A Dream Without Armor

I dreamt about you last night, standing behind the pharmacy counter and handing me my bottle of Levoxyl. But you don’t test my Thyroglobulin anymore, you said.  No, you don’t. You haven’t tested it in eight years and your test was wrong anyway, creating a false sense of relief, of safety.  You were too young in my dream, but your voice, your frame, your gut feeling of presence was all accurate.

I feel inspired to write you a letter, a real one on paper, with details of my travails and my woes, of how my greying hair finally makes me look the age I feel inside, about the grief I sit with everyday over what could have been and now what never will be. It is year ten, so a retrospective feels appropriate, yet I imagine you will be disappointed I didn’t make more of myself.  I could have, with someone like you, but it was all me and one person can only take themselves so far. Despite knowing that, I still believe I can do it all.

In your gaze, I always saw myself without armor. Now my own gaze only reflects my armor and my weapons. I have lost her again, I know, I can tell. Maybe you can help me get her back. The years will always be gone, of course, but the ones ahead would be so much better if I could be the girl without armor again, to feel that wonder, lightness and optimism, instead of being hard and grizzled, with all of that behind me. I believe it is lost forever. I cannot imagine ever feeling that way again.

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My #metoo

Yesterday’s statement from Eliza Dushku about being molested by her stunt coordinator when she was twelve really messed me up. Especially, “…my life was literally in his hands…whereas he was supposed to be my protector, he was my abuser…that over-the-top special attention he gave me… ”

What Dr. Overinvolved did to me was so lightweight but he still breached the trust, the boundaries,  he still assaulted me and then continued to groom me. I knew it, I saw it and that’s why I ran, while at the same time basking in the attention. Like the abused child I was, I was desperate for positive attention and support. I wasn’t getting it from my crappy family and my friends were all inept/scared.

My stomach hurts.

Everyday, especially since #metoo has taken the news cycle by storm, I expect physicians to start decorating the headlines with their indiscretions and abuses finally being known to all, and him in particular, because it never happens once. Each day, I think, “Is today the day?” But it isn’t because they literally have our lives in their hands; they have the real power, so much more than a Harvey Weinstein, a Matt Lauer.  When women can speak out about their abusive physicians and how their behavior wasn’t “bad enough” for the medical board to act on, then I know a true reckoning will be upon us.

I want to stand arm-in-arm with all of the others- strength in numbers. I cannot and will not stand on my own with name and face, then medical records and sexual history shortly to be known to all.  My PTSD history, and many other things, will be used against me.  My anonymous complaint is as far as I can take my activism alone; the deep ambivalence written into that complaint is a red flag to anyone who knows how sexual abuse victims act and how abusers ply their trade. But years on from that complaint, he still gets up in the morning and treats patients, some of them just like me- vulnerable young women with thyroid cancer who have no support system.

I know I have done all I can do to draw attention to Dr. Overinvolved’s abuse, so it is now up to someone else to pick up the whistle and blow on it as loud and as hard as possible until his name, and other physicians like him who have been getting away with this for far too long, are all over news headlines.

Finding My Limits

The worst years of my thyroid symptoms were when I was first diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease. I felt fantastic the day I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, probably the best I had ever felt physically, and that continued until  the period of hypothyroidism I experienced in 2014, a problem that happened because Levoxyl was recalled and my terrible UCLA endocrinologist refused to retest my TSH after putting me on Synthroid because it’s “all the same.” That genius was also testing my TgAb on a lab assay intended for those with a thyroid and it had a lower limit of 20 (!!!!!), so I appeared to be cancer free. Au contraire, mon ami!

But I digress.

I never fully recovered from that period of hypothyroidism. I have experienced severe fatigue, water retention/bloating, darkened moods, and digestive issues.

I recently started a new job. The commute is three times longer than the old one, and it is going to be a lot more pressure-filled. Today was the first challenging day I have had, being new, and I do not think I am up for this anymore. I don’t think I can do it. I am always tired. I have to get up early no matter how I time my workout (am or pm) and the workouts are not-negotiable. I have no patience and cannot tolerate the tedium of office culture. I just want to do something, check it off a list, and move on.

