Shopping lists, to-do lists, packing lists — lists are an easy way for busy people to retain information. Of all places, I found myself making the most lists in the hospital. And of all kinds of lists (after a surgery that went terribly wrong) I found myself creating a gratitude list.
This was one of many lists I created every night in the hospital. I’d make myself think of something I was grateful for from A to Z, even when I hated my circumstances. By rummaging through my angry and frustrated thoughts, eventually, some positivity submerged. By the time I reached “Z,” my life had not changed dramatically, but my thoughts had.
My medical condition is hard to quantify. I don’t have a formal diagnosis or illness. I may not have a stomach, but I sure am hungry for life. It started in 2005 – a week before my senior prom. It was our second night of Passover, and my stomach started hurting. My dad said it might be gas, but he took me to the ER for an x-ray, just in case. On the way there, my cheeks actually puffed up, soon after, I collapsed, and I woke up from my coma months later. Apparently, there was a blood clot on the mesenteric artery that caused a thrombosis, and when they cut into me, my stomach actually burst to the top of the OR. Both of my lungs collapsed, I went into sepsis shock, and I needed 122 units of blood to keep me alive.
But in 2005, my stomach exploded two weeks before my senior prom. I was in a coma for months; both my lungs collapsed and I needed 122 units of blood. I nearly died. When I woke up from the coma, doctors told me I had no stomach and I couldn’t eat or drink anything. They didn’t know when or if I’d ever be able to again. What do you say to that?
I was shocked – I had been too sleepy to be hungry, but now that I knew what the real circumstances were, I was devastated. I was confused, like I had woken up in someone else’s life – where was I? Who was I? I remember I was once so desperate for answers that I googled “How do I find myself?”
Part of me wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear, part of me wanted to throw something. I was frustrated – I had just gotten my college acceptance letters – was I the victim of some cruel joke? My biggest goal in life was acting on the Broadway stage – and now I couldn’t even walk or talk. That’s when I made the conscious decision, that as long as this was my life right now, I would not let myself feel like a victim or hospital patient. My extremely supportive family and I found the humor and fun in everything, and made our ICU stay as pleasant as we could – whether it was setting up bowling pins in the hallway, serenading the doctors on guitars, or even my parents sneaking me out of the ICU in my hospital gown to go shopping, my attitude always remained to make the best of whatever circumstances I was dealt.
I survived by creating hope, one day at a time. I started a chocolate business, starred in shows, discovered painting, taught nursery school, learned karate, got my yoga certification, wrote a musical comedy about my life, kept a sense of humor, and hoped that every day might get better. After 27 surgeries, I was miraculously reconstructed with my remaining intestines. But for six of the past 10 years, I didn’t eat or drink a drop, not even an ice cube.
Once I was able to have my first bite of food, life finally seemed enjoyable – I could eat and I thought any surgeries were a distant memory, I went to California on vacation, and suddenly my wound ruptured. I was immediately air-vacced to Yale Medical Center. Once again, I was told that I could not eat or drink so the wound could heal. When life felt shaky, I deferred to my rock – my paint brush and my creativity. My mother went home and gathered every scrap of fabric she could find, an old set of acrylics, and a glue gun. Every day, I worked feverishly in my hospital bed, gluing, painting, and letting my imagination set me free. Every day I would create a new work of art, a new source of hope, and display it outside my hospital room. Soon, nurses and even mobile patients would stroll by my room to see what I had created.
Suddenly, I felt like I had a mission to share my story with the world. A message that with hope, strength, and little creativity, anything is possible. I delved through my literally thousands of typed journal pages that I kept over the years I decided to take some of my journal writings, combine both original and established songs, and make a one-woman musical of my life so far.
My show dared to explore a very personal topic – what could have been a tragedy – in a comedic, yet poignant musical. “Gutless & Grateful: A Musical Feast” was the culmination of years of struggling in the dark, and the spark in me that refused to die. It told my triumphant survival tale in a way that inspired many theatregoers and prompted them to rethink the ways they live their lives. It was such a powerful experience to share my story and have it affect so many people, that I truly felt firsthand the transformative power of creative expression.
To quote a line from my show:
“They say that everything happens for a reason. But that’s not always true. Sometimes, you have to make it happen. I think about my old life, and I miss it. I miss the simplicity and straightforwardness of it. I look at old pictures and I miss the innocence, the joy, the carefreeness in my eyes. I can’t be 13 again but I can be the best 26 I can.
