Six months after giving birth to my second child, I was gaunt and sallow, shedding pounds and unable to put them back on no matter what I did. Those who knew me well and spent a lot of time with me could see I wasn’t well, but others—people who were just seeing me for the first time after my pregnancy, or those didn’t see me often—felt compelled, as many often do upon seeing a woman who has recently lost weight, to remark on my transformation.
“Wow, you look great!” I would hear, over and over.
“Thanks, I’m dying,” I would say with a smile, my clothes hanging off my shrinking mannequin frame. I didn’t really think I was dying, but joking about my illness made me feel more in control of it.
Most of my adult life I’ve maintained what a doctor would probably deem a “healthy weight,” with some fluctuations (a bit lower, say, during a bout of the flu in high school; a bit higher, for example, when I spent the summer after my freshman year of college shoving grapefruit gummies into my face while making sales cold calls for the family business). But after the birth of my second child, I couldn’t seem to get back to that “healthy” weight. I was breastfeeding, which sucked away many of the calories I took in. My Crohn’s, diagnosed seven years earlier, was flaring, which meant that many of the calories I was able to keep for myself were being expelled before I could use them. From the outside, people saw a woman who’d just had two children in rapid succession “getting her body back.” From the inside, I could feel my body attacking itself.
Because I was caring for two children under two, I assumed that my health issues were just the kind of thing you had to put up with as a parent. I truly believed that I was no worse off than many other mothers of young children, and that if I soldiered through, I’d eventually come out okay on the other side. I remember taking the kids to visit their great-grandfather at work and having to immediately sit down; the walk to his office had winded me so. “You feeling okay? You don’t look great,” said Audrey, the brash but lovable Accounts Receivable manager who’d been working there since I was a child. I shrugged: “Motherhood.” She told me she remembered those days, adding, with a smile, “Hang in there.”
Hanging in there, toughing things out, were lessons I’d learned long before I became a mother. Women’s bodies, I was taught from a young age, must be a special kind of strong. Women’s bodies must quietly endure; must bear scrutiny, judgment, damage, even violence without too much fuss.
I watched the women I knew strain their bodies for the sake of their families without complaint: My mother never took a sick day, barely stopping to eat or go to the bathroom between her full-time job as a speech pathologist at local schools and her daily afternoon private practice. She also had severe TMJ, which became so acute at one point that I remember us having a nanny for a few months—that this was the only time my mother could be convinced to hire help was a lesson for me in the demands and expectations of motherhood. Her mother, who survived multiple heart attacks, cataracts, and eventual blindness, continued to host elaborate holiday dinners and family gatherings well into her eighties. While I cannot remember ever hearing my grandmother complain as her body defied with more and more urgency her stubborn will to live on, I distinctly remember her counting her blessings and pitying those who had “real problems.” She only cried tears of joy, as if tears of pain or sadness or fear were frivolous indulgences of the weak and ungrateful.
I had applied these familial lessons of female toughness to my own body as a young athlete who had to play twice as hard—and never complain about bruises or bang-ups or bleeding—if I wanted to be taken seriously by the boys on the playground. I had learned, too, to keep quiet about the man in my home, awaiting my father, who once told me he could tell I wasn’t wearing underwear when I was dressed for gymnastics; who told me he could smell me. When I was nineteen and my body went to war with itself, my insides churning and turning and expelling their own blood and guts and tissue, it hardly seemed remarkable. My Crohn’s diagnosis felt like confirmation of what I’d always believed: My body was a silent battleground, and this, too, was to be endured.
After my children were born, the medicines that had helped to control my Crohn’s weren’t working anymore. The iron supplements my doctor had given me to mitigate the loss of blood from the Crohn’s were upsetting my stomach, making it even harder to hold onto any nutrients. I began to dread eating, knowing the pain and frustration that would follow as the energy I attempted to shove into my system inevitably found a path out of me one way or another. I began skipping meals in order to enjoy a momentary respite from the cramping that seized me every time I attempted to digest food. Anemic and malnourished, I grew weaker with every passing day.
At twenty-six, after giving my body over to the creation and nourishment of life for the better part of two years, now suffering in and from that body, I wanted desperately to separate my identity from the mess of bones and organs and muscles and skin it inhabited and which sought to destroy it. This blood is not me , I told myself over and over . This pain is not me. I am empty, I am floating, I am free.
I remember one day when both the kids woke up with colds. All they wanted was to watch David Attenborough nature documentaries in bed. I remember the relief I felt at not having to chase after them for a whole day, how glad I was that they were sick. We lay in my bed all day, half-awake, watching The Life of Birds —kingfishers dipping their long skinny beaks into the water to catch a meal; ducks migrating in formation, their wings beating together in hypnotic synch. Please sleep, I silently begged my sick children. I just need a day, I thought, maybe two. I’m almost out of the woods.
My extended family began to quietly gather at the house to help my husband care for me and the kids. I was barely aware of what was happening, but I knew my children were being looked after. Good, I thought. I just need one more day. But one more day came and went, and still I lay in bed like a wounded animal awaiting scavengers.
