How to Write a Healing Story
by Cameron ShenassaThe surgery was supposed to be simple. A small cut near the coccyx, drain the cyst, a few weeks on my stomach, and everything would go back to normal. This is how I begin this story when I tell it. I was fifteen, I say, and pilonidal cysts are totally benign. They’re basically just an ingrown hair, though a really big one. They occur on the lower back, and need to be lanced to rid the body of infection. In the tough cases they must be incised and cleaned out under general anesthetic. Simple.
But nothing is simple. This is what I tell my students.
I am teaching them how to tell stories, using my own healing story as an example. I ask them what is promised in the beginning. They say they sense that things won’t go as planned. They feel this way because I’ve used the words “supposed to” in the first line. It has been three weeks since an undergraduate attempted to kill himself by jumping from the fourth floor of a campus dormitory, in full view of everyone in the building and the building across the courtyard, as well as the main road on campus and part of the recreational sports fields.
Everyone and every situation is infinitely complex, I assure my students. We struggle not to invent, but to select only the important details in order to make logical sense and evoke the emotions felt when the events occurred. I assure my students they will find that the real trouble is knowing what to include and what to leave out, where to start, where to end. We call this craft.
It started in the bathroom. My mother was there, asking me what I had done to make myself bleed from my ass. Was I experimenting? she said. What did that even mean? Experimenting. She said she wondered about my sexuality, and I told her that I had not been putting things in my ass. She put her hands up. Okay, I had to ask.
My father was in California, where he would eventually move after the divorce. He had spent much of my life going on about how much nicer it was there than Chicago, where we lived. Los Angeles was just like Shiraz, he assured me. He grew up in Shiraz and often thought about life there before the revolution. He had two lives, I knew. Moving to Los Angeles was a hope for him, the place where he would one day bridge his two lives into one.
I have a student who is failing my class. He wants to be writer, but he comes to me and tells me that he can’t write because he is depressed. He is wearing pajama pants, the same ones he usually wears to my class, and which make me uncomfortable. I don’t like that there is only a thin layer of fabric between us that reveals the shape of his legs. I assume he rarely wears anything else. He is smart and he loves George Orwell. He’s also the only one in the class who speaks up whenever I ask a question, so I’m secretly grateful for his presence. If he leaves, it will be just me and a bunch of quiet nineteen-year-olds. The last time I had a class like that, I pounded my fists on the desk in a show of pseudo-inspirational bravado. I wanted them to see me as worthy of their trust. Mostly I wanted them to care. I picked an unnecessary argument about whether prime rib was in fashion anymore just to see if they could argue back. All this to say that I take silence personally. I need him to stay in the class.
My surgery was one of the tough cases. My cyst being larger than normal, the surgeon had to anesthetize me and scoop out the puss and hair and blood that was lurking under the skin. My mother said it was shocking how much had been under there. The surgeon brought it out in a medical waste bag to show her, all yellow and black, and she asked him to throw it away. Did people keep those things? I wondered. I had an old infected tooth that I kept in an old Sanka can in my bedroom. What was the difference, really? Why a tooth and not an old bag of infected hair and pus?
Every day my mother performed the task of undressing and redressing the wound. She did this with a mixture of apprehension and hope. While ripping out crusty old gauze to replace it with fresh clean ones, my mother tried to describe what she saw, and in doing so, revealed all that she did not know about the body. She called the light green discharge that soaked into the gauze “green whiz.” The sores that developed inside the wound were “volcanoes.” Coagulated bits of blood were “gumdrops.” She was trying. Though after several weeks during which the wound still did not heal, she began to worry. The sight of it, unchanged, every morning and
night, was a reminder that things were not predictable. There were things in life that do not go according to plan.
My student comes to me during my office hours to talk strategy. If he gets down to work now, he can finish the last few weeks strong and pass the class. He looks recharged now, sitting in the cushioned chair next to my desk. There are no bags under his eyes, and he is no longer wearing pajama pants, but jeans. In jeans, it looks like he is wearing armor. Those pajama pants were so thin, I could see his legs underneath them, which made me uncomfortable. I don’t like it when other people are too vulnerable. He says he is sure his depressive episode from earlier in the term is over now, though I know these things can linger. Still, he assures me that he can turn something in. I tell him he will be fine as long as he does that. There are three weeks left in the class.
