Or, as a psychic once told my mother as I lay in a coma, "She's deciding which way she wants to go."
And, as my mother retorted, "Well, she doesn't have a choice." (Psychic is then "escorted" out of the Pediatric ICU.)
"Fight, my warrior, fight," were the words my mother determinedly whispered to me throughout the months of my coma. Only she knew the real burn I was battling to save myself from: a secret that threatened to extinguish my inner fire, long before my external world, as I knew it, spontaneously combusted overnight.
After trauma, can we ever be more than a flicker in the dark?
Yep. Crushed Ice. It was the first image I thought of when I took my first online playwriting course six years ago. What did I want to write about?
No, not the cup full of crushed ice I drooled over when I couldn't wet my lips for six years: a forbidden treasure, shards of frozen liquid glimmering like jewels reflecting in the sunlight that blazed down on the hot sunny beach my parents moved to straight out of the Surgical ICU.
Not the best move after doctors forbid me from having a sip of water for an indefinite period of time.
My Life Without Water, and the Man Who Stole My Icy Heart
At first, I would take these long walks to the beach, which was absolute torture in the heat of the afternoon, but I had nothing else to do - I had tons of energy, just no stomach. I would count the steps to the pavilion where I became acquainted with a guy around my age I came to know as the ice-man. Once I approached this mystical haven (or the food stand) I'd meekly ask "Can I please have a cup of ice?"
Who knows what he was thinking, but regardless, he'd fill up a big red paper cup with the coolest, meltiest ice for me every day, and I would hold onto it like it was my soul. When you're the only one who can't eat, everyone else feels like a god with uncanny superpowers.
The Best Cup of Ice I've Ever Had
As I peered over the rim of my cup, and I wanted to savor each heavenly piece before the sun melted it all to cool liquid. I could walk back home rubbing each ice cube individually on my cheek, up my back, down my neck, and if I was feeling a little naughty I would just put one piece in my mouth for a second and then quickly spit it out. And I would think to myself, the day I can eat every ice cube in this cup will be the happiest day of my life.
The Most Exciting Thing to Do When You Can't Drink
On really hot days at the beach I would go in the outdoor showers in my clothes and just drench myself. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy but I could care less. It was so hot and my throat was so dry, and who were they to judge when they could drink an infinite amount of whatever they wanted and I couldn't even have an ice cube? I'd start and stop water faucets for hours, get a high out of filling various containers of all different shapes and sizes with water. Sometimes I'd just let the faucet stream tap my wrist over and over again just to feel like I still had a pulse. The highlight of my day was whenever I would come across a water fountain hidden in the back of a store on a hot day, because I would just tilt the side of my cheek towards the curving stream and it felt like an angel was kissing me as I let the spurting water dance across my face.
The Most Exciting Thing to Do AFTER You Can Drink
But talked about that on TEDx and wrote a show about it all, Gutless & Grateful. In putting together the arc of a 70-minute musical, I was coming to terms with the "detoured" framework of my life. Giving my story a dramatic arc was a way to reframe my own narrative, and find the meaning in what I had been through: nearly 30 surgeries, six years unable to eat and drink, and perhaps a little mention that I had been sexually abused by my voice teacher shortly before my stomach exploded my senior year of high school.
I wasn't sure how sexual abuse fit into my story yet.
Perhaps it was because I hadn't figured out what being a survivor of sexual abuse meant to me at all.
Did Sexual Assault "Fit" In My Story?
Sexual assault is a big burden to carry as a secret - and none of the news stories were talking about anything other than my total gastrectomy and organ failure. In fact, my abuser was still teaching. (He still is.) Where did this experience fit into my narrative?
I learned that the memories I was still struggling with would not be solved by a musical comedy. In my "gutsy" life-story theatrical debut, I was joyously overwhelmed by rave reviews from New York theatre critics.
But there was one line from an otherwise great review that stuck with me:
"Although there is, of course, a connection between mind and body, it was somewhat hard to swallow that the source of her illness could be blamed on being raped, which was implied at the beginning."
Really? Hard to swallow?
Did Critics Prove Me Wrong?
I was hurt, upset, and perhaps a bit insecure. Maybe she was right. How could I have the nerve to connect sexual abuse to my stomach exploding months later? Re-reading this line on my phone before my final performance, I started to question what I was never really sure about in the first place. Was she making jest on the theory that even doctors were leaning towards? When people heard about my crazy story, the first question they always asked was, "So what made your stomach explode?" I didn't know - I wasn't the doctor. But the more I researched on the science of stress, the more I was pulled to investigate this further. And the more research I did, the more startled I was by what I found.
Searching For a Mind-Body Connection
The only thing that connected molestation, secrets, hurt, pain, stomach ache, blood clot, and a coma was...me -my own soul, my own mind, my own emotions. Remembering how the energy in my body felt at each stage, perhaps my instincts were right.
Could Anxiety Lead to a Coma?