My husband insisted I call my doctor. My doctor insisted I go to the emergency room. I insisted on bringing my six-month old with me—“just in case I’m there long enough for their next feeding.” The idea that I had any nutrients left in me to share was a delusion, but still, I strapped my child into the carrier and went to grab the keys from the front hall table. My husband gently suggested that my younger brother drive me instead. I must have seemed deranged to him, grabbing my child and attempting to drive myself to the emergency room when I could barely stand. What prize did I think I would win?
I walked into the emergency room, my younger brother trailing behind me holding my child, and was triaged with a hemoglobin count of four. I now know that a count of thirteen is normal, and they usually transfuse you at anything below eight. I was dying. Later, my children’s pediatrician informed me I had been the subject of the hospital’s weekly case study: “You could have died, you know.”
Even now, as I tell the story, a piece of me still takes a strange pride in my self-delusion regarding the vulnerability, the near destruction, of my own body. I had almost died, and I had not even sensed the danger. Perhaps this was the ultimate victory—to face death and make jokes at its expense. To stand at the precipice, and not make a fuss.
I needed a blood transfusion—four pints. Because I had some specific antibodies from an indeterminate past illness, the blood had to pass through an extra filter. It reminded me of one of those cheap plastic disc games you get in a birthday goody bag, where you have to get the metal ball through the maze—except, in this case, the metal ball was someone else’s blood. I watched it flow, bright and red, out of the bag, down the tube, into the maze, out of the maze, into my arm.
Knowing I was growing sick of daytime TV, my husband went to the hospital gift store to pick up something for me to read and came back with Crime and Punishment . “Just some light reading?” I joked. “I know it’s your favorite,” he said. “And it’s long enough to keep you busy if you can’t sleep.” That night, as the third pint of blood began entering my body, I experienced a sensation I’d never felt before: My blood pressure, spiking from the sudden increase in blood flow, sent throbbing pain throughout my body. It felt like my brain was actively expanding and contracting with each new surge of blood from my pumping heart; it consumed me, and for it there was no relief.
Sleep that night was out of the question, but at least I had good old Raskolnikov. I had reached the chapter in which the detective Porfiry, confident that Raskolnikov is the killer but lacking the evidence to arrest him outright, taunts him in the police station with a conversation that reveals his suspicions regarding the identity of the murderer and his intentions to eventually catch him. Raskolnikov is heartsick with guilt as well as the fear of punishment—a punishment he almost craves for the relief it will bring, but to which he is not yet ready to submit.
My head and heart pounded in sync with Raskolnikov’s as he tried to intimate the subtext of Porfiry’s every statement; I felt his fear, his pain, as my own. Yet even as I felt in my body what he might have felt in his, I was also aware of a kind of psychological detachment from this protagonist with whom I’d always identified. (Murderous intentions aside, what precocious teenager hasn’t felt a connection with a literary character who believes himself to be enlightened, special, beyond the reach of this mundane world?) As I sat upright in the hospital bed, consumed by the incessant thump of the blood that was causing me pain while saving my life, I hated Raskolnikov. I hated him for killing a woman who had done nothing to him, and then for demanding, as proof of his greatness, the price of her body. I hated him for imposing his anxieties onto the bodies of women—not just the woman he killed to prove he was special, but also the woman whose love he demanded to gain absolution.
I had remembered, even as a teenager, being struck by the moment of the old woman’s death: “She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank in a heap on the floor.” It was the quiet that haunted me now, the sudden sinking. It had seemed important to Dostoevsky to note this detail: A woman’s body destroyed, falling quietly to a heap in some dark corner of the city.
She cried out, but very faintly. As though she had already prepared for it, braced for it. As though she’d known it was coming her whole life. She didn’t want to make a fuss.
At that moment, nauseated and aching and physically sick to my core, I didn’t want to quietly accept the destruction of my body. I wanted to shout my pain, to lash out against my suffering. I wanted to make a fuss. I wanted to live.
In the early morning on the day after the final pint of blood entered my body, my blood pressure finally leveled out and I got a bit of sleep. Later that day, my mother brought my older daughter to visit me. I was feeling much better, much more like myself. It was only then, restored somewhat in strength, that I could see how much I had wandered through my life like a ghost for the past several months.
People often describe such moments of recovery as “a fog lifting,” and I suddenly knew what they meant. Sounds were clearer, shapes sharper; thoughts came more readily and coherently. My body seemed to return to my control, like an infant first realizing the hands they see waving before them are their own.
My daughter was excited to see me, and thankfully didn’t seem particularly afraid for me. My younger child, I was told, had been sicker than I had realized when we lay in bed together on the day before I had come to the hospital, and had required days of round-the-clock care and Pedialyte to recover. I thought about what could have happened to my child if my family hadn’t been there to care for her when I could not; what could have happened to me if I had not been forced to finally seek medical attention.
My mother asked me if there was anything she could do for me. With my daughter standing at her side, I felt that familiar desire to appear—to be —strong for her, strong for myself. But lying there in a hospital bed, in a hospital gown, with transfusion tubes running into my arm, I could no longer hide my weakness; I couldn’t grit my teeth and soldier through. For the first time, I realized, I wasn’t afraid of feeling weak, of needing help, of asking for what I needed to feel strong again.
“I’d love some tacos,” I said. It was true. Suddenly, I was so very hungry.