Most people’s pilonidal cyst wounds heal completely in five to seven weeks. The first sign that something was wrong came when, nearly two months after the operation, near the start of the summer, my wound became partially infected. I was on my stomach in a windowless examination room at the doctor’s office. My mother sat in a chair next to the examination table as the doctor scraped the infected parts out of the wound with a metal pick. When he was done, he announced that the wound was no smaller than it had been after the surgery. Why isn’t it healing? I asked. He shrugged. It was uncommon for a wound to stay open for so long, he said, but not unheard of. There was nothing to do but let the body work at its own pace. We accepted this. We had already waited a while. We could wait some more.
Summer began, and with time on my hands, I started researching pilonidal cysts. What I found were hundreds of videos of people lancing and draining their own cysts as well as a smattering of information about the procedure I had undergone. Most doctors writing online thought that the cysts were essentially just ingrown hairs resulting from friction, usually the result of being inactive and sitting too much. This theory is in the name, which comes from the Latin for hair (pilus) and nest (nidus). It’s true that the cyst is a hairy nest, though the cystic discharge is more milkshake than furball. It oozes from the opening thick and viscous, and
exhibits many of the signs of any other subdermal infection—protuberance from the skin, puss, discoloration, etc.
Yet this was not certain. Nothing is simple. Physicians were not in agreement about the cause of pilonidal cysts. On the internet, there was a faction of doctors insisting pilonidal cysts were caused by genetics. Their theory was that before it ever got infected, the pilonidal cyst started as a cavity under the skin, a vestige of a tail that existed in our primate ancestors. In that cavity, all kinds of things could grow. There were stories of teeth, toenails, even other humans—fetal twins—growing in the hole.
Healing is not planned. There is no straight line from sickness to health. There is no
straight line from beginning to end of a story. There are only questions, which are like open wounds, and an attempt to answer these questions through narrative. It’s the act of trying, I say to my students, that makes writing worthwhile. I show them psychological studies that prove daily writing can help depression and other mental illness in college students. There is even a study that suggests writing can heal physical wounds. I don’t know if I believe it myself. What am I trying to heal now? What still feels raw?
Despite his promise to submit the work he has not completed, my student has not turned in anything. He comes to me during office hours again. This time he is back in pajama pants. He says that there is more to the story. He hasn’t told me, but there is someone he is very worried about. He can’t sleep because he has been trying to keep this person from killing themselves. He leaves the identity of this person unsaid, and I worry for a moment that he is talking about himself. But after he leaves, I don’t think about it. I get back to writing this story, stitching these
two stories together as if they are sutures. I will get to the end, I tell myself. It will all come together in the end.
Summer dragged on and the wound still did not heal. My father returned from California. I remember him in his chair in the living room, where he would fall asleep most nights with the television tuned to old black-and-white reruns. I would sneak in after he was asleep and lie on the floor to watch The Twilight Zone, a show that I loved for its ominous music, careful dialogue, and ambiguous narration. The show left questions unanswered. What happened to the guy who broke his glasses after the apocalypse? Why did the people in the hospital all have pig faces? What did it mean that William Shatner kept seeing that beast on the wing of the airplane? That the show didn’t feel obligated to answer these questions meant that the story could stay alive after the show was over. The next morning or during lunch, these questions were still with me. It occurs to me that this is what being haunted is, existing in a space between bored certainty and inexplicable chaos, certain that the pieces fit together somehow, but unable to complete the puzzle.
The machine the surgeon installed on me a few weeks before my sixteenth birthday—called a wound vacuum—made an awful sound, like an elderly person gurgling up old food. The machine consisted of a black box with a strap that went over the shoulder, attached by a length of tubing that ran to the wound on my ass, from which it constantly sucked out the excess liquid from the wound. The new diagnosis was that the wound as too vascular, and could not heal unless it was dry. I had to wear the vacuum twenty-four hours a day. I tried different ways of putting it on—over one shoulder, slung across my chest, tightly strapped, loosely strapped. It was never comfortable.
It smelled like rusty coins and rotting food. The dressing that sealed the wound shut would often leak and then crust over with blood, causing liquid to congeal inside the tubing and turn green, which then emanated a malodorous cloud all around me. My mother kept tabs on the smell, often pulling up my shirt and sniffing my bottom as if to check for a soiled diaper.
