amber-laneAmber Lane is a writer who happens to be a chemist.  During the day she writes technical pieces and during the evening she moonlights as a creative nonfiction writer.  She has performed her creative nonfiction pieces at conferences, creative arts events, and most recently at A Night of Short Stories, which featured four of her pieces.  She holds a BA in Biology with Chemistry and Theatre Arts from Alverno College, Wisconsin.  She is currently a member of the American Chemical Society. She also serves on the leadership team for her faith community, The Refuge.
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niagara-falls Niagara Falls

The nurse had just noticed my arm ballooning up.  The realization she’d blown my vein seemed to initiate a rush of adrenalin, which caused her to fumble around trying to remedy the situation.  She removed the IV and placed a square of cotton gauze over the mess.  Very apologetic she began again on the other arm, this time she hit the vein and began asking the standard pre-op questions.  Disoriented by her mistake she confirmed my name about six times before finally moving on.

Although my arm was throbbing I began to relax as the nurse walked away from the gurney.  My father sidled into the small curtained room, sat in the chair next to the gurney, and gently placed his hand on my messed up arm.  A knot formed in my throat but no tears were allowed to breach the levies.  Swallowing hard I looked up at him, he managed to tighten the muscles in his face bringing up the corners of his mouth in a sort of sympathy smile, and asked me if he could pray.  I nodded, and the soothing rhythm of his voice filled the room, seeping between the buzzing of the fluorescent lights, moving past the clamor of the nurse’s preparations, like a force field his voice enveloped me.  My mind flopped between being engaged in what he was saying and in processing the standard pre-surgery thoughts; thoughts in which I envisioned the possible outcomes of going under the knife, toying with the idea of not making it through the surgery…of dying.  I imagined what my family would do and how my friends would respond.  In the middle of planning the perfect memorial service, my dad finished his prayer.  I took a deep breath and opened my eyes, bringing me back to the buzz and clamor.

A tall slender black man moved into the curtained room and smiled broadly, executing his duties with precision, starting with the confirmation of my name, and then moving onto my rank and serial number.  He deviated from his task, momentarily noting that I was about his daughter’s age.  I thought to myself that he certainly didn’t look old enough to have a twenty-eight year old daughter.  His rich baritone voice filled the air as he wheeled the gurney through the corridors of the hospital.  I noticed the small holes in the tile on the ceiling forming a pattern, although to the untrained eye the holes probably seemed random.  The man’s voice came to a halt as he hit the metal button with the familiar blue stick man in a wheelchair on it.  Proceeding through the doors and into a pink room with a pastel plaid dividing curtain drawn through the middle, he informed me that this was where I would wait for the anesthesiologist.

It was a small room, and the amount of people in it surely violated some regulation.  The temperature was significantly cooler than the previous staging area.  The patient on the other side of the curtain was also being prepped for surgery.  I escaped the chaos, picking up only certain noises, voice patterns, and movements.  The woman on the other side of the curtain was presented with her anesthesia choices.  The anesthesiologist was like a waitress providing a diner with the special of the day.  “Today, our specials are the horribly uncomfortable but easily recoverable saddle block or you can choose our wonderful general anesthesia however it will leave you feeling groggy and nauseous.”  The patient chose to have the first “special”.  I really hoped that the specials weren’t available to me, I was done making decisions and really just wanted to be zonked out and have it over.

She moaned as they placed the needle into her spine.  For some reason at the same time the woman began moaning, I realized that my bladder was full…I mean FULL.  Permission to relieve myself was granted and a kind orderly came to assist me in the process.  I was freezing in my thin hospital gown and goose bumps erupted all over as I sat down on the icy cold toilet.  Every muscle in my body contracted in an effort to conserve energy, but the timing couldn’t have been worse.  It took me quite a while to actually go to the bathroom.  Just as I was envisioning the headlines, Woman Dies from Exploded Bladder While Sitting on the Toilet, I relaxed enough to allow the warm urine to slowly trickle out of my bladder.  Upon returning to the gurney I realized that at some point during all the commotion my dad had ducked out of the room.  I didn’t blame him, I only wished I too could duck out, run away, far away from the stinky, sterile room occupied with way too many people and a moaning woman.

