Many years ago, a mentor once told me that writing was a kind of boomerang. “Words have a way of circling back,” she said. “The words you put out into the world will come back to you tenfold—sometimes that’s a kick in the face, and sometimes that’s incredible karmic love.” While I had some inkling of what she was talking about in a newbie writer kind of way, it was not until I fell ill with a severe illness that her observation was eerily relevant and became the tether that saved my life.
This notion of writing saving your life, perhaps, seems, at first, an overstatement. Medicine saves life. Rescue workers and the JAWS of Life save lives. These are concrete, efficient blocks of salvation. Put the medicine in, relieve the pain. Rip open a crashed car door, pull out the victim. Words, on the other hand, are abstractions—images mere synaptic concoctions—and yet they are everything in how we shape our existence.
My toddler-aged daughter reminds me of this, how the word “bear” (as in grizzly, rugged mammal with claws) has come to mean a source of comfort. The association occurred while nursing her from a vicious round of hand-foot-mouth virus, during which I wrapped her in a bear-decorated blanket, gave her a bear stuffy to snuggle with, and narrated stories about a mama and baby bear exploring a magical forest. By the time she had emerged from sickness, “bear” had become a catch-all symbol for security. Of course, mind you, I have faith that she will not grow up to dangerously throw herself at bears in the wilderness or at local zoos, but rather that she will remember “bear” as a nurturing experience to help her weather future hardship. Even for her—just shy of two-years old—words define worlds.
When I fell ill in April of 2012, words were lost to me. Prior to sickness, they were my lifeline, fiction a way to navigate my way through my past issues, my present conundrums, my future hopes. Fiction was a sanctuary, an arena for connecting to something larger than myself. Language was a personal rejuvenation. Sentences, images, analogies, metaphors, stories—in the years leading up to my health collapse — these tidbits of inspiration seemed to come effortlessly. I would stand on the platform of the DC metro and find myself lost in the rhythm of phrases; words and plots and characters flew at me like dragonflies retrofitted with jetpacks. I was grateful for the loud speaker announcing an oncoming train, as I had often found myself missing my ride home with how transfixed I was in story.
On the morning of April 25th, 2012, however, this connection was severed. I woke that morning in what I can only describe as the purest, whitest physical agony I have ever known. I could not open my eyes, this pain; I could only see the interior of my lids and my beautiful life sliding off the earth into a dark ocean. Good night, writing. Good night, life. Good night, me. Good night.
Lyme. MS. Negative diagnoses. Autoimmune? Yes. She has autoimmune—err, or something. No cure? No cure. Give her drugs. All the drugs. And so I walked through the world with my eyes closed, remembering pieces of a life. A sentence here or there. Was there a novel? What novel. I has novel? I have never written a word. The only word was pain.
In October of that year, my husband flew us to California to meet with a gifted doctor who had a stellar success rate of coaxing this illness into remission. It was a leap of faith—an alternative medical path. New words included herbs and diet and probiotics and die-off reactions and the ebbs and flows of natural healing. Eight months later, I was still bedbound—it will get worse before it gets better—but also making great strides forward. Ups and downs.
“You have to measure your progress by function, by what you can do,” a fellow patient told me, and so I measured my recovery by sitting, standing, holding my baby daughter, walking, smiling. My new words were survive and hope and perseverance. There was no room in my body for intellectual thought or beauty—whatever transcendence I had prior to this illness was no longer. Creation took a back burner to simple survival, and I spent months wondering how the dishes would find themselves from the floor to the dishwasher, or my daughter into and out of seriously poopy diapers, or how kale and Swiss chard and spinach and grass-fed beef would arrive, magically in the fridge, for my daily healing consumption. Words and writing—all of it—seemed nonsensical to me.
“I don’t care if I ever write again,” I told my husband, “I just want to be okay again.”
It was not until I spoke at length over e-mail with a fellow patient in Utah that I realized that words—in the face of something so severe and drastic—were crucial to recovery.
