“Sometimes I have to let go and mother myself, kiss the hurts away. Tell myself that sometimes bad things just happen. But writing about it helps a lot, it scrapes it out of the dark corner, holds it up to the light and somehow heals the wound. It borders on miraculous.”
I have no idea who wrote these words. If any of y’all know, will you tell me? This quote spoke to me, though, at some point, because I wrote it down, and today as I cleared off my desk I found it. Scrawled on a scrap of paper and placed in my “I’ll get to this later” pile, the quote has lingered, waiting for me to get to it. How very patient.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t write it (although I wish I had). Perhaps it spoke to me because of the idea of having to mother myself. Being a motherless daughter, I don’t often think about mothering myself, and yet I do. Making myself go to bed when instead I want to stay up all night reading my current favorite book. Being diligent about pulling that load of shirts out of the dryer and hanging them up instead of letting them sit indefinitely in a wrinkled heap. Wiping up the spills on the stove top now, not later, before they’ve hardened into an indeterminate glob of laminated goo.
In the early days of navigating life without my sweet mama, I actively avoided any mothering that might come my way. That hole in my heart was too new, too raw to allow anyone else to even attempt to approximate any of the things my mom did. Seven years later, I still eschew any overt mothering. Somewhere along the way, though, I must have started mothering myself a bit. I certainly don’t hold out any hope that the hurts can really be kissed away, although I do tell myself often that bad things just happen. Telling myself that doesn’t help my innate desire to question, to wonder about the reason, or to pick things apart in a futile effort to figure them out. Sometimes it just is.
Writing about the things, whether the bad things or the confounding things, does help. Perhaps that’s the line that most spoke to me in the above quote. Perhaps that’s the reason I jotted the quote on a scrap of paper and put it in the pile on my desk. I’m a big believer in writing as healing, which I why I sit in front of my computer, keyboard clacking away as the words fill the screen. For me, just getting the words out of my head and the thoughts onto the screen is therapeutic.
Writing about the good stuff and the funny stuff is important, but writing about the bad stuff is even more so. Like the mothering I inevitably do for myself, writing about the bad stuff helps make it better. Somehow it purges the toxic stuff from my soul and helps filter the insomnia-inducing worries that blanket me after the lights go out and the house is quiet. No matter how much distance I try to put between myself and the cancer “experience,” those worries return. Sometimes it’s the fleeting thoughts before a routine oncology visit, and sometimes it’s a more concrete feeling. Sometimes it’s a visceral assault, like the smell of the hospital that fills my senses when I’m just visiting. Sometimes it’s a random trigger that takes me back to the heat of the battle. Regardless of the form or the impetus, the worries remain. Hence the need to write. Hence the need to read the stories of others who have walked this path. Ray Bradbury explained it perfectly:
“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, and music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.”
Knowing that I can drown out the insomnia-inducing worries with the “morning voices” is sublime. It borders on miraculous.
I’ve been on hiatus from blogging but rest assured, all is well. No real reason for the hiatus other than the fullness of life. Although I’ve not been wrapped up in the hurried pace of the school year, so far summertime finds me still going & blowing as usual. Less than three weeks until our annual vacation to Salisbury Beach, though, and I will slow down then. As the sage Zac Brown says, I’ll have my toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand. Can’t wait.
Yesterday was my quarterly check-up with my cutie pie oncologist. My intrepid appointment companion Amy is currently living the good life seaside on the East Coast, so I had to go it alone. She strongly suggested I reschedule, lest she miss a visit with Dr Cutie, but alas, I carried on without her. She’ll have to wait until November to lay eyes on him, as I’ve graduated to three visits a year with him. That’s my reward for being two years out from the dreaded disease: fewer oncology appointments.
Despite one fewer chance a year to gaze upon Dr Cutie as he imparts his wisdom, this is a good thing because I found myself feeling guilty sitting in the waiting room. Of the four other patients waiting for the good doctor, I was the only one with hair. The others were not only bald but quite sickly looking (and a good 20 years older than me, as well). As I perched on a chair in my workout clothes, planning to hit it hard at the gym as soon as I got the requisite visit out of the way, I was filled with a sense of guilt over my good health.
