Scars

I recently started working a second job at CVS as a pharmacy tech. I don’t know any of my coworkers. They don’t know me or anything about me. But I know it’s just a matter of time before I get asked the question. (And I have a pretty good idea who it will come from.)

How did you get those scars?

I have scars all over my body of ranging sizes, ages and causes. There’s one on my arm from when I was 7 or 8 and accidentally knocked the AC unit out of the window and the window slammed down on my arm. There’s one on my eyelid that I think I got when I flew over my handlebars on my bike and rolled down a hill when I was 11. There’s one from a couple of Christmases ago when I cut open my thumb tying to assemble my Christmas tree.
But I can always be sure that when people ask about my scars, they aren’t asking about those or the many others that I’ve accumulated in every day life. No, they are almost always asking about the ones on my chest; those I’ve lovingly named my “port holes”.
It doesn’t bother me really when people ask. I would rather they ask  instead of just staring. But once the question is asked, my secret is out. And once it’s answered there’s always a lot of explaining to do. Rarely does anyone accept, “Oh, I had several special catheters placed inside of me for chemotherapy because I had leukemia….twice,” without asking a few follow up questions.

My scars always tell my secrets.

Not that I try to keep my battles with cancer a secret, but I don’t usually disclose that information to strangers.
I have a love/hate relationship with my scars.
My port holes, I love. It wasn’t always that way though. 
I remember shopping for an Easter dress as a self conscious 15 year old. I was still on treatment, but my hair was growing back and was just long enough that it wasn’t obvious I was a cancer patient. My mom, who hates shopping, took me to every store imaginable. I tried on dress after dress, looked in the mirror and could see nothing but the oval scar on my left chest where they removed the infected port about a year earlier and the bulge on my right chest where the current port then resided. I hated myself. I only wanted to be normal.  I ached for privacy, as I was at that age when kids just want to be left alone. But whenever I wore anything that showed my port, I felt as though every person in the world was staring right at me and my ugly scars.
I’m not sure when I outgrew that fear. I believe it was after my port was removed from my chest and the bulge became just an inch long incision scar. Still obvious enough, especially side by side with the oval one, but a lot less conspicuous. I still wore t-shirts and clothing that would cover the scars whenever possible, but over time I came to care less and less.

It may have also have had something to do with the fact that I soon acquired different scars that would affect me exponentially more than the two on my chest.

Less than a month after having that port removed, I relapsed. So yes they placed another port inside of me, but this time where it couldn’t be seen. I began to fight for my life again.
Treatment was harder. The emotional hurt was deeper. My mind was under constant attack as I weighed my options. For different reasons I pushed people away: to spare them from the hurt, to spare myself the guilt of having caused hurt. I felt so very alone, especially after my boyfriend of 3 years basically cut ties with me. With every medical setback, I walked one step closer to the doorway of death. I even welcomed it. I struggled to find the will to live. But for the sake of those who loved me, I always kept on fighting. And I have the scars to prove it.

The day I looked death in the eyes and lived to tell about it:

October 11, 2006
It began just like any other day. Well, I say that. I should say it was like any other day in the life a cancer patient. I went to clinic to get treatment as I always did at least once or twice a week. On this particular day I was scheduled to get an IM injection of a chemo that required two hours of monitoring afterward. I was given the premeds and then the injection. I slept on the exam table for a few hours and all was well with the world.
After clinic, I was scheduled to go over to UAB for my first day of radiation. I wasn’t actually going to receive any radiation that day, but they were going to be making molds of my head and face and a cast of my body so that when they administered the radiation I was in perfect position, laying still in a cast of myself. They also were going to make precision measurements and mark the radiation sites on my skin with (semi)permanant ink. All of this took several hours.
As I was laying face down, making the cast of my body, they made markings on the back of my head and along my spine. I began to feel nauseated, which wasn’t all that unusual. I then became very cold. By the time they finished with me, I was shivering uncontrollably.
I stood up and walked out into the hallway with a blanket draped around my shoulders to meet my mom. I could see the look of alarm in her eyes. I must have looked as bad as I felt. I told her I felt very sick. 
By the time they moved me to a triage room, the tips of my fingers were blue. They tried to get an IV and couldn’t. They didn’t know how to access my port, so I believe I ended up talking the nurse through it. I then barfed my pancakes from that morning all over the floor and all over her. They called an ambulance, which confused me since I was at a hospital??? I rode across the street to Children’s in the back of an ambulance that stopped at a red light. I was sitting back there thinking “Um, HELLO! I’m dying back here!”
When I got to the emergency room, they took me into one of the trauma areas. I was fully awake and aware that this was not a good sign. I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me, and I don’t think anybody there could either. I heard words like “septic” and “bolus” for the first time in real life. I had only ever heard them on medical shows before that day.
I remember so clearly:
The people all around me trying to get IV access.
My mom standing off to the side.
The look on her face while she was trying desperately to reach my dad on the phone.
All the sounds were muffled.
All the lights were so bright.
I was so, so cold.
They gave me some epinephrine. (And let me tell you that is not an experience I wish to ever relive. I told a nurse standing next to me that I was having a heart attack. LOL.)
Then I suppose my O2 sats started dropping, because I heard them say they needed to intubate. At this point, I truly thought I was about to die.  I was scared, but I trusted that if this was my day to meet Jesus, I should be ok with it.
The world stood still around me even in the chaos, and I made the decision to be at peace.
I looked at my mom, told her I loved her and told her to tell my dad and sister that I loved them too.  There wasn’t much more that could be said. That’s the last thing I remember…
Until I woke up in the PICU. A lot had happened while I’d been asleep. They did a CT scan and found that I had a blood clot near my heart. But before this was discovered, they pumped me full of fluids. My blood was not draining correctly because of the clot, and I swelled until I was unrecognizable. My face puffed up and my ears curled forward. I also turned blue. My father and mother both described me as looking like a bluberry. Just imagine that girl, Violet Beauregarde,  in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
That was me.

