Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. ~Søren Kierkegaard
Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life. ~Immanuel Kant
What I tell writers is that: to work on a body story. To bring the body to the foreground, to listen and feel for sensory truths, to stop repressing our corporeal truths in favor of our thinking truths. Then I give them Leaves of Grass. Ha. ~ Lidia Yuknavitch
How are you dealing with all of this? Because you know that if you don’t deal with your health stuff, it’ll deal with you, right? ~Elizabeth, my therapist
I have a friend, Cynthia, who was diagnosed with a malignant breast tumor the day I found out I have a tumor in my lung. She’s not a friend that I’ve met in person, and in many ways she’s a writing-circle associate and sometimes collaborator, but I have a feeling if she were my neighbor, we’d spend winter afternoons sharing a hot cup of tea and a game of Scrabble. I suspect a lot of people feel that way about Cynthia. She’s just that way: bright, funny, approachable, talented, interesting. And man, is she ever a gorgeous writer – especially her recent posts about her experience with having breast cancer.
What I appreciate about the lyrical way Cynthia is processing her experience is the nonlinear connections she makes between the past and present. How she’s able to see this moment as the culminating experience of so many interconnecting fibers that have brought her here. And when she channels that into words, it sounds like music.
For me, though, there’s nothing intellectual about having a tumor. It has put me in my body, not my mind, in a really big way. Specifically, it’s made me realize how trapped in my body I actually am. How acutely aware of all of my body’s functions I’ve become. How worried and nearly obsessed I am lately that every pain, every heart flutter, every runny nose, every headache, every atypical bowel movement is somehow another indication that this tumor, whatever it is, is eating me from the inside out.
I’m most existentially comfortable when processing life in philosophical, not physical terms. I’m in the Kierkegaard/Kant camp mostly. Kierkegaard, after all came up with the concept of angst. His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. And Kant makes the claim that an external environment is necessary for the establishment of the self. How much time have I spent wondering if I will still exist once my body machine breaks down? How many hours have I whiled away wondering if all my emotions and reactions to life are completely subjective and contemplating how being embodied with this one brain in this one meat sack – given the experiences I’ve had while so embodied – have created a reality that is completely different, all things being equal, than another embodied soul with another brain and meat sack would have experienced in the exact same circumstances? The answer to these questions is: a lot. Too much maybe even.
You’d think that now – while I drag through another day with a stess-pressure headache so massive, I fear my brain may leak out of my ears, growing more and more anxious as the day of surgery and all the ensuing answers approaches – would be a time I’d most likely spend staring at the late afternoon sun streaming through the trees outside my bedroom window, contemplating these Big, Important questions. Yet, you’d be wrong. In fact, I’m so busy completing FMLA paperwork, getting a power of attorney in place, finding someone to take over my role in the PTA, offloading my tasks at work, fixing my fucking washing machine, and wondering how to restructure the payments for my bills so that I’m not late with anything, etc. that I haven’t had the bandwidth to do more than wake up, barrel forward working constantly nonstop, and go to sleep. The closest thing to a deep thought I’ve had in the last three weeks is, I wonder if I’ll finally lose this ten pounds while I’m convalescing?
The reason they found my tumor in the first place was a fluke. I went in for my Well Woman Exam a year early on accident. Last I heard, I was supposed to go in every two years. So, I made an appointment with a new NP, a woman who is not my family doc, who I like, but who is a man. I prefer to take my girl parts to be looked at by someone who knows exactly what a period cramp feels like. When I got to the appointment, the NP explained that the new recommendation for women my age is to come in every three years instead.
“So… I don’t need to be sitting here naked at all then,” I said.
“No,” she said. “But since you’re here, do you have anything going on you’d like to discuss? You doing okay?”
“Just the usual stuff that’s been going on for three years that nobody seems overly concerned about.”
“What do you mean?”
I explained that about three years ago, out nowhere, I began having apocalyptic panic attacks. The first time it happened, I thought I was having a heart attack and called 9-1-1. These, I’m told, are a result of poor stress management. “Can you do anything to lower the stress in your life,” They asked. “No,” I told Them. So now I take medication.
I also explained that I have a mystery pain in my lower right side that’s been vexing me for over two years. I was diagnosed with IBS, so They quit asking questions and, again, suggested that I just need to lower the stress in my life. Easy peasy. Take some fiber and report back. But, I explained, this pain absolutely levels me. I break out into sweats and have to lie down and take deep breaths. Yes, They said. Fiber’ll do you right up.
