Even though I liked my pediatricians, I feared the doctor’s office. I dreaded getting shots. Often, I was in the doctor’s office because of fever. I seem to remember getting a lot of them. I was also prone to terribly painful bladder infections. The getting undressed and into a robe. Feeling chilled and a bit scared while waiting for the nurse and doctor to examine me. I know readers know what I am talking about, but it’s the sheer frequency from recurrent illnesses and surgeries that had a profound affect on my sense of safety and strength in the world.
The two abdominal surgeries I had when I was eight years old occurred against the backdrop of my frequent visits to the pediatricians’ office. The fears of doctors and illness I already had became exacerbated by the extreme nature of the pain that led to my surgeries where I was necessarily and unwillingly separated from my family. The separation felt like abandonment, even though I knew they would have been with me if they could.
The chronic exposure to the vulnerability of nakedness, illness, excruciating stomach pains, and surgeries hits you hard in to the core of your being. I learned that I could never trust my body. I didn’t realize until much later that it also meant that I could not trust my self. I learned that could not trust that terrible things would never happen to me. I feared the future, and felt that safety is an illusion, even if I couldn’t explain it at that time.
I heard the words of comfort my mother uttered as pity, which I loathed. Somehow, I felt worse about my situation instead of better. I decided early to hide how I really felt until there really was no way I could hide it any more, just so I wouldn’t have to hear it – the sound of pity in her voice. I was terribly sensitive to the slightest change in tone in her voice, whether it be anger or anxiety. A pointed expression of fear could send me into an intense state of anxiety. I could hear her fear for my life, and I feared for my own life in response.
For decades afterwards, I had this intense desire to be physically near my friends and family at all times. I think this influenced the jealousies I felt towards friends when I saw them having what I saw as a closer relationship with each other than with me. I have no idea what they thought then. It probably isn’t true, and I didn’t ask. I wasn’t aware at the time of what drove me to have those jealous feelings.
Elizabeth Shue once appeared on the cover of Boston Magazine with the quote, “Vulnerability is my greatest strength.” But what about those of us for whom our vulnerability becomes tied in with our greatest weakness? In my case, it was my body and the feelings that I tried to bury as deeply as possible. How can I mine that vulnerability for art when it brings back the painful experiences that illness has put me through? My unwillingness to dig deep would have forced me to work through the bundle of repressed anxieties, fear, anger, and helplessness. I have worked on it with therapists over the years. But there are some things that cannot be forced.
Going back to school let me nestle myself into a routine where I could occupy my mind. But the intense anxieties I had lived barely under the surface. In one way, anxieties were ever present. In another, I tried to stuff them down deep inside and close them into a box with a lock. Ten thousand locks. My box had many leaks, and they could burst out in in fear and/or anger at any moment. An anger that was driven by a sense of helplessness and rage at the fate I had been dealt.
After my surgeries that I had when I was eight, I prayed to God and swore with all my heart that I would be a good girl if only He would keep me from ever having to go through that again. The promise became deeply embedded into my psyche. After a while, I no longer consciously remembered that promise. But there it was, subtly influencing my behavior for years to come.
~~ End Part 3 ~~