same question:
“What’s your pain level at?”
“It’s a seven…It’s a nine…It’s a railroad spike through the top of my stomach.”
On that first middle-of-the-night trip my husband said he’d never seen somebody vomit so hard; that the wrenching in my gut caused my body to literally lift off the waiting room chair so that, for one brief moment, it was supported only by my forearms and clenched fists.
All the while, as I tried to meditate and write and work through the leaking, gut-wrenching, projectile-vomiting mess that my body had become, every nasty repressed memory of my nightmarish childhood came screaming back into the daylight. I woke in fear, crawled through the day in fear and, when I did sleep, fear tore apart what little sense of safety I’d managed to patch together over the course of the day. My brain responded to this onslaught by fragmenting into three different versions of myself: one at six, one at seventeen, and one at my current age who was trying desperately to fake some measure of normalcy. Which is hard to do when you’re crouched on your mother in-law’s floor, hands over your head, mouth gaping like a fish because you’re in the grip of a panic attack so severe the speech center of your brain has shut down.
First there was Klonopin, half a pill of which made me walk into furniture, pass out on the couch and wake up high. Then Zoloft. Then different antianxiety meds. Then the mood stabilizer dose was doubled. Then another antidepressant which, at a very low dose, finally made me sleep through the night without waking up drugged. A dozen prescription pills a day. Two different therapists. Three different psychiatrists and APRNs. I gained and lost 20-40 pounds. I dragged my sorry self through each endless semester until one day I sat in my therapist’s office and said these five magic words:
“I can’t do it anymore.”
At the time we thought I was talking about academia. I emailed my department heads, removed the parking stickers from my windshield and shredded my IDs. I did yoga, meditated, took walks and baths and diffused essential oils and read every self-help book I could stomach. And I waited.
Waited to triumph over the obstacle of my own brain. Waited for the trauma of my past to fade into the glow of that happy ending. Waited, like a fool, for another map to drop into my lap and show me what path to take out of that hellscape. And in the meantime, life moved on without me.
There is no map for recovery. Hell, there isn’t even a road. To borrow from that classic riff on the hero’s journey, The Princess Bride, “anyone who tells you different is selling something”. You just work, moment to moment, piecing together the scraps of yourself into something resembling a human being. The process is exhausting in a way no one who hasn’t been through it can ever possibly comprehend. If you don’t live with chronic illness, please don’t imagine you can empathize with me. Don’t tell me it’s in the past, because to my brain it isn’t. Don’t tell me it gets better, because for many of us it doesn’t. I am fortunate in my access to healthcare, in my incredible husband, in my increasingly supportive family, and in the grit passed down to me through generations of badass women who didn’t know the meaning of the phrase “give up”.
If you keep fighting, long enough and hard enough, if you’re unashamed to use every weapon at your disposal, be it reiki, acupuncture, micro-dosing or EMDR, I can promise you one thing:
It gets better.
Not because anybody gave you a map or told you to “let it go” or wrote you a prescription. Because you willed it into being and that power – to manifest your own healing – makes you a fucking warrior. Not a hero or heroine who arrives at their happy ending with a few well-placed scars and a three-book deal, but a callous-covered, rough-edged, mud-covered warrior for whom there is no happy ending – but for whom victory is far sweeter for being all the harder won.
In the midst of those six years I dreamt I was riding a tricycle over a bridge. I was just one of a long line of women waiting, patient and cheerful, for the toll booth operator to lift the bar and let us through, one at a time. It was a bright, hot day. I seemed to be the only woman in that line who felt neither patient nor cheerful. “Screw this,” I thought, “I don’t need to be told when it’s my turn to move forward.” In a fit of frustrated energy I abandoned my trike and ran past that line of stationary women. The longer I ran the stronger my legs became until I ducked under the bar and arrived on the shore, where two fishermen stood, lines in the water and nets at the ready. There was a castle on a hill in the distance and I pointed to it, calling to the fishermen, “How do I get there?” They just smiled at me, holding their poles and waiting for the fish to bite. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a dense forest. There was no discernable path. No patch of sky. Just acres of pine trees and the subdued hum of small creatures beyond my field of vision. I was still standing there when I awoke.