My Surgery Epilogue
***I wrote this 6 weeks after my surgery. I never published it because somehow it felt too personal…or maybe I felt I had already published enough about my boobs and didn’t want to drone on about it. I re-read it today and decided I want to share after all.
I was an anxious young girl. The kind of anxiety that comes from being neglected as a child. I began having panic attacks around age 13 that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. My throat would tighten up and I wasn’t able to take a full breath.
My doctor re-diagnosed me with asthma, which seemed reasonable. I had asthma as a very young child — presumably from living with parents who smoked freely in the house and in the car with the windows rolled up — as parents sometimes did in the 1980’s.
My first diagnosis fell off sometime around kindergarten when I started regularly spending time outside of the smog in my home. Having access to fresh air did wonders for the health of my lungs.
But at 13, I found myself unable to breathe, yet again.
Starting in junior high and continuing through high school, my chest randomly tightened almost daily while I was at school. I panicked and exited my classrooms without warning. The teachers were aware that I was prone to these episodes and ignored me as I bolted out of class. They knew stopping me wasn’t going to help.
I’d walk the halls with my inhaler, wringing my hands and taking more puffs than prescribed, wondering why the medicine wasn’t working.
Every attempted breath was preceded by terror. I constantly imagined taking my last breath right there in the blue, locker-lined halls, with so many people just behind each of the classroom doors — but no one who could help me.
My body would be found, pale and lifeless, by my classmates when the lunch bell rang.
Irealized decades later that I didn’t really have asthma. There was no physiological cause for my inability to breathe. The source of the attacks was my anxiety at being alone in the world that I acquired from being a neglected child — they were an acute manifestation of my fear.
“Someone please save me!”
But either no one could, or no one would.
I only had me and I was terrified.
I knew I wasn’t enough to save myself.
Shortly thereafter, I developed an arrhythmia — an irregular heartbeat. Starving yourself will do that to a person.
No one could help with that, either. I’d keep myself awake all night, scared of the dark. When I finally gave in and closed my eyes at 3 am — after even my most rebellious friends couldn’t stay on the phone anymore — I slept with the light on, convinced that if I turned the light off, my heart would stop and I’d die in my sleep. Somehow the light kept my heart beating.
Still, I had visions of what was destined to happen. They’d find me dead in my bed in the morning. Surrounded by my family, but no one who could help.
Six years later I married a nurse.
He seemed funny and said he loved me and promised he would never leave. Six weeks after we met, we were engaged. I had just turned 20. I still couldn’t breathe. Or eat. And despite all of his medical expertise and good intentions, he couldn’t help.
I still only had me and I still wasn’t enough.
Eight months later I gave birth to a brand new heart and a new set of lungs. My oldest daughter was obstinate and headstrong. I immediately knew that she was enough. Or — more accurately — she made me enough. I no longer had the luxury of panic. If I couldn’t breathe, neither could she. If I died, she would die, too.
So I didn’t die. I breathed. I let my asthma go.
I didn’t need to cry for help anymore.
The depth of her need, coupled with my love for her, was the most stabilizing force I had ever encountered.
I was no longer alone. I stopped having visions of my death by asphyxiation because I couldn’t have them without imagining her dying, too. And I would not let that happen.
By saving her, I was able to save myself.
But my heart remained damaged. It still is and it always will be. It has scars and will always be just a little bit weaker — I’ll need to breathe a little bit deeper than everyone else. I sigh frequently during conversations and people often presume boredom or exasperation.
I smile when I get that curious look and say, “Just breathing”, before they even ask.
I usually don’t elaborate that my heart just needs a little more oxygen to compensate for my self-inflicted wounds.
For the baby I had and the babies still to come, and with the help of my therapist who had seen me through the most difficult moments in my life, I found a way to cope with the anxiety that accompanied my irregular cardiac rhythm.
When I felt my heart start to skip and slam against my rib cage, I closed my eyes and put the palm of my right hand just left of my sternum, over my heart. I covered my right hand with my left hand and embrace the rhythm and its beautiful irregularity. The heels of my hand absorbed the beats, grateful that they were even there, irregular or otherwise.