I could feel the eyes of the other patients on me, and I imagined them wondering, as I would in their shoes, what a strapping gal with a full head of hair, color in her cheeks, and a spring in her step was doing at an oncologist’s office. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I would have assumed this picture of health was meeting someone there, or perhaps had found herself in the wrong office and had not yet realized the mistake.
My guilt was somewhat assuaged by the stark recollection that there was a time, not so long ago, when I was the sickly looking one, dragging myself from one appointment to the next, consumed with healing after a double mastectomy and overwhelmed by a post-surgical infection. I remember well the days of envying the “normal” people who walked with ease and were unburdened by the pressing concerns of cancer, treatment, and their ugly fallouts. Ditto for all the days (close to 30 days all told that one summer) I spent in the hospital. Pushing my IV pole on endless loops around the hospital halls, I would gaze longingly at the healthy people out and about and wish I were among them.
Although I’m two years out from the dreaded disease (or, two years and 2 months, as Dr Cutie so astutely recited from memory), the recovery process from the infection was quite lengthy, and it’s really not been all that long since I was freed from the clutches of that wretched bug. Many times as I moved from the infectious disease team’s office in the Texas Medical Center to Dr Cutie’s office around the corner from home and to the plastic surgeon’s office halfway in between the two, I stared hard at the healthier specimens I saw along the way. I remember feelings that ranged from outright envy to smoldering anger at these people who went about their daily business the way I used to. I envisioned these people getting their kids off to school, hitting the gym, running errands, lunching with friends, and doing household chores with ease, the way I used to. I imagined the fabric of their lives being uninterrupted by cancer, the rudest of guests, and assumed that they sailed through their days focused on minor inconveniences rather than big-time medical crises. First-world problems like a cancelled hair appointment or a rained-out tennis match were screechingly replaced by real-world problems like a hole in one’s chest wall that just won’t heal and an insidious bacteria that evades treatment quite stealthily.
Was it survivor’s guilt that hit me yesterday in the doctor’s office? Perhaps. I’ve never been one to wonder “why me?” — neither in terms of the roulette wheel of whose genes will come up hinky and necessitate a diagnosis, nor in terms of why am I now healthy while so many others are sick. Seems like a colossal waste of time and energy to me. I don’t spend much time thinking back about the sheer hell I endured with that nasty infection; partly because I don’t want to go there, and partly because my brain works hard to protect me from going there. There are plenty of gory details I have to work hard to conjure up, and while my intellectual brain knows that of course I did go through all that, my sympathetic brain says let’s not rehash that ugly past and prevents me from really remembering how awful it was. Better to smile encouragingly at the other patients in the waiting room and spend a few minutes of quiet reflection on the road I’ve traveled and how far I’ve come.
It’s a quiet Sunday morning, and I’m alone with my thoughts. I’m up earlier than I might have chosen, thanks to one hungry little piggy. After a Friday night of interrupted sleep and a Saturday full of tennis, errands, swimming laps and a late dinner with a favorite cousin, I may well have stayed in bed a while. However, savoring a slumbering house amidst hte sunlight pouring in through the trees and hearing the sweet sound of birdsong while sipping a cup of strong coffee is better than sleeping in.
Plus it gives me time to read my book, Shantaram, which I’ve been dying to dive into but haven’t found the time. It’s been likened to Cutting for Stone, one of my all-time most favorite books ever. If it’s half as good as CFS, I’ll be one happy reader.
Quick synopsis of Shantaram: Mr Lindsay, our protagonist, has escaped from an Australian prison and fled to Bombay. There he meets Prabaker, a native of the slums who renames Lindsay “Lin” and becomes his always-smiling, eternally joyful guide to the big city. Lin falls for Karla, a mysterious woman with sea-green eyes, and pursues her amidst the backdrop of a lively bar called Leopold’s. Lin is “a magnet for trouble, a soldier of fortune, and a picaresque hero” who delves into the black-market world of false documents. I’m not very far into the 944 pages of adventure, but am intrigued.
