Identity — and the loss of it — loomed large 10 years ago as I sat staring at my computer. I didn’t know who I was any more.
Scared. Untethered. Unsure of what awaited me.
I stared at a blinking cursor. Heart broken. Filled with longing for what might have been. I nursed an overwhelming grief (the full extent of which would come much, much later.)
Steady rain beat down on the roof February 3, 2007. It was as if the heavens were crying with me.
I searched the Internet with phrases and questions such as:
“why doesn’t society help infertiles?”
“what I wish fertiles knew about infertility”
“how to keep living after infertility”
What I discovered online was a burgeoning community of women wrestling with many of the same questions in a new form of expression called the blogosphere. I looked up ‘how to start a blog’ and began writing.
Now 10 years later, February 3, 2017, with the benefit of your generous hearts, encouragement and willingness to help me rediscover my identity, I am whole again.
You could say finding the German film, Phoenix, this past month was Kismet. It helped me fully realize just how much of myself, my identity, I once lost and rediscovered.
After the film I recorded notes from interviews with the director and lead actors. I would never presume to know the horror and betrayals that occurred during World War II, but the parallels around trauma and lost identity held me spellbound.
Phoenix opens with a face profiled in darkness. It is the face of a woman driving a bandaged and bloodied passenger back to Berlin. Her face has been badly damaged. Here are the words of Nina Hoss, who describes how she played the lead character, Nelly Lenz:
“Phoenix is a movie about a woman whose fire has gone out. She is trying to keep the remaining embers burning. Someone has to blow on those embers to revive her. She has been through the worst experience you can possibly imagine. It’s ingrained in her. She is looking for her life back.
“As an actress, I am concentrated with [her] trauma and coping with trauma…It also meant that the experience had to have an effect on her body. If I wanted to tell the story of her journey…of someone reclaiming herself…taking on a new self, she had to have no identity at all. She was dehumanized and that’s how she comes back. When you’re driven by fear — when you go out into the world and your body closes in on itself, you don’t put yourself out there and say, ‘here I am! Look at me.’ It’s more like ‘don’t look at me, because I don’t know if you’ll harm me or not. I can’t face up to another person. I lack the inner strength to stand my ground.’ That was my starting point.”
That was also my starting point, and the starting point for many women I’ve met and come to know. Those who came away traumatized by failed fertility interventions, surgeries and IVF.
A Rising Phoenix
Nina captured poignantly what many of us have had to reconcile, in the early days of coping with trauma, as our identity and dreams of what might have been slip away:
“Having no face [only bandaged]. As a woman and as an actress, I thought it was great that this woman didn’t have to define herself by her face. She could simply observe. What’s the world like now? Where am I? What’s happened? What’s going to happen? Her body reflects that. She’s like a faceless zombie walking around in the world, rediscovering the world like a child — or an alien. She doesn’t know her way around any more.”
I nodded knowingly at the television screen and hurriedly wrote more notes.
Nina added, “I had to withdraw into my shell, to reach the character’s sense of isolation and her incredibly complicated state of mind — to somehow simply this complicated mental state and hold on to it.”
I sighed. I also wondered if others who had watched me some 10-plus years stumble around locked in my incredibly complicated state of mind could begin to understand my sense of isolation.
About one scene, Nina described her inspiration to portray the character’s wobbly form during a familiar encounter.
“It’s like in Proust when you smell or taste something, a memory slams into your body like a sledge hammer. That’s why she totters to the side.”
Regaining my footing took much longer than I ever anticipated. Movies, books and, of course, blog posts have illuminated my world. (I highly recommend this film and the accompanying interviews where you will hear many more gems about trauma recovery.)
From where I sit today life feels both familiar and dramatically unfamiliar. The path in the past decade has had plenty of thorny patches. I’ve done my fair share of bumping up against barriers. The bruises and scars, however, are testaments to years of work — trial and error. I confronted not only my own ignorance but the ignorance of others.
On a New Path
Ultimately, kindness and compassion helped me to grieve openly and to overcome years of suffering.
I am still me, albeit stronger, more self-assured and certainly wiser — in large part due to you, my dear blog readers.
And the next 10 years? A new project. Stay tuned.
You can find this essay as well on Huffington Post: Whole Again After Multiple Failed IVF Cycles