I hoped to God that I’d just die in the night and get it over with

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My body spent two decades in a downward spiral, betraying me every step of the way. But then, from the embers of my skin and the splinters of my bones, I began to rebuild

Isn’t the human body a wonderful thing? A slab of meat propelled by a four-pound lump of grey matter, moving in tandem with other bodies across sidewalks and in doorways, finding synchronicity in every gesture. We are inside this cage of marrow, veins and tissue from the first breath to the last. Like buildings, we can do it up, replace fixtures and repair leaks. But we can’t take out a mortgage and get a new one. It will always be the same one we started with. Never has this rack of heavy bones and stretched sinew felt like a part of me. I am stationed inside of it, an unwilling passenger as two feet bring me from one catastrophe to the next.

My body has always provided cause for anger. As a child I was knock-kneed and perpetually sick, the synthetic-banana taste of liquid antibiotics always on my tongue. A cycle of ear, throat and chest infections made me pale and wheezy until I was Communion-aged. I remember kicking my mother away as she tried to administer medicine and vitamin supplements, vehemently opposed to admitting I was sick. The sugary antibiotics eroded the enamel of my teeth and meant a dozen dentist visits, where the nurse would hold me down as my mouth was picked apart and put back together. The domino effect always ruled my body, each leaky pipe soaking drywall, causing rot which must be torn out, leading to structural damage which required rebuilding, to then hit a hidden pipe and cause another leak.

As a teen my body started to betray me in other ways. My ear, nose and throat doctor was replaced by iron supplements. I would smear my face with a thick layer of panstick to hide the lilac half-moons of sleeplessness and pockmarks of acne. Rolls of fat stuck sideways from the tops of my skirts, a far cry from my willowy classmates with their 32C chests and clear skin.

My body rebelled. The organs and nerve endings were trying to evict me from their hallways, sick of the house guest who had become such a burden. I dyed my hair red, purple, black, anything to distract from the parts of it I hated. I would pick at my face and pinch my arms so hard I caused bruises, just to punish it for making me feel so unwanted.

I wondered if scar tissue would be easier to look at than my own mistake

At 17, I got my first tattoo, a tacky little swallow above the Irish word for free, on the inside of my right wrist. I’d already fallen in love with the pinch of a piercing needle, this form of sanctioned self-harm. The day after my virgin skin became accustomed to the tattoo gun, a teacher pointed out that “saor” can also mean “cheap”. That seemed about right; it only made sense that any permanent decision I made would be a stupid one. The thought ran through my mind to take a grater to it, wondering if scar tissue would be easier to look at than my own mistake. Even now it serves as a reminder of who I was at 17, and that nobody is the same person at 17 as they are at 24, or 33, or 89.

At 18, my insides began to splutter, slowing me down dramatically. Late nights with friends became long afternoons in bed, exhausted and dosed up on medications. It took almost a full year for me to be diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma, metastasised in the bottom of my left lung. My PET scan lit up like a Christmas tree; every tumour glowed bright, demanded attention. I started a rigorous course of chemotherapy and my mirror image warped in real time, becoming bloated, bald and unrecognisable.

Did you know that chemotherapy drugs can’t tell a healthy cell from a sick one? They simply purge, bathing everything in one acidic wash, scorching the earth until there is nothing left. By the fifth cycle of chemo, the tumours stopped responding, not growing but not dying either, staying still as everything else was worn away. They’d have to up the ante, switching out arsenic for cyanide, doubling the number of days I spent attached to a drip. They implanted a line straight to my heart, a port dangling from my inner right bicep: a grotesque accessory.