Soon they wheeled the woman out and her wait staff went with her.  Like magic, my dad reappeared, and the rigor mortis that had taken over my body began to subside.  We didn’t say anything to each other, but that was okay, there was nothing to say and one thing I can’t stand is someone who tries to make conversation just to fill the silence.  Hickory, Dickory, Dock and the running mouse counted about forty-five minutes, before the anesthesiologist returned to the room.  I was ecstatic when she told me that only one of the specials was available to me; I would be served the general anesthesia.  Following the obligatory instructions the anesthesiologist smiled professionally and I was wheeled into the operating room.  My dad walked along side the gurney as far as he was allowed, and then he bent over, hugged me, kissed my forehead and stated that he would see me later.

The operating room was kept at the FDA recommended 4° C.  The warm blankets that had been thrown over my rigor body in the crazy room after I had gone to the bathroom were pulled off.  I was assisted by a couple of guys in the operating room off the gurney and onto the operating table.  There were people rushing around, taking tubing, needles, and bags of IV solution out of plastic bags and mussing with me like I was a fetal pig being prepped for dissection.  The familiar face of the anesthesiologist appeared before me and inquired as to how I was doing.  I remember thinking, “How do you think I’m doing?”  Actually, despite feeling like a science project I was relatively relaxed, and then the cold sting of the anesthesia hit my arm.  It seemed like the sting was stronger and hurt more than I had remembered from prior surgeries.  I let the people standing around know that my arm hurt, and in the indifferent tone of any good dissector, they responded that it was just the anesthesia and that it should subside shortly.  It did and I quickly fell into a deep induced sleep.

As a child I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night so afraid that although my mouth were wide open forming a scream loud enough that the neighbors might have jumped out of their bed, there was no air in my lungs forcing my vocal chords to vibrate.  It was one of the strangest phenomena I have ever experienced, but right up there with the no noise scream was waking up after surgery.

As I recovered, I couldn’t open my eyes but I could hear the nurses talking.  I was nauseous and felt like there was a fire burning inside me, from mid-torso to mid-thighs.  I could hear someone say, “Amber, you need to take deep breaths.  Take a couple of deep breaths for me.”  I did, and the beeping that I hadn’t noticed until it stopped, stopped.  I fell back to sleep and then woke to the beeping and the same voice saying, “Amber, take a couple of deep breaths for me.”  Again I obliged, and then forcing my eyes open, I asked if I could go to the bathroom.  The nurses questioned my request, “Are you sure you’re ready to get up?”  I was only sure of one thing, and that was the fire that was burning inside of me.  In my delirium I rationalized that if I could go pee the burn would stop.  So I responded that I was ready, and the nurses helped me out of bed.  I walked to the bathroom, and estimated that it was approximately four miles away from the bed I had been lying in.

I eased myself cautiously onto the toilet and sat there, waiting…waiting…waiting.  Nothing came and the fire continued to burn, then slowly a little trickle came along with a steady steam of bright red blood.  The burn didn’t stop and seemed to only have been intensified by this activity.  The room began to swirl as I stood up from the toilet.  I sat back down quickly and pulled the cord with the red handle, the nurse rushed in.  After helping me into a wheel chair the nurse pushed me back to the area where only moments before was a warm bed, which I had abandoned in my failed attempt to stop the burn.  However instead of my warm, comfortable bed there was now a blue vinyl covered reclining chair.  I wasn’t ready for the blue vinyl chair and I wanted to yell at the nurses for taking my bed away, but since I was at their mercy I felt it better to just allow them to transfer me from the wheelchair into the reclining chair.