Finally, I told her that recently my vision has begun going suddenly and mysteriously blurry at random intervals. I explained that I had just – moments before coming to this year-too-early appointment – visited an ophthalmologist, who told me that I’m simply not blinking enough.
“But, you see, I think They’re missing something,” I told the NP, heatedly, after explaining the three years of health issues I can’t seem to get anyone with referral power to be concerned with.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, saying the most beautiful words a health professional has ever said to me.
“Well, I think I’m just being blown off. Furthermore, I want a look at my guts. I want to see if the Essure coils have come loose and adhesed to a bowel or something. I want to see what my gall bladder looks like. I firmly believe all of this is connected, and I’m really sick and tired of being blown off!”
“Okay,” she said. And within a few days, I was in the radiology department having a CT scan of my pelvis. The technician put me in the doughnut just a hair too far, and they just happened to get a snapshot of my mid-torso as well. The next morning while I was at work, my NP called. “Do you have a second?” she said. “I want to discuss the CT scan results.”
I went into the hallway and leaned my forehead against the 14th floor window and stared down. “Okay. What’d you find?”
“Well,” she said, “your coils are right where they should be. Your ovaries looked fine. We did find some gall stones in your gall bladder, so I’m trying to get more information about that. But what we need to talk about is that they caught a glimpse of your right lung in the images and noticed an 18 millimeter nodule at the base of it.”
There was a pause in the conversation that felt minutes long, even though it was probably only a second. I felt the world condense into me from the sides, pressing my head until it felt flat, and inducing a headache from the pressure, which has yet to go away. “What does that mean?,” I asked.
This was all less than three weeks ago. I’ve managed to somehow get nearly all of my business in order in preparation for my surgery in ten days (thanks in no small part to a small legion of supporters and loved ones who I’m blessed to have in my life.) And, for the most part, I’ve kept a good attitude. I’ve made jokes about my health on Facebook and at work, and I’ve kept the conversation light with my boys and daughter. On the surface, I’m doing okay. I’m not handling it elegantly the way Cynthia appears to be, but I’m not a wreck. At least, not during the hours I’m in public.
For the most part, the social contract stating we don’t talk about our body problems stops me from even considering telling people I’m afraid, yes, but I’m mostly acutely anxious. I wake up in the middle of nearly every night with worried thoughts that come on the tail of a nightmare. My bottle of benzodiazepines – ten total, quartered, that I was prescribed six months ago – which I was instructed to take only if I wake up having a panic attack in the middle of the night are nearly gone. The bottle was half full three weeks ago.
I called my sister the other night to make sure she would be my post-surgery point-of-contact for our family, and I ended up screaming and yelling at her, saying all the things I’ve always wanted to say. Old wounds. Old trespasses. Mom stuff. The deep stuff that deals with you when you haven’t dealt with it. Then, not quite understanding the irony just yet, I deleted her from Facebook and told her she could be in my life when she learned how to treat me better! Finally, I cried until my eyes swelled shut – first in the shower, then in my bedroom – sobbing as if I’d just lost the love of my life.
The next morning, I sent her a text message. I love you, Kim. I’m a fucking wreck. I’m sorry.
Back in April, I attended a weekend-long writing workshop with Lidia Yuknavitch, an author who focuses on corporeal writing. At the end of the workshop, Lidia said to all of the attendees, “As your final assignment, I want you to write down the one thing you’ve always wanted to write about, but never have because you were too scared.” We all bent over our paper and scribbled out a word. “Now,” Lidia said, “I want you to go around the room and read what you wrote.”
I swear to god, you could hear the sound of 24 assholes tightening. A few people went white. But we did it, because Lidia Yuknavitch inspires that kind of trust; because she makes you want to be brave in front of her; and because secretly – but not to Lidia – we were all desperate to say our word out loud and likely had been for years.
When it was my turn, I looked around the room quickly, and then blurted out, “I’d like to write about the molestation.” Sadly, and probably not surprisingly, I was not the first person in the room to say that, otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve ever choked out the word.
“Now,” Lidia said, “I challenge you to write about it.”
I’ve thought about that off and on over these last 8 months. Occasionally thinking, okay, yeah. I’ll do that soon. Then I would draw a blank about where to even start and put it out of my mind. But now I know. It starts in your body – a place I’ve no choice but to be right now. No dissociating for me. I’m not a “it was all meant to be” type, even though I make comments about how The Universe is acting upon me sometimes. Yet, I’m finding it oddly centering to be forced to stay inside here, forced to observe and experience every single thing happening. And the center is a good place to start from.