The last 12 months have been weird for me. I’m a pretty healthy 39-year-old marathon runner. And yet I had a heart attack, was subsequently diagnosed with a rare disease, and broke my right clavicle – all within months of each other, all unexpected and unwelcome.
This past year was supposed to be a “bounce back” year, wasn’t it? I hoped everything would run a little smoother and that we’d all know how to live a little healthier than we did in 2020, when a tiny virus spread and changed our lives forever.
But as the new year dawns, many of us are still just trying to heal – from the pandemic, disheartening political and racial divides and new health issues.
Dealing with my own struggles amid this turmoil, I started to rethink what it means to break, and what it takes to heal.
Can the way we recover from social traumas help us heal from illness? Do I have to actually believe I can heal from something for it to happen?
A year into my health journey, I think so.
The last time I needed to heal
Before I got sick last year, the last time I remember needing to heal was when George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of killing Trayvon Martin. My well – that intangible, deep down fount that allows me to find silver linings and keep believing in progress – ran dry. I just couldn’t understand how a grown man who had so obviously and egregiously killed a Black kid, could go unpunished by the justice system.
I don’t remember exactly how long it took to replenish the well, but it didn’t happen overnight. My dad was sympathetic, but he told me that the fight for racial justice would continue and that I had one day to mope before I had to move on.
I definitely moped for more than a day – but marching to protest the acquittal, prayer, talking with friends and watching a new generation of civil rights activists organize helped push me forward. Ultimately, I think my desire to live in hope – not pessimism and anger (though these emotions were useful) – restored me.
I didn’t know it then, but my desire and ability to heal from emotional and physical setbacks was crucial to how I live a meaningful and satisfying life. As I was healing, I was developing a blueprint that I will probably follow for the rest of my life.
My well ran dry again
It’s been nearly a decade since Martin’s death, and I found myself looking up the definition of healing in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “To make free from injury or disease; to make sound or whole; to patch up or correct; to restore to original purity or integrity. “
The prompt? My unexpected health issues caused my well to run dry again.
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with idiopathic hypereosinophilic syndrome (HES). My body produces more eosinophils than I need, and my doctors don’t know why. Eosinophils are a type of white blood cell that fight disease. They create inflammation to help fight infections – which is generally a good thing. But when they overproduce, the little suckers are dangerous.
In my case, I’ve experienced many of the symptoms of this disease: fever, diarrhea, an inflamed liver. At one point, my overzealous eosinophils likely caused my heart to spasm, and I had an abnormal heart attack.
My medicine wasn’t working well
The road to recovery has been bumpy – and, in the middle of all it, I fell and broke my collarbone during a run, and had surgery to repair it.
And then, a recent visit to my hematologist revealed that one of my medications was not working as well as I thought or hoped.
My hematologist is one of my favorite caregivers. During a normal checkup, we talk about exercise, his kids, my siblings. Once we catch up, he’ll explain my latest test results and check vitals, always with a succinct yet relaxed delivery.
I was alarmed when our banter was short this time. He straightened his smile and his tone transitioned to serious in a way I’d never heard. He didn’t try to frame the disappointing news as “nothing to worry about until we know it’s a trend” like he normally does.
Straight up, no chaser, he told me that my eosinophil levels were higher than expected and that my current medication was not sustainable over the long term. The longer I stay on it, especially at the high dose I was on, the more likely other major health issues would arise – like osteoporosis and high blood pressure.
That’s when the floor and whatever else was keeping my spirits up, fell out from under me. If this man was worried, then so was I.
The appointment lasted all of 15 minutes, but I walked away with a heavy head, processing that my illness was potentially not “beatable.” It was mine to keep. And to manage it, I would need to get on a new medication: a “safe,” but disruptive, hard-to-pronounce pill with a bevy of potential undesirable side effects including a warning to avoid pregnancy because it could cause birth defects.
