Written on my body, steeped in my heart

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Grief is just love with no place to go.

Paul Denniston, Grief Yoga

I had a minor operation yesterday and there was a moment, as I put on the surgical gown and covered my feet in those blue plastic overshoes covers, when my body started to shake. I guess it remembered all the other times it had dressed like that and what came next.

By the time I walked into theatre, I was super teary and it took me all my strength to continue, my limbs were so heavy and I was short of breath. The surgeon asked me if I was okay as I reached the middle of the brightly lit, sterile room and sat down on the operating table.

I said that I was, because really, I was.

It was going to be unpleasant – I didn’t want to be cut with a scalpel until I bled in areas that I don’t normally talk about in public – but it was minor compared to the other surgeries I have had. As I lay back, I noted that my quivering body couldn’t tell the difference. I explained how I was feeling to the surgeon, and wondered aloud if we ever move on from our life experiences. She said, as she administered a local anaesthetic, that she wasn’t sure that we did.

I have silver trails across my torso that map the journey of my life experiences. These trails were once stitches that held together my muscles after they had been sliced open and peeled back to take out both my babies and to cut away the cancer that would have killed me.

Surgery, to me, is what Glennon Doyle would call brutiful, a mash up of brutal and beautiful. Brutal, because it is bloody and requires great strength. I remember my Auntie Betty telling us how she wished she could have had a general anaesthetic as he was bloody sawing away, ‘he’ being the surgeon who was giving her a knee replacement. Beautiful, because it takes great skill to cut and sew up human skin, sinew and muscle. My scars are nothing short of beautiful.

The gift that keeps on giving

During these theatre trips, my nerve endings were destroyed but amazingly, they eventually knit themselves new pathways so that I could feel again. As the left side of my body healed where I had had radiation it felt like butterflies rose up under the skin causing a sensation on that edge between agony and ecstasy. The fluttering crossed over the tattoos which mark the exact boundaries of where the radiation was administered. Like all powerful medicine in the best stories, it has to be used carefully, as it can heal or harm in equal measure. I was told that radiation is a gift that keeps on giving, which is why the butterflies came and went for several years afterwards.

Later on, I got other tattoos to cheer me up and made my scars fade into the background. I thought of covering the small radiation marker that is in my cleavage but couldn’t decide what tattoo to get and so it is still there, like a secret symbol. A couple of times I’ve been in conversation with someone who has noticed and tacitly understood where I have been and what I have lived through, and I know this because each time an unspoken softness has come into the conversation shortly afterwards.

The map which is written on my body is like a prized one in storytelling. It is not for the faint of heart, and the journey it represents is not for the uninitiated.

That said, as much as I am enjoying waxing lyrical today, don’t get me wrong, every experience I had was completely unwelcome and unwanted. In my personal opinion, to say anything different, i.e., all that cancer is a gift bollocks, is just deluding myself. What I can say, in all whole-heartedness, is that in amongst the angst and awfulness, I recognised many moments of loveliness and kindness that I might have ordinarily taken for granted but in those circumstances made the unbearable, bearable and that was a gift I gratefully received.

If I had to learn whatever lessons cancer and illness taught me, I would have preferred to learn them through wonderful, joyful experiences, not the traumatic ones I actually had, because it seems that my life history is not only written on my body, but it is steeped in my heart and permeates every cell that bubbles up and infuses every new experience with old trauma and grief. Oh how I wish I could marinate in joy.

Research shows that our primitive minds are not designed to deal in joy, they just want to keep us safe and they do it with fear.

The body keeps the score

In his book, The body keeps the score, Bessel van der Kolk discusses at length the ways all types of trauma from various life experiences including abuse, childhood neglect and so on, cause damage to our bodies. It is an intense read of why and what, whereas Transforming Trauma, by James Gordon, is a how. It presents different techniques to reset our vagus nerve and rewire our neural pathways so that we can feel better. Gordon points out that the word trauma actually means injury in Greek but feeling good takes healing work and some creativity.

Grief specialist David Kessler, over on Commune says that trauma often comes hand in hand with grief, and grief comes in all shapes and sizes. We grieve the loss of a loved one, a job, a way of life, the death of a pet, the end of a marriage, the rupture of a friendship, loss of a body part, or a major organ. He say that the key to the moving on, I was so desperate to achieve yesterday, is not to think we should move on or get over it, but we need to learn to grow around it and not think that that this is who we are now forever. We have to remember that we are constantly changing.

