“You’re better now, right?” people sometimes asked.
I had to hedge.
“Mostly,” I said. “I’m mostly OK.”
I wanted to be totally better, to have a clean break between sick and better. But illness like mine doesn’t work like that. It’s like having a cold that lingers, and you think every day might be the last day and tomorrow will be better, and then you forget what feeling better feels like and you just hang on, and “normal” changes, and you’re not sure if you still have a cold or not, until one day you wake up and you just don’t have a cold but you don’t know what broke it or why then. And I was in the in-between, even after I got better, for over a year.
I slowly edged off of almost all of my medications. I took 14 pills a day and then I took 13. Then 12, then 11, then 12, but one was different. And I kept doing everything else, everything I could think of: desensitization, allergy testing, enzymes, iron supplements, yoga, yoga, yoga. And therapy.
I signed up for a teacher training, and I set a rule: No one could touch me. It was enforceable because of the container of our weekends together, because there were only nine trainees total, because everyone was working through their shit. I was able to ease up during those hours, and because of that easing I was able to recognize how guarded I felt the rest of the time. And then slowly I began to touch again. First just my teacher-training partner, Kristen, who was so similar to me that I felt I could trust her. And then another woman, Alice, whose brightness and raspy voice felt like a waterfall of care. I touched them and then, once I could tell my nervous system that touch wasn’t only about pain, I let them touch me.
I had been touched against my will for so many years by so many people. And they were, for the most part, well-meaning touches, pats on the arm, or hugs. But I had also been touched in ways that I had consented to but did not want. In a matter of a few years, I had brain surgery to drain a cyst that had hemorrhaged into my brain, heart surgery to seal an extra pathway in my heart that could lead to sudden death, and experienced a range of debilitating symptoms that turned out to be a rare disease called mast cell activation syndrome, which tricks your body into thinking it’s allergic to everything. I had consented to every one of my surgeries, but I had also been, occasionally, roughly handled. By trainee doctors—my surgeons were all at teaching hospitals—or by nurses for whom I was just another number. I was starting to remember more, too, about how it felt to lie down and put my head onto a plate, knowing even through the fog of Versed—the greatest anxiolytic ever produced—that my skull was about to be cracked open.
Every other weekend, I went to the yoga studio and learned the language of healing. I learned about empathic feelings and how I picked up the sadness and the fear and the anxiety of others. “I’m not an empath,” I’d written, proudly, on my application. A few weeks into the training, I realized that the opposite was true. That I am so deeply empathic that I’d had to numb myself for years with drugs and sugar and television and sex and men and women. I learned to talk my cohort through a pose, into and out of it again. I roared in
One evening, I experimented with letting another student touch my head. The tremulousness of her touch sent me into panic. I opened my eyes and looked up at the familiar ceiling of the studio.
“I’m in present time, I’m in present time, I’m in present time,” I whispered to myself. I tapped my arms, willing my body to come back to present time, out of the trauma accordion, but I couldn’t. It was stuck in exam rooms, surgery clinics, waiting lounges. It was stuck being touched, being scraped, being carved, being pierced. My teacher came by, sat down next to me, put her hands on my belly. I couldn’t breathe.
“Get up,” she said. I did. “Get into Horse Pose,” she said. I did, standing with my feet three feet apart, knees bent, my hands pressing into the tops of my thighs. And then she roared and then so did I, reaching deep into my body for a sound I had never before made. I screamed, and then the scream turned into something else, and something deep and animal and unimagined came out of my lungs, my throat. I felt the rawness of my throat, my mouth, the way in which talking to doctors and friends and Allison and Lauren and Jason and Winston had kept me alive, the way I had talked myself into existence, and I let it go.
Paying so much attention to my body for six months helped me rewire my relationship with it. I hadn’t noticed how subtly a language of terror and anger had crept into my vocabulary.
“This fucking body keeps trying to kill me,” I had said once, and then I said basically the same thing again and again. I had been so antagonistic toward my body for so long. I’d replaced any kindness toward myself I’d cultivated with an overt hostility.
“Eff you, effing tumor-maker. What the hell is wrong with you?” was the kind of thing I thought to my body every morning, afternoon, and evening.
I understood, theoretically, that this probably wasn’t ideal. But I was so
angry. And the only way out was through: through slowly, over the course of those weekends, beginning to learn my body again. I replaced a loathing for my pelvic cavity, with its propensity to grow weird stuff, with an appreciation for my abdominal muscles through 15 rounds of abs. I replaced an excruciating sensitivity about my neck with an emphasis on what it felt like to stack my skull above my spine. As we learned more and more about sequencing, working with students, and understanding injuries, I learned more and more that my body could become some kind of home. Maybe one that had a couple of broken windows and weird closets, but one that was mine. I’d spent years feeling completely abstracted and then more years feeling completely dependent and trapped; here, finally, I could come back. I could come home.
Excerpted from How To Be Loved: A Memoir of Lifesaving Friendship by Eva Hagberg Fisher. Copyright © 2019. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.