Her eyes were empty. Emotionless. Her smile was forced. The girl I was looking at in the photograph showed sadness, darkness and fear.
That girl in the photograph was me.
For the longest time I couldn’t write about it. Person after person suggested that I try. They suggested that I at least attempt to put my emotions into words. “Let it out,” they would say.
“Let people know what you’re feeling.” I sat down so many times, fingers gently brushing the keys, but no words would flow. I would curl up under my covers at night, leather bound notebook in hand, but the pen remained motionless between my fingers. “Writers block,” I would assume. But it was much more, I simply could not feel.
The wave of emotion hit me 8 months after I was released from the hospital. It hit me in the most unexpected of places, the place known as “the happiest place on earth.” Walt Disney World. My family and I were sent on a week-long vacation to celebrate my health and our resilience. I was ecstatic to go, to celebrate something so wonderful. But the first night, after landing in Orlando, I became an anxious mess. I threw up twice in the bathroom of our beautiful five-star hotel. “Stomach pain” I assumed. But it was much more. My body was simply overtaken with anxiety.
I found myself constantly wondering if I was ok. Asking myself if I was tired because my new heart was failing, if I was going to be sick again, if I would once again find my life on hold as I remained in the small constrains of a dull hospital room. My worrying took over. I couldn’t focus on anything. My mind couldn’t make rational decisions, my emotions and experiences were getting then best of me. My past was taking over my future, my now.
I agreed to seek professional help. I decided to meet with a therapist once a week to talk about everything I had been through and how the horrors of my past were creeping their way into present day. I withdrew from school for the semester to avoid making myself more ill and to minimize the additional amount of stress in my life. I read a lot of books, watched a lot of television. My mind could only focus for a short amount of time. I longed for my life to return back to a sense of normalcy. I knew and understand that the past had redefined my personal meaning of “normal,” but I sought out something similar. I couldn’t find it anywhere.
Whenever someone brought up my illness, my past or the insane events of the last year, I would physically and mentally shut down. I would leave the room, change the subject or grow so angry I would cry. At the time, I wanted everyone to forget it all and to focus on my good health, my bright open future, the mere fact that I’m alive. I realized through my weekly therapy sessions that I felt those strong emotions because simply, I didn’t want my surgery to define me. I had been someone entirely different before, why couldn’t I return to that now?
I spent most of my days at home from last December until April. Sure, I did things. I ran errands, I saw friends, I visited family. But those small trips around the corner, those short drives, felt like cross-country road trips. I was tired afterward, needing to rest. I learned that it had nothing to do with my health, but instead that it was all in my mind. My mind was tired from putting on a show, pretending to be okay, pretending to be happy.
Organ donation has been a topic in the news quite frequently as of late. Selena Gomez, a largely popular public figure privately underwent a kidney transplant a few months ago. Her donor was her best friend, a miracle and an amazing gift. For the first time since her surgery, Selena stepped forward and gave her first interview on the Today show Monday morning. A fan of Selena myself, I was eager to watch her interview and hear more about her journey. But what I took away from it was far more than I ever expected, for the simple fact that Selena did not sugar coat a single thing. She was real and honest about how it was difficult, emotional and life-changing. I felt like she was talking to me and only to me.
The public wants to hear the beautiful happy ending, about how the journey lead to a wonderful destination- good health. But see the ending, the ending is only the beginning. The surgery itself is just the start of a whole new beginning, a whole new life. A life filled with medications, doctors’ appointments, emotional distress and adjustments. I was told over and over again that the first year is the hardest, and I could not agree more.
I was being too hard on myself. I was expecting myself to feel great all the time, to feel happy all the time, to get over the recent series of events in the quick blink of an eye. I did not give myself a sufficient amount of time, a lesson I learned the hard way. It got to a point in which I just needed to sit back, take a breath and take it all in. I just needed to sit back and celebrate that I was alive.
I returned from the hospital post-transplant in just twelve days. Upon returning home, I felt that I needed to return back to normalcy in that very moment. I did not yet understand that normal, gained a new definition. Normal was not the same normal as it was in high school, or in the time I spent away at school. Normal was redefined, and I guess, so was I.
It’s quite ironic to say this, but I believe that the past year, my first year post-transplant, was the best thing that ever happened to me. I learned more about myself in my time spent reflecting than I could have ever imagined. I grew closer with my friends and with my family and most importantly, I took time for myself. I let myself cry when I wanted to, I let myself relax when I needed to and I learned how to listen to my body. I learned how to be “normal.”
I have a lot of scars and perhaps they are my favorite thing about myself. The scar that runs down my sternum from the spot in which my chest was opened, is fading faster than I expected. I didn’t realize exactly how fast it was healing until I stumbled upon a picture of myself from April of 2016. I took it in the hospital the very second my bandage was removed. I told my nurse on that day that I was scared to see my scar, I was afraid of what it would look like. When she removed the bandage, she reassured me that it was nothing to worry about, that it was not invasive in the slightest. I used my phone as a way to view the scar and ended up capturing a picture in the moment. It is a picture I will cherish forever.
I will admit, some days I wear a sweater or a high necked shirt to cover it up. I am disappointed in myself on those days, but sometimes, it is just too much to talk about. Some days I do not feel like explaining my situation to strangers or describing where it came from. Some days, I just want to be the Taylor before and embrace the fact that I’m alive. Some days, I want to keep my story to myself.
I have noticed that people tread extra carefully around me. But truthfully? Right now, where I am in my life, I love talking about my journey and about my health. But I also love talking about school. I love talking about the news, books I have read, television shows I binge watch, my current courses and my future career aspirations. And you know what I also love? I love being able to talk about the two together, for it is because I am healthy that I am able to go to school, to follow my dreams, to plan a career. I have realized that my past illness does not define me, but it did assist in making me the person I am today. It led me to this specific university, this particular major and this one career path. It led me to some of the most fantastic individuals I have ever encountered. It helped me to meet a wonderful network of people with similar situations. It led me to so many incredible experiences, people and places. These things, I am grateful for each day.
I was trying to describe my happiness to someone the other day and I could not find adequate words to describe my current mental state. It occurred to me that perhaps I am the happiest I have been in my life thus far. I have always been a particularly happy person, but it seems as if now, in my current state, my life has fallen into perfect place. I am beyond happy at school and working toward a degree, I am blessed to have such amazing friends and family. My health has been perfect and I just recently celebrated the year and a half mark since my surgery. And what a beautiful gift that is.
Her eyes are sparkling. Ecstatic. Her smile is bright and natural. The girl I was looking at in the photograph shows happiness, bliss, peace.
That girl in the photograph is me.