After moving me to the nasty blue chair the nurse offered to bring me some juice.  I laid my head back, closed my eyes falling quickly back to sleep.  Not a deep sleep, I could still hear the nurses talking about me and about the woman in the bed next to me.  For some reason I got it in my head that the woman next to me had just had a baby, and I remember asking the nurse how the other lady’s baby was.  The nurse looked at me as if I were crazy and told me to drink the juice she had brought for me.

It took an extreme amount of focus for me to regain my motor skills long enough to pick up the glass, but like a very well trained child I picked up the glass and groggily drank down the juice.  When I was done they sent for my dad.  While he pulled the car around to the front entrance, the nurse wheeled me through the corridors, into an elevator, and to where my dad was waiting for me.  Upon seeing me, my dad looked very concerned, he asked questioningly if I were ready to go home.  I wasn’t really ready but since I’d gotten up and lost my bed to a blue vinyl chair I couldn’t imagine sitting there when I could be home in my own bed, so I gave a little nod and off we went.

I didn’t remember anything from that point until about a block before the turn to the house where I would stay during my recovery, when I awoke abruptly and let my dad know that he needed to make a right turn at the next street.  The following week was a blur of vomiting due to the pain killers, not being able to go to the bathroom, eating a little organic tomato soup, and sleeping, a lot of sleeping.

During the second week sleep became less, and I became bored with just lying around reading.  I logged onto the computer and checked out the two diseases that the biopsies had confirmed: endometriosis and adenomyosis.  I knew about the first disease because I had been diagnosed with it about three years prior.  The second one I hadn’t heard of, but the doctor that went over the biopsy results with me said that the only way to treat adenomyosis was by having a complete hysterectomy with bilateral oophorectomy, which is what I had just undergone.  This new information reaffirmed my decision to let go of all hopes of ever giving birth to a child in exchange for a life free from the chronic pain that I had endured for thirteen years.

The last two weeks of recovery were comprised of long days spent reading or slowly walking.  At first I just walked around the block and then I progressed to the trail where just a few weeks before I would have woke early and pounded out four miles in a little over forty minutes.  Now I was lucky to mosey a half a mile before being utterly exhausted and needing to stop.  My ability to exercise was not the only thing that changed following my surgery.  I was prepared for menopause as much as a twenty-eight year old woman can be.  Hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue, and sadness…sadness like no other sadness I had ever experienced.

I was inconsolable and after a few months I decided that my grief had lasted long enough!  It needed to stop, and so I dammed it up.  It took a lot of concrete to keep it dammed, in fact because of the multi-faceted nature of the pain it seemed as though, just as I would finish mending one part of the dam, another part would break open.  Interestingly, ‘Niagara Falls’ is actually three falls, American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls,.

If I were to name the falls that comprised my Niagara they would be Grieving Falls, Anger Falls, and Lost Identity Falls.  The volume of Grieving Falls was made up of the loss of my children, the ones that would never grow inside my womb for nine months, the ones that I would never nurse, and the ones that would not have my eyes, my nose, or my temperament.  Anger Falls roared furiously towards an unjust God.  Lost Identity Falls meandered past the jagged rocks and around the smooth boulders, in a never-ending way.  Volume-wise, they were the smallest of the three falls, but without question the deepest.

Every morning I get up and check the dam for leaks, I can hardly keep up with all of them.  In fact there are some that I don’t ever get to.  I know that one day the cost of maintaining the dam will become too expensive and I will have to give up the fight, but for now I keep trying to patch it up because I fear, that should I let it crumble and fall away all at once the sheer force of it will kill me.