Caragh Maxwell: who will love us if we don’t love ourselves? Photograph: Róisín Loughrey
Caragh Maxwell: who will love us if we don’t love ourselves? Photograph: Róisín Loughrey

A woman’s ovaries contain between one and two million immature eggs when she is born. When they changed my treatment, I did not assume I would be giving up the ability to bear children. But the ABVD, BEACOPP and XY and Z drugs withered my ovaries and turned my fallopian tubes to concrete. I had to sacrifice everything to keep this body ticking over – giving up things I didn’t even know I wanted. I will probably never see my own eyes reflected back at me, shining from a tiny facsimile of my boyfriend’s face, or watch my child grow his straight nose and my awkward ears.“Miracle babies happen,” they tell me, but the platitude falls on broken ears. My uterus still decorates for an inhabitant every month, and still tears down the walls when none ever comes. The pain is exquisite and I relish the ache between my hips on the first week of every month, like some sacred blood ritual.

Someone once told me that every 15 cigarettes causes a cell mutation that may or may not turn into cancer. I reached remission in the springtime, at the age of 19. Not “cured”, just healing. They were very careful about the wording, ensuring I understood that suffering is not finite. My head had only gotten back a covering of peach fuzz and I was filling my chest cavity with the acrid vapours of tobacco and cannabis, drinking until the world turned black, hoping to God that I’d just die in the night and get it over with. I did not feel better. I felt broken, empty. This vessel failed me time and time again, and remission was just one more set-up in the world’s long line of disappointments. My body had realised how much it wanted to stick around right around the time I realised I wanted nothing more than to taste oblivion.

A power struggle ensued: the primal instinct to survive barely overcame the helplessness I lived with every waking hour. I would drink and smoke and drink and cry and smoke and sleep and die over and over again, trying so hard to obliterate everything I had ever lived through in one fell swoop. But, somehow, morning after morning, my limbs stirred and my lashes fluttered and my feet itched.

After what felt like an eon, I decided to start again. From the embers of my skin and the splinters of my bones, I began to rebuild. The parts – kidney, scapula, lung, femur – seemed like missing pieces from a dozen board games, making perfect sense alone but a mess when put together. I sellotaped joints and thumbtacked limbs, filling my ribcage with whatever I could find. My heart stayed tucked in my pocket, still warm and ashy. This body was finally trying and yet I was doubtful and pessimistic. It heaved to keep me upright, pulling against my instinct to drown. “You can do this,” it was implicitly telling me; the reminder that even the worst days were still days lived.

When I saw myself naked I no longer wanted to rip my skin from my bones

My 20th birthday was a milestone I thought I’d never live to see. Two decades of civil war were marked with a drunk tumble, a cracked elbow (my first broken bone ever – another milestone) and a stranger who saved the day and my dignity. He plucked my heart from my back pocket, dusted it off and put it back into its right place. He told me that he loved my awkward ears, my short hair and my crooked smile, and in time I learned to take the compliment. His fingerprints can still be found on the outside of my atria, more ingrained with every beat.

I got more tattoos, a crescent moon and some Latin stretched across the skin beneath my breast, marking the site of my metastasis. I drank less and replaced cheap Tesco wine with a daily 100mg dose of sertraline. When I saw myself naked I no longer wanted to rip my skin from my bones. Instead, I began to marvel at my resilience; eyes tracing the soft plains and lily-white valleys of my torso, my arms, my legs. “ We can do this,” my muscles whispered to me in the dark and I finally started to believe it.

By the time you’re 25 , your heart will have beat almost a billion times. I am rapidly approaching my billionth beat, the cardiac muscle holding its own as I learn to work with it instead of against it. I have inhabited this body for almost a quarter of a century and in that time I have suffered more than some people do in one hundred lifetimes. My lung still aches sometimes. My back twinges when I bend to pick things up, and my jaw clicks if I yawn too widely. I can’t tap-dance or do a backflip, I don’t know how to run without losing my breath and if I take off my glasses I can’t see further than my outstretched hand. But it is still mine. Like everything else on this planet, this mishmash of flaws and good intentions is derived from stardust. I will be inside this vessel until the day I can return to the atmosphere. Until then, we are tentative friends, learning to be kind to each other. Who will love us if we don’t love ourselves?
Caragh Maxwell is a first-year student on the writing and literature BA at Sligo IT