1. I never thought I’d be a girl who’d get plastic surgery. Not for lack of dissatisfaction with my physical self — as a teen I spent hours mentally dissecting my face and body — more because I felt like whatever fixes surgery could offer would still never satisfy, never quiet the self-judgement. I believed that no external stitchery could ease the internal ache.
And yet, tomorrow I go in for what will be my ninth time being sliced and stitched by a plastic surgeon.
2. Four years ago, I found out I had breast cancer, and these nine surgeries in the time since then have been steps toward reconstruction, in a “one step forward, two steps back” sort of way. Complications with implants and infections and wound healing brought me to the O.R. eight times in the recent years. (I feel the need to say here: my experience is not typical.)
The surgeries have mostly been small, but stressful. As my nerves mount before this next one, I revisit an old question: Why? Why am I doing this? What will this accomplish? What if after all of this, I feel just the same?
3. Pre-cancer, I engaged in an average amount of body-related self-loathing. I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel terrible either. After cancer, after mastectomy, chemo, radiation and the aforementioned complications, I plummeted.
I began to regularly describe my body as monstrous, broken, weak.
4. I’ve spent the last three years with a prosthetic breast — a DIY version I crocheted and stuff into a cotton bra every day. Rarely, I forget to wear it, and a hilarious scene ensues featuring Benny Hill music and me stuffing anything — paper towels! socks! baked goods! — into my bra to try to approximate a breast. If that fails, I keep a giant drapey scarf on hand to artfully cover what is not there.
Sometimes, I must go without; for instance, if I’m going in the water. Last year, walking through a hotel’s pool locker room in my modest one piece, without the prosthetic, a pair of 9-year-old girls took one look at my uneven torso and widened their eyes dramatically. When they had passed me by, they burst into giggles. And I felt nothing. I realized it was because I had already been far worse to myself.
5. I’ve put off this surgery for years now, staying safe in a place I call “unhappy, with hope.” Unhappy with the way my body looks, hopeful about future possibilities. After this surgery, my state will change to either “straight up happy” (seems impossible); or, if it doesn’t work, “unhappy, with no hope.”
6. I’ve told myself that this is the last attempt.
7. The day arrives, and I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing. In the waiting room I carry my totems: essential oils, a handful of crystals, and a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the advice column she authored called “Dear Sugar.”
I open my book to no page in particular, and read a question from someone trying to decide if he should have kids. In Strayed/Sugar’s reply, she recalls a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, and closes with: “I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us.”
8. I consider getting up and leaving, leaping onto the sister ship where I don’t do this. I imagine myself walking away and getting a chocolate milkshake, and never speaking to anyone about this again. It seems like that may be the braver choice.
9. But I stay. I meditate. I massage my temples with essential oils. I walk into the operating room, and lay down. I make a silly face to myself, and my surgeon tousles my hair through the puffy blue cap, and the oxygen mask that smells awful is placed over my nose, and I feel the blank space coming with a burning in my throat.
9. I go home a few hours after the surgery, and the next morning, I peek under the bandages.
“Hello,” I almost say to the well-adjusted looking little mound. I’m pleasantly surprised. It feels too early to say I made the right choice, so I cover it back up.
8. The next day I look again, and this time I do speak aloud: “Oh no.” The little mound has become mottled with red. “No, no, no, no.” I remove everything, and find a rectangle of red skin reaching from the tattoo on my ribs across to my heart. “Shit.” This hot redness could mean an infection, and the permanent end of the little mound to whom I’ve already become attached. I tell my doctor, and after a few text exchanges, he asks me to meet him at the ER. I pack up my totems, and head back into the city.
7. In the ER waiting room, a boy walks in with a clump of paper towels in his hand. Is it his finger? Has it been severed? No, it’s a sandwich, and he takes a chomp as he passes by my seat. Bachata is barely audible over the industrial-sized freestanding air conditioner angled near the door.
6. I log onto Facebook, and scroll through a page I like called Plant Identification and Discussion (30,000 users strong). A picture of a fairly plain seedling has been posted for the group to identify. It looks familiar, but I can’t name it, so I look through the answers:
“It looks like a pepper plant”
“Does not look like a pepper to me…”
“I think it’s moon vine. or morning glory vine”
“Looks like a moon plant to me.”
“Morning glory or green bean.”
5. I get a bed in the ER, and it’s all pretty familiar. The beeps and footsteps, and the overheard details of someone else’s pretty bad day. A nurse comes and takes my blood and her scrubs say “Grey’s Anatomy” on the pocket. I think, this could be real life, or fiction.
4. I recall Cheryl Strayed’s ghost ship, and how there must be more than one for each of us. For every disaster and miracle and hard decision, a splintering off, until there are millions of slightly different selves pushing through the universe. In the days following my very first surgery, I remember being in the shower and feeling that splinter distinctly. The other me was packing her things neatly, without hurrying. She swept up a bit, gave the room a final once over, and turned off the light. “Don’t go,” I wanted to say to her. Or rather, “Take me with you.” After she left, I felt alone.
3. The curtain scrapes open, and an infectious disease specialist comes in. We both remark on the near-perfect rectangle of red reaction I’m experiencing on and near the little mound. He declares it not an infection; instead, contact dermatitis, with a splash of allergy to the antibiotic I received. The little mound can stay.
My surgeon seems a bit sheepish, and says the rash looked worse in the photo I’d texted than in person, and cuffs my knee. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” he says. I’m thankful for it.
2. At home I find the full text of the poem that inspired Strayed, which is called The Blue House and includes this line:
“I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives.”
1. Sometimes I think my life is like a river, and I trace my finger along the map. I go upstream and examine the tributaries and rivulets that lead to the bigger water. The places where it splits and becomes something else, smaller or bigger, easier or rougher. I picture them each with its own little ship carrying its own little me.
I am not the girl I thought I’d be. I miss the alternatives, and yet I am grateful for this life.
About The Author
Emily Helck is a writer and artist who divides her time between Jersey City, NJ and the Catskills. Her writing has appeared in Bustle, ABCNews.com, and elsewhere, and has been performed at NYC's KGB Bar. She currently blogs about wildflowers, honeybees, and other bits of rural magic at ruralie.com. This is her first contribution to Do It Well, CO.