Epilogue

Three years later…the dam broke.  Occasionally I consider how much energy I relinquished to that dam and admire my determination and ability to keep broken things from appearing to be broken.  In the months that followed the crumbling of the dam, an exploration began.  Eventually unearthed was the fact that the structural instability was due to the shifting of the ground beneath the dam.  I had buried a secret in that ground and it was constantly attempting to make a break for it.  Secrets are extremely powerful and the longer they remain secrets the more powerful they become so, after twenty-five years one can imagine how grossly muscular my secret had become.  The secret was unleashed exactly when it was supposed to be, but I believe that my body paid the price, buying time for my soul to gain the strength needed to face such a powerful force.  My body – my female organs in particular – kept my secret contained, but they absorbed all the emotional toxins and manifested them physically.  Feeling as I do about the inextricable link between the psyche and the physical body, the scars from my hysterectomy persuade me daily to be transparent in all things, so that my body never has to be sacrificed again for as long as I live on this earth.

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amber-lane2Amber Lane is a writer who happens to be a chemist.  During the day she writes technical pieces and during the evening she moonlights as a creative nonfiction writer.  She has performed her creative nonfiction pieces at conferences, creative arts events, and most recently at A Night of Short Stories, which featured four of her pieces.  She holds a BA in Biology with Chemistry and Theatre Arts from Alverno College, Wisconsin.  She is currently a member of the American Chemical Society, as well as serves on the leadership team for her faith community The Refuge.

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Barbie and the Boa
by Amber Lane

It was a great blazer.  I had bought it at Talbot’s.  I wore it with gray slacks and a mint green shirt, both of which were too small.  I buttoned the blazer to hide the gaps between the buttons on the shirt.  Hidden too by the blazer was my protruding lower abdomen, which was amplified by the tight slacks.  I was uncomfortable but I couldn’t think about comfort. The Barbie smile, which I had previously perfected, was summoned, and through the door I walked.

It was a fairly typical interview with fairly typical questions and awkward silences.  I walked out the same door I had entered with the same pseudo-confidence.  I received a phone call with an extension of an offer of employment within the next couple of days…that great blazer had worked.  Based on a conversation and a piece of paper three men had decided for some reason that I was something they wanted to invest in.  It’s an odd process if you think about it, you put your best foot forward and you’re rewarded if that foot fits the company slipper.  Here’s the problem…the foot that fit into the slipper that day was not really mine, it belonged to Barbie.

barbie2The issue is that Barbie is not a person, she is a character, and in my case I would soon learn that I could not stay in character very long.  Two months after beginning my new job I was asked to move to California.  The original agreement was for six months.  It was an adventure…or maybe I was just running away before anyone figured out that I wasn’t a very good actress.  I had one week to move to California, find a place to live and settle into my new job.  I was scared, I really had no idea what I was doing, and I was supposed to be some kind of expert.

Fall in San Francisco.  The rain didn’t stop and the mold in my tiny little bathroom was mitigated weekly with bleach and water.  Everything was damp all the time, the gray skies settled in the south bay, beginning a four-month-long hibernation.  If there had been any break in the clouds I never noticed.  Coiled around my chest during this time was a huge boa constrictor, which made breathing difficult and sleeping even more difficult. He liked the environment though, it was moist and warm and threaded with fear.

boa2Picture Barbie with a boa constrictor coiled around her chest, suffocating her. She knows he’s there but she is stunned; she can’t do anything about him, except make him as comfortable as possible so that his grip does not tighten and squeeze the life out of her.

And so there I was.

I had no friends.

I had no family.

I was in a new job.

I was in a new place.

I was lonely, scared, hurting.

And it was about to get worse.
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It was a protocol, an instruction manual of sorts.  The track changes feature on the word document had produced a long column of rectangular boxes along the right side.  In each box was a comment…no not a comment, a knife.  As I read it I could feel the quick stab and then the pain.  He was supposed to give me feedback, instead it seemed to be a running commentary with hints of sarcasm and ‘you are so stupid’ streaming through.  The next time it was a verbal thread along the same lines, and the time after that the same, finally culminating in an explosion of anger that I will not likely forget.  I could feel the boa constrictor tighten and my chest begin to cave under the pressure.

