Ms. Magazine Blog, January 11, 2017 by Donna Kaz
Carrie Fisher, CrossFit and My “Widowmaker”
On July 19 of this year, at the age of 61, I had a heart attack. 95% of my LAD artery, nicknamed the “widowmaker,” was blocked. A drug-coated springy lattice tube called a stent was inserted via my wrist to prop open the clogged blood vessel. Released from the hospital the next day, my doctor boasted I would henceforth feel better than ever, since blood was finally flowing freely between my heart and the rest of my body.
The first 24 hours after my heart attack I could not stop thinking about the wonders of medical science. My stent replaced the need for bypass surgery and allowed me to walk out of the hospital a changed woman. The difference between the old me and the new me was a very small scar on right wrist and a feeling that I was ten years younger. A week later reality began to sink in. I had almost died.
I have always been a very active person. Three and a half years ago, at the age of 59 I started CrossFit, a fitness program that stresses varied and functional movements performed at high intensity. I was the oldest CrossFitter at my box (the term preferred by CrossFit centers because they are not gyms but stripped down spaces sans mirrors, outfitted with barbells, ropes and rigs). I fell in love with CrossFit for many reasons. It was a community that accepted, encouraged and challenged me. As an older woman all the other gyms I had been a member of stressed that being and/or looking young was the primary aspect of qualifying as fit. At 59 I accepted I did not look 30, but that meant that under the glaring lights and mirrors of a traditional sports club, I stuck out. Bored with “working out,” and longing for a change I found CrossFit. I clicked with my first coach who encouraged me to find my own level of strength and then begin to challenge me once I mastered the basic CrossFit skills. I stuck with it and felt a dramatic gain in muscle, ability and confidence.
My friends all thought I was crazy when I told them I lifted barbells and did burpees. I participated in the CrossFit Open, turned 60 and then 61. I set a personal record in March of this year when I dead lifted 200 pounds. I was in the best shape I had ever been in.
Not that there weren’t any downsides. I took three months off with an IT band injury (pain in the side of my knee) that physical therapy and a slow return to CrossFit helped heal. And as I wracked up 3 plus years as a CrossFit master, the intensity of some of the workouts began to leave me feeling very tired.
Naps became de rigueur in my daily routine. Every day I would lie down for twenty minutes, which sometimes stretched into seventy or eighty. I managed to get 8 hours of sleep a night but it was never enough. The post office is just 9 blocks from my apartment but I found myself taking the bus there and back instead of walking. A steep set of stairs would leave me out of breath, just as a short and intense CrossFit WOD (Workout of the Day) would. I would still be huffing and puffing on the six block walk home a good fifteen minutes after my CrossFit workout was over. I thought nothing of these changes and chalked them up to getting old.
My CrossFit box schedules one day a week for a workout they call the 360. It is a longer, cardiac based workout and one I grew to dread because it was never as mentally challenging as a regular CrossFit WOD. 360’s are usually a set of AMRAPs (as many rounds as possible) of a set of movements like jumping rope, swinging kettle bells and, in good weather, running up and down the block. On July 19th I gave up on one part of the 360 workout – a simple 200 meter run. Going from 85th Street to 86th Street and back felt impossible. For the first time in my three years of CrossFit, I walked the 200 meter run.
I am old. I workout a lot and that makes me more tired than normal. These were the excuses that went through my head while walking home that day. While I was disappointed in myself, I concluded that perhaps my sixties would be the decade that I would have to admit I could no longer perform simple moves like jogging.
I needed a nap that afternoon but never got around to it. By dinner time my fatigue was overwhelming. I remember shuffling around the kitchen preparing dinner for my husband, thinking a quick lie down on the tile floor would really help. After dinner, I sat on the couch with my laptop propped open and started to feel chills, like I might be coming down with the flu. As I stood up to retrieve some notes off a table, I felt dizzy. Something was very wrong. I asked my husband to bring me his blood pressure cuff and after two readings came up exceptionally high (my normal blood pressure is usually low) I began to notice a very slight feeling of pressure in the middle of my chest. When that happened I asked my husband to get me to the nearest ER. “In fact, call an ambulance,” I said, much to my husbands’ surprise. “What did you just say?” was his panicked reply. “Something is wrong with me. I think I might be having a heart attack.” I stated. “Get your shoes on. I’ll get us a cab. It will get us there faster.” he said.
