Tag Archives: Cheryl Strayed

To All the Attention Seeking Drama Queens

In January 2002, my mother learned her transplanted kidney had begun to fail. She began dialysis. We spoke on the phone each night, and I visited her as often as I could. The mother I had known, the jubilant mother, grew depressed and fearful.

I offered to undergo a test that would determine whether one of my kidneys could be transplanted into her body. I was 20-years-old. She begged me not to have this test. She didn’t want to do anything that could compromise my chances of becoming a mother.

That is how much motherhood meant to her. She was willing to die in order to prevent me from making this decision. And she had hope. She hoped someone else in her family would come forward.

To my knowledge, no one did.

I write those words with tremendous anxiety of how they will be read: No one did.

My mother’s story is complicated. Perhaps someone came forward and she never told me?

Even so, she could not survive another transplant. Her death was inevitable, and within months of undergoing dialysis my mother began to accept this reality. For the first time in her life, she rejected the false narratives of cure and recovery so often projected on the seriously ill.

But I still harbored delusions. I called delusion hope. I pleaded with members of her family to understand the seriousness of her situation. I wasn’t ready to give up, to let her go. I believed she could recover, as she had recovered so many other times before. Others did not believe my mother was actually sick.

A relative told me my mother was exaggerating.

She said, “Your mother is a drama queen.”

She said, “Your mother likes attention.”

My mother was not a drama queen. She lived with a debilitating chronic autoimmune disease from adolescence through middle age. She was beautiful. She was sick. Because she was beautiful and sick and female, she fell prey to cultural biases that fail to acknowledge serious illness in young women. When people looked at her they saw pretty. They saw young. They saw stylish.

As my mother’s health deteriorated, I ignored her pleas. I had the test done. It was a simple blood draw – I barely remember the needle prick. In the blur of her multiple hospitalizations, and my struggle to perform normalcy as our lives collapsed, the test was not a big deal. Just one more errand.

My results came back after she died: I was not a good match. My kidney would not have saved her.

I was off the hook. I’d tried. She’d known I’d had the test. She’d known I was willing to give her a vital organ, even if that choice compromised my ability to become a mother. She knew I believed her. I had not abandoned her.

I’ve been remembering this time in our lives recently because of my own experiences of not being believed about illness in the past few years. I have also felt abandoned by friends and family who do not communicate with me in meaningful ways about Lyme disease, for which I am still being treated  — and this treatment takes a physical and emotional toll. To many, it is as if I am not sick at all, as if my illness does not exist because I present as able-bodied.

Is my illness easy to erase because I am young and female? Or because I am capable of holding down a job and publishing writing, so I cannot have a serious illness at the same time? Or is it because I typically do not perform a sick identity on social media?

Or maybe, I’ve just needed too much, and my needs are exhausting. Autoimmune disease. A miscarriage. A broken foot.  And then, out of nowhere, Lyme disease?

Maybe I am now perceived as the attention seeking, drama queen.

But I am not an attention seeking drama queen. Attention gives me anxiety. And drama?  Who has time for that?

Fatigue from Lyme disease and my current treatment plan means a lot is changing in my life. I cannot engage in relationships in ways that are expected of young women. No late nights. No long drives. I have to say, “No” a lot. Perhaps my “No” is heard as disinterest and not as self protection. Perhaps people think I don’t like them.

My mother gave me tools I would need to navigate chronic illness in my own young life.  She taught me I could say the word ill and the word did not have to be a negative, a reduction, something to resist or erase. Even now, she is present. She is parenting me when I need her the most, showing me the way.

Long ago, she told me illness would distill my relationships.

“You will know who your friends are,” she said. And she was right. I am figuring out who I can depend on and who I should let go. I am asking myself new questions.

Who will I become? How will illness change me?

That’s the keyword. Change. Lyme disease has remapped my body. I have no delusions of cure, of going back to who I was before. Healing is a complicated idea, not a portal to our past selves.