“But sometimes I wonder what life would be like if this never had happened. This is not the path that I planned for myself – but does anyone’s life ever work out exactly how they plan it? I was led astray, and hurt, and betrayed, and dehumanized, taken apart and put back together, but differently. But my passion never went away. I kept my hunger alive. Now I know that my role in life is still to be that same performer I always wanted to be when I was 13. But now with an even greater gift to give. A story to tell.”
The story I tell is not one you hear every day. But now, the story I now tell myself every day starts with a list. A simple gratitude list.
Finding gratitude and starting your story
You don’t need a set of fancy paints to create art, you don’t need a picture-perfect life to find every day gratitude, and you certainly don’t need a fancy hardcover journal to start a grateful list. Take a blank page, letter it A to Z from beginning to end, and just start. It doesn’t have to make sense. Some words can be a bit of a stretch. It’s even okay to get away with “x-citement” or “quanberry juice.” It’s just to get your head in a different place.
And sometimes, when your head’s in a different place…
…your body will be too.
Where’s the most outlandish place you can find gratitude today?
In the hospital, I made daily gratitude lists when there wasn’t much to immediately be grateful for. But finding gratitude was a way to make “sense” of my story. If I were grateful for things happening, they could fit into my life. I could own what happened to me and make something from it. These grateful lists were my life story being spelled out night after night.
The power of our stories
This taught me a valuable lesson: Stories make us stronger. Stories make us think differently. And there is strength in thinking, seeing and doing things differently.
Everyone loves a good story. Is there a book or poem you’ve read that has always stuck with you? A certain metaphor from a whimsical children’s story that resonated with you as a child? I remember always loving the book Harold and the Purple Crayon. I loved the idea of a little child being able to create his own world. It made me feel like I could too.
That’s the beauty of a metaphor: through a larger vision, we can relate with our own unique stories.
That is also the power of storytelling. Everyone’s story is different. But we all can relate to emotions. If you’re human, you’ve felt sadness. You’ve felt hunger, pain, joy, loss.
If you’re a human on this earth, you’ve felt life. Look all around you, and you’ll see life growing, dying, changing and regenerating daily.
And that is something we can all be grateful for, right? That even though we’re dealing with difficult times, we are not alone. We never have been.
Finding your story
As I contemplate the next steps I wish to take in my own personal journey, my own beautifully messy detour, I find myself wondering how to best share my story and have it help others.
Then I think about some of my favorite movies:
Disney movies — I’m not a lion, or king, I don’t live under the sea, transport myself in a magic pumpkin, or have 101 dalmatians.
But I’ve felt betrayal. (The Lion King)
I’ve looked for hope in the oddest of places. (The Little Mermaid.)
I’ve lost hope. (The Beast.)
I’ve been so angry I haven’t even known what to do with myself. (Every Disney villain…)
I’ve felt love when I thought I couldn’t feel at all. (Lady & The Tramp)
I’ve felt fear. (Belle)
I’ve felt bravery. (Alice In Wonderland)
I’ve felt life. (Snow White)
I don’t have a story you hear every day. I thought I had my life all figured out, until an unexpected blood clot interrupted my “life plans.”
For a while, my story was a tale I couldn’t understand, like the sick plot of a psychological thriller. Then, one day I opened up a journal and I began to write.
Through the power of words, I was able to understand my own story and share it. My story became part of me, rather than something I continued to run from. Now, I use my story to bring out the stories that unite us all.
I can’t really compare my life to a Disney movie, but I can say this: We all have ebbs and flows in our lives — our peaks and valleys. My story, your story, our stories — they’re all the same.
The specifics are not the importance in the end. What’s important is that we keep telling them.
Just hearing someone else’s story makes us feel the same pain or joy that they have experience. It’s sharing them that makes us stronger.
That’s how we know we’re not alone.
You have a story too.
Our stories make us stronger. So today — tell yours.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright. She works individually with her innovative creativity coaching, business, speaking, and social media courses. As creator of her one-woman musical Gutless & Grateful , the #LoveMyDetour Campaign, which was the subject of her TEDx Talk, she’s currently touring theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. Subscribe to her newsletter for updates and free excerpts from her upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. Get your free creativity e-book at amyoes.com/create and a free guide to getting a TEDx Talk at amyoes.com/discover.