Adapt or Perish

A few months into winter, when my feet only see the light of day while in the safety and comfort of a warm shower, I begin to wonder if I will ever be able to walk barefoot through the house without feeling miserably cold. Will it ever be nice enough to open the windows and let a warm breeze spread the mail all over the floor of the kitchen, the smell of the neighbors laundry and charcoal briquettes and grilled meat wafting through the house?

I say I don’t like summer because it’s hot and that’s mostly true. Hot weather makes me sluggish and grumpy, I always feel like I’m being held down by some invisible force. When it’s cold I feel refreshed and invigorated, I know I can warm up by layering up or running laps around the house. But I don’t enjoy being cold, my circulation kind of sucks and I wind up with white fingertips even in the relative warmth of our house.

In the extremes of the seasons I nearly forget what it’s like to feel the opposite because I adapt to what I’m experiencing. I dig in my heels and my brain switches to a mode that feels like resignation. It is cold and will always and forever be cold. It is hot and will always and forever be hot. It’s not just seasons, it happens when I am in pain, when I’m stressed, when I’m anxious.

I adapt to situations that are uncomfortable rather quickly, I settle in because that switch that gets flipped sends a message that this is the new normal. This pain, this agony, this sadness is here to stay. When Derek first got home from the hospital, he was a mess, physically and mentally. His body was frail, he’d lost 30 pounds in the hospital from an already slender frame, and now 5’3″ tall me weighed nearly the same as 6′ tall him. Because his new liver wasn’t fully up and running he still had a tube attached to a bulb collecting the bile that wasn’t being processed yet. It was dark brown and filled up the bulb quickly.

I fed him whenever he was awake, and because I was also recovering from major abdominal surgery, the surgery which provided him with the first replacement liver, the one that failed, I ate when he ate. And when he slept, I slept. The tube kept leaking fluid, all over his clothes and the sheets. It took me a couple tries, first disposable diapers, then overnight maxi-pads, then finally cloth diapers, but I figured out a way to tape a cloth diaper to his abdomen so he wouldn’t leak bile everywhere. This was our life now, high protein smoothies and stolen naps and stained cloth diapers and laundry in the middle of the night.

But it wasn’t our life. As soon as I adapted to whatever immediate issues needed my attention, the issue resolved itself. One day we woke up and the bulb was empty, the bile was going through the liver like it was supposed to. No more diapers. I’d bought dozens, convinced I would need to have enough on hand for when a batch was in the laundry, but now he didn’t need them anymore.

I was confused for months about what I needed to be worried about, as if worrying would help the situation. In the meantime, his body started to work again, he started to gain weight and muscle where it had once wasted away. I adapted to a newly complicated, post double transplant life that involved weighing my husband every day, taking his blood pressure, his temperature, making sure he took the right medicine at the right time on the right day. I was so used to imagining he might die at any moment, when he got better, at first, I didn’t know how to adapt to how happy I felt.

Soon it felt normal to go for walks without either of us needing a long nap afterwards. Our scars started to heal, and sometimes we went hours without noticing a little twinge where we’d been cut open and our insides rearranged. We adapted to a normal life as soon as it felt normal. When we look at pictures or read journal entries from that time we wonder how we managed to survive the pain and stress, how could we have put up with so much worrying? We adapted. We thrived.

Our brains are so complex and wonderful I sometimes wish I could get a behind the scenes tour. How does it know when to shut certain thoughts off to give me a break, how does it know to just put me to sleep when I can’t bear to be awake any longer, and then buckle down and repair the frayed ends of worried thoughts? How does it adapt to a situation that in retrospect will always seem unbearable, impossible to manage?

In my darkest hours, I am never able to appreciate how much is happening in my mind in an effort to protect me, how much I am able to sideline in order to deal with what is most pressing. When I look back on how I adapt to pressure, it gives me hope for my future. I’m getting ready for some serious self-induced stress, and I know my brain is up for the challenge and will do its very best to adapt.



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