The next thing I knew I was lying flat on a table in an operating room about to have a routine angiogram. Suddenly, a doctor leaned over my head to tell me he found my widowmaker blockage and what a very lucky woman I was.
Now I know exactly how lucky. Heart attacks are still associated primarily with men. Tim Russert died when plaque ruptured his LAD artery and he had a heart attack. The same happened to James Gandolfini. Yet, heart disease is the number one killer of both women and men in the US. The difference is women often experience atypical symptoms like I did. Fatigue and dizziness accompanied by feelings of coming down with a virus or the flu are some of the understated indicators. Back pain, jaw pain, and chest pains are others.
The only reason I am still here is because I listened to my body. Perhaps being fit helped me to do so. I have been treated for high cholesterol since I was in my early 50’s. Heart disease runs in my family. Since my heart attack I have learned that, unfortunately, the first sign that you have heart disease is usually death.
In the late 1970’s I spent an evening with Carrie Fisher. I was dating William Hurt and together with Carrie and the actor John Heard, we attended NY Fashion week and then had dinner at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. I sat next to her and she was funny, smart and very warm. I tell the story of my own heart attack to honor her. I hope her death helps raise awareness about the many subtle symptoms of heart disease in women and the importance of exercise.
Last week I graduated cardiac rehab. My doctor’s advice is to keep up the cardio work outs and to remain the oldest CrossFitter at my box.
Ms. Magazine Blog, December 1 2016
The Process of Disclosure by Donna Kaz
Fourteen years. That’s how long it took me to admit to myself and others that I had survived a physically violent relationship.
For over a decade, I didn’t identify as a victim of assault because I loved my assailant and thought that he loved me. In my mind, I held an image of what a “real” battered woman looked like—black eye, split lip, broken nose. I never looked that bad. I only had to visit an emergency room once. My bruises were on parts of my body that never showed. Besides, he was going to stop hitting me one day. He promised.
I shoved the ugly and dangerous side of my love affair to the very back of my unconsciousness—because for me, true love meant having the strength to surpass any and all temporary trauma.
Thirteen years. That’s how long our relationship lasted. Three years together followed by ten years of pretending we were really good friends. After our official break up (he dumped me for someone else), he would show up or call me a few times a year for a 48-hour rekindle of our romance. He no longer hit me during those ten years. I held that as proof that we were on the road to a reconciliation. It also helped me to deny the three year period where he beat me up. I imagined we were working hard to build back trust between us because our mutual love for each other burned like a smoldering ember.
Fourteen years. That is the amount of time it took for me to decide to become involved in the movement to end violence against women. I still have no idea why one day, out of the blue, I picked up the phone and called the local organization in my city that provided a hotline for battered women and victims of rape and offered to volunteer for them. At the very first training session the image of what I thought a real battered woman looked like was replaced by my own reflection. When that happened, all the emotions of my horrible experience gushed out of me: shame, regret, confusion, sorrow and most of all rage.
Fourteen years. That’s the number of years it took for me to identify my former boyfriend as my assailant. When I incorporated the truth of my past experience into my present life, I knew I would never see him again. Only then was I able to talk about what had happened to me. I volunteered for the rape and battery hotline, went to support groups and shared my story. I became a victim advocate in the court system. I got a part time job at a battered women’s shelter and worked for a local domestic violence coalition. Eventually, I became a public speaker; an expert on was it was like to be trapped in a cycle of violence.
Thirty-five years. That’s how long it took for me to say his name in public. For 35 years I was fearful that he might find out I was talking about what he did to me and carry out the threat he used to scream in my ear: “I am going to kill you.”
