My Story: Why it’s cool to be kind
My Story: Why it’s cool to be kind
Life seems surreal at times, especially when you get to a point where you realise you have been to hell and back and although at the time you had no idea how you would possibly survive, you realise that you did – and are probably stronger because of it.
I was asked the other day to list three moments in my life when I was sure life was over.
The first: going to boarding school and being so upset and homesick that I tried to run away and having my very pregnant aunt chase me around the streets of Melbourne. I was 14.
The second: waking up to find myself in ICU, on life support and paralysed after getting Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I was 27.
The third: sitting with my husband in the office of our fertility specialist, being told that there was no hope of successful IVF treatment – and, to ensure my life wasn’t in danger, that I should get a full hysterectomy.
I was 32 years old.
I know that in all three situations I was scared, I was upset and would have been perfectly happy for life to have ended then and there. But it didn’t. I survived boarding school because it was only for six months before my family moved to Melbourne. Being paralysed and learning to walk again took a bit longer than six months, but I survived that nightmare and am so much stronger and empathetic to others because of it. The third will always be a work in progress, but one that, although painful and ever-so-sad, has given me the power to do something I never would have dreamed of – had I had children.
My problems with infertility came about after I had surgery on my stomach and contracted an infection that meant my abdomen had to be left open until my surgeon was sure I was free of infection. This meant frequent trips to the operating theatre to wash out the area, plus months in hospital. The thought of not being able to have children never crossed my mind, but shortly after everything had healed, I began to get pelvic cysts. These cysts were incredibly aggressive; I felt fine in the morning and, hours later, I looked like I was six-months pregnant and in agony. Initially, my surgeon would drain the cyst and I would go home, but the procedure was becoming more and more painful.
I was told that having a full hysterectomy was the only way I would ever get my life back.
It was a Monday afternoon. Matt had taken the afternoon off work. I heard my doctor’s voice telling me that there was nothing else they could do. My heart was pounding. My palms were sweaty. I began to feel the walls slowly start to close in around me.
My breathing was shallow, my head was spinning, and my hands were clasped tightly in my lap like little weights as if they held all the power to hold me down and to resist the urge to leap out of my chair and wrap my fingers around the doctor’s throat, preventing any more of his ugly truth escaping his lips. I sat and stared, gazing just beyond his shoulder at the picture of his perfect family. I slumped further into my chair, the reality that I may never have my own photograph sitting on my desk at home sinking in.
If I made eye contact I knew it would be over. I knew the floodgates would open and I’d never regain composure, so I stared and thought about anything but being in that room. Wishing I had cancelled the appointment. Not knowing the truth. Continuing to believe I could have a baby. I wanted to be anywhere else.
As someone whose lifelong dream was to be a mum, it felt like a million little daggers were being plunged into my heart. What was I supposed to do now? What were we supposed to do now? I felt numb and depleted.
If that wasn’t hard enough, I was handed a mountain of paperwork that included my hospital pre-admission appointment, surgery date, and a referral to the menopause clinic. This made my blood boil. Why would I need to go to a menopause clinic?
“I’m in my early 30s,’’ I told the doctor. His response: “Naomi, as soon as the surgeons remove your ovaries, you will automatically go into menopause. It will be sudden and you will need to be on HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy] because of your age.” I wish I had been a bit wiser and prepared myself better.
I had good and bad days before the surgery in March 2015. I was okay until someone asked if I was okay, then I’d either drop the ball or say I was fine and crumble on the inside. I told Matt he could leave me; that he deserved to find someone who could give him a baby. I think this was the only thing I felt I could offer him and I wanted him to have the option to leave.
His response was always instant – that it was not something he would even consider. I felt like I was letting my family down. I wanted to give my parents and in-laws a grandchild and my niece a cousin.
I wasn’t able to do the most natural thing in the world and, somehow, that made me feel less of a woman and unable to contribute to society. No amount of counselling, reading or crying ever changed this feeling, until a friend said to me, “I wish you knew your own beautiful worth”, followed by: “Take my kids whenever you want. They are a nightmare at the moment!”