Peak embarrassment occurred one evening in August as I entered a baseball game at Wrigley Field. The tubing that ran between the wound and the vacuum got caught on a turnstile and jerked painfully, pulling me back as if I were on a leash. A security guard witnessing this approached me with a rod, a small billy club that she was using to gesticulate at people and told me that she had to search my purse. I took the vacuum off my shoulder and put it on the table for her to inspect. That was when she saw the plastic tubing, covered inside with festering green discharge. She put her billy club on the vacuum and pushed it to the edge of the table, a look of horror on her face.
“Uh, uh,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m not touching that.”
I don’t want to touch my student’s depression, which he is now talking about in class, announcing it for everyone to hear. It comes up as he criticizes university health services, which he says are not sufficient for dealing with the epidemic of mental health crises on our campus, but I suspect he is over sharing. I feel responsible for this, like I have accidentally led us to this place where the student’s personal life has become class fodder. It’s my failure as a teacher to protect him from what will surely be embarrassment. I wait for the other students to snicker, to
look at each other. I assume they will laugh at him for exposing himself like this. But they do not. One student, a woman, raises her hand, and says she agrees with him. She has been to counseling services and felt like she hadn’t been listened to. Another one, a man, says something similar about his girlfriend’s foray to health services. Suddenly the students are talking. They are sharing their mental health stories. They are strangely alive, talking in a way they haven’t all this term. They talk about themselves, about their friends, about the student who jumped from the fourth floor of the dormitory. Many of them watched it happen. They are traumatized, they say. They don’t know what to do about it. They feel despair. The student who has jumped, and who has disappeared from the campus, has formed an image in their minds they’d rather not look at. I am tempted to tell this part of the story as a pseudo-inspirational narrative about breaking barriers between teacher and student. It’s a narrative that I know I’m prone to. But I sit quietly, listening. Nothing is simple.
I started staying up late at night, watching The Twilight Zone while my dad snored in his chair. Dozing in the blue glow of the television, in that area between dreams and consciousness, I was hooked on the hidden meanings in the show. At the center of each episode, I imagined, there was a lesson, and if I could just focus long enough to work the pieces, to organize them correctly, like math, I would arrive at a clear solution. This attempt proved fruitless though, as I could never focus enough, or I wasn’t focusing in the right way. The logic of the show defied my attempts at linear understanding, and instead I could only circle in closer and closer the center,
my own attempt at a clear outcome to my inquiry constantly misdirected by the show’s persistent, somehow magical centrifugal logic, until my mind couldn’t focus anymore and I was chucked out of the circle of questioning, out of the Twilight Zone entirely.
My student tells me that he can’t sleep. He says this in an email. He’s no longer asking for my help. He just wants me to know that he can’t do it anymore. He looks different these days. The bags have returned under his eyes. He has not slept in a long time, he tells me. He has dropped his other classes and now this is the only one he is still enrolled in. He will have to leave the university if he doesn’t pass. He is just trying to gather the energy to come to class every day. He is severely depressed. He keeps revealing more to the story, bleeding out this new information. I respond to say that I will do everything I possibly can for him. If he submits everything by the end of the semester, I will forgive all lateness, all absences. I am not supposed to do this, but I believe in him. He thinks it over, and agrees. He will do his best, he says, but I worry what will happen to him.
By August, the wound had still not healed. It had been nearly five months. It was hot and muggy. Still wearing the wound vaccuum, without a driver’s license, I took my father’s car out of the garage and drove away. I drove out of my suburban town, onto the main road, then onto the highway, following the signs directing me north toward Wisconsin. I drove around for a while until it started to rain. Then I drove back home. When I pulled the car back into the garage and quietly replaced the key on the table in the front hall, it felt like I had been on a long journey, though no one ever noticed I was gone.
The last day of class, my student is not there. I look at his grade. He still has not turned in his coursework. He has an F. I think about just changing it to a C. I have the power to do this. I can simply change his grade. No one will ask questions. But would it really help? Perhaps I am overestimating my own power to change things. I can’t change his life. A week later I submit the grades to the registrar, and when I complete the registrar’s online form, I see that my student has withdrawn from the university. It feels like failure. I want to send him a note of some kind, and I start writing it, tapping it out in an email. There’s not much to say other than that I appreciated having him in class, and his attempt. I try to tie my note to something I’ve previously said in class—I say it’s the attempt that matters. Halfway through composing this email, though, I realize that his dropping out means that he no longer has a university email address. I send it, but my message will not reach him.