This is the first installment of an awakening story. The sort of awakening that begins with the Divine screaming in your face and taking drastic measures to ensure your survival. It is a story wherein I found great joy through the experiencing of great pain. This is the story of how I came to know myself as a healer. As it turns out, waking up was the easiest part of the story.
My adult story begins in 2005 after graduating from college. I had a Psychology major and Sociology minor in my back pocket and had no idea what to do with them. During college, and still to an extent today, the concept of choosing a career and sticking with it was a fuzzy one for me. I have always been someone who responds with robust oppositional defiance when I get should-upon. “You should believe this, you should act more like this, you should pursue this career or that. You should save more money, you should be more responsible, you should really obey the law. You should stop X, Y or Z.” I got shoulded on plenty growing up. I suppose it was well intentioned enough, but it had the opposite effect on me than was intended.
So instead of heading straight to grad school or entering the workforce right after college like I should have done, I chose to join AmeriCorps instead. A noble pursuit indeed! I knew I wanted to impact lives. I just didn’t know how to go about doing that exactly. I had just written my undergraduate honors thesis on youth aspirations from the lens of EDI so I chose to volunteer with City Year. Following a hunch that there was more to life than Grand Rapids, Michigan I chose the site furthest away from my hometown as possible in San Jose, California.
City Year was a pretty phenomenal experience and a very difficult and damaging one as well. There are many ways to leave the comfort of the nest but moving across the country with little money and volunteering my time meant that I was heading into a head on collision with The Real World (duh duh dun). I lived in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 fellow Corps members in a federally funded housing development. We were not allowed to use our cars to get to work. We wore uniforms. We received a meager living stipend. I arrived knowing virtually nothing about how to care for myself. So like most of my peers I threw myself at my work. For as much as I was struggling, the communities that I was serving were far worse off. I convinced myself that my own oxygen mask was not important, which in retrospect was not the best move. I was smoking half a pack to a pack of cigarettes every day, drinking away most of my stipend money and amassing credit debt like only a 20yr old can.
Midway through my service year I ended up in the ER and Santa Clara Valley Medical center. I had a 104 fever and abdominal pain so bad I could barely stand. My roommates were at work so I had to drive myself to the hospital. This was my first interaction with the US public healthcare system. I waited 6 hrs in the waiting room before being seen with my vitals being taken every hour or so to make sure I didn’t croak on the spot. I remember having ridiculous cigarette cravings at the time. I was too sick to smoke but too addicted not to want to. So when a wheel-chair bound woman sitting next to me asked me to roll her outside so that she could have a smoke I thought it would be a good idea to bum one off her. You know, just to take the edge off. That was one of the first times the Divine spoke directly to me I think. As I was pushing her out and planning how to phrase my request a little voice popped into my head and asked me, “are you sure you really want to do that?” The question gave me pause. Did I really want to do that? I mean I was sick with something I didn’t know how to deal with, in the ER, with a fever, surrounded by the indigent, sick and dying. Did I really want a smoke? Did I really need one? It was at that moment that I finally realized I was addicted to cigarettes. Seconds later I decided that I should quit smoking. My name got called shortly after walking back in sans cig and I quickly had a CT scan ordered. A confused and concerned doctor came in to speak with me afterwards and told me that I had a colon illness called Diverticulitis. He was concerned because that usually doesn’t present in the general population until the elder years, and I was 22 at the time. I was sent home with a prescription for 1600 mgs of Cipro and Flagyl, two heavy antibiotics and was told to increase my fiber intake. I got a GP in the area and a Gastroenterologist and went back to my service work shortly after. In routine cases of Diverticulitis the antibiotics kick the infection in the abdomen and the swelling of the colon reduces and everything gets better in a few weeks. That’s what my GP and Gastroenterologist were hoping for at least. But I continued to have flare ups where I would be bed ridden with pain, despite their protests that it shouldn’t be happening that way. They kept me on antibiotics for around 6 months before acknowledging that my case was severe and that the best course of action was to have surgery to correct the problem. The only problem was, my insurance was expiring and even with it intact I already owed thousands to the hospital and docs. My family supported me as best they could from afar but we eventually decided that I should have the surgery back in Michigan once my service with City Year was complete. 6 laparoscopic incisions and a missing part of my large intestine later, I was told by docs that they removed the diseased part of my body so everything should return to normal pretty quickly. I wish they had been right! In their defense I was doing a real shit job of taking care of myself. The concept of wellness or wellbeing hadn’t entered my vocabulary yet. I went back to California, got a job as a manager of a tutoring company and kept on enjoying my 20s as I had been trained to do; with copious amounts of drinking, smoking cannabis and recreational drug use of course! It was San Francisco, baby! I was making more money than I ever had and despite some scars felt no repercussions of my earlier illness. That is, until I landed myself in the ER again three years later. This time it was a bit of an emergency.