As I settled in to read this fine morning, I came across an especially well-written passage, which brought me up short. Lin is talking to his new friend Didier in the bar about some of the more unsavory patrons among them. In an effort to avoid being overheard by the bad guys, Didier was “speaking out of the corner of his mouth, like a prisoner under the eyes of the wardens.”
A nice metaphor, for sure, but it gets better:
“In Australian prisons, that whispering technique is known as side-valving. The expression spoke itself clearly in my mind and, together with Didier’s mannerism, the words put me back in a prison cell. I could smell the cheap disinfectant, hear the metal hiss of the keys, and feel the sweating stone under my fingertips. Flashbacks are common to ex-prisoners, cops, soldiers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and others who see and experience trauma. Sometimes the flashback is so sudden, and so inappropriate to the surrounding circumstance, that the only sane reaction is foolish, uncontrollable laughter.”
I had a flashback myself last week, and while it didn’t lead me to foolish, uncontrollable laughter, it almost set off a full-blown PTSD attack. I was rushing out the door to get one kid to school and head to the gym, my usual weekday routine. I’m a stickler for taking my own cup to the gym instead of using the styrofoam ones provided. As if our bulging landfills need another cup tossed on the heap. In my haste to get out the door, I grabbed a straw for my cup and scooted out into the garage and into the car. It wasn’t until I was into my workout and gulping water like a crazy person that I realized the new batch of straws I’d bought were bendy straws.
Big deal, right? Bendy straws can be useful, especially if one is reclining while drinking. Or if, say, one is hospitalized for countless days after a post-mastectomy infection. Yessiree, folks, a simple, innocent bendy straw sent me straight from my normal routine of a morning workout directly to the days of being captive in a hospital bed, held hostage by a nasty mycobacterium. Just as Lin was instantly transported from a bar in Bombay to the hated Australian prison cell, I was back in the hospital bed, raging with fever and sick, sick, sick while a nasty bug set up shop under my newly implanted tissue expander. A one-way ticket to Crazy Town in hand, I took the express train down (bad) memory lane.
I wasn’t even thinking about infections, hospitals, antibiotics, or breast cancer when the flashback struck, but I suppose that’s the nature of flashbacks. Triggered by sights, smells, or sounds or, in my case, straws, flashbacks take over and not only interrupt our present business but also disrupt the rest of the day with their nasty after-effects. Interesting how bad memories are just as powerful as good ones. Unlike the good memories, which fill us with warmth and comfort, bad memories suffuse our souls with fear, anxiety, and panic.
The bendy straw that triggered this particular flashback went straight into the trash, and I tried my best to go about my day like a normal person. Finish the workout, chit-chat with my fellow gym rats, reserve a tennis court on the way out, get in the car, drive to the grocery store, fill my cart, unload the loot, take a shower, pick up kids, supervise homework, prepare dinner, clean the kitchen. From the outside, I looked like a normal person doing everyday tasks, but inside I was anything but normal and was once again a cancer patient, fighting my way through uncertainty, confusion, and balls-out fear. In that moment, cancer made me its bitch, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. The only thing keeping me from a total meltdown was knowing that this flashback would pass, that the terror brought on by a simple bendy straw was fleeting.
But as I talked myself off the ledge with soothing reminders that this too shall pass, I know just as certainly that while the terror will pass, it will also return. Again and again, this flashback will haunt me. Perhaps each time it becomes less rapacious, less capable of felling me in one swift motion, but it will return.
“You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.” ~Uncle Remus
Remember that book from back in the day? It was also made into an animated movie by Chuck Jones, the genius of cartooning. It was written before I was born, by Norton Juster and was illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Not sure what either of them has gone on to do, but perhaps the Tollbooth was enough.
It’s the story of a boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth, which he explores in a toy car. Along the way he becomes lost in the Doldrums, where thinking and laughing are strictly prohibited, and is rescued by Tock, a lovely giant watchdog with an alarm clock attached to his belly. The parallels between this story and the cancer “journey” are many.
