The People You Meet

Fridays now mark another week since Melinda’s husband died. It has been a month. Next weekend she and his family are going to spread his ashes in the Pacific.

I have spent more time with her in the last month than we’ve spent together in the last two or three years combined. It’s been hard for the obvious reasons, though we have also shared many laughs together. She and her husband had lived in that house for nearly six years and the two instances over the last month where I have stayed the night were the only times I did so. This is something I regret. All of my excuses for not doing so, not going out there more, are so stupid. I’m tired, it’s too far, traffic sucks, I’m enjoying stewing in my own misery. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Pointless, not real excuses, just bullshit. We didn’t see eye to eye on a number of things but he loved her; he treated her well and was a genuine, very funny guy. I should have spent more time with the both of them. Should have, should have, should have.

Last weekend was the memorial. It didn’t feel like one and I think that was the point.  I wish it had been a “real” funeral with a eulogy and an electronic organ because I needed the emotional release. We went to a park. She brought his ashes in a wooden box and every time I looked at it, I couldn’t believe he was in there. Melinda asked me, “Should I bring him?”

My counterpart, the other best friend, was so drunk he had to be driven back to the house. I suspect he may have been taking Xanax as well. I returned to the house early myself to lay down as I was completely drained, and found him passed out in the guest room where he had slid halfway off the bed and onto the floor. Prior to his consumption of half a bottle of whiskey, we talked extensively for the first time. We had met before, of course, but this was the only time we had reason to talk at length.

“I think he was tired of being responsible.  All his life, he had been the responsible one in his family.  He sent me that weird text a couple of weeks before he died.”

“He was supposed to go to my funeral. That was what I always imagined.”

“I should not be here. I should have died that night.”

“If you want to do something, do it. Whether that’s writing, making jewelry again, do it.”

“Instead of finding ten reasons not to do something, you should find ten reasons to do something.”

“You worry too much. You should worry less. I should probably worry more.”

The Other Best Friend, who takes photos of hot women for a living, figured me out in about two seconds and called me out. Impressive. He survived a ruptured aorta in a DUI car accident where he was the passenger.  It was a number of years ago now; I remember when it occurred and his survival was a question mark at the time. The more we talked, the more I recognized shades of survivor guilt and PTSD. Every time he stepped into my car, he did not want to put on the seat belt. He was wearing it when he was in the accident and it caused his ruptured aorta. Each time, “This is what nearly killed me!” I felt guilty pushing him to put it on anyway. When he was my passenger I drove very carefully, like he was bad luck.

Melinda did not like it when I drove him two blocks to the market and said that us together, “makes me very nervous.” I thought that perhaps she thinks he’s bad luck too, or, that the cancer survivor and the man who cheated death are just asking for trouble by sharing force fields. But she later told me he may have caused the accident himself by grabbing the steering wheel. That’s what the driver said happened. This exact thought crossed my mind at the time, but I wrote it off as my catastrophizing the situation. Clearly my instinct that he might be someone who would do something like that was accurate.

When I told him I’d had cancer, he didn’t say anything. He stared at me from across the dining room table.

“You had cancer?” he asked, as if he were checking to make sure he heard that correctly. I told him the abridged version of the story; I left out my own trauma and of course, Dr. Overinvolved. I mentioned that Melinda took me to my surgery; she was also the first person I called after I found out. He asked me multiple times if I was okay now, how many years it had been.  I skipped the vagaries of the tumor marker situation and told him that I am okay.  I believed it when I said it.  He asked me if it made me want to seize the day, to do everything, and of course it did not. It made me afraid of everything instead.

Being reckless, as he is, is not about “doing everything.” I need to find ten reasons to do something instead of ten reasons not to, but not because I have the same motivation. The Other Best Friend, because of his behavior, has more reason to think “this day might be my last” than I do, as did Melinda’s husband, who had ridden his bike home drunk before. I do not say that lightly, believe me. My takeaway from this conversation is that he is right; I should worry less.