Kessler says that bereaved means robbed in Latin and we have to restore what was robbed in order to feel better. This begins by not judging ourselves whether we are dealing with fresh grief or an old wound coming up, for we often have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and other people. It is our job not to abandon our grief and sadness, regardless of what society and other people tell us. Our feelings matter, we matter.

Often in times where we feel lost and helpless we turn to anger, I know I do, because anger seems more acceptable whereas grief is an emotion most people don’t like even though he says that technically speaking we all have to experience it.

I come from a long line of dead people.

David Kessler

We are hardwired to experience grief and loss, but today’s society doesn’t allow for that. He says it’s our job to give the losses in our lives meaning and to ask questions of ourselves and others. And, in the space where there is no answer, no atonement, no sense, no justice, we have to create our own. We have to tell the story of what happened in a way that satisfies us.

Love and laughter

And I guess that is what happened to me yesterday. I acknowledged my trauma in theatre, and the losses I have experienced, and the lovely medical staff saw me, heard me, and validated me. Of course I would feel that way, they said, of course I would. My body settled down, and the surgery went well, and then my husband brought me home and we bickered about which roads to take until we ended up laughing hysterically doing bad impressions of each other.

And, in that moment, I said to myself: So what if I have tension and trauma soaking in my cells, so what. I also have love and laughter, joy and happiness, ready to bubble up in an instant as powerfully as the trauma does, because I was weak with laughter in the car on the way home. And this, is the duality of life, the dance of life, two steps forward and one step back, of grieving and healing, sorrow and joy, tears and laughter. There is space for everything, every emotion, all of them. Some days, such as yesterday, I get to live them all in the space of an hour, like a rollercoaster. I was knackered when I got home, and slept for the rest of the day and night, but today, I can definitely say, as sore as I am, what a ride.

And so it is that I have come to realise that I am constantly marinating in so much more joy than I know. True or less true, who cares? It is a story I am already loving to tell myself, a satisfying one which gives me the answers I need.

10 comments

  1. Very good Ruth. A deeply personal blog but cogent all the same. Hated the story (from an emotional perspective!) loved the writing. Much love to you Ruth your journey has made you the person you are today. Your strength keeps you here.

  2. Ruth, what a perfect expression of being alive in the grief and the joy! This afternoon I sunk into some bogs of anxiety and fear about my health. I told my husband how I was feeling and he’s so used to it now that he just listens patiently as I notice myself feeling better and hearing my rational voice saying everything is OK. And then I went for a walk and the air was fresh and the trees were green and i felt the joy and the grief went back into the bog for a while. I know it will be back, Abbas I’ll have to deal with it again, but at least I know that it doesn’t define me alone.

    1. Thanks Nina, so sorry to hear about you sinking into the bogs, bless you, I know that feeling. Glad you got to go for a walk. It is exhausting wrestling with our minds. Sometimes I wish I could just switch my thoughts off. Today, talking to you lifted me up and made me feel so much better, so thank you for that lovely lady. Take care and speak soon xx

  3. Thanks for sharing. I had such a similar hospital experience recently and for the first time in 20 years I felt able to explain it and discuss it with the team caring for me that day. I wonder if the patient wearing a mask enhances the medics looking at your eyes? And really seeing the fear and feelings you are somehow more able to hide when your whole face is able to go to work?

    Their response was stunning and so utterly caring beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in 7 lots of gynae surgery and I’m so glad I spoke up. I’m hoping it means any future ops will be less traumatic.

    I hope the same for you and loved your laughing car journey home x

    1. Hi Kate, so glad that it resonated and thank you for your lovely wishes for the future, I hope so too and wish you the same too. Though after writing this blog, just acknowledging that I get all traumatised has already made me feel better, like I don’t have to fix it anymore, it just is, and I feel lighter. Take care, Ruth x

  4. Once again an inspiring piece of writing Ruth .So much thought and connection embroidered in . I definately think that book of yours would make an excellent read and i will wait in anticipation of its completion . No one can truly know or understand your individual journey but you express your feelings in a way that the reader can at least give empathetic support and response xx

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