I turn 31 on Sunday. A very milestone age, I know. But this year my birthday feels a little bit different than years before. After a grueling fight against endometriosis which left me in the hospital more days than I count, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, my birthday looks like a bright technicolor light at the end of a painful tunnel full of grief and loss. While my friends posted pictures of their new babies and announced their pregnancies over the holidays, I was faced with the decision I never imagined I would be faced with. I had to get a hysterectomy or not survive this destructive disease. Period.
Six months of chemo only left me even more underweight and put me in the hospital at least triple the number of times I had ever been before. I lost my hair, my ability to wear cute clothes, my healthy skin, my healthy nails. I lost my boyfriend of three years when he saw my nice little cue ball of a head. Oh, and this was my second time in five years going through chemo—and my fourth surgery. I fought this beast for over a decade before it finally consumed me to where I could not digest food or be painless for even a second.
The greatest loss came via the hysterectomy. I was always going to have two children (boys— Jack and Sebastian) since I was a little girl playing with my Barbies. I’ve written about them in my prose writing, I’ve dreamed about them, I’ve saved away cute baby items for whenever that day came for me. I knew infertility was possible with my endo, but I was always reassured that since the endo was not directly on my ovaries, I would be able to conceive. False.
So many emotions consumed me during those final days before my surgery. I felt guilty, oh so guilty. I even wrote about the guilt in my second blog, “Almost Everything”: The Ghosts We Will Never Meet, The Craziness That Makes Life Worth Living, The Goodbye Note, The Death Of Words, The Weight Of Dreams, The Hardest Goodbye(Hello). I could not shake the feeling that by having the hysterectomy to save myself, I was killing my future children. And how sad is that?! I even went through six months of chemo, sicker than a dog, just to try and spare their future lives. I didn’t think I could live with the guilt of not having those children I promised a million beautiful lifetimes.
I lost and I lost and I lost…but I also gained.
It’s like God reached down and pruned my life of everyone who didn’t belong with me. From friends to family to my ex…so many people left me 15 pounds underweight on my cold bathroom floor praying for anything but this. It was as if they were waiting my entire life for me to get so weak I could not pick myself up, so they could punch me right in the gut. It literally felt like the world was black, I was suffocating, I might not make it— and the ones I had always clung to left me there to fend for myself. It felt intentional, grotesque, unfathomable. It felt like I was the fool everyone tricked and now as I fought for my life, they stood on the other side of the glass laughing at me.
But then an incredible thing happened— people that I didn’t even know knew who I was sent me prayer shawls, lotion, chapstick, Lemonheads, candles, bubble bath, fleece blankets, sleeping t-shirts, slippers, blank notebooks, fun pens, furry hats. More than that, they sent me poignant Bible scriptures that made me feel God was speaking directly to me. They completely surrounded me with their love and promised me that they would get me through this. And— they did.
While lessons of betrayal, regret, wrong choices haunted me and nearly killed me in my weakest moment, a force within myself kept whispering that this was not all. Those people were not my destiny. That disease was not my destiny. The harder I prayed, the more comfortable (and excited) I got about the possibility of adopting, fostering and/or becoming a stepmom. It was this whole new world I had never explored and by the time the awful decision was made, I was okay with saying goodbye to something I prayed so hard for, and saying hello to a whole new universe.
In my most consuming moment of pain, God gave me the strength to make decisions that I wasn’t strong enough to make for nearly five years— like let my ex walk away, cutting ties with toxic family members and giving unusual picks for me a chance. It’s amazing what you become capable of when it comes to your life versus their pettiness.
Which brings me to perspective. The past eight months have completely changed my entire perception of myself and this world. I am a lot more clear on how capable I am to survive the worst and I see people with such a new empathetic light. I look for different things in people now— empathy, integrity, loyalty., faith. Little things don’t bother me as much, because I am just so happy to be here—-now. The magnitude of strength and grace I have received through the months of barbed-wire tearing through my abdomen, eventually leaving me permanently childless, is worth every single horrible moment I had to live through in order to get here.
So as I head into my 31st year, I enter it with so much less fear than my 30th, or even my 29th. I face it with the armor I built out of months and months of weakness and pain. I see all of the opportunities in life now. I feel God within me, being my strength when I cannot breathe another breath. I hear the lyrics in music more than ever. I taste my food like it’s the last meal I will ever eat. I smell possibility. This world tried to kill me and it did not succeed. And that is quite a hook to hang my hat on. Now when I face a sleepless night of completely destructive pain, I know that I will be delivered. I am 100 percent sure that it is temporary and I will be dancing again and laughing again and doing yoga again. There is no doubt.
