My Life Is Like Most People’s, Except I Do Almost Everything Nude
My Life Is Like Most People’s, Except I Do Almost Everything Nude
I Didn't Know What Inner Strength Was Until My Husband Took His Own Life
A 150mile Sahara Desert Race Taught Me Anything Is Possible
Becoming A Mermaid Gave Me Strength And Freedom
I Rowed The English Channel In A Bathtub
A Humpback Whale Tucked Me Under Its Fin And Saved Me From A Lurking Tiger Shark
So when I wrote Grizzly a two-sentence letter, I got back a five-page letter. And when I wrote Grizzly a one-paragraph letter, I got back a ten-page letter. And when I wrote Grizzly a one-page letter, I got back a fifty-page letter.
He was writing back more and more. You're probably thinking — and I won't pretend that this isn't an issue here — that I might be a woman of questionable judgment, and you're right, without a doubt. But one thing I will attest to, and I will stand on this to my last breath, is that I know good writing. And Grizzly knew how to do it.
I'm standing in the conference room of an immigration law firm reading the asylum cases that are framed on the wall, and keeping one eye on my boyfriend, who's pacing. Six months ago I didn't even know this man, and now I am clutching his deportation notice with both hands.
Two lawyers come in and the whole story unfolds. I'm taking notes furiously.
One of the lawyers asks, "Did you love her?"
And without hesitation he says, "I loved her very much."
She says, "Good, because now we just have to prove it."
When the book was finished, I delivered it to my publisher, and in part fueled by the London gloom and in part fueled by nostalgia, I decided I wanted to go back to San Francisco just to recuperate. To go back to where the book actually starts, when we sell all of our stuff on the steps in San Francisco.
I go back to California, and I take these beautiful walks in the city. San Francisco is so beautiful. And I find myself, despite myself — because I tell myself not to do it — walking past my old neighborhood. I end up going past my old coffee shop, and I'm going like three miles an hour, you know, there are like five thousand feet in a mile, and there's like three thousand, six hundred seconds in an hour, so I'm going about four and a half feet, I figure, per second. It takes me about two seconds to go past this coffee shop window.
So we got on I-95. And I had it up to eighty. And she was just screaming with happiness. Morphine bag was flapping over her head.
And that wind— I always imagined the wind on a bike making you feel free, you know? It's so powerful. And for 10 minutes we were normal, and that wind just blew all the death off of us.
I promised her when she died that for the rest of my life I was gonna live for her. I mean, really live.
But nothing I'll ever do will ever be that grand again.
The day he left, we had lunch, just the two of us, in a little intimate restaurant. We both knew that it would be many months perhaps before we'd be together again.
We kept emotion out of our conversation. I think we were both afraid of breaking down. I know if we hadn't, I would have broken down, and I'd have begged him not to go.
I imagine you've all been in love. Can you picture what it's like to be terribly in love, and know that all you have is a few hours, this moment in time?
Until the final day of my fellowship training when a tumor ruptured in my liver, and in the space of two hours I went into multisystem organ failure. My liver failed from the compression of the blood volume, my kidneys shut down from lack of blood flow, I received 26 units of packed red blood cells with additional clotting factors and the platelets of strangers. I was placed on a ventilator and a medically-induced coma.
In the operating room I heard them say, "We're losing her." I thought to myself that they were right, that if I could see myself on the table, that perhaps I was already lost. I felt very small, weightless and yet at the same time, expansive as if I were part of everything at once. The devastating pain that had brought me into the hospital was gone, and I felt oddly, completely at peace.
When I gave birth to my baby boy, I was full of hopes and dreams for him. But the one thing I didn't ever imagine was burying my son's tiny body after his murder. No parent wants to outlive their child or say goodbye – it's impossible to imagine – but my final hours and minutes with my beautiful James will be etched on my mind until my dying day.
Getting my purse out to buy two pork chops for tea was the last thing I did before my world imploded forever. I went into the butcher's holding my little boy's hand, making one final stop before heading home, and I left without James's hand in mine. In truth, a lot of the detail is lost for me – I either can't remember because I have blanked it out or else the facts were kept from me for my own sake. I didn't eat, I didn't sleep, I didn't shower, I didn't talk – it was like I was floating. Hours bled into each other, day and night were the same to me.
