By Cassandra Smolcic
Excerpt from The Hail Mary Healing Chronicles of a Yuppie Redneck Drifter
I'm about to be jobless and homeless, my health is in the shitter, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I might be pregnant. It seems like every time the possibility of that illegitimate baby crosses my mind, my whole head freezes over and my upper body fills with an aching rush of heat that scolds me from the inside out, like someone wicked is toying with the nozzles in my biological boiling room.
I already put in my two weeks notice at work, my 30 days on my apartment lease and most of my earthly belongings have been sold off, donated, or packed into boxes for storage. I've announced to my nearest and dearest that I'm pulling the plug on my Bay Area life to go vagabonding into the great unknown for as long as it takes to get better or go broke trying. My grand exodus is even Facebook official. But the condom broke the last time I slept with the offensively good-looking Iranian guy and a fetus developing in my womb would definitely put a kink in my globetrotting plans.
I sit in the cold, modern basement of my soon-to-be-ex-employer’s three-story design studio in downtown San Francisco––a space filled with stark white surfaces, shiny retina screens and a hollowness I find unshakable despite the 40 odd bodies perched strategically around long, industrial tabletops. It's my last week with the small but prolific branding agency, and today feels like the longest fucking hump day of my life.
I do a series of hand stretches that I learned in my last round of physical therapy then stare blankly at the screen, paralyzed between the pressure to look busy––even though my plate has been wiped clean of billable tasks for days––and my own private understanding that the more I fiddle with this machine, the more intense the pain from my Repetitive Strain Injury will be. RSI is a "work related injury," according to Western medicine. Wikipedia will tell you it's an umbrella term for any musculoskeletal pain disorder experienced in the upper body, such as tendinitis or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome––the condition my Grandfather developed after years hunched over the assembly line in a rubber factory.
My lungs tighten as I watch the last few minutes of the day tick by in the corner of the glowing iMac that will soon be wiped clean of me. When the clock finally strikes five I get up from my workstation, layer up for the predictably foggy March weather and murmur a half-hearted goodbye as I make my way upstairs. I don't expect much of a response from my pixel-pushing peers who sit headphoned and stoic, neurotically tapping at mice and keyboards. Although trendy open floor plans are believed to stimulate collaboration and community in tech offices around the city, my coworkers are always so focused on beating their teammates for the winning design that there may as well be horse racing lanes between them.
Regardless of the down time at work, my evening pain wave is akin to what I'd feel after pushing through an intense, 16-hour deadline sprint. Work stress, relationship stress, family stress, deconstructing-my-life-as-I-know-it stress––my broken body doesn't discriminate. Too much of any of the above is guaranteed to push my system into a flare-up. For the last seven years my upper half has been throbbing and twisted up by a collection of stubborn knots that surge and pulse and seize with a chorus of hard-to-describe pains. On a bad day, like today, the sting oscillates through my whole being in a way that can make even simple tasks—like getting dressed or finding the energy to walk across a room—feel like a massive accomplishment. Even when the more acute pains subside, I still feel the smoldering ache of inflammation every day. Beneath the surface of my skin the muscle tissue burns unwaveringly, like a coal mining fire with just enough oxygen to keep a mountain of flammable black rock endlessly ablaze. The ache is similar to what us ladies feel on the worst day of our period, multiplied by ten.
Once home at my apartment, I shovel half the contents of a takeout container into my face and begin my wound-licking routine: a series of bizarre maintenance rituals I perform most nights to turn the volume down on my pain before attempting what normal homo-sapiens call sleep. Laying on my extra cushy, queen sized bed that takes up two-thirds of my small, dark bedroom, I start an episode of House of Cards on my MacBook Pro. In hour long shifts, I work on the knots––which are dispersed evenly throughout my upper body like stars in a constellation––with a heavy duty percussion massager and a heating pad, before applying numbing, sticky white Lidocaine patches to the same trigger points on my hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, upper back and neck.
Despite how bad I'm still feeling come 9 PM, I decide not to take the muscle relaxers my pain management doctor always pushes on me. A fourth of a pill reduces my motor skills to what I call Drunk Toddler Mode for the next 24 hours, leaving me covered in bruises from stumbling into things. The drug effectively numbs my body for the night but also dulls my mind for twice as long, so crossing the street the following day feels like being in a lifesize game of Frogger while still half asleep. So I swallow my usual cocktail of pretty blue Aleve Liquid Gels and half a Xanax tablet instead.