As Cheryl Strayed has written, “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do.”

What I have to do now is be honest. Be real. Set boundaries and hold tight to them.
Rearrange a life where I’d once felt comfortable. Advocate for what I need. And then, let go of stories, people, goals, relationships, identities, and expectations that no longer support the person I am becoming because I am ill.

This is not about needing attention or being a drama queen or even pessimism. It’s about surviving and reclaiming and persisting.

On Not Forgiving

 I had every intention to read Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness this summer. I carried it with me on trips, and on two 12-hour train rides. It sat on shelves and desktops and bedside tables, alluring me with its cover image of a flower blooming from a tree stump. But between May and August, I did not, not even for a moment, crack open this book. You’d think I’d have no trouble with Desmond Tutu or forgiveness. I meditate. I practice Yoga. I’m married to a minister who has preached from this very book. In fact, it’s his copy that I’ve been toting around all summer. But I just can’t do it. I can’t open this book, and I’m not sure why.

At its core, I’m okay with forgiveness. I understand that sometimes forgiveness is more about the person seeking forgiveness than it is about the person offering forgiveness. I understand that forgiveness can be a first step toward moving on. I understand that certain things are difficult to forgive, and others are impossible. I agree with Cheryl Strayed, who as Sugar wrote, “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.”  Yes, this is more how I see it, and I know I’ve spent years hauling my own old fat guy up and down hills that felt like mountains. I know there are many things I’ve forgiven, and a few I simply cannot forgive. And I’m finally giving myself permission to let the Desmond Tutu book go, to be okay with not reading it, to be okay with not forgiving.

Disease is one thing I’m not forgiving. Disease has taken too many people I love, too many bodies, too many unfinished lives. My husband and I both lost parents young. We know loss intimately. We are both sad this weekend because we are sitting with some bad news. We are sitting with the knowledge that disease is out there in the world, claiming lives, hurting people, eviscerating families, destroying dreams. And I’m not forgiving it. Not today, not tomorrow, and maybe not ever.

And I think I’m being more true to myself about this one thing than I’ve ever been in my whole life about anything. Allowing myself to be angry, allowing myself to feel the power of my heart clamping down on itself, is more liberating than saying I forgive you.

Years ago, I took a graduate class in liberation theology, and I read Beverly Wildung Harrison, who in “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” argues that anger can be a radical act of compassion toward ourselves and others. Our anger connects us to injustice. Our anger resists oppression. Our anger harnesses energy toward change. I remember the night I first read Harrison. I was sitting in an armchair at my mother-in-law’s house, and I started to shake, as if my body were opening to a glorious new truth. Harrison granted me permission to hold onto anger, to interrogate it, to investigate all its endless shapes. She allowed me to get angry, to be angry, and not to rest until I understood where my anger wanted me to go.

This summer I’ve thought hard about a few things I am not comfortable forgiving. These things are, not surprisingly, charged with anger. I’ve questioned this anger’s roots. I’ve questioned who forgiveness belongs to and what power it has in our lives. I’ve questioned what forgiveness can actually change. Maybe that’s why I’ve carried the Desmond Tutu book around like a map, as if it could lead me to answers where I know none presently exist. All summer long, I’ve also encountered the same words by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’ve found them in essays and articles. They have followed me to dharma talks and conferences and lectures. I cannot escape them. These are the words that won’t leave me alone:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. … the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Maybe the Desmond Tutu book feels too much like an answer, too reductive and too easy. Maybe I don’t like the idea of books about forgiveness. Maybe they feel too commodified, too capitalistic. Maybe I am completely wrong about this whole thing, and would only know how wrong I am if I read the book. Maybe I am clinging to anger, and to not forgiving, because I’m intoxicated by a false sense of control. Maybe I am more in love with questions than answers. Maybe questions feel like hope, and a life unfurling toward all its dreams. Maybe answers are not really answers at all. Maybe they’re just dead ends.