Sunday, March 18, 2018

pms of the soul

Back in the day, whenever a woman ran for office, some dude would fret about what would happen when she got her period (now we’ve found both more nuanced and more blatantly hateful ways to take swings at women running for office). The idea being that there were only two ways of being in this world: cerebral, level-headed Enlightenment machine or crazy, Medusa-haired PMS monster.

Me on Thursday.
I haven’t gotten my period in almost five years*, but if this week was any indication, my moods are still going strong. I will never be a level-headed Enlightenment machine—as mythical a creature as Medusa anyway—and, because of the way I was raised, I’ll probably never see that as completely fine. Even though it is.

I am thinking of the time I told our couples therapist I was hesitant to take anti-depressants because I didn’t want to put chemicals in my body. She said, “There are already chemicals in your body. You get to choose whether you want to flood your body with cortisol or Zoloft.”

This week was Cancer Test Week, in which I exchange several vials of blood for a number that will tell me whether it’s reasonable to estimate that I have thirty-something years to live or, like, three.

Back in December, when I celebrated five years cancer-free, I wondered whether my life and emotional landscape would look progressively more like that of someone who’d never had cancer—if I’d worry more about my lack of retirement savings than how to milk the most out of the present because What If I Had No Future.

Let's remember the good times, shall we?
But a series of small events conspired to blow the dust off the wagon ruts of worry that carved themselves deep in my brain back in 2011. I learned on Facebook that a friend’s initially early-stage breast cancer had progressed to stage IV (for her, this is not a “small event” at all, of course; I imagine her reading this and thinking: Must be nice. Must be nice to have such a diagnosis be just a dark fairy tale, not a haunted wood you have to actually walk through tree by grizzled tree). Also, I switched to Kaiser with my new job, and had an administratively crappy first visit, during which the nurse, typing in my pre-existing conditions murmured “Huh, I never heard of that before…. I guess there’s a first time for everything.” Emotionally, I shrank to my three-year-old self, wanting to scream IS ANYONE HERE GOING TO TAKE CARE OF ME??

I showed up to my new oncologist’s office Monday morning and was in tears by the time I got to the elevator. I couldn’t find her office on the directory (because it was listed under H for Hematology/Oncology rather than O), which made me late, and the mean voice in my head scolded: Why should you get to be cancer-free when you don’t even have the decency to show up on time?

But then Dr. Kwan turned out to be warm and casual, a sneaker-wearing woman about my age who spoke to me about tumor markers and longitudinal studies of Arimidex as if I were an intelligent person who had been through some shit and learned a thing or two in the process. She was everything I wanted in a doctor, and if I had to get cancer again, she seemed like a good person to help me through it. But hopefully I will never have to find out.

I emerged into the parking lot feeling relieved, and decided to look up statistics about the rarity of late (post-five years) recurrence to tide me over until my blood work came back.

Why do I ever think Google will reassure me?

My basic blood work—not the cancer stuff—came back almost immediately, and soon I was trying to read my white blood cell count like tea leaves. Depending which source I looked at and what I decided to extrapolate, I either had a neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio that would kill me in ten years, or bone marrow metastasis, or AIDS.

Who you calling chicken?
I texted Kim, my Hypochondria Sponsor, and she talked me down, reminding me of all the good factors I had and my side, and also that people who are stage IV are living longer and longer. I looked through some old emails and found almost the exact same pep talk from her, dated May 2016. God bless Kim.

But here’s the part that has me all existential, thinking about the nature of mood and emotion. Between Kim and a lot of work stuff that required my focus, I muddled through Monday and Tuesday. But Wednesday night I had a board meeting that kept me out until ten. I had too much coffee and didn’t get a lot of sleep. On Thursday I had to drive to the Far Westside for a meeting, and spent a total of three and a half hours in traffic.

Relentless work, minimal sleep, and maximal traffic are things that would put me in a grouchy mood during the best of times. But because I have the kind of brain I do, and because it was Cancer Test Week, I couldn’t just be tired and irritable. I had to—I mean, it truly felt like a mandate—fall deep into a spiral of Death Thoughts.

If I’m going to die in like five years, should I just upload all my unpublished novels to WordPress? Should I do that anyway?

I barely saw Dash today. And I didn’t give birth to him and I’m going to die before he develops clear memories of me, so I’m only like a Mom Lite, not a Real Mom.

How could I do this to my family? To my poor Dad, who has already had enough untimely death in his life without losing a child. To AK, who will be so mad at me and will probably get a bunch of parking tickets in her grief, even though she’ll ultimately become very nostalgic about me and also probably remarry and...oh fuck, I really don’t want Dash to have a stepmom. I mean, I suppose I should want him to have a good one who loves him like I would, but selfishly I totally don’t.

Aren’t the hard times supposed to reveal who we really are? And don’t I kind of suck right now?

In grad school I read all these postmodern theorists, who questioned the meaning of reality, and it was all very interesting and intellectually engaging. But when I live it—when I can’t tell whether my need for a nap is the most real thing, or the possible cancer cells in my blood, or the imaginary cancer cells in my head—it’s fucking psychological torture. Is mood a distraction from What Really Is or is mood the only thing that Really Is?

There is no spoon but more importantly DOES THIS CHILD HAVE CANCER?
And then, finally, I got a call from Dr. Kwan’s nurse late on Friday afternoon, with news that all my tumor markers were “within the normal range” and the sun came out and flowers bloomed and life turned into a musical—Singing in the Rain, not Les Mis. I got to play the role of Graceful Winner instead of Sore Loser. I got to eat pizza with AK and watch Game Night with her and Alberto and play pinball at a bar while Dash spent the night at Nana’s house. I texted all the good people who talked me through my anxiety all week.

I would love to be so self-actualized that I can enjoy the present without fearing the future. But how do you love the world without being impacted by it? And to be impacted by it is to buy, on some level, all its bullshit—the belief in winners and losers and money and Instagram. I’m an earthly creature for as long as this body will let me be, for worse and for better.

*I don’t miss it. I do still feel weird about being a premature crone. But hey, in another 6-10 years, all my peers will have caught up to me the natural way.