Blake Marquis | Mar. 5 2021
This last year has challenged so many of us to look inward, find new ways of doing things, and uncover some very personal feelings about our physical and mental health and well-being. This journey has surfaced a complex system of facing fears and great uncertainty, while maintaining our daily lives—our work, our families, our habits and routines. We’ve done this in our personal lives, we’ve done this as an agency. We even closed for an entire week to give everyone a much-needed mental health reset. It was that intense.
And while we persevered, some of us faced added pressures. They may have been unrelated to the pandemic on the surface, but offered a unique opportunity to navigate such a crisis in a profound way.
To that end, we invite you to meet Peanut Adams and Shera White, two Project Managers at The Many, as they discuss their hard-fought paths through trauma and how their experiences have shaped not only who they have become in this last year, but their perspectives on life, work and family. As Peanut was made suddenly aware of a severe and acute heart condition, and Shera said goodbye to her father following a long road as a paraplegic, they have maintained a beautiful mix of optimism and realism that guides their daily work practices. Here’s their conversation, we hope it inspires.
Shera: It’s been really comforting and inspiring to learn about your sudden heart surgery last year—reading your open letter on LinkedIn gave me a new insight into Peanut! So that we can catch everyone else up, can you describe the feelings you had when you found out that you needed to have open heart surgery?
Peanut: It felt a lot like one of those waterslides where you stand on a platform, and the bottom pops open and you hang suspended for a split second before a straight drop – your stomach flies up into your throat and the whole bottom of your world is gone. I’ve always been the picture of health so it didn’t make any sense – I felt incredibly out of control of my own life.
S: Wow, what a ride. So this diagnosis was clearly unexpected. How many weeks in between experiencing symptoms and then going to the hospital?
P: It was around 4 weeks from the time this whole thing started to finding out I would need to have surgery. I initially went into the ER shaking uncontrollably on December 13th, 2019, heart racing, symptoms that seemed to come out of nowhere and frankly terrified me.
They couldn’t find anything wrong, in fact they kept telling me how great everything looked, which was incredibly frustrating at the time.
Then I felt fine again…until they called and left me a voicemail on January 13th, 2020.
As it had turned out, my cardiologist had shared my test results with some colleagues who made it clear in no uncertain terms to her that I needed to come in and have what turned out to be a rare benign tumor that was being sucked in and out of a valve on the left side of my heart with every beat, removed – or face the potential of a massive stroke, heart attack or blood clot at any time. The odds they gave me of that happening were 1 in 4, so with that, I was scheduled for surgery on March 5th, 2020.
S: What was the risk and how did that make you feel? Why did you decide to move forward with the surgery?
P: I was left to either choose between having the surgery and facing my fears in the short term with low chances of complications, or the terror of being my own personal doomsday clock, wondering if the next moment might be my last and agonizing over what I might miss.
Honestly, I didn’t feel like I had any other choice but to just do it. And really, it wasn’t just about me. It was about my family, friends and loved ones. I’d be putting them through that same uncertainty too – that just wasn’t something I was willing to do.
S: Oh God, I don’t like talking about death.
P: Death wasn’t the thing that made me angry or kept me up at night. It will be something we all experience. Death is a certainty one way or the other.
What was terrifying to me was the things I might leave left undone or unsaid. If this experience was a sentence, I could be certain about everything in that moment as it was being written, but not after. The blank page after the surgery was what crippled me. I would lay awake at night and think about what if i don’t get the chance to marry the love of my life or have one more family dinner, and that was the thing that made me so unbelievably scared. It was unbearable to face the uncertainty. The surgery itself, I would be asleep, I wouldn’t remember it.
But facing the recovery process, what could happen after, if it would be successful, if i would have complications, etc —it was that hanging open ended vacuum of space where all the fear lied.
S: I agree to a certain extent—death is a closed road. But for those of us living, we’ll never experience that person again after they are gone. There’s a different type of pain that we are left with when that person you love is taken. Grief is a lot like the ocean, deep and never ending. When you die you leave those around you hurt, sad, depressed, angry and sometimes unable to really move on with life. When my father passed away, I didn’t know what this new normal looked like, and I wonder if he too misses us here on earth. It’s all really hard both ways.
But let’s get back to your “spaghetti heart” — why did you give your condition a nickname?
P: As I wrapped my own head around the situation, the easiest way to cope was to minimize it and make light of it. When my cardiologist was describing what they found, she couldn’t find the right layman’s terms, so I suggested it was like a piece of vermicelli. While that got a laugh out of her, she agreed, and that’s where “spaghetti heart” started.
‘To be able to put it in understandable means, it somehow softened the blow of the whole experience versus. looking at it in cold clinical terms. At the core I adopted it because that’s my sense of humor—I couldn’t do anything about it, so might as well make it funny.
