Facing Organ Failure and Word Limits – My Tale of Survival
“You need to work on your word economy.”
That was the first comment in my final evaluation for my AP Language and Composition class. Ah, The art of “less.” My weakness. Word limits are my kryptonite. I love the feeling of descriptive writing, being lost in the free-flow, writing how I feel, as I feel. The more words, the better people understand what I’m trying to say, right?
Editing, omission, revision, condensing, get to the point – this kind of feedback is an old story to me. I can’t help it. Even my art teacher commented that I tend to “use excess gleefully.” I’m overstimulated by the beauty of words of the world around me, of the never-ending ways that the power of words can encompass our experience here.
Writing is therapy for me. Writing is a way for me to express who I am and also who I aim to be. And truthfully, there’s just a lot of me. As a high school English student, I loved writing about anything from The Scarlet Letter to US Presidents to the Krebs Cycle. Just as I was about to wrap up my senior year of high school, I abruptly developed a blood clot, endured ten years of medical trauma, 27 surgeries, and six years unable to eat or drink anything.
To cope, I locked myself in my room all day and used the survival skill I knew best – writing. From sunrise to sunset, I’d journal thousands of pages just to keep my fingers busy. Journaling became a compulsion – a desperate attempt to document circumstances in my life that were unfamiliar, a way to process a life that I was suddenly catapulted into. I didn’t recognize myself, but with the power of words, I could articulate my reaction to my life. And in doing so, I could start to create who I was to become.
Words gave me strength – by helping me to define it, I could use it to survive. As I wrote, I discovered ways to handle difficult situations successfully and to learn from my situation and grow. Strength is the ability to keep a positive attitude towards a situation that proves to be hard and painful and manage it in a healthy way. Strength is the ability to admit weakness without fearing to be hurt. Strength is the ability to overcome fear. The more definitions I was able to write, the more empowered I felt.
Soon I was hopping out of bed and jumping right to my laptop, anxious to record every feeling, emotion and sensation. If I could document my life, it meant I existed, it meant I was alive. It made me remember who I was and what exactly my uniqueness was – I was the only one who could document the insanity that my life was. If I didn’t write about it, who would? Who would ever know that I spent hours in isolation, counting down the uncertain number of days it would be until I lived a normal life again? Or if I ever would at all?
No one else can write the story of our life – its what makes us unique. Yet in telling our stories we find commonality – we all can relate to certain themes and feelings. By writing compulsively every day, I was telling myself that I was not the only one who had ever experienced pain, uncertainty or frustration. I was so alone, yet through my words, I felt more connected than ever.
Every day we have a different story in us, something that is always changing. Telling our stories helps us process it – just like you learn something better yourself when you have to teach someone. It also makes us feel less alone –we are stronger in numbers. Through our shared experience, we can heal.
And I had a lot of healing to do, which is why the words seem to flow through me and never end. By the end of every night, I was exhausted, as though I had just spilled my entire soul onto my laptop. But I was relieved – one more day that was documented.
This writing was not the accomplishment. The writing was how I let myself believe that I was on my own hero’s journey, and every day was a new chapter. Now I had a story to tell, a message to share.
But what the big accomplishment was, was finally being able to share my words. My one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful, started out as stapled pages of my journal, printed from my laptop – a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs–some of which I had written – that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I’d perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents, my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
I called it my “world in a binder”. My parents called it “Amy’s little play.” It was no surprise when I had many looks of concern and gentle warnings when I decided to book a theatre in New York for my world premiere!
I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. In it, I told everything – the pain, the medical, the joy, the infuriating – with music, drama, and humor, most importantly. I had played “roles” before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for hundreds of strangers every night. It was a risk to lay my soul bare, but the reward was in how my own vulnerability caused others to become vulnerable and moved by my own struggles.
After all of my shows, everyone came up to me and wanted to share with me their own stories. I started to put a guest book in the lobby and people would write me novels. People found me on Facebook and wrote about their own difficulties and how I had inspired them to think differently with my message of hope, gratitude and resilience.
I had no idea my story would have such an impact, but it was just a very honest and raw – yet humorous – expression of what I was going through at the time, which really resonated with people. I love how words and writing can be such a transformative tool – it changes me while I’m writing or creating – but also, it’s a mirror, where I look into it and see what I was going through, yet someone else can approach it and come away with some lesson in their own life. That’s what writing is to me.
So word economy – I don’t have it. But as my life continues to evolve, maybe I’ll come away with the larger message – what this all means in the big picture. Perhaps then, I’ll be able to think of a very word-economical and concise way to sum up my life in a nut shell – and finally fit into that darn word limit.
Maybe all it is is Thank You.
Thank you, Writing. You have created my story.
Amy Oestreicher is a 28 year old actress, musician, teacher, composer, dancer, writer, artist, yogi, foodie, and general lover of life. Surviving a coma, 27 surgeries and other trauma has encouraged Oestreicher to share her story with the world through her desire to create and help others. She has written, directed and starred in a one woman musical about her life, Gutless & Grateful, has flourished as a mixed media and acrylic artist, with her art in multiple galleries and is mounting dozens of solo art shows. Oestreicher’s work in theater, art, and music as well as her availability for leading workshops on the power of healing through stories can be seen on her website.
Customized Performances Available for:
- Corporate Events, Team-Building, and Leadership
- Those living as or recovering from being a patient
- Surgeons, doctors, med students and healthcare professionals
- Students/College campuses
- Artists: Thespians, Van Goghs and Music-Lovers
- Seekers: Self-care and Discovery
- Spirituality and Faith
- Survivors of Sexual Assault
- High School Students