December 23, 2008
2008 started out with one of those moments that one’s life pivots around, that one might reference as when everything changed. Before it: terror of my own devising. After it: a senescent, lessening terror based on real events and then personal triumph. And then: joy?
To tell this story properly requires me to accept some personal vulnerability. I suffer, have suffered, have suffered most dreadfully from anxiety for my entire life. Not a stammering nervousness or a tendency to worry, but a white-hot blanket of visceral hysteria akin to madness. Compared to this sensation, everything that has happened this year–hospital stays, abdominal surgery, the specter of cancer–has seemed featherweight. Thus is the source of my uncharacteristic compassion for anyone suffering anything even tangentially related to fear. It is the worst thing I have ever experienced. Imagine, if you can, a threshold of fear comparative to one being actively bombed or strafed, a panic like being disemboweled by a lion, that primal, deep-brained reaction that should only get activated hormonally, in scenes of life or death reality. Now, imagine maintaining this uproar for hours, days, weeks. It’s physical. It’s like being killed while alive.
When I was young, this manifested itself as sleepness pacing and phobias mostly written off as childish neuroses. I developed acute, bizarre and complex fears of throwing up, flying in jet airplanes, spending the night away from home, entrapment. Deciphering the origins of this is beyond my capacity; I have devoted more brain activity units to this than I can enumerate but have not been successful. Professionals have been involved, many. I am not one, especially once I became independent, to avoid attacking problems with a fierceness. At least one can say that to my favor.
Things got worse in my mid-twenties, after the loss and delusionment that followed graduate school and living overseas. The ebb and flow left me perfectly functional for months at a time, then a slavering basket case for a season. Leaving my apartment or home became treacherous. Attention to conversations, work were forced: an illusionary screen between this dancing panic in my consciousness and the mundane, seemingly quotidian life going on around me. This is not easy to talk about but at the same time, I am not ashamed. Would I be ashamed to admit I have heart disease or a bum knee?
In its terminal state my fear started coalescing around health issues. And why not? My friend once said it’s like I “won the lottery, in a bad way” with respect to my physical self. My stepmother called me “the sickest healthy person” she knows. And that was before all of 2008 happened. In the past several years I battled migraines, went blind for a week, had an explosive hole in my retina (this one especially crazy-making as it took many doctors before anyone believed me or got to the bottom of it), had an ovary blow up (until recently the sickest I’d ever been–I don’t suggest secondary peritonitis to anyone). All of this aside from the persistent and debilitating things that have happened in my guts for my entire life: a montage of tummyaches and bellypains and cramps and quease. My parents say I was born incomplete, a bit, with respect to my intestines. This was explained as colic. It never got better and I just assumed I was delicate and prone to worry about such things.
By 2006 I was waxing towards useless. My routine was a pastiche of moments endured, bolting from work for quick walks while my heart quailed. Maybe I’m having a heart attack? Was that a strange mole I just saw on my leg? There’s a lump in my neck. There’s a pain in my side that has been there for days. This headache won’t go away and there is buzzing in my legs: it’s a tumor. And I didn’t feel well. I was nauseous all the time. Sometimes, with no apparent pattern, lunch would send me bolting for the bathroom. Is it cancer? Is it cancer? It’s not cancer, is it? This became in some ways all that mattered.
So in October 2007 there was blood at work after one of those post-prandial bathroom bolts. Not a hint of blood but a bowful. I was in no way emotionally equipped to deal with this. I went to the doctor, of course, but I don’t think she understood the quantity, or maybe I understated it (this wasn’t my regular PCP). The next day I ended up in the emergency room, but this doctor (mortifying awkwardness: he was acquaintances with my husband for rock climbing reasons) could not find the source. Probably nothing, it was reasoned. Follow up with a gastroenterologist in a few weeks and discuss.
When I saw the GI, again: probably nothing. He said, with characteristic paternalistic gravity (he’s still my GI; this is MO): “If it would help settle your mind, you could elect to have a colonoscopy.” I went home and thought and agonized and panicked. Then I made a decision atypical of me–with my pathological fear of hospitals and all procedures medical in nature–yes, I’d do it. And my GI suggested I have it done at the hospital, where they could knock me out completely, describing me in different conversations as “nervous”, “skittish.” Granted.
I woke up in St. Vincent’s on January 19 in the way I have learned that I generally wake up from anaesthesia, having been knocked out three times now this year. Sound comes first. Or my recollection of sounds. Apparently my eyes are open and I’m interacting but for memory, later, it’s all audio.
“I can’t rule out cancer.”
“Needs to come out. Within the next week or two.”
Grave as he is he is my GI is nonplussed, surprised by my tears. Cancer is my worst nightmare. It is what the blinding panic is all about.
That day was bad. There was drinking and I didn’t go back to work. But by the next morning it was like I’d been nuked and scoured and nothing was left to mourn. Waiting for biopsy results, I went to a board game night at a friend’s. I read books and did some work. I behaved…normally. Like a regular person. There was this aching calm that the worst possible thing had happened. What was left to fear?
When the GI called Mr. Pencil with biopsy results (yes, confession, I wasn’t up to taking the call myself) I was at work and did requisite fist-pumping but it was something that just happened and rolled by. Thank everything. It wasn’t cancer. I still needed surgery. As soon as possible. But it wasn’t cancer, exactly, right? Sort of not. The biopsies came back benign. And yet my grave GI, intoning again about how urgent it was I have surgery now, tomorrow, next week, as soon as I could–yes, yes, but it’s not cancer, right? There were pauses I didn’t notice until later. There were odd explanations about what it might be, avoidances.
Then a CT scan–a botched one and then an unpleasant one. I got what the staff sympathetically called “the side effect” from the radioactive milkshakes they make you drink. That is, chained to the bathroom and shivery-unpleasant. Drinking horrible things and voiding has become old hat this year. Then a visit with my smart-ass, youthful surgeon, whom I liked. Paperwork and scheduling. A lateral partial colectomy or somesuch, terminology. Trying not to get all sniffly because the receptionist at the colon clinic is the nicest person I’d ever met. Wondering why the surgeon expressed importance about removing all of the lymph nodes around the tumor. More pauses.
And this is how January ended.