I was thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth yesterday as I noticed a phantom pain deep in the area formerly known as my right breast, where the evil post-mastectomy infection set up camp and decided to stay awhile. The pain itself wasn’t strong enough to take my breath away, but the implications were, and my mind immediately began racing: what if the infection is back? what if it never fully went away? There were signs of that damned infection, after all, during The Big Dig, which was 9 months after the infection first made itself known.
It’s been a year since The Big Dig, which was my best option for defense against the infection after 267 days of oral antibiotics didn’t fully slay that beast. Nearly a year later, a random pain in the area of my body that was my Ground Zero still has the power to bring me to my knees. Not because it hurts so badly, but because of what it represents.
The idea of the infection once again rearing its ugly head scares me. A lot. I don’t think about it often because I’m busy living my life, but once in a while, as in the case with the phantom pain, the thought does cross my mind. If it did come back, or if it reasserted itself after lying dormant, I would freak out. And yes, that is the correct medical term for becoming reacquainted with the mycobacterium that made a cancer diagnosis at age 40 seem like a walk in the park. The cancer part was easy (relatively speaking) but the myco damn near destroyed me.
Looking back on that dark period of my life is like watching a movie. I see this girl who’s going about her charmed life. Sure there are things that could be better but for the most part it was indeed a charmed life. She lives this charmed life rather out loud, and does “all the right things” to ensure that the charmed life has plenty of staying power. Baseline mammograms at age 36 because of her sweet mama’s premature death; a meat-free, plant-based diet free from preservatives and other nasty; daily exercise; a premium placed on a good night’s sleep; plentiful fresh air and clean water; an all-out avoidance of hormone-filled dairy products for her and meat products for her kids; a plan to deal with the stresses that sometimes darkened her door.
This girl was the last person you might expect to be felled by cancer. And yet, she was.
It’s hard for me to recall those dark days. Of course I know it happened and I was there, but my brain seems to protect me from all the gritty details. After taking in the diagnosis, deciding on the bilateral mastectomy, enduring the surgery and thinking I was on the road to recovery, the infection hit and knocked the wind right out of me.
There’s a vivid PTSD associated with the whole infection thing. I’d bet there’s a whole separate PTSD associated with the cancer thing, too, and it comes out in strange ways, such as a phantom pain sending me straight from normalcy to crazy town without stopping to collect my $200. Could be that the phantom pain in my chest was from 4 sets of tennis on Sunday after a tough upper-body workout on Friday. Or it could be from the wear & tear of multiple tissue excisions and general gutting of the infected skin during the infection’s salad days. When I was a kid, I had pneumonia, and some part of the illness settled in my left lung. For years after that illness, I’d often feel a pain/fatigue in that same spot. Perhaps the phantom pain in my chest is similar.
Very likely it’s nothing to worry about, but once you’ve danced with the devil that is cancer, any twinge or spot or pain sets you on high alert. Some of us head straight for the catastrophic death spiral my sweet friend Lauren writes about. As she so knowingly puts it “The catastrophic death spiral makes us think a lump in our thigh is thigh cancer, a headache is brain cancer, and shortness of breath after running is surely announcing lung cancer. The catastrophic death spiral is the vortex that is cancer.” My recent phantom pain sent me spiraling before I had a chance to reel myself back in to the land of rational thought. It’s worrisome enough to have already dealt with the havoc that cancer brings, but to also feel the aftershocks of that disaster just stinks.
I expect that the constant looking over my shoulder is common in cancerland. But I don’t like it. I’m rather known for my heightened sense of justice and the idea that if you do the hard work/right thing, you’ll get the payout. But bad things happen to good people every day, and life isn’t fair. People who take good care of themselves get cancer, and people who treat their bodies to a buffet of Animal House-style debauchery outlive them. I know this, yet I’m still brought up short by the phantom pain’s effect on me and how quickly and effortlessly I returned to the catastrophic death spiral.