 

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Neighborhood Flora & Fauna

My childhood friend Chrissy had a tall tree in her front yard that used to drop spiky pom-pom looking thingamabobs and we would throw them at each other. Chrissy could climb to the upper reaches of the tree where the branches turned to twigs. I only dared to hang off the strongest low branch like recess on the monkey bars, lifting my legs and bending at the knees so I could swing back and forth. Chrissy’s tree was home base when we played softball and was where we would hide our faces when counting back in a game of hide and seek.  Chrissy’s tree lived in front of a house filled with actors in a play, pretending to be in love, pretending to love women, pretending to be happy.

The tree in front of my house, two doors down, was a magnolia. It provided much-needed shade during the scorching valley summers. My mom used to put my Strawberry Shortcake plastic pool in the front yard and fill it with cool water from the pale green gardening hose.  It was pink, shaped like a strawberry and had a slide at the top where the stem would be. That pool felt huge to seven year old me as we splashed about underneath the magnolia as it lazily dropped its fuzzy yellow leaves. Somewhere there’s a photo of Melinda, one house down, and I standing next to the pool in our swim suits; mine was trendy 80s bright yellow with large numbers on it while Melinda’s was blue and white striped, halter style. She was still a natural blonde in those days.

Reluctantly, my mother recently had to cut down the magnolia. It was dead and leaning precariously towards the house. Chrissy’s spiky pom-pom tree was cut down years ago and at least five families have inhabitated those three bedrooms and two baths since her departure to husband #1.

Melinda’s yard never had a tree, but bushes. It was a far more honest home, a divorced mom with her two girls. Occasionally their dad roared up in a red Corvette, picking them and dropping them off, until the law told him he was done. They soon fled for newer, brighter opportunities further north, and the home then featured a rotating cast of owners who ripped out the bushes. They harbored spiders, you know.

Today, Melinda is a new widow and a grown-up orphan. Her mom dead because of metastatic cancer; her dad out of the picture due to cancer of the heart; her husband dust because of too many drinks at the wrong time. We often journey back to the neighborhood and tell stories of dancing in her front yard and hiding in those bushes, and even, throwing those little spiky pom-pom things at each other and the neighborhood bully. Our own annihilation will happen someday, but until then, we have our memories.

In response to  Daily Prompt: Tree

Where is My Joy?

In the wake of this tragedy, I am seeing the world again through a different pair of eyes. This time, I am determined to keep this pair. I have been in a similar place before and failed to convert the new views into a way of living that made me feel fulfilled and joyous. Instead I dug myself further into the administrator life (I’m still wearing my boss lady suit as I type this, sans shoes) and pushed everything else out and away. I am talking about such vital joy fertilizers as love, friendship, creativity through art, and a closeness with the world. I know I owe some of that to PTSD, some of it to secrets I chose to keep, abuses I endured, physical exhaustion, excessive focus on my weight/exercise, and a low level depression that was not helped by poor therapists and bad medical care.

So, new eyes. What are you bringing into focus this time around?

The need for artistic expression with a medium I can mold with my hands. I used to make necklaces. I was good at it; many I still wear today and they regularly receive compliments. I felt frustrated with my limited design options and wanted to learn how to weld and design in metal.  I never did it. I am in close proximity to a number of one-day seminars and a well-regarded community college program.

The time is now.

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Photo taken by me. Joshua Tree, CA 8/15/2015

Speaking of art, there is a riveting and disturbing art show happening at an abandoned hospital. The space was left untouched and is part of the show itself. It utilizes the operating rooms and the recovery room- two spaces that represent my PTSD- and I am going to go this weekend. I want to test myself. I plan to come back and write about it in this space.

