By Megan Winkelman
On March 18, 2013, I was lying half-naked on a table while three white-coated health professionals congregated around my left butt cheek. It was the beginning of spring break, and I was celebrating by undergoing a bone marrow biopsy to test for lymphoma. Despite my (then-mysterious) illness, my bones were still younger and denser than those of a typical cancer patient, enough so that my oncologist needed help withdrawing the cylindrical sample of solid bone marrow from my hipbone. To provide enough leverage to remove the thick needle, the assisting nurse had to press against my back, hard. The pain was incredible. My adrenaline surged in response to the perceived attack, leaving me soaked in sweat and wobbly-kneed. When I tried to stand my body crumpled, but my mom caught me before I hit the linoleum floor. The nurse sat me down in an empty exam room and insisted that I eat part of her lunch to replenish my blood sugar.
We finally exited my doctor’s Oakland office and started driving south to meet the rest of my family in Monterey. As we headed down the Pacific coast, the back of my seat pressed against my swelling bruises, hot vinyl sticking to my sweaty skin. Still, I felt grateful to be done with the procedure and happy to be heading toward one of my favorite cities. Then Taylor Swift’s song “22” started playing on the radio. She sang, “I don’t know about you/But I’m feeling twenty-two… .”
And that’s when I lost it.
I started crying so hard that my mom, panicked, had to pull over to the shoulder of the highway. The lyrics were barely audible over my ugly, snotty sobs:
“We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time/It’s miserable and magical/Oh yeah—”
“Tonight’s the night when we forget about the deadlines/It’s time/Uh oh!/I don’t know about you/But I’m feeling twenty-two/Everything will be alright/If you keep me next to you…Everything will be alright/If we just keep dancing like we’re/twenty-two, ooh-ooh—”
“It seems like one of those nights/We ditch the whole scene and end up dreaming/Instead of sleeping… .”
I hadn’t cried or called out once during the biopsy, but this pop song was making me hyperventilate. The radio filled my head with images from the song’s music video: Taylor and her dozen girlfriends lying on the beach and performing coordinated dance moves in matching heart sunglasses and black hats, implicitly making their “miserable and magical” journey into adulthood, together.
In contrast, I was turning twenty-two, and I was trying not to obsess over whether I had cancer, whether a very different kind of deadline was in my immediate future. I felt unable to communicate my bizarre bone marrow experience, or any of the terrifying and foreign places my illness took me, to my friends, most of whom were appropriately absorbed in the last glories of college life: taking road trips, dancing and drinking at our senior “pub nights,” and staying up till dawn to watch the sunrise before racing back to the library to frantically finish thesis chapters. These activities had no place in my new life. Even when I found the energy to socialize, I had to schedule a ride to the campus coffee shop on the disability services golf cart. Depending on whom I was meeting, sometimes my arrival in this clunky white vehicle would prompt polite inquiries about my health, and sometimes it would be studiously ignored, along with the rest of my predicament. My friends knew I was sick, but didn’t know how to talk about it. And I didn’t either; instead of sharing how afraid, angry, and inert I felt, I tried to make jokes, and feign interest in our gossip.
Finally, I made up my mind to start talking about being chronically ill. (This resolution came after spending an hour making sympathetic sounds when a friend called to complain about the seasonal cold that was spreading through the dormitories.) I practiced a short script communicating my overwhelming isolation and anxiety, even rehearsing it with my mom over the phone. But when I was actually sitting on the bench across from my beautiful, well-meaning friend, I was as queasy as I had been after the biopsy. My coffee cup shook in my hand. My mouth felt like it was full of feathers and as I tried to articulate my simple, careful sentences, it was as if I was coughing up their mangled, sticky shafts: “So, achem, I’ve been sick,” “I’m not sure what you know…” “Um, it’s been kind of hard,” and even “I’m sorry I haven’t been, like, around.” Yep, I actually started apologizing. And my dear friend tried to deflect my mess of words and about-to-be-born tears. She said, “It’s okay, you don’t have to talk about it,” and changed the subject to her foreign policy class. At the time I felt betrayed by this diversion. I can now see that we both wanted to meet each other halfway, but didn’t know what direction to walk toward.