Little did I know, this would not be the last new pill I’d be introduced to. A few months after this visit, my doctors found blood clots in one of my lungs and one of my legs. I didn’t need to be hospitalized but I had to get on blood thinners right away. The scariest part was that I had no idea any of this was happening. And on top of this, I tested positive for Covid-19 on the same day. This new year had no chill!
Calling on my team for support
Just like when the Zimmerman verdict came down, I felt sucker punched in the gut. I’m militant about exercising and eating nutritious foods so I can stay fit and avoid diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cancer – all of which have run through my family.
I’m lucky and grateful to have access to quality healthcare and insurance to deal with this illness. But being diagnosed with a rare condition I’d never heard of and that has no clear cause or cure, also feels unfair and so unsatisfying. But since marching in protest against HES probably wouldn’t do much good, I resorted to another part of my recovery playbook - calling on my Dad, my spirituality, my friends and my care team for support.
Since the heart attack, I see this group as family. They give me pep talks before procedures, they make me laugh, and they listen to me cry and complain as I come to terms with being breakable. I celebrate my victories with them, and if anything happens to me, I want them at my funeral (not to be grim, just prepared).
Making sense of my new reality
Fortunately, I’m way more preoccupied with restoring my health and my well than dying. This is in large part because of my squad. They’re inspiring and they’re helping me grow my healing toolbox.
A colleague and friend who recently endured a traumatic brain injury talks with me about resilience and making sense of our new health realities. She encourages me to be patient with all the goals I’ve had to put on hold, and to be willing to make new ones. She reminds me that I never know what’s going to happen, and that the outcome could be better than I expect.
A dear uncle reminds me that worrying about all the terrible things might happen is not super useful, and reassures me that I am being monitored by a good care team. He sends me inspirational stories and cute emojis when I feel down. A close cousin has been helping me research potential causes and treatments for HES. And my father keeps advising, “Focus on what you can control.”
He’s a man of faith. In an uplifting tone he manages to harness every time I need to hear it most, he tells me to choose my attitude and do something, anything, that makes me happy.
It’s good dad advice. I realized that since the diagnosis, I’ve been so focused on beating this thing – seeing all the right doctors, taking all the pills, and eating all the right food that will “cure me” – that my happiness has been secondary.
Moving the goalposts
After nearly a year of dealing with HES, I realize there are levels to healing. Sometimes it’s being fixed and cured, and sometimes it’s just learning to manage things so I don’t hurt myself or die.
That’s why I’ve decided to move my goalposts, from getting back to the way things were to investing in a new, stronger normal. And I’m no longer pursuing a healthy lifestyle just to avoid tragedies (because I obviously can’t) but to survive them and live well in spite of them. I’m going to keep praying, working with my care team and leaning on my friends and family for support.
But I’m also accepting that there are questions that may never get answers, and that my team and I are probably going to get some things wrong. I expect to cry from time to time and feel a lot of emotions that aren’t normal for me. But I will accept how I feel, and not beat myself up for how I don’t.
I’m also prioritizing my happiness and diversifying my joy. I’ve been working on passion projects (like writing this essay), running, lifting weights and drawing. And I celebrate when things go well – like when I feel good, when I have normal eosinophil levels, and when I manage to talk about what’s going with my health without crying.
That’s my blueprint, and it’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about 2022. It will mark the start of year three of the pandemic and the tenth anniversary of Martin’s death. There is pain and progress to assess. There may be more questions than answers. There will likely be setbacks and unexpected and unwanted changes.
Yet I am strangely encouraged by the traumas we have survived together these last couple of years and how we can get stronger from our collective and individual experiences.
As I head into 2022, I am reminded of the work of George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and author of “The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience is Changing How We Think of PTSD.” He says that many people experience severe trauma in their lifetime but get through it and move on. He says that most of us are resilient in this way.
And just knowing that, is part of healing, too.
Eryn Mathewson is a podcast producer on the CNN Audio team, formerly with ESPN and WNYC. She began her journalism career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California, has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and was raised in New Mexico.