For 35 years I believed I was weak. “If my boyfriend laid one hand on me,” I heard people say, “I would leave and never go back.” I tried to leave quite a few times. I always went back. I must have allowed myself to be abused. How stupid was I?
My abuser was successful and rich. As the years ticked by he became even more so, while I seemed to only become increasingly unstable, emotional and depressed. He got famous while I carried around an eternal sense of doom. I would spend years and years trying to reverse the effects his physical violence had on me: the sense of dread that followed me around everywhere and the belief that nothing I did would ever amount to anything.
If I told the whole story of my past I risked losing my job and the small career I had established for myself. I knew that letting the world hear my story meant I would be accused of lying and making it all up for attention and fame.
Why are women who are victims of abuse first suspected of lying about it if any amount of time has gone by between being assaulted and sharing it? Skeptical fingers point out the years between the action and the telling of it as proof that the story has been fabricated. The story fades into the background as victims are first asked why they bring up their painful past now.
I know why: Disclosing the facts of one’s life is a process.
If you think about it, it seems quite normal for someone to wait before revealing the details of their abusive pasts openly. Time heals wounds and as the wounds heal the penchant for sharing how they got there grows stronger.
Thirty-five years. That is how long it took me to realize my narrative is a valid one, for me to be able to write and speak these words without qualification: I did not let my boyfriend beat me up. Never once did I consent to his, or any other man’s, verbal or physical abuse.
I believe no woman ever has “allowed” a man to grope, assault or abuse her. Not Samantha Geimer, not Nicole Brown Simpson, not Joan Tarshis, not Jessica Leeds. Not any woman.
Women who have experienced violence tell the truth. Survivors do not lie. The only thing we are guilty of is taking the time to realize our abusers are not the leading characters in the story of our lives.
I am telling my story now, 35 later, because that is how long it took me to realize my story is about me.
I speak up today because I can.
Donna Kaz, aka Aphra Behn, is the author of UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour (Skyhorse, November 1), which follows her surprising 25-year journey as a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of a Hollywood movie star and subsequent member of the feminist activist group Guerrilla Girls.
by Donna Kaz aka Aphra Behn
UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour
UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour follows the surprising 25 year journey of a young, New York City actress swept off her feet by rising star Willian Hurt who carries her to Malibu and back for a three-plus year love affair that is both fantastical and physically dangerous. When Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are murdered in Brentwood she hears a bell go off, awakening her angry, activist spirit. Always an outsider, she takes one step further into invisibility and becomes a Guerrilla Girl, a feminist activist who never appears in public without wearing a rubber gorilla mask and who uses the name of a dead woman artist instead of her own. As a Guerrilla Girl, Aphra Behn creates comedic art and theater that blasts the blatant sexism of the theater world while proving feminists are funny at the same time.
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by Donna Kaz
Published by the Hawaii Review issue #82, Ian MacMillan Writing Awards 2015
When Ruby comes across the street to our house she always comes to the side door, never to the front. She calls my mom Miss Mary, and everything she says begins with or ends with “sorry.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she says over and over while squeezing her eyes shut and biting the coral lipstick off her bottom lip. Her hands shake like she has no control over them.
“Count to ten,” my mom tells her. “Take a deep breath and count.” She gets to three and stops. Then her eyes fly open and tears pour straight out as though a mini garden hose has been turned on underneath her eyelids.
Mom twists her face toward mine and gives me a look that means “you and your sister need to leave now.” We run into the hallway and lie down on the indoor-outdoor carpet. Slowly we crawl toward the kitchen, thumping against the sheet rock wall as we kick and squirm for a better position. We peek around the corner but cannot see anything, just hear mom repeat “count to ten.” We loll around on the carpet poking each other until the side door slams shut. I run to the dining-room window and see the back of Ruby’s summer cotton shift bounce around her knees as she walks back home.
At dinner mom tells dad that Ruby had come over to use the phone again.
“Is Ruby’s phone broken?” my sister asks.
“Ruby doesn’t have a phone,” Mom explains.