I was at the surface of the water when one of the whales approached me and kept swimming towards me. I was frightfully surprised that he just kept coming right at me. I put my hand out and he pushed me through the water until I ended up on his head! He spent a good 10 minutes trying everything possible to get me under both of his huge pectoral fins as I calmly and carefully pushed my body away from him. I would have drowned had he succeeded. I knew that pushing him away was not going to have any effect, but at least I could try to push myself away from him!
I wasn't sure why he was doing this until I saw a huge, robust 15 foot long tiger shark. The second whale was working to keep the shark away and her behaviour displayed a lot of persistent tail slapping. I understand now that he might have been trying to protect me from the shark. The way that he was looking at me with his huge wise eye, I should have known.
I ran blindly, stumbling and falling, pushing my way through chest-high snow. My heart pounded against my ribs and I pulled each breath from the thin freezing air as if it were my last. I could hear the creatures behind me, moving in closer, fanning out to attack from all sides, a pack on the hunt for human prey.
I stumbled, plunging face first into a deep drift. I struggled to get up, moving a few feet before I got bogged down again and had to start pushing myself through the snow one laborious step at a time until I finally came to a complete halt. My legs were trembling and I could feel the trickle of wet snow mingling with my sweat. Terror had paralysed me. I couldn't move. This was where it would end, in a flurry of sharp teeth and slavering jaws. As I lay motionless, waiting for death, one thought, one question, went round in my brain in an ever-tightening circle:
How did I get here?
The answer was simple. I was addicted to powder.
The way I assessed my situation, I had only two options left. For too long, I'd lived in fear of my father's violence that could be triggered by something as simple as the wrong tone of voice or silence when he wanted an answer. So I'd finally reported the abuse to a county social worker, but she needed permission to intervene from someone who was of legal age, and I was still eight months away from turning 21. Now I'd just heard from the social worker that my mother had said no a second time. After I hung up the phone, I collapsed on the bed that belonged to a fifteen-year-old girl who had died in a car accident five months earlier. I cried out to God in my mind, "Why her and not me?"
I closed my eyes and thought hard about what I was going to do now: commit suicide or leave the Amish. I thought I was headed for eternal damnation either way. Then I thought. "If I commit suicide, then I will go to hell, and right away. But if I leave the Amish, I will have at least a lifetime here on this earth before I go to hell." Then for the first time in my life, I dared to wonder how the Amish preachers knew that leaving the Amish would lead to hell.
By the time I got up off the bed, I'd faced my worst fear, and I'd made a pact with myself that I'd leave.
Jackie Kennedy's crystal balls were up here. Nancy Reagan's luscious red ribbons were down here. Barbara Bush's dangling orbs were over there.
Yes, you've guessed it, right? I was in the White House holiday storage facility, where they keep all the holiday décor from White Houses past. It was amazing. Pat Nixon's little beaded orbs... It was just beyond.
So how did I get there?
Christmas passed in a lonely, dismal way without any contact with the outside world, and without any contact with my loved ones. Shortly after Christmas, as the post was being delivered to the prisoners, a jailer came and handed me a postcard. And this postcard was extraordinary.
It was written by a woman whom I did not know, and she told in the postcard how the day after Christmas she was walking on the shore at Greystones, south of Dublin, grieving for her brother, whose name was Peter. He had been a seaman and had lost his life in an accident at sea.
And she remembered that there was another Peter who was facing death. You see, I had been a fisherman, and I had spent a long time at sea. She remembered that there was another seaman named Peter, and she thought she would write to me to wish me well, and to pray that I would not be executed.
When I got that card, it just lifted my heart. That lady, whom I didn't know, restored my humanity to me and lifted my spirits. And while I knew that I was facing death, and I knew with certainty that the worst thing that they could do to me would be to kill me—until such time as they did that, I was my own person.
The war started in 2011, the first thing I experienced in Damascus was the increasing security forces presence everywhere, wherever I would go the security checkpoints were in front of me. Food items prices started to increase many folds in a very short time and lots of people couldn't afford it.
I can still remember the very first scary situation. I was asleep at home where all of a sudden, I woke up at the noise of a ridiculously loud explosion, and then I learned that it was a suicidal car bomb attack. Up to this point people still had hope that violence will subside soon, but it was not meant to be.
I lived in Syria for one year during the war, in which time I experienced a couple of close-to-death experiences. One of them was when I was going back home after work and I had to cross a military checkpoint to reach home, and then after five minutes the same checkpoint was bombed and a crossing bus was destroyed, killing everyone in it.