I have not forgotten about the advocacy work I know I need to do. I am trying to withdraw from my fall advocacy class right now. It is bioethics and I am in no place mentally to debate moral relativity over the internet. I will pick it up again, not to worry. In the meantime, the Thyroid Cancer Survivor’s Conference is local this year. I was not going to attend as thyroid cancer has finally stopped being my every third thought. Then the program was released and I see a lot of opportunities for me to learn more about advocacy, for myself and for others, as well as a number of spaces where I can share my experiences with people who might need them.

As for the administrator life, it is what I do, not who I am.

Blogging gurus and personal development coaches would call this “designing your life.” I’m going to call it “waking up.” Let’s hope I do not fall back asleep.

A Death

When something terrible happens, something that surpasses my understanding of the world, I want to run to Dr. Overinvolved. I want to cry in his arms. I want him to touch me in all the ways I am not supposed to want him to touch me. He is darkness and death and infinity and trauma and every unanswered question I have about why terrible things happen. Why, and for what purpose?

***

“He was 41 for a month and three days.”

“I am not supposed to be looking for a place to bury my husband.”

“He’s been rejected from the body donation program because there’s too much trauma.”

“The Sheriff who knocked on my door at 4am was named Officer Grimm.”

“I can’t put him in the ground. He hates confined spaces.”

And so, it has been eight days, 15 hours, and 30 minutes since my best friend’s husband died in a terrible accident. I stayed with her the first two days. I gave everything I had physically and emotionally. I cleaned, sprinted down the street after wayward dogs, berated teenagers for smoking weed and drinking in full view of the neighbors, cleaned, cooked, shopped, cried, hugged, and opened her front door to a multitude of intimidating and articulate biker dudes in tears.

“I’ve done some bad things in my life, but I have been a good person overall.  I don’t understand why this happened.”

I said, “It’s not you. I know we like to think that if we are good people and try to treat people how we would like to be treated, things will be okay. But the world is chaotic; things happen that are far beyond our control and it’s so scary to realize that. You ARE a good, kind, loving person.”

She is.  She was the first person I called after I found out I had cancer. She drove me to my thyroidectomy. And so much more.  When you are kids in the neighborhood playing hide and seek, watching videos on MTV, and talking about the boys you have a crush on, you never imagine that 25 years later you will be holding that same friend as she screams in anguish over the loss of her husband.

On the two hour drive to her home, I stopped to get coffee. On my way out, a retirement-age woman handed me a flyer. It depicted Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and said, “When will the suffering end?”  We are not religious people. I nodded politely.

We go gingerly into day nine, with the date for his celebration of life set and his ashes cooling. We have photos, memories, and personal quirks to look back on and smile, and even amongst all those remembrances, it still doesn’t seem quite real.

The Purpose

The hospital where I was originally treated reached out to me recently on Twitter after I posted an acerbic comment about their upcoming partnership with a nationally known hospital. They asked me to contact them via DM to discuss why I have a negative view of their institution. This is laughable. For real, I am laughing to myself right now. Why do I have a negative view of your institution? Oh, let me count the ways!

I have chosen not to respond thus far out of fear of identifying myself. The details are in the risk management files and the physician who managed it all those years ago still manages it. We even spoke personally. If anyone cared all that much, and I don’t know that they would, it would snowball from there all the way downhill to Dr. Overinvolved. That’s my overarching concern. Him. I don’t want him to know how deeply he affected me.

However, I do think of myself as an advocate to some extent. Coming from that perspective, I should respond. I think I would skip the details and simply say that I was psychologically injured by medical mistakes and that the hospital and physicians deployed the “deny and defend” method of coping with incidents instead of engaging in open dialogue. The end.

Beneficence

On days when I am burnt out on the gym and it is too hot for me to hike in the mountains, I walk along the beach near my apartment. Sunday was one such day. As I strode down Main Street to the walking path, down the Strand and back, my mine wandered from work, to foregoing graduate school, to whether I should move again or not, to cancer, to Dr. Overinvolved, what it would be like to not be alone, and other mundane topics.