My career pre-dates my thyroid cancer diagnosis by a few years and was always meant to be a stop-gap measure, until I went back to school, having failed out of my graduate program from the ravages of Hashimoto’s Disease. Yet, here we are. My energy levels, both physical and emotional are low. There is no way to recharge them, as this routine is endless. On paper I look like an accomplished professional woman; there is no hint from my resume that I was ever sick. I make more than enough money, but I don’t care. It’s meaningless to me because I can’t buy what I really need, which is time, time to figure it all out, because I have never had that luxury.

As for my limits, they are in sight. I could fake it through a day of feeling rough at the last job if I needed to. I also had twice as much PTO at my disposal, and often used it when I felt I was experiencing a “bad thyroid day.”  That has been cut in half. I try to imagine tolerating even two years of living this way and I can’t imagine getting past next week.

My ambition, like my physical and emotional energy, seems to have reached its limit as well. Obtaining a graduate degree feels woefully impossible in this state, as it has felt for a long time now. I want to write “I don’t care about it anymore” but I still do, because it is something I want to do for me, not for a job, which has turned into a boulder that is in my way.  The job is the obstacle, and so my only ambition now is to not have one at all.

Donning the Fuchsia Smock

I had just returned from Europe, was severely jet lagged and running a fever. The scheduler at UCLA Radiology had been kind enough to find me a timeslot before I started a new job in four days. The consummate multi-tasker, I had also dropped off my aging car for work that morning, and navigated the north 405 in a large loaner vehicle. I parked it awkwardly on the top floor of the parking garage in Santa Monica, hoping no one would try to park next to me.

There was nowhere for me to sit. The waiting room contained six chairs, far fewer than your typical radiology suite. I stood in the corner and filled out the questionnaire, What age was your first period? Have any of your blood relatives had breast cancer? Do you have any symptoms?  I was eleven. My mother’s cousin. I can feel a hard lump in my left breast.

I was called back, and led into a changing room with lockers where I tied a fuchsia smock around my waist. I went into waiting room #2 and again, there was nowhere to sit. The room was filled to bursting with women of all ages, eyes mostly downcast, some carrying distressed expressions on their faces. One talked loudly on her cell phone, revealing that she had done this before and didn’t have health insurance. She let us all know she was waiting for biopsy results. I found this perplexing. In the breast cancer imaging suite you can sit and wait for biopsy results? What land is this?

There was a “serenity” fountain on the wall, made of two rectangular slabs of rock with water cascading down into a small rock pool below. I thought they looked like tombstones in the rain. I began to feel a ball of anger taking shape inside of me, and I fantasized about smashing that fucking serenity fountain with a hammer. Serenity this!  I wondered who the donor was that funded it, and if they had the opportunity to approve of the design.

Despite the waiting crowd, I was called into the mammography suite within ten minutes. The technician asked me where I felt the lump and placed what looked like a piece of scotch tape on the bottom of my left breast. I told her my primary care physician didn’t feel a lump, but that I had thyroid cancer in my 20s and had a pre-cancerous polyp removed from my colon four months prior. Essentially, I was there to perform my due diligence. She praised me for staying on top of my health, and I felt good about my efforts, a rare feeling.

After the mammogram, I was sent back to the waiting room where many of the same besmocked women waited. Because of my age, I was now waiting to have an ultrasound. I quickly gathered, based on comments to the nurse, that most of them were waiting for their turn to be biopsied. I looked around, taking everyone in, their fuchsia smocks topping yoga pants, a pencil skirt, jeans, sweatpants. Most carried expressions that said they expected to be led to slaughter. I also wondered whose money purchased the fuchsia smocks, Komen? They were heavily performative in their femininity, clownish, even. The gendering of the disease made me angrier. Bitches love pink, right? Nevermind men get breast cancer too. I once read that pink is used in hospitals and prisons because it makes patients and prisoners less aggressive. Perhaps that was the idea here all along.

