Last week, my partner and I were walking to a gig in our neighbourhood when all of a sudden my partner started running. There was an older man down, in the middle of a side street off a busy main road. There were three or four of us and then there was a small crowd. Someone said they’d seen him get hit by a car. Others said they’d seen him trip and fall of his own accord. I called an ambulance and we as a group tried to ascertain the details. Had someone asked him his name? Could he tell us how old he was, what day it was? Was there someone we could call? Was he on any medication? Heart medication, he said. He was 75. And even though everyone else seemed to be able to understand intrinsically what was going on – that on this particular Friday night this man had had too much to drink and had simply fallen over and was older and couldn’t get up – I heard heart medication and fall and unintentionally processed the events much differently. This man’s heart had been beating way too fast, and it had given out and he had staggered to the ground.
I knew that this is what must have happened to this man because it’s what happened to me. Where’s the ambulance? Someone said angrily and it sounded like six years ago and I wanted to say, it won’t come, it won’t come for so long you’ll think it’s not coming at all, and I remembered a pile of stranger’s coats on my body and leaned down and asked the man if he was cold. Of course he wasn’t. It was practically summer in Melbourne and he was drunk and the ambulance was minutes away and I was the only one who couldn’t understand these things. When the ambulance arrived, they asked him whether he’d had anything to drink. A few, he said and all of sudden my chest was tight and there was a rock inside my throat and I grabbed my partner and we left immediately before I started to cry.
I’ve read of the need that new mothers feel to tell their birth stories, as a way of unpacking what had happened to them, this big, momentous, unexplainable, full-bodied event. For a very long time after my ablation in 2010 and my open heart surgery in 2011 I felt this need also. I talked way too much about what had happened to me. I slid it into conversations awkwardly, desperate for people to understand that someone had held my heart inside of their hands and that I wasn’t really the same anymore. I became deeply interested in the heart itself: what it looked like, how heavy it might be. I wasn’t a very good patient – I didn’t ask many questions, and I still to this day don’t understand the proper anatomy of a heart and the various ways mine had failed. When doctors ask me now what the problem had been, I say, there was a hole, well, two holes actually, and also there were extra pathways wrapped around, and I don’t use any of the words I should use and they try not to show their frustration. When it comes up in conversation organically now and people ask how it had all been fixed I tell them that one day they went in through my groin and burned my heart with lasers while I was awake, and on another day they snapped the bones in my chest like chicken bones and pulled my heart out and stitched it up and put it back in, and I don’t use any of the words I should use and they try not to look afraid or grossed out.
The first Christmas my boyfriend and I were together, he gave me a silver anatomical heart on a chain. Oh, my mother said, he knows you so well. (My parents were the only ones not bored by this unshakeable interest in the heart and the limitations of my body. After all, my mother had grown my heart all by herself, inside of her own body. When my cardiologist had said, birth defect, they must have heard blame.)
The trauma of what happened to me was immense. My body went into such shock it induced a period that my mother had to deal with because I couldn’t go to the toilet properly by myself. I had a physio to help me learn to walk again. I had to pull myself out of bed with a rope. I watched my own blood and piss swirl outside of my body. I vomited violently for longer than a person feels capable of vomiting, suffering from a reaction to the morphine I was releasing into my own body through a handheld button. My stomach was thick with blue bruises from the daily injections, then black when they ran out of space. Last year at home in Brisbane I blew into the breathing apparatus they give you to measure and regain your lung capacity and looked at the plastic level rising to the top, remembering when it couldn’t even hit the bottom mark.
But this trauma is a trauma I’ve written about before. The trauma I haven’t written about is the trauma of being left behind, of being unloved and left out and of not knowing my place in the world. Of my brother and sister not visiting me in the hospital and of the boy I loved for years and who I had thought loved me back in his own way not even texting. Everything was falling apart, not just my body. My friends didn’t really like me and I didn’t like my friends. I had an idea of what my life was meant to look like at 23 and it didn’t look like crying myself to sleep at night in a ward filled with old people or watching Masterchef with my parents, loving with my whole patched up heart people who couldn’t love me with the same ferocity, or a passion for learning and for creating and for loving that I couldn’t see reflected back in almost any of the people who made up my community.
If there is one moment in my life that I can pinpoint as the time when everything changed it would have been that moment. 2011 was the year I became a person, and some of that was a physical evolution but most of it wasn’t. The week before my heart surgery I flew to Melbourne for the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I had attended the National Young Writer’s Festival the October before and it had changed me as a person. I had learned there that the people I was searching for existed, and I chased those people to Melbourne. There was nothing spectacularly life-changing about that festival except that it was there that I learned that it was possible to exist in the world the way that I wanted to, and after the surgery, when I had healed, I became someone who could say yes to the right things and no to the wrong ones and more than that, someone who could do that with intention and clarity. Instead of staying safely inside with people whose size and shape I recognised, I let myself go out into the world and listen when people told me I was welcome there.
I started 2011 at a party filled with people who lacked the capacity to understand me, tired out of my brain from working too much at a burger restaurant and being verbally abused and physically intimidated by a man who had had too much rum. I ended it dancing in matching tiaras with someone who has shown me time and time again in the past six years that the immense love I feel for her is returned, someone I have the pleasure of sharing a stage with tonight. I remember that New Years Eve, knowing that new friends who I continue to be inspired by and grateful for were scattered around Brisbane’s Powerhouse in every direction, wholly feeling the power of knowing and of living inside of one’s community. It’s a power I still get to regularly enjoy and it’s one I don’t think I will ever take for granted.
I don’t wear the necklace much anymore, mostly because it gives me an allergic reaction. But more than the hives that break out on my neck, I don’t feel as much of a need or desire to wear it. I’m not obsessed with the fragility of my body, either physical or mental, anymore. I trust that my body will continue to carry me as long as it is able and that the love I put out into the world will find a way to return back to me.
Even though I don’t wear the necklace much anymore, I still feel something solid when I catch a glimpse of it on my dresser or in a drawer. Just like new mothers become mothers and forget the moment when they became split into two things at once, so too have I forgotten what it’s like to be that broken and desperate.
Earlier this month my partner and I were in Hobart for a wedding. We spent a day at MoNA, and I stood in front of a row of porcelain anatomical hearts. Instead of being interested in the fragility of the medium, instead I was interested in the beauty of something from my own experience I find so intimate and centric to my own identity being shared so publicly as art. The heart has ceased to define me in a way that has limitations; instead now its power is what it can send outwards.
Sian Campbell is a freelance writer, Co-Director of the National Young Writers' Festival, and Editor in Chief of Scum Mag. Find her work in Spook, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging and Junkee.