After all, the anxiety I felt in my core that made it hard to focus in high school, and the knotting in my chest had to be more than just mind games. There had to be some science to this. Or at least, as a playwright, it was my duty to illustrate what appeared so clear to me.
When I was betrayed by someone whom I really trusted, I froze. I literally don't remember thinking anything. My abuser himself called me a "space-cadet." As I sang for him the next week in lessons, he said, "Amy, it looks like your inspiration has run dry." Why couldn't I act with the same gusto in my songs? I froze to protect myself from frantic, tumultuous feelings that were suddenly tormenting me every waking second. I turned off my emotional radar and turned my heart to ice, to preserve it. I even remember suddenly feeling physically cold all of the time.
The Evolution of Numbness
When you undergo any kind of trauma, it causes a disturbance in emotions that once came so naturally at a time. My body stopped breathing the same way it used to - a big knot of tension evolved in my chest and remained there like a cocoon. My thoughts became corrupted - I couldn't think in my naturally poetic way. Suddenly my world became rigidly controlled by numbers and mechanical, compulsive thinking. I couldn't deal with everyday life. I was too busy hiding my soul in a dark corner so to shield it from the hurt I felt. Without your soul, you are only half a person, a machine who is constantly running from reality. I put up a daze like four safe walls that protected me from being consciously present in the abuse, and when the abuse ended, my daze remained. I lived in a world separate from everyone else.
How Can You Go From Feeling to Frozen Overnight?
I froze after abuse and froze again months later, waking up in an ICU
I had no choice. How else do you deal with life after a coma - dystopian twilight-zone wasteland? When you ask your ICU doctor day after day when you will be allowed to eat, and he simply replies I don't know, as he copies down the various data displayed on a screen just above your head, you must become frozen. You have to numb yourself from hearing your soul cry out to you when you smell the Chinese food your brothers are sneaking outside your ICU cubicle. You have to forget that "lunch" is a normal thing.
Life After a Coma Isn't Passive
You don't get through not eating with just meekly accepting it and rolling with the punches, just casually shrugging your shoulder every time you pass a restaurant and patiently remarking well, I guess not today. No. To deal, you have to fiercely ignore your inherent need to feed yourself, to not moisten up your throat with some water in the 90-degree heat.
When Enjoyment Becomes Deadly
You have to fight to stay numb in order to survive. I closed myself off from all of my happy childhood memories for the years without oral stimulation. Enjoyment was deadly. The kitchen was deadly. My mouth was a forbidden temple - no trespassing. I did not have permission to fully access my body. And the rest of my body was tampered with and half the things it did were out of my control. It was like its own little machine with a life of its own. But it was not mine. It wasn't me. I could hardly know which tube or what part of me was leaking at any given moment. Ii just remember feeling wet all the time. Wet all over my body, everywhere except the one place I wanted to be wet - my mouth. And my soul. I wanted to be wet with my own tears, my own emotion. I wanted to cry about how miserable all of this was. But I couldn't even cry. It was deadly to feel - to feel anything because if I dived into my well of emotion I might feel the deadliest feeling of all - hunger.
"You're a Real Trouper!"
On the outside, I was a trouper, just being pushed along from doctor to doctor - I had no choice. Whatever, I'll get this surgery, I understand. No, don't be sorry about it, it's totally fine. Whatever I need to do to live, right? With my abuser, I was a trouper to whatever his needs were. Sometimes to survive you have to be compliant. But inside of me was a warrior who forced that compliant daze on me to get through, and made sure I would resort to anything in order to keep that daze up.
Could I Make My Own Diagnosis?
So how could I finally connect those two parts of me once and for all? The frozen warrior I had been when my voice teacher abused me. The frozen warrior I had to become when suddenly bound to IV machines for nourishment? How could I take those two ice-cold states of numbness I felt and break through them once and for all?
Crushed ice! Heck, I'll name my play that!
I had an image in my head: Me, played by two characters - Patty and Patricia. One would be from my life before the coma, and one would be waking up from one. The two girls would show the dichotomy I felt healing from medical traumas as well as sexual abuse. Both traumas made me numb for different reasons, and now I could show that on stage, side by side. The two girl would somehow come together at the end, piecing me back together and allowing me to move forward. I would call my play "Crushed Ice" to symbolize how healing meant "breaking through frozen numbness of trauma."
The Playwriting Begins...
The first question I was asked in my online, once-a-week course: Who is your protagonist?
"My protagonist - tricky to say. I want the protagonist to be Patricia, the girl in the hospital, even though she is silent for most of the play, or maybe all of it. She is in a coma or in a very heavily sedated state in the ICU for most of the play, while at the same time she is reliving what happened with her sexual abuse, and we never actually see her in the hospital bed to show that even though she is physically in an IU, her mind and soul are somewhere else completely, still locked in this world of secrets that she was never able to disclose to anyone: the world of her sexual abuser."