I spent the next several days in the ICU with limited visitors. They had me on a heparin drip, trying to dissolve the clot inside me. As a result, I was bleeding. I felt like a steady stream of blood was constantly coming from my nose. I was coughing up blood and clots. All of that red against the stark white hospital towels was surely a sight to be seen. I should have been terrified, but after my close encounter with certain death, I looked at all that blood  and only saw the proof that I was still alive. 

So how does this tie in with scars? Remember earlier when I said they had pumped me full of fluids?  Well, from the waist up, I blew up like a balloon. And weeks later, as that fluid was lost, the scars appeared. As a teenage girl I knew little to nothing about stretch marks. I knew pregnant women got them. Turns out gaining 20 pounds  in a day will do it too.
Slowly they appeared on the inside of my upper arms, on my stomach and on my hips. Deep red and purple stretch marks that were tender to the touch. A daily reminder of the worst day of my life, forever engraved in my body for all the world to see.
The emotional pain attached to these scars is very deep. I look in the mirror and I see what I’ve been through, what I’ve been delivered from, sure. But I also see a body that is not pretty by my definition.  
I hate my arms. If my sleeves aren’t to the elbow, everyone can see the marks. And when they do, I feel this urgent need to try to explain to them that I didn’t get fat and do this to myself. It was out of my hands. It’s because I had a blood clot!
The shame is still great, no matter how much I tell myself it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. I try to imagine myself in a wedding dress, and I tear up. I resolved to get married in winter and have a long sleeved wedding dress like Princess Kate. I try to imagine anyone loving me the way I am, scarred and imperfect,  and it’s hard. But I know someone will come along.

Why am I sharing all this? It’s not for attention and certainly not for sympathy. More than anything, I wanted to write about this for awareness. I view people who are different in a different way. It is human nature to be curious and even to stare, but I have learned to overcome that nature, because I know what it feels like to be stared at. When I was bald, people would stare, and I wanted to be invisible. I don’t want my actions toward someone to ever make them feel that way.

I have been trying to retrain my brain to see myself as God sees me. When I look in the mirror, I see only my flaws. But I know that when God looks at me He doesn’t see my scars as flaws.
I have this image in my mind of standing next to Jesus and comparing battle scars.  Maybe that’s silly, but it helps me cope.
He shows me his hands, I show him my port holes.
He shows me his feet, I show him my stretch marks.
He shows me his side, I show him my fears.
I do not have a perfect body. I never have, never will. Who does?! But my scars are the reminders that I survived, though I still have a hard time seeing it that way some days. People said to me that I am a very strong person, and to that I say ” I had to be!”. It was a process of growing, being wounded, healing and yes even scarring that made me who I am today. My perceived strength only ever came from the Giver of Strength himself. I carried on in my weakness because HE carried me. And now I can say that I am stronger for all the damage done.

So to wrap this whole thing up…I wrote a song a few years ago about my complicated relationship with scars.  It doesn’t seem right for me not to include the lyrics in a blog on the same topic:
Behind every scar I know the story
 Of how you delivered and healed me
And though I feel less than beautiful
I know it is my heart you are perfecting.
I sing until I ache, Lord here’s my soul to take.
I sing while my heart breaks, still here’s my soul to take.
For every tear, there is a reason.
But you bless every year and day and season
And though I can’t see beyond right now,
I know you’re working through my pain somehow.
I sing until I ache, Lord here’s my soul to take.
I sing while my heart breaks, still here’s my soul to take.
There is a song inside me rising
I heart it whispered in my soul arising
I sing until I ache, Lord here’s my soul to take
I sing while my heart breaks, still here’s my soul to take.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931)

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