S: I thought that was brave of you to give it a nickname because it’s important to not let fear overcome. Looking back at my situation with my dad, after he was shot and ended up paralized, I sometimes wish I would’ve lightened things for him, but it was so hard because his outcome was death. Looking at his face, I could feel that it was an incredible position to be in, but as someone who became one of his primary caretakers, even as a kid, I did my best to look calm even though I was always very worried.
P: Tragedy is so hard, there’s no one right way to cope. For me, I knew how terrible it made me feel, and I didn’t want anyone to worry, so I let everyone know it was ok to laugh about it. It’s hard in a scary situation to back away from it, and I think it’s the kind of thing where people don’t always know what to say. The nickname became a built in ice breaker when talking about it.
S: I admire that about you—your ability to put others at ease. And fortunately, you had a successful surgery. But how did all of this change the balance between your work life and your personal life?
P: It was really difficult because I realized so much of my value had been rooted in career development and what I could do from a work ethic standpoint. That feels like so much of the throughline that we get from society—if you’re not working really hard you’re not successful, if you’re not living and dying at your computer screen, it’s not enough, and for many years that’s the way I was sort of hobbling through life.
Initially I was told I’d only be out of work for 6 weeks, then it jumped to 12 due to some complications alongside the initial COVID lockdown. I hadn’t gone that long without working since I was 12 years-old, and it made me realize how out of whack my work life balance was.
My brother reminded me that I wasn’t not working, I was focusing on my recovery, and that was my full time job. And it was a bit of a mental jolt for me. I could sit and read books that I’d been meaning to read for years. I wrote poetry, I journaled, I looked through old family photos. If you sit and ask yourself how much time you spend really thinking about things and being introspective, I think you’ll find that most of us don’t really dedicate very much time to it.
It provided me an opportunity to break a cycle of self flagellation by work. The challenge was that the free time also made me realize the depth of the trauma that was associated with all of it. Beforehand, you are in this sort of survival state and figuring out what’s the plan in the same way we approach project management—what’s the next milestone, what is happening, how is it happening, when is it happening by?
But once in recovery there’s that moment when the dust settles and you have the opportunity to survey the damage. It took me months to realize the full extent of how hard it had been mentally and physically. For better or worse, it stripped me down to my most basic insecurities and left me really bare. I had no choice but to be raw, exposed, incapable. I could attach all of these negative self descriptors around it and that’s how I saw myself, useless. But at the end of the day, it’s about balance and not dwelling in one end of the extreme or the other. Ultimately, it made me really value my time in a completely new way.
S: I would have to say the same, “surveying the damage” is a process. When I first started working at The Many, it was tough. While I realized how fortunate I was to join a company that did simple things like offer fresh fruit every morning and genuinely cared about my well-being, I also realized I was having a hard time being myself. I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t feel the same energy as my peers. I didn’t realize I was having a really hard time being “normal” because I was so exhausted from being a caregiver—my own dreams and creative juices had died, along with my personality.
However, the people here eventually helped change my perspective because I was able to open up to some of my coworkers about my dad. That open communication and feeling their understanding really helped change my narrative in an important way, and it helped me understand my work-life balance much better!
P: It’s a truly special place
S: My experience with my dad really taught me to live in the moment. What is your greatest takeaway from your experience?
P: Be mindful that all the time we have is completely not up to us, so why spend time with people who don’t make you happy or doing things that don’t bring you joy and satisfaction, it’s not worth putting things off for any reason. Because of this, I’m back in school, I had put off finishing my degree for years because I felt like I could do it later.
We act like we have this inexhaustible timeline ahead of us but the reality is we don’t – I think there’s’ something to be said for finding purpose and reason for doing the things we are doing, and having a deeper sense of gratitude for the situations we find ourselves in, and understanding some things are out of our control. I think we need to learn to feel ok putting ourselves in situations that might not be comfortable in the short term but will span out to a lot more happiness and positivity. It’s not worth the regret. Eat that damn donut if you want it!
S: OK, one last question—what would you do differently if fear was not a factor?
P: For me, there is fear we are aware of like spiders, heights, death etc. and then there is the fear we aren’t consciously aware of. It’s the kind of stuff in the depths of our minds and hearts. We don’t feel actively afraid of it because we don’t know it’s there until we are confronted with it. That being said, If I was to do anything differently I would have recognized the things I was willfully ignoring – I started therapy this year which was a really big deal for me because it’s something I knew I needed for a long time but also told myself I didn’t need because I was strong enough to deal with everything on my own. Getting to a point where I knew I wasn’t okay and needed it not just for myself but for the benefit of other people too, is something I would have done much, much sooner.
Today is the one year anniversary of Peanut’s surgery. 💗