Last Sunday, months of ambiguous symptoms yielded to acute pain along the lower, right side of my belly and landed me in the ER. The pain was finally too bad and too loud and too undeniable to ignore.
It was Jesus level pain.
That’s a term my sister and I coined in the delivery room during the birth of my first child when I was in the middle of a contraction and tried to hop up from bed and go home.
I was delirious from pain and didn’t realize I was lying in a hospital bed, fully dilated, ready to push the baby out. I read later that this is actually a documented phenomenon some women go through transitioning in their labor from dilating to pushing. The realness of what’s happening kicks in so hard that it snaps the brain’s circuit board and the next thing you know: nothing is real and you can just walk out of your own labor like a shit show bad date.
After the delivery nurses wrangled me back into place, I started talking to Jesus. Not so much “talking” though. More like violently beseeching.
“Jesus help me. Please help me, Jesus. Oh Jesus. Oh fuck. Oh Jesus. Oh fuck. I can't do this! Jesussssss! Hellllllp Meeeeee!”
That’s how bad the pain was on Sunday. It was drug-free childbirth bad. It was Jesus level pain.
That’s how bad pain typically has to be in my body for me to acknowledge it. I wish this wasn’t true but it is. Even though intellectually I know that avoiding what’s scary disempowers us and makes us less safe, not more, when it comes to my body and the idea that something could be wrong, denial is my go-to response.
I thought about all of this in the ER waiting room during the hours between intake and actually getting into a bed and seeing a doctor. I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, curled up in my chair with a blanket under one of the giant AC vents in the ceiling, and stared out at the other people, waiting, like me, to be seen.
Some shuffled around. Some talked quietly with the companion who’d brought them. Some were bandaged. Some were deathly quiet. A spectrum of suffering and degrees of seriousness filled the space.
A small, black ant marched across the arm of my chair and I squashed it without thinking, then immediately regretted it. I had unconsciously acted out the very scenario I was terrified of: a random death in the midst of life. It felt like a bad omen.
Before I became a mother I was scared of death but it ratcheted up to a whole new level after bringing my children into this world. The fear was more general and dislocated in the pre-motherhood days. Post kids it became specific, like a lens pulling focus.
I didn't want anything to happen to me while they were still young. I didn’t want anyone else raising them because no one else would do it right. No one else would know how long to boil their broccoli or how warm to make the bath or how far to dim the lights after bedtime stories.
Their faces hadn’t finished forming. Their voices hadn’t deepened. There was too much to miss. To even graze the surface of these thoughts was a kind of terror I protected myself from by insisting, firmly, at all times, with everything in me, that everything would always be ok.
Post divorce the fear focused even tighter. The more responsibility I took on by myself, the more severe the fear began to feel. The kids and I were on an island by ourselves now. It was more important than ever that I take care of myself and make the fantasy of my own invincibility real.
Finally the nurse called my name and walked me to a bed. She looked for veins in my right arm while asking me to score my pain on a scale of 1-10.
“Well it comes in waves,” I told her. “So right now I just feel shitty but when a wave comes I feel like I’m dying.”
“So what number should I put,” she asked me, frowning.
“I don’t know. It’s a changey kinda number, you know?”
She just stared back at me completely unamused by my existential take on standard protocol.
Then the doctor came in and took over. He pressed on all the parts of me that didn’t want pressing. He ordered tests. He asked how long I’d been feeling symptomatic.
“A few… months,” I told him.
“A few months?”
“Well, yes. But it hasn’t been this bad the whole time. It’s been a few months of just… not feeling like myself. And then all of a sudden today I was in massive pain.”
I felt ashamed to hear my own voice telling on myself in this way. For months I’d been feeling off and ignoring it and now here I was in the ER. For months I’d been going directly against everything I believed in and would have prescribed for anyone else I loved.
Was I not properly loving myself? Was that the real problem?
But sometimes denial is a way that we love ourselves. It’s protective. When we’re not in a place that’s supported enough and safe enough to open to the realness of something potentially being seriously wrong, that part of us that loves and mothers us cradles our head to its fat bosom and says: “There, there now. You can think about all that later.”
They took my blood, gave me a shot of morphine, ran me through a CT scanner, hooked me up to an EKG machine and sent me for an ultrasound at 1:30 in the morning. Finally the doctor came back to my little room in the ER to report that it was a uterine fibroid and not my appendix or my kidneys that was causing the acute pain on the lower, right side of my belly.
Also, I had tested positive for Lyme disease so that could explain the vague, ongoing, not-myself-ness I’d been experiencing over the past months.
