Before reading this post, I want to provide a gentle warning. The content I'm about to share may be distressing for those who've experienced medical trauma. I plan to share more of the nitty-gritty details in a book, but for now, I wanted to offer a glimpse into my life's journey and provide context for why I chose to explore the theme of resilience in my newsletter.
Opening Act: The Unexpected Journey Begins
The sterile hospital room loomed large around me, bathed in the harsh glare of fluorescent lights. At 18 years old, I was wheeled through swinging doors and instructed to lay face down on an uncomfortable examination table, my heart pounding in my chest. It was a moment I had never anticipated, one that would forever mark the beginning of a tumultuous journey.
Embracing the Unknown
Lying face down, I couldn't see anything that was happening behind me, and nobody replied to my questions: "What are we going to do? What is happening?" As the first needle pierced my skin and entered my bone marrow, agony shot through me like an electric shock. It was a moment of bewilderment, of being thrust into a bewildering world of medical procedures, pain, and uncertainty without consent. I hadn't been informed about my diagnosis; instead, I was simply wheeled into that room with only what my mother had told me.
She had prepared me in her own way seconds before I was wheeled away.
"They're going to do something to you and it's going to be really painful, but it's necessary for your diagnosis, so you have to try your best to bear with it."
Little did I know, this was just the beginning of a journey filled with unexpected twists and turns.
The Painful Reality
Those early days were marred by the absence of information and support. A veil of secrecy hung over my diagnosis. I had leukemia, but no one had told me. Instead, I was subjected to a bone marrow biopsy and aspirate, a procedure that should have taken a maximum of 30 minutes but stretched into an agonizing hour of torment.
The pain was excruciating, and I had no say in the matter. In fact, they started to administer the procedure immediately after the first shot of anesthesia. I would later find out that I needed more anesthesia than the average person, which explained why I could vividly feel them stab my bone marrow and break off pieces. They performed more than 70 stabs, not to secure an official cancer diagnosis, but for research. Each stab was a painful reminder of the helplessness I felt, of the violence inflicted upon my body in the name of science.
Betrayal and Shock
The trauma didn't end there. Unbeknownst to me, my great uncle entered the room and recorded my agony—a stark betrayal of trust. Naked, screaming, and crying, I was subjected to a painful procedure while he captured it all on film. This horrifying recording was later sent to my mother and used as emotional blackmail in an attempt to coerce her into supporting a distant relative who had recently lost a child to cancer.
Surviving the Unthinkable
I received my next round of chemotherapy in an isolation ward. Here, a 27-year-old girl and I were among the youngest patients, and we became friends. She had lymphoma, and I had leukemia. To my dismay and horror a few weeks later, she died in the bed next to mine, screaming, crying, and begging for help, with nothing but thin cloth curtains separating us. The worst part is that she died while receiving a bone marrow biopsy/aspirate next to me. My journey continued, and the next phase saw me facing an epidemic while undergoing my second round of chemotherapy in Korea. I found myself back in the hospital, this time as an outpatient chemotherapy patient. I sat on the floor of the hospital, listening to the screams and cries emanating from the bone marrow aspirate and biopsy room. It was a stark reminder of the horrors I had witnessed and experienced.
Panic Amidst Preparation
My journey continued, and I chose to endure the next four rounds of chemotherapy while attending college at Johns Hopkins University by myself with no family or friends. I was determined to graduate in four years and not let cancer halt my "normal" life. It was during this time that I became obsessed with preparation, planning my courses meticulously, and anticipating future challenges. On that note, I'm proud to report that I successfully graduated in 4 years. As the years passed, I developed an obsession with preparation. I meticulously researched my conditions, my doctors, and my treatments. Every medical appointment was meticulously organized; I carried stacks of medical records and imaging CDs, hoping they would shield me from uncertainty. My appointments were scripted to the last minute, my questions rehearsed, and my research exhaustive.
But even the most meticulous planning couldn't prevent moments of sheer panic. I vividly remember an MRI appointment, a perfect storm of circumstances that left me gasping for control. The pressure to enter the machine before my anxiety medication could take effect, a communication breakdown at the front desk—it all spiraled into a terrifying moment. My heart raced, my body betrayed me, and I found myself unable to hold back the tears. It was a stark reminder that, no matter how well-prepared I was, there were forces beyond my control.
Confronting Fear and Trauma
More recently, a potential diagnosis of relapsing polychondritis cast a long shadow over my journey. It started with a seemingly innocuous discovery—one ear missing collagen, appearing as though it had been stabbed and healed. My quest for answers led me to research and, with it, an old nemesis—the bone marrow biopsy.
