Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fate, Costochondritis, and the Desire to Write Honestly

This is going to be a blog of all over the place while in the same place, a seemingly disparate group of threads that end up swirling together in a random mix. It is today and yesterday and and a few days before that. And all of those moments combined with the beginning, which was a handful of days that happened last year.

Yesterday was spent in the sensation of drowning--me, the editor hard at work on multiple projects--flailing in repeated waves of chest tightness and bound up in the feeling of someone stepping on my ribs, all the while moving through the day trying to focus, act as if nothing was wrong and reminding myself to remember that I was alright, that it was nothing more than costochondritis ("an inflammation of a rib or the cartilage connecting a rib") and working despite and around the fact that for at least 90 percent of the time I was thinking about my heart (the situation that led to the costochondritis was inevitably unearthed by it) and falling lost in the feeling of suffocation as I resited the urge to panic.

I am writing about this because when I started this blog, I promised myself I would be honest, that I would use it as a place to openly talk about the phenomenology of my experience, and that I would say whatever I was compelled to about the experience of almost dying. Not because I think I am so important that the world needs to listen to ME, but because I was so lonely and afraid as I lay in my hospital bed in the cardiac ward after surgery. I still remember thinking a lot about how I was just one sad and scared body in one room in a hallway of seemingly endless rooms with a lot of other undoubtedly sad and scared bodies. I remember thinking that at some point, when I was OK again, that I wanted to put those feelings, that empathy, to use. (Referring to myself and the others in the ward as "bodies" is apropos, because the days after surgery, like yesterday, were defined by moments of drowning, of feeling lost in my own flesh.) I decided to write whatever came to mind because I think someone out there who has hung out in cardioworld too may find something of value here. And I also write because I think honesty is imperative in relation to the near-death experience. It is easy to move to the "let's just think happy thoughts" place, but that isn't real. And catastrophe is a part of this strange thing called living and there is not reason to write as if it isn't.

And now, back to yesterday:

Later, in the middle of the night last night, when the sudden thunder woke me up, I realized that the not-able-to-breathe day had been caused by the coming storm. The shifts in the barometric pressure and the fluctuating temperature had triggered an intense flare up of my now ever present, sometimes sleeping, but too often raging costochondritis friend who has burrowed in and set up shop around my ribs. This is one of the things that can happen after a sternectomy. It is part of the new me who still catches me off guard.

Oh, costochondritis, you fancily named, five-syllabled reminder. Thank you for inhabiting my body and giving me the opportunity to think about my almost-death as I tried instead to edit well ...

Of course, that ode is tongue and cheek as I would much rather have never encountered this new inhabitant at all. Just as I would have preferred to never run into those ripping arteries that have led me to this. To this blog. To this moment. To this night when I feel better and the stifled breathing is for a moment just a memory I choose to write about.

This weekend I encountered the unexpected vehement frustration of someone who could not believe it when I said I would take my heart attacks and surgery back. In her mind where I am now is a result of fate and something that happened to show me my purpose in life. By saying I would take it back, I suppose in her mind I was somehow scoffing at this opportunity and denying the gravity of the situation and the gift it has provided.

According to this view, I am alive because of fate. I had my heart attacks because of fate. I had a bypass all because of fate. The universe somehow got itself together to mix things up in such a way that in July of 2009 I received this fabulous event that would reveal (in part) to me my purpose. So I suppose I could have sat at home and not had surgery if it were my fate to survive anyway? Forget the scientists and the doctors, nevermind the ER staff and the nurses, skip past the anesthesiologist and the perfusionist: let's be sure to not thank them!

Yesterday, for whatever reason, conditions converged in such a way that my flare up of costochondritis was the worst it has been since I first had symptoms of it earlier this year. Usually it's achy and I feel like my breath is a little shallow. Yesterday, however,  the tight, throbbing sensation in my rib cage made me feel like I did just a few months after surgery when I was still healing. Not only was it intrusive physically, but mentally as well. The pain was a reminder, carrying me right back to those days when I was still wondering if I would live.