This was all good news - a clear diagnosis and no surgery needed - but I felt no relief. At 2:45a it was announced I would be discharged, given prescriptions for various medicines and could follow up with my regular doctors for next steps.
At home, I sat up in the bed lapping soup like a desperate, stray cat and shivering frantically. The morphine was wearing off. My fingertips were blue and the pain was returning. I stood on the shore of the present moment and watched it forming like a wave on the horizon line, coming toward me with a kind of inevitability that made me wish for a disappearing spell.
But there was something beyond a foaming lip that the wave was carrying. There was a terrible, terrible sadness tangled up in it. Like the front fender of a car dredged up by the ocean: Here. This doesn’t belong to us. It’s your junk - you deal with it.
All of a sudden my throat closed like it was being gripped from the outside. An onslaught of tears jammed the pipeline. They were coming faster than I could squeeze them out. My head throbbed with the force of their momentum.
What was happening?
The thought formed in my mind faster than I could process it: I wanted to go back to the hospital.
I wanted to crawl back into that bed with the big remote control. With the TV buttons and the night nurse button. Buttons for comfort. Buttons you can press and someone comes to you and asks you what you need. I wanted those buttons. I didn’t want to ask anyone in my house for help. I didn’t want to have to open my mouth and negotiate with my tears and hear my voice say the words: “I need.” I just wanted to be admitted to a place where it was already a given that you need help. A legitimate, acceptable truth. No big deal. The whole reason you’re here.
When a friend of mine was little he hated buttons. He used to rip them off his shirts and flush them down the toilet. He made his mother mental. We used to laugh and laugh over that story. But now I longed for those flushed away buttons. I could see them bobbing along the sewers of the underworld. Hundreds and millions of lost buttons.
I saw the buttonhole from my favorite Naomi Shihab Nye poem - the one that was famous “not because it did anything spectacular,/but because it never forgot what it could do.”
I saw the buttons on the back of a vintage dress I used to wear and remembered packing it when the kids and I moved houses post divorce, thinking: who will button my dresses for me now? Will I have anywhere to wear them?
I must have passed out at some point during the button cry. I woke however many hours later to the sensation of my phone buzzing somewhere in the bed and the room filled with a kind of early morning brightness that felt stabbing.
I reached around the mess of blankets beside me with my eyes closed. I found: a sleeping poodle, a laptop charger, discharge paperwork from the hospital and the hoodie I’d peeled off of myself in the middle of the night.
The buzzing stopped.
I tried to open my eyes but they were unopenable. I needed water desperately. Every pore in me implored my brain but my brain said: no. My brain said: don’t move, stop moving. My phone buzzed again. I reached again. This time, mercifully, I found it: underneath the sleeping poodle.
I tried to open my eyes and was able to a little bit this time but everything was a smear of dull light and colors. I couldn’t figure out who had been calling me or how to transport my body to the bathroom where all the things I needed most were waiting: water, toilet, warm washcloth, eye drops, face cream.
I focused on wanting all of this enough to move toward it. It’s amazing what the power of wanting can will us to do.
I thought about Caroline Myss, the spiritual teacher and medical intuitive. She said at a certain point, when reading people’s illnesses in the energy field of their bodies, she realized she was seeing the points where they were hemorrhaging power. The power leaks were where the illnesses were taking place. She realized that when we talk about health and illness and healing what we’re really talking about is our capacity to hold our power and the stuff that goes down in our lives that yields to us giving it away.
I mozied toward the bathroom in super slow-mo, like an elderly person who’d misplaced her walker. Everything hurt. I imagined my power leaking as I made my way down the hall; my life force streaming out behind me, like chemtrails. The untouchable, inner, not-sick me wanted to run behind myself, gather it all back up and shove it back in like stuffing.
But a louder thought flashed on instead. It said: “Let it go. This is not a time for gathering. It’s a time for falling apart.”
Finally I was in the bathroom. Finally I was washing my puffy, cry-tired face and drinking water
from my cupped hands, as grateful as a desert flower.
I noticed two orange bottles of painkillers and antibiotics sitting on the counter, next to the bathroom sink, with a note. Someone who loved me very much had gone and picked them up for me. I hadn’t pressed a button. I hadn’t spoken the words out loud. My needs were anticipated and met. Like an unfamiliar kindness. Or a magic trick.
Maybe this kind of magic is the truest kind of love there is.
Maybe, if leaking our power away is what makes us sick, allowing ourselves to be loved and cared for, in our ugliest, hardest hours, is what bridges the tear and makes us whole again.