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  • Alisha Emerald

How a selfie saved my life



I had one request before my surgery. No pictures please. I made everyone who entered the room promise. Until I was alert and able to verbally consent, I didn't want any pictures taken of me. And it wasn't because I didn't want to look back on this moment and see how far I'd come, or because I didn't want there to be documentation of the machines that were keeping me alive, though at the time that was certainly part of it. There was this part of me that thought, if something were to happen to me, I didn't want the last pictures people had of me to be ones where I was less than fully alive. But the main reason was this: I wanted to be in charge of capturing my own story.

The hospital is a scary place to be. Let alone when your entire body has been cut in half and stitched back together, when machines are pumping air into your lungs and fluids into your body and you resemble something more monster than human. And part of me knew, from spending so much time in hospitals prior and from my intensive gathering of stories, that if I allowed another camera to document this time, even if it was through the eyes of a loved one, I would forever see this moment through them. I didn't know how much of a drug induced haze I would be in, but I did know I wanted to remember what I remembered, and to let the rest go. I wanted to be the teller of this story that, while it was happening to my body also belonged to so many others.

During the days and weeks I spent unconscious in the ICU, as medical updates and snippets of my journey were shared with those near and far, my family did as I asked and didn't post pictures of me. And for that I am grateful. I wanted a tiny piece that belonged only to myself. I didn't want who I was to be reduced to this moment of trauma.

Sometimes the only thing we can control is how our story is told.

Cody always bugs me because I care a lot about aesthetics. I like to know how things are presented. I like taking pictures and writing stories and portraying things in a certain, curated light. And it's not to try and fool the world into believing an illusion that isn't true. It's because my story something I have control over, and having been through so much trauma in my life how I share that story is how I take my power back.

I remember the day I took my first selfie after surgery. I hadn't felt up to writing, could barely speak, had done nothing to document these days. I'd spent the majority of the time wrapped in bandages, not having the core strength to move and look at my incisions when the dressings were changed. I hadn't really seen myself before that moment. And then one morning, before Cody arrived to sit beside me, I pulled out my phone and I studied my face in the reflection of my camera. I still have that photo. Messy hair slicked back to my head, eyes wide and bewildered, I felt like I was looking at a different person. But I knew I wanted to capture that moment, and remember it. I wanted to have this image of me in the earliest stages of becoming, to be able to look back on what I survived and meet myself in my deepest, darkest moments of pain.

Click.

Over the following weeks and months, I kept clicking. I photographed my face as the colour began to return to my skin, my cheeks hollowed out and my eyes regained their spark. I photographed the hospital rooms I waited in, and our tiny apartment. I took photos in the bed where I spent most of my days, and out our front window of the ambulance bay across the street. When I felt strong enough, I got my at home nurse to help me take pictures of my incision. The first thing I said when I saw the bright pink line where I had been cut apart, now held together with bandages and staples, was "It's not as bad as I thought."

The scar took up nearly my entire abdomen, but seeing it for myself, being in charge of what angles were captured, it took away some of the scariness.

When I was able to venture out for my first non-medical outing, I photographed that too. The sights of the outside world felt different to me now, having spent so long seated next to death. I forgot the world of light and beauty and awe existed, and I wanted to capture every moment of it. You might scroll through my camera roll and ask why there are so many random pictures of my feet, my fingers curled around a piece of fruit, a fallen leaf, and it's because every moment sparked inspiration in me after sitting so close to death for so long. And with my camera lens, I got to tell that story of beauty and survival, the stark contrast between dying and living. And I continue to photograph my medical journey. I take monthly scar picture updates that document not only my physical healing but also my emotional healing. Usually when I'm at the lab bright and early for a morning blood draw, or waiting with held breath in a dimly lit scan room, I'll take pictures there too. Just to remember. In case I want them one day. I'll put them next to pictures of my first bite of a juicy peach, or freshly fallen snowflakes coating my eyelashes, to remind myself of the power in my survival.

Looking back now, I don't regret my decision to not allow others to photograph these moments. I don't regret choosing to record the moment through my own eyes before I saw it through the eyes of others.

The selfie, it gave me my power back. I, both the muse and the artist. I, both the poem and the poet. I, both the broken and the bandaged. I, the sacred survivor.


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