What makes you, you?

When I was younger, I used to hate at the beginning of a new school year when the teacher would go around the room asking each student to tell the class “a little about yourself”. This was worse torture to me than showing up for an exam that I didn’t know about. (possibly because I was more used to the latter? Who knows?) I don’t think anyone really jumps for joy at this question but I found it particularly difficult. It even happened numerous times in university. The only thing that I could ever think of was “heart transplant-heart transplant-heart transplant”. Not because it’s something that I wanted to share but rather because it’s something I was terrified of people finding out. I was so afraid that people would get to know me based on the thing that happened to me rather than any of the actual things that make me, me. The problem is, I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t know what made me, me, anymore.

I think everyone has a hard time knowing what makes them special and unique. To ourselves, we are boring. We know everything there is to know and don’t think it’s going to matter to anyone else. One thing we tend to be good at is seeing what’s special and unique about others but have a hard time believing that we are special and unique too. But how does that make sense? If everyone seems special and unique, then how could we not be as well?

When I had the heart transplant, one of the many things they didn’t tell me about, and honestly probably didn’t know about, is struggling with my identity. You may have seen tv shows or heard stories about heart transplant recipients adopting characteristics of their donors. I heard a story once of a kid who ended up with the same crooked smile as their donor which brought the donor family so much peace and joy. People love these stories. I understand that. I understand the importance of that from the donor family’s perspective and how it would have helped them grieve and believe they had made the right decision. But throughout hearing all of these stories and having gone through something extremely traumatic at the age of 13, all I wanted was to be me again. I felt like the world was telling me that was impossible. I was gone and my donor was now who lives within me.

While I was in the hospital, I worked so hard at creating a separate world from my own. What I mean is, I wanted there to be as little of my external world, in this new hospital world. My parents would bring me things from home but I didn’t want my favourite Toutou (that’s his name). I didn’t want my favourite blankets or pillows. I didn’t want my own decorations. I wanted these two worlds as separate as possible. To me, this illness, this pain, the challenges, and the fear, would only exist in this pocket of time that could easily be forgotten afterwards. I went as far as to not let people visit. This got vetoed a lot by my parents who didn’t understand what I was doing. I think they thought I was being mean. But to me, the more this experience existed in the memories of others, the more it existed. If I could limit how many memories it existed in, I could control my own history. I could pretend it never happened. I could be free of it outside of the hospital walls.

Sadly, I could not control history. I could not keep it from the memories of others. I had forgotten a few important things. I had forgotten that even if they didn’t see me, people were having their own experiences of it. I also wasn’t aware that I would ever have to go back. All they ever told me while I was there was that as soon as I got a new heart, everything would go back to the way it was. (sound familiar?) I believed that meant I would never have to go back. I believed it meant no more needles, scars, pain, and fear. I was wrong.

I had to go back two three times a week for months. It was devastating. I just wanted to be me again. I wanted to be left alone so I could go back to my other world, the one I had tried so hard to protect from this one. The world I called home. Then I started hearing these stories of donors’ identities coming through in their recipients. That’s how I saw it when I was a kid. If I was too weak to keep my own heart, I believed I was too weak to fight this new personality that supposedly existed within me. This horrible thing happened to me and I wasn’t even allowed to be me anymore.

It took me a long time to realize none of that was true. None of what I started believing about myself was true. I started asking my parents more questions like “did I always do this?” or “was I always like this?”. I started being able to see parts of me now that were there before the transplant surgery. I started to realize I never lost the person I was before. The strong fighter girl, she’s still here after. She wasn’t replaced. The one people loved for who she was, not what happened to her, she’s still loved for who she is.

This pandemic is a horrible thing that happening to us. Maybe you are better than you were, maybe you are worse. Maybe you think you have lost the thing that makes you, you. We haven’t been able to keep up with the things that we think make us, us. Whether that’s playing sports, going to school, doing our jobs, whatever. We’re not as fit or healthy, we’re not experiencing community, we’re not feeling loved, and we certainly aren’t feeling like ourselves. Maybe it seems like others are doing great things anyway, so why can we do that? Those people are the exception. This isn’t your fault. You may think you aren’t trying hard enough, or working hard enough, or resilient enough. None of that is true. I’ve heard so many times in the last year “Well, why am I not just doing it?” Like eating better or working out at home for example. Because this horrible thing is happening to you right now. You’re hurting even if you don’t know it.

None of this was your choice. This is something that happened to you. Not something you asked for or caused. You just need just to heal a little bit. This reality may trickle into our futures just like my medical stuff trickled into mine. Your world may look a little different when things improve but whatever version of you that you are today, you are no lesser than the person you were a year ago. You are no less important. You are no less worthy of love. You are still at least just as amazing as that person you were before. That person is not gone. They are still here. You just need just to heal a little bit. The thing that makes you, is not gone. I promise you that you are still here. I see you.