“When Ruby needs a phone she can come over and use ours,” Dad states in between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. Mom and Dad say all this so matter-of-factly that I feel stupid asking a question of my own and so don’t. Ruby doesn’t have a phone.
Sometimes she doesn’t have bread either, because one time when she came to the side door Mom gave her half a loaf of day old Wonder Bread. Ruby took it home with her but the next day she brought back a brand new loaf, and that made mom mad. She kept trying to put the Wonder Bread back into Ruby’s shaky hands but Ruby would not take it.
“Sorry. I said I would return it,” she announced, her voice full of sadness.
After dinner I scrape the plates, hang the dishtowels on the line outside and then sit under the big maple tree in our front yard, swatting mosquitoes away. From there I can see Ruby’s little house on the other side of the street and a little to the left. The kitchen window glows yellow and someone moves back and forth behind it. I stare at it until my sister shoves me in the back and I chase her down to the rose bushes and try to make her run right into the big rock in front of the tomato plants. The fireflies come out and we catch a few and put them in the jars Dad made us with holes in the metal tops.
Mom’s time-to-come-in hoot sounds from out the kitchen window and we go inside for a glass of milk and three Oreos apiece. We put on our baby doll pajamas and watch exactly 30 minutes of television before dad tucks us into our twin beds, each with a kiss to the forehead.
We toss our dirty socks back and forth between the beds for a while and then try to crack each other up by putting an “s” in front of every word we speak. “Shail smary sfull sof sgrace,” spits my sister from under the covers. We giggle uncontrollably until Dad comes in and yells that it is time for bed.
Finally, I lie back on my pillow and look out the windows at the branches of our maple tree and the lone street lamp that makes a spotlight on the black asphalt of our road. The boats in the marina behind Ruby’s house gently rock to and fro in their slips, their halyards dinging against the mainsails. The leaves on the maple tree swish in the summer night breeze and the dinging and the swishing gently lull me to sleep.
Then, suddenly, I am awake again and I hear someone running down the street, the slaps of their soles hitting the asphalt hard. A woman’s voice splits the heat and the blackness wide open with four words. “Help! Somebody help me!” I hear a firecracker pop and then another and another.
I look over and see my sister sitting upright in her bed looking straight out the window.
“There must be a party going on down at the sand bar,” I say. She says nothing. “It’s a stupid party,” I repeat softly. I roll over, too groggy to say more.
The next morning I beat my sister down the stairs but the kitchen is empty. Out the picture window I see Mom and Dad talking to our neighbor, Mr. Katsikas. There are two police cars parked in front of Ruby’s house with their whirly red lights on. We put on our flip flops and sweat shirts and join our parents under the maple tree.
“Where’s Ruby?” my sister asks. “What happened at Ruby’s?” No one pays any attention to us. Mr. Katsikas lowers his voice. Mom shoos us back inside.
We do not go inside. We go to down to the rose bushes to look at Ruby’s house. My sister stands on the rock in front of the tomato plants to get a better view. A policeman comes out of Ruby’s front door with a plastic bag. He is holding the plastic bag out to his side like it’s trash. The bag is clear and I see two green pillows inside streaked with red like someone had spilt nail polish all over them.
Neighbors begin to gather in front of our house. I don’t want anyone in front of our house. I don’t want anyone to block my view of Ruby’s. I grab my sister’s hand and we squeeze through the Moynihans and the Malloys to the sidewalk right in front of Ruby’s front door.
There are people moving around inside Ruby’s house. The policeman has put the plastic bag on the back seat of his police car and now he is going back inside. We are the only two on the sidewalk right in front of Ruby’s. We stand very close together. No one tries to shoo us away. No one asks us to move.
Ruby’s going to come out any minute now, I think. She is putting on some coral lipstick maybe. Maybe she is counting to ten. When she comes out she will see us and know that if she needs to make a phone call or is out of bread, it is just a short walk across the street to our side door. She has such a pretty face, Ruby does. All I can think of is Ruby has such a pretty face.