Monday, May 4, 2015

A Phoenix at Eagle Creek

"The great basalt columns rising to my right..."
It was the night after the hike at Eagle Creek when my sickness started; after I saw the Devil’s Punchbowl. It spun me in that snow melt water. I hiked calf deep in the river and waded up to my thighs to see the waterfall before me with the great basalt columns rising to my right; long strands of moss dripped off of the cliffs in the heat.

Then that night, a terrible suffocation gripped my throat. I awoke tangled in sheets with my heart beating fast. Anxiety and tremors followed me and a sense of doom and loss of control. Overnight, I had become a shadow of my former self. I felt encased in ice—frozen—but not preserved. The world continued to turn, and I continued to decay, but to me time itself had ceased to move forward.

It evolved mid-July with the sleepless humidity; the kind that turns everything into an orange glow and brings heavy dark clouds and the dusty smell before it rains. It started at Eagle Creek, but I cannot blame the heat or the devil, or the cold of the river. It was just where my sickness built momentum; where I started to recognize the beginning of my foundations eroding. It was that night everything came to a head and I lay in bed, eyes wide, unable to calm the fire building within me.

I couldn’t extinguish it even with the tears I cried. It was persistent like the flutter of my heart beat. All along, all of the faintings and symptoms, everything I never noticed before, finally surfaced into a cacophony that kept me awake. I didn’t find out until later that every pain had been pointing toward my throat. The kindling. The cigarette butt that started it all.

Grave’s disease, a form of hyperthyroidism, won’t send you to your grave, but it will send you to the floor, face first.
Flat, limp, and sweaty to the floor.

Most people never faint; many don’t know you can hear everything around you. You try to tell your body to move; to stand up, get up, sit up—anything—but you lay motionless and drained, completely aware of the sounds of your mother screaming “Wake up! Wake up!” But you don’t have the power to brush off the humiliation; you don’t even have the strength to lift your eye lids.
I felt bent and backward; my head spun. My joints ached and popped and paper and pen became a necessity at every moment; to remember to wash the dishes, or that my shift was 4 to 9, or that I needed to wash the dishes. I felt like a broken circle, a crooked wheel. I kept turning, but everything wobbled and dragged. All the while, through the end of summer, through autumn and winter, my fire burned, never satisfied.

In my dreams, I swam through an iodine sea, dark brown, and it snaked all around me like ink in clear water. I remember the white sanitized room with a window looking out to the hospital parking lot. The nurse with thick gloves ceremoniously brought the huge pill to me at an arm’s length away. As far away from herself as she could without dropping it or throwing it at me. This pill contained a new fire, a strange and dangerous one that moved like ink in my blood and through my thyroid. That sweet radioactive iodine. Iodine-123.

My doctor could have diagnosed me with anxiety and depression, prescribed me with Paxil or any other anti-depressant, and had me go on my way; another victim misdiagnosed.

I was lucky.
I was given three little pills a day. Chalky white. Uncoated, bitter. But they were slow, so frustratingly slow. For months, I still felt like I was being burned dry and left as ash to float off with the wind.

I loved when my doctor drew my blood. He would tie the rubber tourniquet tight around my right arm, tap his finger on the vein at the curve of my elbow, and swab it with alcohol. I would look away as he slipped the thick needle into my arm, and then I would look back as his three vials, one at a time, filled with my blood. Each blood test showed setbacks or progress, but most of all it showed the dwindling of my fire, the calming of flames, a reigning back of damage and the promise of unbroken sleep.

I counted days and months and years. Then I began counting down pills: three a day, two a day, then one, a half, a quarter, and then none. I watched and waited. I tested my footing.

I walked through the forest of my body and all that was left was char and blackened branches, scorched leaves, the sharp pungent perfume of wood smoke. All I heard was a buzzing quiet in the aftermath of fire. I was scarred by fire. I had become defined by my sickness; it had become my every day, my new normal.
But one day—while I was lost in thought—I found a bud within me. I reached toward it and new leaves unfolded. As more days passed, a new self began to grow from the wreckage; someone that I began to get acquainted with; someone who was stronger and more capable; someone who had been burned and consumed by fire and then reborn. I was no longer defined by my disease or how I was before I got sick; instead I was new, without lines or boundaries. I was a blank slate with one choice: I could trace the old familiar lines of my former self and color within them, or I could be the survivor that I was, embrace the second life that was given to me, and rise as a phoenix.

I chose to rise.

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