I imagined the warmth of from my hand as pale pink and yellow and I directed it to flow through my ribs and radiate into my chest, bathing my heart with love and gratitude. I held my breath and let the colors seep into the weakened muscle fibers, reinforcing them with grace and light. Then I felt my heart speak back — pulsing — reaching toward my hand, and I gratefully accepted the reminder that it, indeed, continued to beat.
My heart and my hand would connect. Interlock. Reinforce.
Sometimes that ritual alone would soothe my heart back into a stable rhythm. Sometimes it wouldn’t. It didn’t matter because it wasn’t the outcome that made the difference; it was the process — the connection between my mind and my body. I needed connection in my life anywhere that I could find it.
I accepted that didn’t need the beats to be regular. I just needed my heart to continue to beat. And it did. And that realization calmed me.
I was finally enough — my value on loan from my daughter.
When I was 26, I got breast implants. They were oversized strangers who took up residence in my chest.
I remember the first time, in the drug-induced haze of the week following surgery, that my heart began to protest.
My body was asking for reassurance. I closed my eyes and reached for my chest with my right hand.
All I felt was searing pain, obfuscation, and inflammation.
My hand couldn’t feel the beats and the colors couldn’t reach my heart. I couldn’t connect.
The spot that seemed to have been molded perfectly for the heel of my hand was now impeded with plastic and saline.
The was no detour around it to be found.
By that time I had two babies and no space in my life for anxiety. I grieved the loss of my coping mechanism and learned to employ some other less effective methods of calming my heart. My doctor advised me to hold my breath and bear down during the arrhythmias and that my heart would “reset”. This helped my normal rhythm recover but didn’t help my anxiety.
I put my arrhythmia on “ignore” unless it started full-on screaming at me. Then, as instructed, I’d hold my breath and bear down and force it into submission by artificially increasing my blood pressure.
I guess that worked okay because I’m still here.
Thankfully, my babies kept me too busy to worry much about my heart.
13 years later, I had my implants taken out.
It’s now been six weeks.
I was up at 4 am this morning with my 8-year-old. I heard the door to her room open and met her in the dark, just paces outside of her room. I ran my hand over her little forehead. wiped the dripping sweat from her fevered brow, picked her up, and carried her to a cool bath.
As sat in the dim light of the bathroom, darkness pushing in from the hallway, my presence bringing her more relief than the cool water I was pouring over her body with a little blue plastic cup, my heart began to jump.
Like so many times in the past 13 years, my right hand twitched to reach for my chest but didn’t follow through, remembering that I wouldn’t be able to feel the pulse. And then I realized that it actually would.
The obstruction was gone.
Like an old friend that you haven’t seen in a decade with whom you pick up right where you left off, the heel of my right hand found its home on my sternum, my left palm settled on top of my right, and they both reconnected with my heart. I can’t imagine a moment where I needed it more. My hand spoke to my heart, and my heart spoke back.
My daughter noticed. She reached for my heart and wanted to feel it, too. So I put her hand just left of my breast bone, covered it with both of mine, and we were still. Her eyes darted up and met mine and she smiled.
“It’s so strong, mama!”
Her hand spoke to my heart this time. She made the connection. Her colors were different.
I don’t think she saw my tears.
Because she wasn’t looking for them. She doesn’t understand that I’ve been operating on borrowed strength from her and her sisters.
And through my chest, it was her own strength she was feeling.
She’s the one who’s not afraid of the dark.
It’s now 4:45 am.
My little one is back in bed, dozing, with a glass of ice water and a fan — her little naked body cooled and peaceful.
My bedroom is directly above hers, at the top of a spiral staircase twelve feet straight up.
I lay on my back, heart still in my hands, tears soaking my face and my pillows, reliving the moment less than an hour ago that her little hand felt my heart for the first time since she lived inside of me.
This is the gift I get to keep. My reward for doing right by my body. I’ve been granted access to the place I’ll find peace when questions go unanswered and the dark seems so scary.
It’s the place I’ll find the strength to be enough for them.
My explant gave that back to me.
I’ll always be grateful.