After all, I made it to 31. After a year full of heartache, physical destruction and dreams killed— I am standing tall (in heels again!) and full of the deepest faith that runs through my veins. And I am proud of myself. I did this. I kept going when hope was lost. I kept laughing when everyone cried. I moved on when he left me completely, utterly alone. I created new dreams out of the ashes of my old ones. I still prayed when my prayers went unanswered.
Many people told me how proud they were of me, how strong I was, how much faith I had. And all I kept telling them was that I had no choice. I could have survived, or not. I chose to survive. And I don’t think that’s something to be paraded around like I’m some hero or something.
The skills I clung to in order to make it to this blissful other side can be heroic if applied to tough situations. I am proof of that.
So as I so willingly say goodbye to 30, I leave you with these coping skills:
Celebrate The Small Wins
This is one of the best things I learned from my ex-husband. He celebrated everything, I mean EVERYTHING. From a presentation going well at work to our monthly anniversaries to surviving a hard week…He thought everything deserved a martini, dinner and/or flowers. It’s something that has stayed with me and came in very handy over the last eight months. I would always treat myself after every chemo session— whether it was getting ice cream, going to a movie, or going for dinner with family before the nausea set in. After every doctor’s appointment, I’d buy something small for myself. This helped me not fear chemo and doctors appointments as much. I always knew I had something better waiting for me after.
Find Your Midnight Person
This is SO CRUCIAL. This person never changed for me throughout the process. One of my coworkers latched on to me when I first got ill, and never, ever stopped checking in on me and sending me surprise gifts that made the journey a bit easier. When you have someone looking out for you, even at midnight, you fear less and have more strength to get through the tough times. My midnight person is also God. I can talk to Him at all hours about my struggles and that always brings a sense of peace.
I grew up with an autoimmune disorder that I kept very secret. No one knew I was only on the high school campus for half days. If someone bumped into me leaving, I’d say I was leaving for lunch. I was afraid of what catty teens would think of my weak spot. But it only hurt me to keep it all inside. Instead of protecting me, peers made fun of me for being too skinny, too pale, flushed, overly tired— without knowing that I was fighting a disease.
After my divorce, I found I had no choice but to be vulnerably honest if I was going to get through it. Much to my surprise, that was the best gift I could have given myself. People I didn’t even know surrounded me with prayers, grace and victorious stories of their own battles with domestic abuse. And I was just as vulnerable with this fight.
Being vulnerable gives people a chance to understand, help and encourage you. Yea, you might have some a**holes who just don’t get it no matter how vulnerable you are, but the majority of people will want to help in any way possible. It also helps others suffering by providing optimism and hope. They can know they are not alone.
Find Something Stable To Hold Onto
I have been very religious since I can remember being in a toddler chair at my mom’s church circle meetings. God is my stable something to hold onto. No matter how I felt, no matter how upset I got, no matter who walked out of my life—He was there. I knew I would never lose him no matter what. Even if I lost my battle, I would get to see Him on the other side. Find that something in your life. It may be God, it might be a person, it could a pet. Stability is an incredibly necessary (and hard to find) when you are going through the valley.
Let Vanity Go
One of the things I am most grateful for is that this illness forced me to let go of any beautiful image I had of myself and made me rethink what was beautiful. It’s kind of all you can do when you are completely bald. And being less obsessed with my looks attracted an entirely new crowd— like actually nice people. And it got rid of a shallow ex. I realized that a lot of my conforming beauty go-to’s were covering up my genuine self. Not only physically, but emotionally as well. There is nothing better than the free feeling of air on your hairless head and not having to take makeup off at the end of the night. Losing a lot of my shallow attributes, I was able to focus on my soul and put it first in all decisions. As the saying goes— You are not a body, you are a soul. And my how your life can change for the WAY better when you put your soul first.
We all have our own coping mechanisms. Mine are God, writing and my family who is there for everything. Find out what yours are and start applying some of these tips when you are facing your own nightmares. Always look for the positive, always come from the top, always believe that there is always something better waiting for you to exit your tunnel.
I am still in post-op recovery, but I am already feeling 1000x better than before the surgery. I can now realize just how much closer my friendships are, how much more often I call my parents, my increase in conversations with God. Yes, this battle took nearly everything from me, but it gave me so much more. It gave me a new universe to explore. Here’s to 31. Here’s to never taking another year of this life for granted.