On my way back home, the waves crashing nearby, I found myself replaying the day I had radiation treatment. It’s been on my mind lately as it became a discussion topic in a health advocacy class I recently took about crisis, communication, and informed consent. I meant to tell a different story that day, but as I started writing, something occurred to me. Dr. Overinvolved never provided an opinion about whether I should have radiation or not. He said he could go either way and it was up to me. I was anxiety-ridden and traumatized, so I was most interested in reducing my long-term risk. Of course I pursued it! My tumor marker was a little jumpy, just as it is now, so I said yes, let’s do it. I knew the risks and I had read all the research. But he never said, “You should have this.” or “You should not have this.”

So what was he being paid for, exactly?

In one of the many books I have read about professional boundaries, one of the precursors of boundary violations is a professional who is uncomfortable with his/her power and authority. The professional is either too distant by denying the importance of the professional relationship or tries to be less in charge by denying his own power and authority (equalizing the relationship). Both are for the comfort level of the professional, not for the good of the client and both destroys boundaries that protects clients like me.

On this day, he and I walked out of the exam room together and out into the crowded lobby to take the elevator down to the basement where he would give me the radiation pill. We were out of context and he felt hugely present to me. I could feel him next to me as we stood in the elevator, even though we weren’t touching at all and I felt safe, protected, bolstered, and strong. We arrived at basement level and he pointed at the chair I was to sit in. As I scurried over, he knocked on a door and a man came out of a little room. He was the radiation tech. He confirmed my identity and what dose I was to receive, then told us to wait. Dr. Overinvolved sat in the chair next to me and pretended to read my file, glasses on his nose. I remember glancing over and thinking, “I hope that’s stimulating reading material.” The tech reappeared with a clipboard and a form that asked questions about pregnancy and breast feeding. Dr. Overinvolved sprang into action.

“Why does she have to fill that out?” asked Dr. Overinvolved

“All women of childbearing age have to fill it out,” replied the tech.

“It’s unnecessary,” said Dr. Overinvolved, becoming clearly agitated.

“She has to,” replied the tech.

“Her pregnancy test was negative, you know!” yelled Dr. Overinvolved.

“She has to fill it out!” And with that, the tech went back into his little room, slamming the door behind him. I sat there, bewildered, clipboard in hand and said quietly, “Ooookay, guess I better…fill…this…out.” It took five seconds for me to check off every single “no” box on the form. He didn’t say anything.

That’s not weird at all. Nope. Not one bit.

We finally went into the little room with the tech where he handed me a cup with a dust-filled capsule in it. I swallowed it. We all stood there for a few minutes to make sure I didn’t throw it up, then we got in the elevator. When we arrived at the first floor and the door opened, he said something about when I would have a scan and that someone would call me. I was walking away from him with my back turned as he spoke, since I was going to be emitting gamma rays very shortly. I looked back over my shoulder at him and smiled to let him know I heard him. He was walking backwards very slowly, watching me walk away, and his face just lit up with the brightest, most sincere smile I had ever seen from him. I thought to myself, “Wow.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last time I would see him.

I felt that everything was finally finished. That was one of my reasons for choosing radiation. It was common for all thyroid cancer patients to have radiation and since I did not, I felt that my treatment was incomplete somehow, that the possibility of something lurking was strong. A lot of my fears that were at play when I chose radiation came true anyway. My tumor marker never went away and it is not stable, making my follow up difficult, which means I have worried about something lurking, though not so much since the second opinion.

As for him, I find it very hard to believe he has acted like this before and it has gone unnoticed. This wasn’t the first time I witnessed him yell at the staff, either. Once he yelled at a nurse for giving him the wrong file and he used patient names in front of me too, like he was giving me a glimpse behind the curtain. At some level I must have given him some relief from the stress and responsibility of his job, or he saw me as someone who could do that for him. I always made a point to tell him that he helped me because I don’t think many of his patients ever got better. But me, I am the former fat girl cancer survivor success story! I was on track to become one of his diabetes patients and instead, I became once of his cancer patients and lost nearly 100 pounds, all at once, and while doing that, I taught myself all of the terminology and standard treatment protocol for my disease. He once said to me, “You know more about this than any of my other thyroid cancer patients!” He sounded impressed and I beamed at him.

