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running from life - a surgical marathon

Running from Life and Onto the Highway – A Surgical Marathon

by Matt Pappas

Do you know the feeling you get when you run? The harsh pounding of the wind against your chest, your legs jolted by the bounce on the pavement, the endless expanse of clouds swallowing up every other thought in the world? In that moment, nothing exists but the feeling of flight.

I’ve never run – or wanted to run in – a marathon, but I have been through a marathon of surgeries. When I was 18, A blood clot caused my stomach to literally explode, leaving me in a coma for months. What I learned after I was readmitted, reconstructed, re-operated on and “fixed up” several times, is that no surgery is a guarantee. Without a stomach, I couldn’t eat or drink for six years.

Every time I had a medical setback, doctors advised me to just “stop eating and drinking for now.” I was put back on IV’s, and suddenly had to switch to “machine mode.” Food was suddenly declared a fatal danger, and now intravenous nutrition was the only way to “save” my system. The day I received this “advice,” I had literally just eaten breakfast and now I was to stop experiencing all human instincts, avoid hunger and sever off any thirst for oral nourishment until “things healed.” As the obedient patient, I did this for several years. It was an odd mix of staying numb, isolated and distracted while enduring nearly 30 surgeries over a decade.

Remaining “numb” to my circumstances was the most logical way to handle them. I didn’t have to think, feel, or be aware of reality. I numbed myself through locking myself in my room and pounding into my keyboard for hours, documenting every moment of isolation behind closed doors, and blinds pulled stoically over every window.

When I became desperate to “feel,” I started cooking for my family to vicariously experience the satiation I craved. Hearing the simmering of minestrone, feeling my fingertips work their way into pizza dough, and smelling the cloves seeded inside of pumpkin bread granted me whatever sparks of life I could salvage from a kitchen. I was hungry for food, life and the emotions that I thought came with humanity – emotions temporarily “on hold.” I didn’t want to face the heavy hatred I carried for the path my life had taken – a feeling more terrifying than the emptiness I felt in my stomach.

But part of feeling human is feeling angry, frustrated at, worried and anxious about circumstances beyond our control. Part of feeling human is becoming overwhelmed with the agonizing question, “Why Me?” as we shake our fist to the sky, wondering why life can be so unfair.

In April 2011, I was instructed told to stop eating and drinking, again, in order to heal a fistula. Unfortunately, I knew this routine all too well because I had had several fistulas develop from previous surgeries. I tried to distract myself, numb myself, and get from day to day as diligently as possible.

One morning, I woke up with an anger that was so overwhelming that the energy frightened me. I didn’t know what to do with it and the emotions were too overpowering to try to numb them. My thoughts and feelings were threatening to swallow me whole.

With no rational thought in my head, I ran out the door and started running, with no idea to where, spurred by the adrenaline of panic, determined to find refuge from unsafety. I had never felt energy like this before, a red-hot surge through my legs, tingling in my chest, tears caught in my eye-sockets that I hoped the wind bashing across my face might dry up.

I kept running as far away from my life as I could. I was too scared to kill myself, and I didn’t think I wanted to either. I wanted a middle ground – to exist in another world, and if I ran long enough, I’d get there, somehow.

I ran for three hours before I found a highway, and without thinking, I started running onto the shoulder of it, thinking, “the farther I go, the further this will all be behind me.” Of course, of all days I decide to run for my life, it starts to rain…and thunder. Suddenly, the highway was flooded, I was drenched, cars honked at me, wondering what a frail girl in a T-shirt was doing running on the shoulder of the highway.

It was only a matter of time before a police car pulled up to me and asked me to get inside. I was shaking, angry, embarrassed and nervous – like I had just gotten detention in school. He said, “I’ve gotten 30 calls in the past 20 minutes saying this 80-pound-girl is running on the shoulder of the highway. Where did you think you were going?”

Wiping away tears, I stammered, “To the mall.”

“You thought you could get to the mall on the shoulder of the highway?”

“Yes.”

He turned around and looked at me.

“I’ll drive you to the mall.”

I refused to return his glance, pressed my elbows into my sides, and barely whispered, “No, I’ll go home.”

He called my parents our way home, saying I was okay and we were on our way home. My mother, after recovering from her concerned rage, asked me what on earth I thought I was doing. I told her simply that I was trying to escape. I was frustrated living under these circumstances for an “indefinite” amount of time. All she said was, “But you took your body with you.”

I didn’t want to kill myself because I knew that some infinitesimal slice of me still adored life. But I didn’t want to remain paralyzed in fear as long as there was breath in my body.

But I realized, it wasn’t feeling “happy” I was chasing; it was feeling connected. Alive.

I returned home winded, fuming, overwhelmed with sadness, but alive. I’d rather feel anything than nothing at all.

-Amy Oestreicher

 

Amy Oestreicher is an Audie Award-nominated author, writer for The Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, award-winning actress, mixed media artist, songwriter, and playwright. As a survivor and “thriver” of multiple traumas, Amy eagerly shares the gifts of life’s “beautiful detours” and the tremendous gifts that can be reaped from adversity. She has toured “Gutless & Grateful,” her original one-woman musical autobiography, since its NYC debut in 2012, to conferences, theatres, colleges, and organizations nationwide, winning seven national awards. Amy has headlined international conferences on leadership, entrepreneurship, women’s rights, mental health, disability, creativity, and domestic violence prevention. She is a SheSource expert, a “Top Mental Health” writer for Medium, and a regular lifestyle, wellness, and arts contributor for over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC’s TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen Magazine, Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, MSNBC, among others.

Amy has delivered three TEDx talks on transforming trauma to Creative Growth, As a playwright, recent works include “More Than Ever Now,” inspired by oral histories transcribed from three generations of survivors, and the multimedia musical, “Passageways: Songs of Connection, Abnormal & Sublime.”

Learn more at www.amyoes.com.

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