I was probably foolish to think that there would be an end to the cancer “journey” and that the incidences that trigger PTSD would gradually disappear. I should have known that even after logging many miles and paying the requisite tolls in this “journey,” I would forever be circling, just shy of my destination, and always consulting the map. Once Milo returns home from his trip on the tollbooth, he sees a note, which reads, “FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY.” I’m looking for my note and wishing I knew the way.
I had to have a few stitches in my leg 10 days ago. Didn’t write about it because it involved a bite from a dog owned by our BFF, and he (the BFF, not the dog; she’s female) felt bad enough about the fact that his dog bit me, and I didn’t want to rub it in. I’m all for charity, but it takes a backseat to my shamelessness at mining any and all events for a blog post.
So here we are. Full disclosure.
In hindsight, I know that the circumstances surrounding the dog bite should never have converged as they did. I should have known better. If only hindsight and “should haves” meant something in the real world, where dogs tussle and humans intervene. So it happened, I handled it, and life goes on. I still love the dog whose canines ripped my flesh thoroughly enough to expose the tissue underneath, and I know that she didn’t intend to hurt me. I’m just glad our sweet little piggie didn’t get tangled up in that whirling dervish of a dog fight.
Of course the brawl happened late at night, and not during regular business hours. Of course it happened when Trevor was out of town, so that if I did feel the need to go to the ER, arrangements would have to be made for my favorite girl, who’s pretty awesome and very independent, but not at 10:30 at night. Of course I put on a brave face and reassured said favorite girl that everything was fine, despite the unceasing burbling of blood from my gashed thigh. Of course the stitches on the left and the paw-shaped scratches and bruises on the right required me to sit out of tennis and the gym for a few days.
And of course, I had to take antibiotics.
The idea of getting back into the abx routine was worse than the wounds themselves, worse than the 4 lidocaine shots into the gash, and worse than the stitches. I just finished the last of the Augmentin last night–hallelujah! After 267 straight days of oral antibiotics for my post-mastectomy infection, you’d think a simple 10-day course of Augmentin would be easy peasey, but for me, not so much. Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe it’s that my body has a heightened awareness of abx after the near-constant dosing last year. Maybe I’m just a big baby. Whatever the reason, facing those drugs twice a day was tough, if only for 10 days. I hope it’s a long, long time before I need antibiotics again.
So the stitches were scheduled to come out today, but after a quick peek my doc said nope, that wound looks way better but it’s not ready to be sans stitches. Gotta leave them in until Friday, just for good measure. Because of how deep the gash was and because it’s on my leg, which moves all the time because I’m not one for sitting still, there’s still a chance it could open up again. Better safe than sorry, right?
I’m ok with the stitches staying in another 5 days. I’m tough, and in general I’m a fan of conservative measures when it comes to my body’s healing. But I struggled to maintain my composure when my doc warned me that the gash is going to leave a scar.
No, I didn’t cry at the idea of a stitched-up gash marring my leg. I laughed — out loud — at the idea that a inch-long scar would freak me out or upset me. That little bitty scar is nothing compared to the miles of track already laid.
In my post yesterday I committed a journalism felony — I buried the lead. See, the lead is the most important part because it gets the reader’s attention. Typically the lead belongs in the first paragraph, to suck the reader in and encourage him/her to read the whole story. The Weekly World News and The National Enquirer have mastered the art of not burying the lead. I learned about that at the Paul Miller School of Journalism & Broadcasting back in the Dark Ages
I didn’t mean to tease you.
I forgot to mention something pretty important yesterday, and I thank the kind readers who expressed concern. I have been fearful of starting my period, but have absolutely no reason to think that will happen. There’s been no, er, physical evidence; nothing but my own cancer-fueled insanity to make me think this fear will materialize. I could imagine this bout of insanity becoming a sleeper sequel to the 2007 Daniel Day Lewis movie. Instead of the story (based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!) of the early oil boom in Southern California, in this story, There Will Be No Blood.
There will, however, be insanity. Plenty of it.