“Mind your words,” she said, “what we say and how we say them are sending signals to your cells, your tissues. They can hear you,” and the thought of tiny little microscopic bits of me having ears was foreign and unsettling. I had read an article about the effects of words on water—how positive affirmations would yield water molecules capable of nourishing plant growth whereas negative statements would yield nothing. Or, the notion of epigenetics, where scientists were beginning to postulate that even the origin of cancer might be tied, yes, to a specific gene, but one that was only “switched on” after trauma, a difficult childhood, or repression of an authentic self.
Still, in so much pain, it was near impossible to whisper sweet nothings to a body that had betrayed me, and these studies aggravated me more than helped. How could I create a reality with words in all this madness?
“You have to envision yourself healed, Ally,” the Utah patient said. Her name was Mary. “You are already healed. There is an already-healed you. These steps through the present—every bite of clean food, every dose of herbs—are simply the motions, the vehicle that will transport you to your future healed self. All you are doing is catching up to that future you.” This was the kindest sentiment I have ever received from another human being.
Mary’s insight reminded me of my writing mentor all those years ago, “words are a kind of boomerang,” and so, desperate and in pain and in the midst of an alternative healing path, I embarked upon a radical daily visualization practice: me telling stories to me. Ally gardening. Ally carrying her daughter on her shoulders. Ally running. Ally with all of this behind her, the way a burn recedes to a throbbing to an itch to an awareness to a blissful nothing. Ally hiking with her husband and daughter through the Shenandoah, blue trees and sun-kissed sky. Look at how she walks, those gorgeous hiking boots and the dirt beneath them, moving together like an emblem of health. Muscles strong. Pain no more. Wind in hair. The body an oasis, a cool welling spring.
“You already know the ending to the story,” my husband would tell me, “now just live it. If it’s not the end, it’s not okay yet, so just keep going,” and this, oddly, reminded me of my own writing process, how I couldn’t begin a story without knowing its conclusion—every line and nuance building toward a desired resolution. Me shaping reality.
A fellow patient had also recommended a website called futureme.org, from which you could e-mail yourself a letter one year, five years, ten years into the future. I began to write stories to myself and released them into cyberspace, accounts of how much better I was faring—how much healing had happened—as if I were sending love notes to myself in a distant time. These writings became like prayer for me—maybe a kind of a positive self-fulfilling prophecy or a witching spell. With each one, I visualized myself dropping a smooth stone into the center of a lake, the concentric circles generating at the center and then outwards, outwards until they touched the perimeter: a new frontier, a new end. These stories were my lifeline to a healed future. I was already healed—the resolution was already clear. I was simply just going through the motions to get there. I already knew the ending.
As the months have passed, more and more signs of recovery continue to find me in slow, patient waves, as do echoes and whispers of that old creative pulse. Story ideas. Phrases. An appreciation for a rhythm. Bits and pieces flying at me again, wisps of something. The return of my writing has become yet another way to measure my recovery progress—another marker right alongside my stamina, walking, interaction with others, and the decibel of my laughter.
“Does it give back or take away?” my doctor asked me about writing. “It gives back,” I said. “Then you are on your way,” she said. “Hold onto that. That is huge,” and this is how recovery has gone, a strange, incomprehensible helix of emotional and physical healing, each fueling the other.
At first, the writing progress was reading stories to my daughter in bed. Then, reading graduated into narrating bear-themed stories for my bear-loving daughter—yes, there are many scintillating story arcs for bears. Then, it was futureme.org e-mails, followed by Facebook status updates and drafts of paragraphs. Then, miraculously, new stories altogether. Now, in present time, it is this very rumination you are reading.
I have a ways to go to reach full restoration—on all fronts—but I am beyond grateful for the progress I have seen and will continue to see. There is something to all this. My doctor. My treatment. My family. My words. My boomerangs. These are all blessings, and I know that a future me is reading this old piece from a future healed vantage point saying, “good god what a journey that was. Look, Ally—look at the incredible miracle you’ve created. You got there, didn’t you. You got there in the end.”