I get into bed, close my eyes and do my best to let the bitter anti-anxiety pill work it's magic. My Negative Nancy voice––who tells me I'm probably pregnant and will be stuck with permanent pain in this rat race of an existence for the next 18 years––gradually becomes more fragmented and distant until there's welcome silence in my chemically altered headspace. I'm finally pulled into the sweet, dark embrace of unconsciousness, but staying asleep is a totally different battle.
Within a few hours I'm jolted awake by a seizing tendon in my neck, sending a vicious tremor of electricity all the way to my toes. By the time my alarm goes off, it feels like I've just re-entered the dream world twenty minutes before. I start scraping my aching limbs off the warm, memory foam mattress topper, forcing the rest of me to reluctantly follow. My throat feels swollen and sore, again, and my body radiates with toxicity like Dr. Manhattan, but I cannot allow myself another sick day. I don’t think I’ve made it through a full week of work for at least three months, maybe four.
When I took this job a year and a half ago, I pictured all the ways I might make my mark on the award-winning company. I fantasized about how I’d be recognized for my big ideas and creativity, catapulting my career to the next level. For the first year I managed to soldier through some of the worst pain of my life while keeping my condition hidden from most of my co-workers. But what were once occasional sick days have now transformed into absurd regularities. During the last few months, I’ve been beat down by the most agonizing RSI symptoms I’ve ever experienced, while also continuously being knocked out by any cold, flu, mysterious virus, or bizarre infection to pass through this frigid city.
Despite all the extra hours I’ve white knuckled through––stubbornly doing everything in my power to help put out the studio’s latest design fire––my efforts to keep up with my able-bodied, workaholic peers have been a complete bust. That much was made clear the day I sat down with my boss for my first and only performance review, when she complimented me for being a rock star designer who set the bar high for her coworkers but would unfortunately never be promoted to a higher position in the company because of my physical limitations. “I need Design Directors who can to stay up all night making last minute presentation changes on a redeye flight to a client meeting in New York, and there’s no way I could ask you do something like that,” she said, as if she were being charitable.
Even though my career has essentially been dead in the water like a breathless guppy for half a year, at my core I’m still a perfectionistic, people-pleasing career woman who put all her eggs into her work basket. So every sick day feels like another humiliating failure, even now that my days as a designer are numbered.
Besides, I have to drag my sorry ass to Walgreens for a pregnancy test today, I think as I examine the dark, sunken pockets of skin beneath my eyes in the mirror. I take a long shower then stand in my walk-in closet wrapped in a towel, evaluating the hazardousness of a dozen wardrobe options before pulling a few safer pieces from their hangers. My body is feeling especially tight, crunchy and fragile this morning, so I know to avoid anything with multiple buttons (for the sake of my aching fingers) or those awful zippers down the back (that sometimes leave me with a pulled-muscle that could threaten all my plans for the day). I hold my breath as I prudently pull pieces of clothing around my aching extremities, then exhale in relief once it’s clear that I’ve made it through my first physical test of the day unscathed.
Four hours later I sneak away from the office on my lunch break to purchase a white plastic wand that will soon decide my fate. I think about calling the potential-father-to-be as I walk the windy, busy city streets back to the office, but decide to wait until the results are in before inspiring panic in some casual fuck buddy I haven't heard from in almost a month.
My fine-tuned, online dating instincts told me he wasn't a keeper from the get-go. Over a year before, I had stopped to admire his beauty on my iPhone screen from the comfort of my bed, but decided to swipe left and continue fishing, pegging him as way too pretty not to know it. I must have worked my way through the entire Rolodex of eligible Bay Area bachelors during all those insomniac, late night hours trolling dating apps for a boost, because his absurdly masculine mug shuffled back to the top of my Tinder deck again.
As I assumed when I first laid eyes on his smirking mug shot, he had a privileged, pompous air in person too, and was understandably preoccupied with money––as one might expect from a guy who works in finance. Yet he was surprisingly honest about who he was and the witty, flirtatious banter that passed between us kept me laughing and engaged; eyes open and alert instead of fogging over with the pain-induced exhaustion that usually had me horizontal by sundown.
Landing on a guy who is social and entertaining is a rare treat in tech-topia. Dating in San Francisco is a bit like going on a series of bad job interviews with men you'd never want to work with, let alone have a relationship with. An honest bit of feedback for all the die-hard brogrammers out there: most women are not that impressed by the app you're developing but can barely describe, the success of your latest Hackathon, or how you've got some loose connection to Zuckerberg.