During those months I would leave my apartment in San Mateo by 8:00 am and drive across the bay to Freemont.  Arriving between 8:30 and 9:00 am depending on the traffic.  I would sit in the parking lot fighting back the tears that had only subsided a few hours before, at which time I had finally become exhausted enough to fall asleep.  I would pull it together, take a deep breath and get into character.  Barbie had a way of turning into  Xena as soon as my badge unlocked the door to the building.  Xena got me through the day.

As the warrior princess I had to stay five times ahead of my opponents.  In order to be so far ahead I couldn’t experience the present, missing out on many opportunities to enjoy my life in California.  It was difficult work being the warrior princess, but for me I didn’t know any other way to survive.  I was once again surviving my life instead of living it.  Between Barbie, Xena, and a character from Girl Interrupted, I lost me, completely.
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Once my chest had caved in and the life squeezed out of me, I could no longer be anything, not Barbie, not Xena, and especially not me.  As I lay dying the boa constrictor began to swallow me whole, and I did nothing about it.  Then he slowly slinked off to his den for his winter hibernation with me inside of him.  I honestly don’t remember too much during my stay in the boa.  My tissues began breaking down; daily I died a little more.  Some days I remember wishing that it would happen faster, but mostly I was so numb that I didn’t feel much.  Whenever there was a moment, even the briefest moment, when I felt something, I would take in more toxins to make it all go away.

Food.  That was my toxin of choice.  It may seem odd to some that something usually used to nourish could be so deadly, so let me explain.  When I’m eating I don’t think about anything else, there are chemicals released in my body when I eat that cause me to feel good and my brain associates food with feeling good.  Those factors, plus years of practice on how to use food as a tool to cope, equal toxic.

I would feel…nothing for the three or four hours while I was eating…then physically uncomfortable, shameful, guilty, gluttonous, sad…very, very sad.  Not able to sit with all of the discomfort I would walk into the bathroom stick my finger down my throat and throw-up.  My stomach hurt all the time, all day long, into my throat, always leaving a sour taste in my mouth.  I couldn’t sleep because my stomach and throat were always on fire, so I stopped throwing up, kept eating, and started taking laxatives.  At first one, then two, three, four, five…  The thing with this method was my body still absorbed most of the calories of the binge.

Ten months after driving to California I drove back to Colorado.  I had arrived as an adventurer and was leaving as an empty carcass.  I was not too unlike the pioneers traveling with the Donner party, with my spirit lost on the journey and doing what I had to do to survive.  Survival meant living in the lies, believing them because the reality of my rotting flesh was far worse.  The lies: you’re a fat lazy slob…get off your fat butt and do something…go away I don’t want to see your fat face…you’re worthless and can’t you do anything right!?…get out of my face you disgust me…I hate you.

I had allowed that boa to swallow me, head first, keeping my hands to my sides, and without kicking.  Moving back to Colorado stirred a desire inside me to fight.  I killed the boa with a knife that I had been holding the entire time, and cut my way out.  As I pulled myself up off the ground gasping for air, my raw flesh burning, my vision blurry, I realized that Barbie had melted away. What was left stunk and was utterly repulsive. Knowing this I kept my distance from others, not wanting to offend them.

A few people didn’t seem to notice my stench, and they kept coming close to me.  They would come and clean away the dead skin, apply salve, and redress the wounds.  I had been playing a character for so long that as my skin began to grow back it was foreign to me.  I was so uncomfortable in it, and sometimes the itching was so intense, that I would retreat back into the lies, the food, and the laxatives.  The following day as my wounds were being treated, someone would inquire about the new sore that had appeared.  Without the Barbie skin I couldn’t look at that person and tell them anything but the truth, and when I tried to avoid the truth the sore would only fester.

It was a bad day.  Followed by a good pizza. A medium pizza. Followed by four laxatives.  My last binge purge.  I have been walking in my new pink skin for many months now.  The lies have not stopped, they remain, but after I stop and listen and sometimes even agree with them, I put on my shoes and start walking again.  I remember Barbie and the Boa everyday as I put on my shoes. Unlike Barbie, I wear a size 10, and boa constrictors make beautiful shoes.

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