As for me, I know that I am “guilty” of trying to equalize the relationship by doing this as well as care taking him to some extent. I had spent a lifetime playing up to authority figures and ministering to their needs in order to garner their approval. I was nobody’s daughter, just a lens that others used to see their own reflection. I was abused, not valued, and I internalized all of it.  If I were just “good” enough, maybe I could get that approval and treatment I deserved.  I attached to him like a barnacle because he validated me, he saw me and I am ashamed of that, of the thrill it gave me.

When I presented a portion of this scenario to my class (me taking the full responsibility for choosing radiation or not), they responded by saying I did not give informed consent and that he was trying to further his own agenda at the expense of my medical care. The word “neglect” was used more than once, a word I would never have imagined using, yet it fits. I can chalk it up to another instance when “the only good one involved in my care” did not demonstrate beneficence. My ambivalence persists.

The Light in the Dark

 

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I don’t remember when I first learned the words “transference” and “counter-transference.” What I do remember is that my therapist did not want to discuss those words or their definitions, and she definitely did not want to discuss my relationship with Dr. Overinvolved in those terms. I wanted to.  I liked those terms because they offered such a convenient and scientific way to explain it, though they offered no way to overcome it.

When he first began paying attention to me, I felt so special and so alive (even as I repeatedly pushed his penchant for frotturism out of mind). Everything was magnified, I felt like I saw all of the colors in the world for the first time, in bright, dazzling detail. I thought, is this what it feels like when it’s real? When someone feels sincere emotions towards you and expresses them?  I used to say he had an open heart and that he wasn’t afraid of feeling. I have been called stoic, bullet proof, indestructible, harsh, and probably, without my knowing, “heinous bitch.”  I saw Dr. Overinvolved as enlightened compared to me, not emotionally stunted or fearful like me.  This was my chance to learn to not be afraid anymore.

When I told him what happened to me, I told him in writing and I purposely bled (hypothetically) all over the pages of that letter. I was trying not to be afraid anymore. The story was too raw to tell completely in person, though I had tried. He told me he had PTSD as well. That he had terrible nightmares and that he consoled himself after waking from these terrible nightmares by thinking, “Thank goodness that was just a dream.”  I remember looking up at him and it was the first time he ever really appeared human to me. It was the expression on his face; he had softened considerably. He wanted me to be okay, he needed me to be okay.

When he received my letter he called me, overexcited and wound up, saying, “I wish I had been there” and I nearly fell out of my chair. Finally. Someone wanted to save me.

There were so many nights, back when I still had my own horrific nightmares, when I would be awake at 3am, staring west into the night sky, elbows on the window sill,  thinking of him and wondering if he was up as well.

This is what I think of when I think of him fondly; all of this is what I was thinking of when Dr. Second Opinion said he knew him and that he was a good guy and I agreed. This is what likely kept my PTSD from being worse than it is.

I thought he hung the moon.

But to believe that, I had to push the sexually overt and covert aspects of his behavior out of mind, the things that he said that were too sexual, the physical examination where he was too close to me and too languid and sensual with his touch. These incursions I enjoyed while simultaneously knowing they were in direct conflict with his proscribed role in my life. That is not an easy place to be as he was still the authority figure; still the one with all the power.

Dr. Overinvolved brought so much light, but so much darkness as well. Far from being an Alaska summer or winter, where one or the other wins out, it was more like autumn, the day filled with equal parts of both. I accept it, but I cannot stop digging for an explanation in the pile of crispy, golden fallen leaves that litters his suburban lawn.