I felt peaceful and confident walking into the hospital the morning of my hysterectomy, but I was still sad and a little disappointed. And that’s something I’ve been learning my whole life: peace and sadness are not mutually exclusive. Because for all the acceptance and healing I had experienced in the previous years, I still hoped perhaps the ending would be a little different. There was always the thought, “But maybe …” in the back of my mind.
If I look at those first few days, I struggled. I had been told all about sudden-onset menopause but didn’t expect the effects to start just hours after the surgery. I was hot, itchy and confined to the bed with pain medication, antibiotics and fluids.
I remember wanting to be naked, and didn’t care that I was in a room with three other ladies. I couldn’t start on HRT immediately so I had to battle through. It wasn’t just the physical side effects; mentally, I was exhausted.
Social media and the time on my hands as I healed didn’t help my frame of mind. A friend shared a picture of her pregnant belly on Facebook, and I thought about how I’d never feel the kicks of a life inside me. It seemed like fertile women were everywhere and I couldn’t help but compare them to my new infertility.
A deeper fear became clear: was I less of a woman because my body was no longer capable of doing what a woman’s body was evolutionarily made to do? Was having sex even worth it anymore?
I grieved during all those nights I lay awake crying from the hurt in my body and the ache in my heart. In the arms of my husband and with the love of my friends and family, we grieved our loss of not being parents.
Healing came with a slow, hard, quiet acceptance of a life I didn’t expect – wetting the bed, daily wound dressings, gaining 30kgs, not sleeping in our bedroom because it was no longer a place of hope, not having sex and refusing to leave the house. It came in looking in the mirror at all my scars and seeing myself as beautiful because of them, not in spite of them.
I remember I started crying in the shower after I was asked, “When are you going to have a baby?”
I’d forgotten for the briefest of moments that I was truly and finally barren and entertained the thought that I may be pregnant. Almost immediately I remembered that was no longer even remotely possible and the tears came like a flood.
This is called hitting rock bottom. Trust me when I say this. You are being a good friend, family member or stranger by avoiding this topic. It only puts pressure on a situation you know nothing about. Pressure that someone trying to fall pregnant doesn’t need. Pressure on someone who is doing all they can to get through the first trimester with no complications.
Pressure on the person who carries the sadness with them wherever they go, knowing they can’t fulfil the role of a mother in the traditional sense. You don’t know who is struggling with infertility or grieving a miscarriage or dealing with health issues. You don’t know who is having relationship problems or is under so much stress that the timing just isn’t right. You don’t know who is on the fence about having kids or about adding to their tribe. You don’t know who has decided that it’s not for them right now, or not for them ever.
How do I feel about having a hysterectomy at 32 years old? Well, a little sad. But mostly I’m incredibly grateful and am at total peace with it. My life has been filled with deep grief and even greater joy. The things that have sometimes hurt the most have led to the most beautiful gifts.
When I hit rock bottom, I saw a fork in the road. I could continue down a rabbit hole of self-pity and sadness, or look at this experience as an opportunity to spread kindness in the world. I chose the latter, designing and hiding ‘kindness cards’ in random places around my hometown, encouraging people to undertake a random act of kindness in the lead-up to Christmas. I received 32 astonishing responses after hiding 50 cards. One man who found one of my cards had his Christmas lunch money refunded and decided to take the homeless man he always greeted to lunch at a five-star restaurant. A lady, dying from cancer, believed she needed perspective and volunteered at a homeless shelter.
The generosity behind the responses was all I needed to create The Cool To Be Kind Project as a global kindness movement, giving people a platform to be conscious of their actions and to be aware of the feelings of others.
We all have the opportunity to make a choice: the choice to look at life a little bit differently, maybe with a softer and kinder heart.
More importantly, we all have the ability to show people that we all can build our best lives; I have great days and days I would rather forget. Life isn’t perfect for anyone, but it’s important to be thankful for the good that we do have in our lives.