The most devastating part of being sick wasn’t the chronic pain or fatigue, but feeling like my identity, especially my role in relationships, had been subsumed by my health status. That kind nurse who shared her sandwich understood more about my life than my best friends could. Even when I was pronounced cancer-free, I didn’t celebrate with the women who loved me. We didn’t laugh together when my awkward oncologist told me I had “goddess-like bone marrow.” Liat, my fellow Uprooted editor and best friend almost since birth, heard this story for the first time while reading a draft of this essay.
Part of my inspiration for addressing this topic was the recent criticism of Taylor Swift’s portrayal of female friendship in her videos, performances, and social media. She fills her Instagram photos and sold-out stadiums with gorgeous, vibrant models, singers, actresses, and other celebrities (even the US women’s soccer team). In Rolling Stone Taylor Swift discusses being drawn toward powerful, successful women: “It’s like this blazing bonfire. You can either be afraid of it because it’s powerful and strong, or you can go stand near it, because it’s fun and it makes you brighter.” My friends are extraordinary women, women at the forefront of immunology research, virtual reality programming, and anti-human trafficking policy. When I was really sick I felt I had nothing to offer them or the rest of the world. They burned bright while I burned low. I didn’t share what I was going through, and they couldn’t understand, because I never gave them the chance. It has only been in my return to health that I’ve realized that talking about our fears is both relieving and enriching. These conversations are essential to the complicated process of becoming adults.
Though I did not know it at the time, founding Uprooted with three of my best friends was a critical part of my healing process. As we read and edited stories, poems, and essays, this rich content became a springboard for starting difficult conversations about our bodies, health, and relationships. We finally talked about the chasms between us as well as the many ways we had suffered alone. And these moments led to more like them, somehow revealing a new comfort and connectedness. In “Female BFFs: The New Power Couples,” published in T Magazine, Emily Witt writes that “the best works of art about friendship resonate by showing how our closest friends have a way of ruining our attempts to present ourselves as perfect; how those picturesque moments are belied by other truths.” The same could be said about the best works of art about illness, which must also shatter the fixed, flat images of the sick, and then take the pieces to reconstruct something multifaceted, each shard now reflecting something unexpected. In reacting to what was on the page we had the opportunity to reveal and start to reconcile our own pains and insecurities. As Witt wrote, on the page “we see our own blind spots; we see how to become more compassionate friends.”
Real friendship isn’t just about celebrating the strengths and successes of individuals.1 It is also about identifying where our empathy breaks down, and how systems of inequality and social silencing infiltrate our everyday interactions, whether these systems are policing race, opportunity, ability, or health status. How can we learn to relate to someone whose daily struggles are foreign to us? When I was sick I didn’t want to mar the picture-perfect image of what being twenty-two was supposed to look like. I didn’t want my suffering to intrude on what I perceived as my friends’ experience of this ideal, even as a small voice in my head told me their lives were also imperfect, that no one really lives in the 2D space of social media. I now understand that we cannot grow together without recognizing what separates us, because these flaws and differences are also what allow connection. Both genuine friendship and powerful stories address the grief we might otherwise pretend away. When we acknowledge the imperfect truths of our lives, we grow and expand our understanding of what it means to live and be human.
This is beginning to sound like an empowered manifesto from someone who knows what she’s doing. It’s not. I’m still struggling to be honest at the times when it matters most. I still hate feeling vulnerable. At 24 I’ve found some perspective on the conspiracy of “feeling 22,” but I’m still working to debunk “feeling 24.” Writing helps, because it gives me structure and control, the time and space to find strength in my voice. And I’m learning to accept that who chooses to listen is beyond my control. The alternative, silence, fails us all.
Latest posts by Megan Winkelman (see all)
- An Introduction - December 20, 2016
- Taylor Swift was more traumatizing than my bone marrow biopsy - September 28, 2015
- Let’s talk about living with illness (I’ll start) - May 6, 2015