Though I had undergone the procedure another 4 - 5 times scattered between the 6 rounds of chemotherapy I received, bone marrow biopsies and aspirates were firmly behind me, a closed chapter never to be touched again. The mere thought of undergoing that procedure again triggered a level of fear I had never experienced. It transported me back to those early days of suffering, to hours spent enduring unimaginable pain in the name of research. I couldn't bear the thought of reliving that trauma, and I fled my apartment in tears, wandering the streets of New York City.
Reflection on Resilience
4 AM, last night, as I lay in bed, the boundary between dream and reality blurred once again. Nightmares have always been my nocturnal companions, each one a vivid portrayal of betrayal, painted in a haunting shade of red. It's funny how the anxieties that haunt our sleep sometimes manifest in small ways in our waking lives.
In my pursuit of healing, I've embarked on a new journey, one that involves seeing a neuropsychologist. You might wonder what sets this apart from traditional therapy. Well, a neuropsychologist, by definition, delves into the intricate connections between the brain and behavior. What makes it unique for me is how it's unveiling aspects of my experience I never truly understood.
Intellectualizing vs. Feeling
One revelation struck me with the force of a gale: I'm exceptionally skilled at intellectualizing my experiences. I have no qualms discussing my journey. In fact, I've honed the art of narrating it, altering the script slightly depending on my audience. A lifetime of traumas woven into the fabric of my development turned me into a consummate actor, reciting the same lines. Somewhere along the way, I forgot how to feel.
Last night, at 4 a.m., I had an exceptionally vivid flashback, a visceral journey back to the emergency room in Korea, days before I accidentally discovered I had Leukemia. I could feel the IV in my arm, the scratchy blankets, and the cold, metallic arms of the bed surrounding me. I tried to break free from the memory, but it pulled me in deeper. My eyes opened to the sterile surroundings of that ER, and the sounds of distress echoed in my ears. In that cacophony, I realized that the only thing silent in that corner of the hospital was me.
That realization jolted me awake. I recognized that I had been mute at that moment.
A Harsh Revelation
Reflecting on that episode and my first conversation with the neuropsychologist, I reached a profound realization: what I went through was undeniably harsh. At the tender age of 18, I received the news of having cancer, of battling for my life, and of chemotherapy coursing through my veins against my will. I had been providing others with a script, a rehearsed narrative designed to deflect pity and awe.
"Its okay, I'm all good now! haha! I never shed a tear about having leukemia; instead, I focused on finishing my treatment and graduating in four years."
However, in the clarity of the present moment, I see that this was the most pitiful aspect of my journey. There's no pride in not processing emotions, in becoming a master of avoidance. My intellectual prowess allowed me to endure another 4 rounds of chemotherapy alone during my freshman year, a feat of remarkable strength. But in admitting this, I unconsciously acknowledged that I hadn't truly unpacked the emotional baggage.
A Healing Cry
As I wrote this reflection on resilience, I cried for the first time about having had leukemia. My tears are for the 18-year-old version of me who deserved more. I wish I could turn back time and offer her a warm embrace, whispering that it's okay to focus on emotional healing and that it doesn't have to wait for eight years.
People often suggest I should write a book, especially after hearing my well-rehearsed script. They believe it would inspire others facing challenging medical journeys. At 19, I said my story wasn't complete yet but that I'd write a bit. At 21, I felt my story was incomplete, waiting for a triumphant ending. At 23, I believed my medical journey was unending and too complex to distill into takeaways. Now, at 26, I'm determined to write that book, one that delves into my emotional journey authentically and unreservedly. Unbeknownst to me, I had been avoiding it because all I had was the script.
Learning to Feel Again
I share this now as a way to document my emotional metamorphosis, as I navigate the path to rediscover how to feel. Eventually, I hope to write a book that is truly me—one that may offer solace to at least one other soul out there.
The takeaway, the reflection I hope you carry from this chapter, is that it's all too easy to set aside your emotions when you're fighting to save yourself. I used to think I was too intelligent for therapy because every therapist I met seemed stunned and speechless after just 20 minutes. I spent years searching for a therapist who wouldn't merely validate my complaints but truly understand my complexities.
If you, like me, once believed that being smart and tough meant you could handle everything, consider this: true resilience goes beyond intellect and strength. I used to think I was resilient, but it wasn't until I began embracing my emotions that I began to understand the essence of resilience. It's a valuable journey to undertake because, sometimes, our strength in logic and resilience can unintentionally lead us to overlook the importance of emotional healing.
What do you think has been your approach to emotional healing during challenging times? How has it impacted your resilience?
- Loading comments...