“Be like a rat. A rat will do anything to survive.”
—Paul Theroux, Hotel Honolulu

I’ve lived like a rat for a couple of long episodes in my life. Decades at a time, not just a few months. I know people who have lived like a rat for a few months. And others who have done it their whole lives. I don’t know about others living like that, but I didn’t choose that style because it appealed to me, seemed really attractive. I chose it – or it chose me – because I was gnawing to survive. I would do anything I had to do. And I did a lot of things I look back on now and don’t feel pride in them. Except I was, and am, proud of surviving.

But here’s the thing. When you can finally get out of survival mode, it’s hard to stop acting and feeling and seeing yourself as a rat. Rats don’t relax, kick back, see and enjoy beauty – or even look for beauty. Aesthetics is not their deal. Getting a break, making a little headway on any front is what they’re after. It means winning at whatever struggle you’re in.

I am still transitioning from an eleven-year period of real serious illness that involved a hunt for a liver transplant. The disease itself takes a lot of work just to survive. You need a steady roof over your head, health insurance that will take you all the way through transplant, steady income, and support from a group composed of family and friends. A car helps. Except for the support from people, everything else is tied up in money. And you have one, sometimes both, hands tied behind your back to get money.

Once the disease started up, I was shocked at how fast the fatigue set in. And that translates into less or even no work, depending on what you were doing for work. So you get creative. Or, the rat kicks in. Here you are, three to six months into a long-term disease, years from a transplant and the end of it, and you’re already living, thinking, acting like a rat.

How does a rat-human think and act? Here’s what I did. I pushed aside thoughts of illness, any shred of sympathy or softness for myself, and lived mostly in denial. Of illness, disability, taking it easy. I did do things to make sure I was eating okay, taking the meds and supplements the doctor prescribed and recommended, and avoiding the things she told me to avoid (nightshade vegetables, a lot of common herbs, and especially no Chinese mystery herbs). I was compliant.

I was one year into a three-year graduate program and stayed in to complete it. But might have been better off trying to get a good-paying job then. And forget about doing anything even vaguely related to teaching. I was stubborn and determined. Sort of like a rat, but in that instance about the wrong stuff. I could have used some advice then. But probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.

A good rat, a clever rat, would have told me flat-out, “Go for the money. Forget anything else. You have to survive this shit and you need money for it. Not meaning or poetry. Get a grip. Get back to being a rat.”

Eventually I did have to return to Being a Serious Rat when I lost out, in my tenth year of illness, on my sixth potential live donor for transplant. Now, even the rat didn’t like the Live Donor Thing. Even a rat doesn’t like asking people for part of one of their most important organs. That’s over the top even for a rat. But the doctors kept saying, “It’s the only way you’re going to get a transplant.” They left this part out… “before you die waiting.” This time they were the rats. I didn’t want to personally know the person giving me a whole or even part of a liver. Did. Not. So the rat finally spoke up again – tap, tap, “Hey, find a transplant center where they allow anonymous live liver donors.” I asked for help from a huge agency who knew everything there was to know about transplants, and found four centers in the United States who offered exactly that.

I finally got the transplant. A year ago. From a different transplant center in a state 1,500 miles away from Colorado. The rat in me got there in one piece to meet everyone, be evaluated, and put on their waitlist. When I was told I was on the list, the transplant coordinator also told me, “Dana, we’re going to be looking for a liver for you.” No one had ever said that to me.

I could actually stop being a rat because everyone there was helpful, supportive, compassionate and exceptionally competent in everything they did at this center in the city that was home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then I only waited six weeks before they called me – “Come on up, we have a liver for you” – and sent their private jet to pick up me and my friend. The rat took off. I didn’t need rat qualities anymore.

Now, I’m recovering from those Rat Years. A few months after an incredibly successful transplant with a split liver (a large liver was surgically split and two recipients got new livers and lives), I found myself inexplicably sad and anxious. Seems there were rat reverberations left behind. It’s hard on a human to be a rat. To scratch that hard to survive. To try to forget who you are and deny yourself comfort. It makes a human angry and hateful and, yeah, even depressed. Rats have no time for depression, just its active symptoms like anger and anxiety and sleeplessness. I’m having to excavate, with care, my hidden self that loved beauty, sought meaning, read poetry and strung words together for others to read and enjoy. Yet, I thank the rat for saving me for this day.

God, I want comfort.

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