So ... would I take my heart disaster back?

Well, what do you think? And my life, by the way, I wanted to say the other night (and actually did say to some extent) was just fine before it happened. I actually had plans and felt like I had purpose. I lived my days encountering those others and those moments that continually give life meaning and point you in the next direction. I don't know if I would have said I knew what my Purpose was with a capital P, but I don't believe there IS any such thing as a ONE grand Reason for a person's life anyway, at least not in the sense that it is written in a book by another's hand and at a distance. Instead I continue to dwell in the world of the moment to moment, day by day, one encounter then another. Because isn't there sufficient meaning and purpose there, without taking it to the next level and insisting on having my life inscribed as part of some Grand Narrative?

So no, my heart attack and surgery are not things that I will ever call good. I will never be thankful for them. I would rather they hadn't happened. They were random events that happened to me. Just like random events that happen to biological bodies all the time. No stars converged to send me a message. No fingers reached from the universe to say hey, let's give these coronary arteries a little tug. It just happened. And here I am. Thinking about my life in ways that I hadn't thought about it before from a perspective I didn't expect. But it isn't "better" or "desired" but just something that is.

And of course, it hasn't killed me, and in some ways I may have even become stronger because of all of it, but it could also be true that I have gotten through the situation by relying on strength and the love of others that I already had. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" isn't so cut and dry. We live and we are wounded. We live and encounter setbacks, disasters, losses, and all kinds of chaos. What doesn't kill us may not always make us stronger. Sometimes events that happen simply change us, scar us, build up our immune systems a bit, and leave us changed and permanently altered as we look around us and gather our new selves up again, while possibly always on some level missing the ones we were before.

One night, as I lie there in the hospital last summer, a code red alert sounded. I listened as nurses and doctors ran down the hall. Someone was dying. I was alive. If my "fate" was to live because I had a purpose, does that mean the dying one didn't have a purpose or get the same chance to find out what her or his purpose was, after surviving such a horrible thing? To answer yes, would mean I find myself just a bit more special, would mean I deny the random, and would mean I deny that I simply got lucky.

So, fate?


And the ache of costochondritis days making me stronger?

Not really. It's more a matter of getting used to it, taking more ibuprofen, and simply finding ways to deal, but I certainly wouldn't mind if it decided to go away.


  1. Thanks for being honest. If you would rather it not have happened, then that is the truth. I wouldn't say what happened to you physically is anything I would sign up for.

    There are some physical events I would not change or undo. This includes pregnancy, labor, and birth. I was extremely sick the entire pregnancy (hyperemesis gravidarum), and labor and birth was fast and intense with no drugs . But I wouldn't take those experiences back. Partly because they didn't truly harm me long-term and partly because it gave me experiences that provide some food for thought. Yes, they resulted in a cool kid, but I could have had a cool kid without hyperemesis and my labor could have been slower and easier (I would have chosen an epidural had there been time). I think the physicality did alter me mentally--and for the good. And as I said, I'm no worse for it physically.

    But sickness and accidents and diseases? No thanks. I can see why you liked yourself and your life just fine pre-costochondritis. I will say, you probably did gain something intellectually and mentally (knowledge about medical stuff, empathy), but worth it? Hmmmm.

    Great post. Take your ibuprofen and soldier on.

  2. What? No reliance on sympathetic magic?

  3. Lori--all this makes me think of the eternal return, of course, but I can see why you would have a problem with it. Deleuze writes somewhere that repetition or return can only happen in relation to difference--it is always a repetition of difference rather than of identity, and since difference is another word for creation, it seems to me that your artistic work and writing are quite amazing affirmations of your life in its absolute singularity. I'm not sure if that's helpful, though... In any case, I find your way of coping amazing and inspiring--Go girl!

    Also, I agree with the first post: painkillers are your friends. A good one I've discovered recently is called vicadent--it's a really nice trip (which is what I use it for)...