I first became aware of my 'condition' as a small child. I could not get to sleep, and my father or my sister would say, "Just close your eyes, and picture sheep jumping over a wall. Count the sheep. You'll soon go to sleep". I tried, but told them I couldn't see anything when I closed my eyes, just a greyness. Nobody believed me. "Don't be silly everybody can see pictures when they close their eyes". This was news to me, and I decided not to mention it again.
I was always getting told off for 'telling stories', making things up. Ironic that I am now a scriptwriter. I never told anybody else about my condition, because, it didn't appear to affect my life too much. I must admit there were times when I wished that I could close my eyes and think of my late mother's face. She had passed away when I was six. Apart from that, it was just natural to me.
The biggest lesson I learnt from flying around the world is that your background only determines your starting point in life, and the finish line is determined by an individual's tenacity. It is for that reason why I want to inspire kids especially those from less privileged backgrounds. It is such an honour to have been able to circumnavigate the globe and be amongst the very elite members of the world's earthrounders.
I look back at those birthday photographs and can make myself believe that I haven't changed at all. But there are scars which go unseen which remind me that I didn't change at 21; it was the entire course of my life which changed.
So many say cancer was the best thing that ever happened to them but cancer was not the making of me; it was the making of a version of me. Who knows who I could have been without that tumour.
So we were pushed in. We came to this long hallway. On the left side, we saw benches. There was a chemical smell that hung in the air, and there were metal trolleys with bars on the top with hangers on it. And on the right side, we saw these heavy metal doors.
Again the soldiers were barking orders at us. I didn't understand. They were speaking German. But Auntie Margo conveyed the order that we have to undress and put our clothes on the trolleys and the blankets, to leave everything there.
Everybody began to undress. The soldiers were standing on the side, and they were joking and smiling, making remarks and faces.
Watching at home, I was disgusted. I thought this was crazy. A whole bunch of assholes were basically making reality TV out of this tragedy, and it was abhorrent. I thought, I need to write something about this. I need to write about the media exploitation of this disaster.
So I did. In my mind it was like a Robin Hood affair - I thought I was doing a good thing, kind of like robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
But for me, the pun came first: Beaconsfield: A Musical in A-flat Miner. I know what you're thinking: grade-A pun. (My dad loved it, so whatever).
We got home, walked up the stairs, opened the house... and it was absolute chaos.
Someone had broken in. Everything was completely trashed. In retrospect what must have happened was that my then husband had often worked at home, and whoever had been casing the neighbourhood must have left our house aside because he was often there. But that day, of course, he hadn't been there, so we were vulnerable, and we were robbed.
I get up there, and I read the book to two hundred people, and the response is good, but I don't think much of it.
I go home, I go to sleep, and when I wake up the next morning, Go the Fuck to Sleep is ranked 125th on Amazon.
Now, as a literary writer, I didn't even know they made numbers that low. And by the end of the week, the book has shot up to number one.
It took about six months for me to recover. My memory just came back slowly over time. And then I must have been fully healed, because a few months after that, Adam and I broke up again. Only this time I knew it was coming because we'd done it before.
I wanted this fresh start. And I got it. I lost myself completely, and then got myself back, almost as if following a script, replaying my entire history with Adam. Nothing had changed.
But this time, that was comforting. Because if nothing changed, it meant I knew who I was. That I was a real person. And that even without my memory, I was still me.
It's the fastest I've ever rowed in my life. It's so fast that my lungs are beginning to die. And the reason for this incredible burst of speed - some would say legendary burst of speed - is that just behind me, bearing down on me, is an oil tanker.
It's five hundred metres long, and it is bearing down on me with incredible speed, which is why I am rowing faster than anyone has ever rowed in their life. I am desperately trying to get out of the way of that massive oil tanker.
Did I mention, by the way, that I am sitting rowing in a bathtub?
Finding out I had testicular cancer was like being warped to another dimension, looking in on the rest of the world as they live their lives as though they haven't even heard of cancer. I had the most incredible support, all around me, but, that very moment felt extraordinarily lonely. I have always been an avid outdoorsman and when I discovered the Fjällräven Polar, a competition to join an expedition through the Arctic, only days before my surgery, my mission was clear.
The barracuda was right there; lurking. It was enormous, with great black marks like portholes down its side and teeth that made me shiver. It was side on when I first saw it and about 20 metres away but it flipped in less than a second to face-on and came towards me so fast it was like a blur.
It is true that time slows down in a crisis. I remember the terror - and I also remember thinking very clearly 'I want to live.' Until that moment, I hadn't been sure.