I had been partying really hard with coworkers the night before. We met some performance goal or another and decided to take the afternoon off to go day drinking, which turned into night drinking as well. I woke up from passing out on a couch in an indescribable amount of pain. I couldn’t stand straight again. At first I thought I was just hungover but when I called my doc on the 101 heading back south to San Jose she told me to drive straight to the ER. It was all happening again, but this time much worse. During intake they thought the most likely cause for the pain was my gallbladder and pretty much told me that only happened to alcoholics. I wasn’t convinced at the time, but looking back on it now I at least had Binge Drinking Disorder and was working my way quickly up the chain of addiction. My gallbladder was fine, but my colon wasn’t. A CT with contrast (which I don’t wish on anyone) revealed that I was missing an adhesion that kept my colon from moving around in my abdomen. In the previous night's frivolity it had managed to twist around my small intestine and was cutting off blood flow to my organs. I needed to have emergency surgery. Did I have anyone to call?
Hearing that question scared me like I had never been scared before. I had to call my parents and essentially tell them that I was in the ED and getting prepped for the OR. I didn’t know at that time what was wrong. I knew they were going to split me down the middle though and that no one really knew what I would come out with (or without). At that moment I faced my mortality for the first time. I heard the fear in my parents' voices and in my friends' faces when I woke up. I knew that I was in some serious trouble. I was in the hospital for over a week recovering for yet another resectioning of my colon. Part of it had been irretrievably damaged by lack of blood flow. I had an 8-inch incision and very limited mobility for about a month. Both of my parents flew out to help me recover. I had gotten lucky and thankfully this time I knew it. During my recovery I had a lot of time to think; to examine the previous few years and my behaviors and really begin to question them.
One afternoon in Sunnyvale I was rehabbing by shuffling down the street to regain my strength and peristalsis function in my newly stitched together self. At first all I could do was get down the stairs and into the front yard to a tree where I would pause, catch my breath and head back up to my apartment exhausted at the effort. I remember leaning against the tree, looking up through the leaves, watching the sun filter through them and was struck by the simple beauty of the moment. I wanted to see more of that beauty. This was my moment of awakening. I acknowledged to myself that I had nearly died a few weeks back. I had the sneaking suspicion that the only person who was really going to save my life again was me. I intrinsically understood that while western medicine had saved my life, it did not have the ability to fix it. I had to do that for myself and I was simultaneously terrified and excited because I knew that I wanted to live. I am forever grateful for that tree! If that second surgery had been all that happened during those formative years, I would be thankful for getting off easy. But that wasn't all that had happened. In fact, we are still at the beginning of my journey towards wellbeing. My life was saved but by the time I was 26 I was on my second surgery in 3 years and I was making only $40k annually and was living away from my family. I had to get back to work so that I could pay my rent and make payments on my medical and credit debt. I went back to work before I was ready, or even before it was recommended by my care team. I bled through my shirt my first day back. Can I tell you the best part of these two surgeries though? I get to make semicolon jokes whenever I want now!
My experience with acute illness was unremarkable in many ways. I wish it weren’t. It was traumatic for me personally but as a healthcare outcome metric the system operated exactly how it is designed to do. It remediated the physical damage, removed the physical source that created the damage and mitigated further risk by blasting everything with antibiotics. The medical system did not fail me, but it couldn’t fix me. That is an important distinction to make. Looking back on it knowing what I know now I see many paths that a care team could have pointed me towards that would have prevented both the surgeries. If I had access to affordable nutrition information and cooking classes, or a therapist who specializes in trauma and addiction, or a care team that acknowledged the mind-body-spirit connection I would likely have rehabilitated much differently.
But that’s hindsight and in truth it was an incredibly valuable event for me to experience. My entire life leading up to those moments programmed me to place all of my power and authority into an outside entity who knew better. A doctor, a dentist, a pastor, God, Jesus, my father, my mother, my teachers, anyone but myself. And it was my self that got thoroughly shook during this first encounter with my healing. It was my soul that had the awakening. While I didn’t explicitly know it at the time, I made a choice under that tree in Sunnyvale to switch my locus of control from external sources towards my inner knowing. That pressed the reset button in my life. It was a second chance. Changing my life from there was really tough, and I’m in no way done. But this is as good a point as any to pause. I will pick up the story where we left it. In the next installment, I think you will find that pain and healing are strange bedfellows.
The journey continues!