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On being very badly made

Just a half-inch beneath the five-inch scar that now cradles the bottom of my left breast is a quote I had tattooed there several years ago. It wraps around my rib cage, close to my heart, in an undulating scrawl: “Estamos muy mal hechos, pero no estamos terminados.’ In English it roughly translates as: “We are very badly made, but we are not finished.” These words come from an interview that the Uruguayan poet, author and historian Eduardo Galeano gave over a decade ago and that a very dear friend once shared with me. Galeano used this phrase as a way to sum up his thoughts about humanity and the human condition. “We are at once horrible and marvelous,” he said. “We are very badly made, but we are not finished.” I liked the honesty and the hope in the sentiment. It’s how I too feel about humanity but also about my own life. I am flawed but not finished… so there is always hope.

Galeano

The proximity that this quote now has to the battle that has been borne out over my body now gives it even deeper significance to me. Our world is very badly made because it cannot prevent life threatening illness in 30-year-old bodies. My body is very badly made because it could not protect me against itself. My brain is very badly made because it cannot bear the burden of this battle.

I haven’t written here in quite some time. It’s the kind of silence that felt like it was getting louder and louder with each passing day. But there have been many reasons for my break from this blog. Since I last wrote I officially completed and recovered from my last, and by far the most painful, round of chemo. I had a two-week “break” in which I enjoyed some level of physical health which was promptly followed by a double mastectomy and reconstruction and which involved a two-day stint in the hospital, one blurry week of narcotics and lots and lots of recovery since (more on the specifics of my surgery and health outcomes can be found on my CaringBridge page).

During this whirlwind I have found two primary reasons for not writing. The first, is that my mind has been primarily preoccupied with my breasts and this felt and still feels like a topic too private to process as publicly as I have other topics. Breasts are complicated. They are the most natural things in the world but they are also political and controversial. They are objectified. They are a means by which we whittle women down into the ways we find them valuable: as sexual objects and mothers. I suspect most women have complicated relationships with their breasts as they are at once a source of somewhat spurious power and a certain satisfaction as well as shame and oppression. I wanted so desperately to say good-bye to them in some meaningful way. I wanted to give them a proper send off somehow, to come to terms with how I’d felt about them, to write them a love letter or at least a few words of farewell. But I couldn’t bring myself to say or do much of anything. I took them on runs, stared at them in the mirror, cried every morning in the shower and eventually realized that saying good-bye to a part of your body was an impossible task and I stopped trying.

The other reason I didn’t write is that my brain essentially stopped functioning. The moment I stopped physically feeling terrible I unexpectedly dove deep into an emotional turmoil unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was caught in a moment in between two great challenges; the first being the near 6 months of chemo I had just endured, the second being a massive surgery. The moment my brain was free from processing the physical pain it had been enduring and recovering from on a regular basis it began to emotionally process both what I had been through and what was to come. This proved to be utterly overwhelming. It’s difficult to describe the whirlwind that took over my mind. Each moment felt exhausting. I was constantly overstimulated as though it wasn’t possible to achieve the level of peace and quiet my mind required. I swung violently from one mental breakdown to the next. One day my breakdown would be fueled by anger and I would scream and rage against the betrayal of the universe. The next day I was in a complete panic feeling I’d lost all control over my thoughts and emotions, entirely unable to calm or quell the storm in my mind. Then suddenly I’d find myself in a deep depression, unable to crawl out of the depths of hopelessness or helplessness that consumed me. My inability to control my thoughts, emotions or anything else in my life for that matter was deeply disturbing.

I sought for a light in the darkness, something to guide me through this terrifying degeneration of my mind. I wanted some sort of resource that could help make sense of it all and was eventually able to land on one very helpful word: trauma. I began reading self-help books for trauma survivors. The list of symptoms read like a review of my week. Generally, trauma is often talked about in psychological terms as a singular event but it can also be a series of events or experiences, including prolonged illness, and most definitions include some version of the following: feeling that your life or psychological well-being is threatened, feeling helpless in the face of that threat and having your coping mechanisms overwhelmed by the feelings arising as a result of that threat. Check, check and check. As strong or as resilient or as courageous as I might appear or feel I reached a breaking point and my coping mechanisms could no longer keep up. I was attempting to deal with the loss of my health and the physical ramifications of my illness, the loss of a part of my body, incomprehensible identity issues, the inability to continue to engage with many of the activities that once constituted my life, and the constantly lingering fear of death along with feelings of incredible helplessness and an utter loss of control. In short, it was too much and it broke my brain.

Here is where I’d like to say something reassuring like, “despite going through a deeply traumatizing experience I know I’ll be fine!” “Don’t worry about me!”  But I’m just not there yet. The last seven months have been the hardest of my life and the last month or so the hardest of them all so far. I’ve been Traumatized (with a capital T) and trauma changes a person. I have experienced a great deal of suffering which has, in many ways, made me deeply empathetic to the suffering around me. We have all had our own traumas. I know how deep the pain can go. I know how it can undo a person. With all of the love and empathy in the world I know just how true it is that we are very badly made.

I also know for sure that we are not finished, that I am not finished. I am not finished with the trauma, with the suffering, or with the cancer treatments. Radiation is up next. And I am also far from finished with the healing. The physical healing I have gone through over and over again over the last few months has been at once eternally long and miraculously brief. I imagine that the emotional healing will be much the same. I am currently attempting to cultivate the energy and the motivation to begin to tackle some of that healing and I know that it will require both great patience as well as a tremendous amount of hard work.

In the same interview in which Galeano said the quote that I described above he was also asked to explain the phrase: abrigar esperanzas. He said: “A beautiful Spanish expression, ‘abrigar esperanzas,’ to shelter hope. Hope needs to be ‘abrigada,’ protected.” “Because it’s fragile?” asked the interviewer. “She’s fragile,” Galeano said, “and a little delicate, but she’s alive.”