Now, I was excited! I started to dig - dig through my memories, through my family stories, and through secrets that had never been brought to light. I discovered my brother Jeff's journal that he kept for the first 72 days I was in a coma and for the first time, realized that while I was comatose, my family had the most difficult part of all.
Turning Myself Into Two Characters...
In unpacking these memories, I was setting myself free. I learned that our secrets do keep us sick, and in bringing them to light, we heal. Taking these memories out of storage was allowing this play to write itself. Suddenly I saw "Patty and Patricia" on their way to creating a bold, new identity.
....300 Pages Later
The more I took out of my own memory "storage," the more convoluted my drafts became. I was so excited picking up all of these new developments and ideas along the way, that "Storage" ended up being over 300 pages by the time I had finished the first draft. I realized that perhaps Storage was not my finished play, but the necessary unpacking I had to do of secrets that had been in storage, in order to bring the real story to life. How could I know if my memories were even accurate? The more I learned about trauma, the more I realized why I kept losing track of events, dates and stories I was trying to tell:
It came to me in a quote from "The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk:
"The imprints of traumatic experiences are organized not as coherent logical narratives but in fragmented sensory and emotional traces: images, sounds, and physical sensations."
Maybe that was why this play, Storage, was so long. Before I was a playwright, I was a person in terrible need of bringing this secrets to light. Maybe recounting these memories was how I was marking the "Imprints" that trauma had made on my life.
That's it! I'll call it Imprints!
Soon, I didn't know where Patricia ended and where I began. How could I separate my own writing therapy from craft? How could I liberate myself from the autobiographical nature of the piece? Where does a playwright go next? Would the tale I was trying to tell ever become more than therapeutic unpacking? Would any of these flickering inspirations finally catch momentum and write a darn play already?
Could I Ever Make Something of This...and Myself?
Would I ever become more than just a flicker?
What's a flicker? "To move about or behave in an agitated aimless manner." A temporary growth of activity, and then, to die. A flicker is a flash, a flurry. It's a light source that flares up, just to subside. A flicker doesn't usually turn into anything. It's an almost imperceptible sign of something, and then back to darkness. Yet a flicker saturates the air with a lingering heat. Even in the darkness, something has changed.
What's a flame? A flame is a passionate burst of fire. And a fire is...well, a fire is heat. A fire is our life force. A fire is what happens when our hearts are ignited with breath, with feelings, with secrets, with all the pain and pleasure of life.
I didn't survive all of this crap to stay numb. I survived to flicker. And then ignite.
I believe we are all meant to be flames - not numb, frozen states of matter, and not a gaseous puff of past that has gone up in smoke. We are meant to flicker - to fail and win - to feel hurt and love - to dance fitfully between the light and the dark. Only when we fluctuate between both worlds do we truly know how to start a fire. And that is how I could use what I've learned from both the world of light and dark to create theatre: the ultimate eruption.
Trauma burns us. It burns with painful memories and lessons that perhaps we weren't ready to learn.
But a burn can rise from ashes, into flames, into fire, into LIFE.
Trauma frigidly freezes us from the warmth of the human race.
Theatre warmly brings us back.
Trauma makes us forget our inner power.
Theatre makes us tell truths to an audience and to yourself.
Theatre sets us on fire, from a flicker to a flame.
And rediscovering my inner fire was exactly what I needed all along, to "crush" through my icy numbness, to unpack my secrets in storage, and to transform my traumatic imprints into a FIERY warrior's thunderbolt scar.
Proving a Coma Through Theatre?
I've always sensed that the fire in my belly - the stomach ache that turned into a coma hours later - had been caused by seeds planted from a betrayal months prior. But I couldn't find the words. I couldn't find the story.
Whether my "medical theory" is true or not, I needed to make that connection for myself, and theatre helped me get there. Through theatre. we learn lessons about ourselves that we seem to have known all along. But now they become a fierce part of our identity, and a gift we can give to the world.
And that's the power of theatre.
We feel heard even if we're saying nothing at all.
As creators and audience members interact with the space, we engage in a vital conversation we didn't even know we had needed.
Theatre sets us on fire. I was burnt 18 years old. I froze. I thawed. I burnt out. I struggled to flicker between the innocent world I once knew and the uncertain world ahead of me. In that flickering, I discovered my flame, my hunger, my passion. I reignited my aliveness. I found what made me light up again. I found me.
Trauma made me Flicker. Theatre made me a Firestarter.
Amy Oestreicher is currently developing her full-length drama, Flicker and a Firestarter, and touring "Gutless & Grateful," her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, to theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness to schools, hospitals, and international conferences. All artwork is self-taught from Amy's "beautiful detour." "Detourism" is also the subject of her TEDx Talk and upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017. She's contributed to over 70 notable online and print publications, and her story has appeared on NBC's TODAY, CBS, Cosmopolitan, among others. Learn about her art, music, theatre, advocacy, book, and inspiring story at amyoes.com, or "tweet me at @amyoes!"