Photo taken by: Liz Heruska
In June 2011, my prognosis was grave. My medical records and my infectious disease specialist indicated that the bags of chemo dripping into my heart daily had rendered my body incapacitated, inflamed, kaput. The treatment was making me worse. The infection was spreading. The toxins released by the dying bugs and the chemicals were killing me. Lyme disease, and my lovely cocktail of co-infections (Borrellia burgdorferi, Babesia sp., Mycoplasma sp., and Bartonella sp.) had taken hold. The plan: decrease the chemical strength; increase the lactated ringers solution; increase neurotropics, psychotropics, and anti-depressants. Keep her comfortable. Keep the chemicals dripping. Sedate the brain. Sedate Emily. And finally, pray for a miracle.
The part I’m leaving out, is the kicker. The part I hate writing about, talking about, and thinking about–that’s the real thing that was killing me. Everything in the first paragraph comes straight off my medical record. But, what was actually happening to me–to the spirit, to the human, to the person named Emily–was something much more riveting, much more painful, and much more challenging. June 7, 2011 also marked my fifth month of IV chemical treatment, or “chemo,” as it has been so eloquently nick-named. (No, I did not have cancer. Read above. Chemicals kill bugs. Chemical treatment, a.k.a “chemo,” is used in many pathological situations.) June 7, 2011 also marked the night that I hid in the bathroom, locked the door, turned the fan on, and prayed for two things: 1.) my cell phone would have enough signal to make a phone call, and 2.) he would think I was having diarrhea and not actually making a distress call.
Something that night gave me more courage than the day before. Something that night gave me more resolve and clarity than any day before in the previous ten years. Something that night told me to call for help when his anger began to rise. Something that night told me that those arms that were already swinging in anger might be my final end. Something that night told me that this night would be worse than the last. Simply put, I didn’t know if my eyes would open the next morning if I stayed put, with him, that night.
I’m not sure if I have ever been able to put those ten years of my life, or the four years following, in “perspective.” Actually, I know I haven’t. I’ve been ashamed. I’ve been horrified. I’ve been hurting. And for the most part, I have been all of those things with a damn big smile on my face. “I’m a Miracle. According to medicine, I shouldn’t be standing here and breathing.” I say lots of things like that when people ask me how I’m doing, you know, “medically-speaking.” I smile. I hide the pain. I hide the shame. I hide the shame of choosing an abusive, volatile, co-dependent relationship that defeated me. I hide the shame of what those choices did to me and still do to me.
In September 2010, my “world” stopped and my “identity,” and my life’s “purpose” was wretched from my grasp. I was a 26-year-old veterinary student, home-owner, wife, and dog-mom with a plan. My life was on track. I knew WHAT I wanted: to become a veterinary surgeon and a kick-ass mom. I knew WHO I wanted: my wounded and abusive husband. I was achieving things–degrees, surgical skills, and connections with colleagues. I was becoming someone; I had my hand on that white coat. Everything stopped that year when the verdict of my diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment was handed down. Everything got slower. My identity slipped away as my brain function slowed to a halt, and my friends moved on with their studies and their careers (and they had to.) Who was Emily if she wasn’t smart? Who was Emily if she didn’t become a vet? Who was Emily if she couldn’t get A’s on tests? Who was Emily if she didn’t get that white coat? Who was Emily if her husband despised and beat the invalid she had become? How would Emily ever be good enough?
Clearly, I “survived.” Clearly, I rose from the ashes. I destroyed the infectious bacteria’s grip on my body. I walked away from, and stayed away from, the destructive and hell-bent man that I vowed “until death do us part” to. Love found me again, in the form of a gentle and loving companion, and health, has gradually become a part of my life again. My “current” husband, my FOREVER husband, is a gentle man with a big, forgiving heart. He’s compassionate and kind, and I don’t know if he will ever understand me. But he loves me. He loved me sick. He loved me sedated. He married a sick, 29-year- old woman–named Emily– because he saw me, he loved me, and he thought I was worth it. As my health has increased, I’ve started back into my rhythm of attaining that “good enough” status. I have worn myself thin trying to become the best teacher I can be, and I have worn myself thin trying to say “yes” to all that is asked of me. I have worn myself thin, again, trying to be “good enough,” trying to answer those same two questions, “Who is Emily if she didn’t become a vet?” Moreover, who is Emily if her ex-husband despised and beat what was left of her when all her achievements were stripped away? How long will it take for everyone to figure out the same thing that he did: Emily will never be good enough.
This thought process is what almost killed me that June in 2011, and it’s also the thought process that has quietly circulated in the subconscious parts of my mind to this day. This thought process, this lie, is what holds my current health status in limbo and maintains the necessity for the chemical treatments that are still a part of my daily life. And this is the kicker. This is the part I hate talking about. The part I hate thinking about. The part I can’t write about. The part that I hide. The part that I have been hiding for fifteen years. Until today.
My husband and I moved to the middle of nowhere, Floyd County, in southwestern Virginia, last year. We moved here for the peace. We moved here for the culture, the music, the simplicity, and the mountains. We moved here to plant roots and start a family. Today, we celebrated the season of harvest and Halloween at a local farm. Before we left, I bumped into an old vet school friend, an old colleague that knew me as “the girl who almost died from Lyme Disease.” We were in the same class at NC State’s vet school. We were “first-years” in 2008. We were stressed, scared, in debt, and ready to save lives. Today, my old friend is the Chief Resident in his third year at an academic institution. He teaches vet students. He has his D.V.M., and he was glad to see me breathing. Seeing him was brilliant. Discussing medicine again was satisfying. Smiling and laughing with a good friend from vet school was nostalgic, and even a bit melancholic for me, behind my smile, of course. I couldn’t hide from my old friend. He knew my old ex-husband. He knew I chose to have abuse in my life. He knew I hid my illness until I couldn’t hide it anymore, and then, I “disappeared.” He smiled and exclaimed, “I didn’t know what ever became of you… You look great!”
Of course, he asked me the “will you go back to vet school?” question, and I gave him my usual answer, “No. That is over for me. I’m almost 32; I’m still healing; I’m still on treatment; I want a family.” The usual regret sank in. I was reminded of who I was before 2010, before 2011, before the divorce, before the chemo began, before I dropped out of vet school, before I walked away from a hell-bent ex-husband. “I was going somewhere,” I told my husband today after we left that farm, after our conversation with my old friend and his partner ended. “I knew what I wanted in life. I was doing something really important. I was becoming someone who mattered.”
Before I said “goodbye” to my old friend today, he hugged me and whispered, “I am so proud of you!” in my ear. The Chief Resident of Medicine, a guy with a veterinary doctorate, who teaches vet students how to be vets, told me– the “vet-school drop out,” the “abuse victim,” “the girl that almost died from Lyme Disease”– that he was proud of her. Something shifted.
I got home, put on the coffee, and starting typing this. Something is shifting, or maybe something has. Completely and wholly, I am realizing my own worth, my own good-enough-ness that exists regardless of my degrees or my job titles or my lack of that white coat. Today, I realized that “the girl who almost died from Lyme Disease” but chose to kick its ass instead is good enough. Today, I realized that the “abuse victim” who said “enough” and started making better choices is good enough. Today, I realized that being a teacher, or a vet, or a writer, or a drop out, or a sick person doesn’t have a damn thing to do with being good enough.I was born good enough. Emily is good enough.
And, so are you.