Like any actively dating SF single, I have my life-story-resume-pitch down pat, though I can't help but feel a fraud when I share it because of how badly my ambition has burned me. There's usually a song and dance that accompanies my rags-to-riches saga––layered with false modesty and jokes to temper the intimidating tenor of being a woman who came from humble, Rust-Belt roots and still managed to scrape her way up to a successful career. What I realized years ago, after my first 2-3 dates in this city, is that a successful career doesn't make you special. Having your name attached to an impressive list of companies and projects is the standard––it's what's expected here. And the truth is, everyone is obsessed with their own careers; they don't give a flying fuck about yours.
But Amir was refreshingly uninterested in talking shop, and for the first time in a long time, I was having fun.
"Can I walk you home?" He asked with a grumbly baritone voice I couldn't help but find attractive, regardless of how bro-ey it was. The offer sounded almost chivalrous. I meant it when I told him I don't usually take guys home on the first date. But the adrenaline and expensive drinks made me feel light and free, and I didn't want the night to end. The fact that he wasn’t “a keeper” somehow gave me license to follow my own promiscuous urges.
Underneath his tight, button down shirt and fitted black jeans, he had an impressive, muscular body that was covered in fur like a goddamned werewolf. Although I had briefly told him about my chronic health problems, he didn't treat me like some fragile porcelain doll. He was rough with me in a way no man had dared to be in years, and to my surprise my body yielded effortlessly to his. I didn't have to stop, half way through the show, because of a cramp or a pulled muscle, and I wasn't reduced to a sobbing heap of flesh and tears when it was over. He made me feel uninhibited, unbreakable, and euphoric at a time when all I usually felt was pain.
I wouldn't say I'm a sex addict, but I sometimes ferociously crave the distraction and release of the deed, overcome by the compulsion to escape my pain body. Ironically, sex helps me do that more than any other drug or distraction I’ve tried so far. When the pain, or my emotions, starts to rage red hot, I find myself squirming with the need to be touched––to be reminded that I'm desirable despite how destitute I feel––and these days the itch is getting more and more difficult to ignore. And to be perfectly honest, there are some nights when I just don’t trust myself to be alone anymore.
The capacity for self-destruction and addiction are strong in my Eastern European bloodlines; tendencies I’ve been battling since I picked up my first drink at thirteen. But the pain, insomnia, and loneliness of my day-to-day existence have been chipping away at my better judgment. The urge to grab a handle of hard liquor by the neck is getting stronger and more frequent, as is the idea of downing a bottle of the muscle relaxers I keep in a dresser drawer next to my bed. Some days, I even fantasize about hurling my broken body off the Golden Gate Bridge.
What a fucking cliché.
People keep telling me how brave I am to embark on such a bold solo mission. But truthfully I feel pissed off, dead-ended, dangerously depressed, and terrified. This long-term trip around the globe doesn't feel like a heroic crusade; a big, exciting adventure; or some soul-searching, heart-mending quest in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love (like my mother wants to think).
It feels like my last Hail Mary.
If I am pregnant, I'm not sure I'll make it on that plane in three weeks. And if I don't get on that plane, I don't know what the fuck I'll do with myself. I've always said I'd rather not be a parent at all than fuck up the innocent life of a child, and the difficult truth is, I’m in no condition to bring a life into this world––mentally, physically, financially, or conditionally. Yet I don’t know if I would survive myself if I made the heartbreaking decision not to.
My breathing edges into hyperventilation as I pace back and forth outside the bathroom door as I wait for the last thirty seconds on my iPhone timer to slowly countdown. When the buzzer finally goes off I take a deep, audible breath and carefully turn the doorknob. My heart drops into my toes when I see a beautiful, single blue line looking up at me on the pregnancy stick.
Hands folded over my chest––tears dripping down the round cheeks that keep me looking innocent and youthful despite how worn out and wasted I feel––I whisper up to a God I’m not sure I believe in, "Thank you. I'll do better from now on. I promise."
Unlike the goal-oriented, type-A spitfire I was in my twenties, Cassandra 3.2 has no idea what’s coming next. I’ve got no five year plan. I can’t even tell you where I’ll be in five months. And to my mother’s extreme discomfort, I can’t tell you how long I’ll be away or exactly where I’m headed.
But I do know one thing for sure (and it’s a notion that gives me great comfort despite all its inherent uncertainties): where I’m heading now will likely look nothing like where I’ve been.
A freelance designer, photographer, and writer, Cassandra Smolcic pulls inspiration and insight from an eclectic assortment of experiences and global backdrops. A Rust-Belt tomboy and rebellious teenager, turned ambitious college academic and corporate career woman, turned vagabonding world-traveler, her layered personal identity gives her writing a unique, multidimensional perspective. Cassandra's writing about chronic pain, trauma recovery, alternative healing, travel, and metaphysics can be found on Medium, and you can follow her travel images on Istagram @cassandra.smolcic.