Following the ultrasound, a pregnant radiologist came out to speak with me. Everything was clear, and I have a favorable type of breast tissue that makes it easier for breast cancer to be detected. I was relieved, and then confused, walking into the wrong changing room in my eagerness to shed the fuchsia smock. A calm, collected elderly woman told me the numbers on my locker key would lead me to the right changing room.  I quickly donned my civilian accoutrements and sped out of the breast imaging suite, grateful to be continuing my existence in the same familiar, colorless town in Cancerland.

Catch Up

My silence hasn’t been deliberate, but more the product of too much going on, too much to write about it, too much spinning through my head.

I still cannot believe Tom Petty is gone. That was my last post and his is a cosmic absence that I struggle to comprehend.

I left my job for a new one in health care, non-clinical, pediatrics.

I followed my band to Europe in between jobs, after I said no to everyone- old job wanted me to stay longer, new job wanted me to start sooner- and I had three weeks off.

My immune system swooned from the jet lag and lack of sleep and I have been sick twice, new fevers appearing ten days apart, and I am still not well. My throat is very painful, but it is a deep pain, low in my neck and it is worrying me at present. With the new job, I have no sick time and no vacation time, so it would be a grand time for a cancer recurrence. I took a flu shot in October, but the second sickness was influenza-esque, the first more like a bad cold.  I get sick like this perhaps every two or three years; twice in a month seems excessive. I am around a lot more people in a new environment and perhaps I was immune to everyone’s illnesses at my old workplace!

I underwent a mammogram two days after I came home from Europe, an experience that enraged and upset me in countless ways. It truly was “A Tale of Two Cancers,”  as I compared and contrasted the experiences in my mind. That will be a future post. It all turned out fine, there was nothing to see and now I have a baseline. No regrets about it at all.

Now with the new health care job, I feel like I am hiding in plain sight. No one knows my history and my scar is essentially invisible to strangers. I have a hard time going into the hospital and steel myself each time, yet I can think of no better way to help make the world better, no more worthy cause then helping these children get the healthcare they need. I truly think that’s our purpose; or at the very least, my purpose; in the world- to make it a better place.

Tom Petty Died & I Can’t Stop Crying

I waited. I knew I needed to go to bed. As dusk faded into night, my living room lamp turned itself off at the scheduled time. Still, I sat. I had to hold vigil for Tom and this was the only way I could do it: waiting for the official news that I knew was unavoidable.  It hit the wires at 9:10pm.

Tom Petty Dies at 66.

Tom Petty Dead.

Tom Petty 1950-2017.

I burst into tears, and cued up “Southern Accents,” which I played five times in a row while I sobbed loudly. I already sobbed for nearly an hour when he was first reported to be brain dead. I knew what that meant. I sat in my office, nauseous. This one was going to hurt. A lot.

Highway Companion was one of my cancer albums. It’s like taking a road trip to the past while simultaneously getting up off the floor, brushing the dust off, and preparing to carry on with it all. It crystallized the trauma I had suffered, the joy and the magic I felt with Dr. Overinvolved, and the sense that maybe I was already on the shorter side of my lifeline. I was flirting with time, as one of the songs from the album says, a song that has such a joy to it that I often spun around across the linoleum floor of my kitchen during the guitar solo.  Somehow, nothing was all that different. I had crossed the street, that’s all, with my little neck scar slathered in scar lightener and sun block. It made me think, it made me look to the future with a bit of optimism, it stoked my affection for Tom and his talent for writing songs that translate to so many different life situations.

Tom is now gone. He wasn’t an immortal balladeer who would always be here. He did the thing human beings have been doing for awhile now: living then dying. And so, I cry in the car at red lights, leaving Trader Joe’s, when I see more “Tom Petty Dead” headlines, when I read about all of his plans in his last interview, at the gym, when I listen to “The Golden Rose.” I keep checking the headlines as if they will morph into “Tom Petty Alive.” They won’t. Tom Petty will now always be dead.

Most of all, I am crying for me. I am so scared of my mortality, of it all ending, of missing something.  How could death happen to such a good guy like Tom, anyway? That’s the scariest part of it all: it doesn’t matter.

Oh Tom, thank you for being one of my musical cancer co-pilots and for being so damn relatable that I felt like it was all written for me.

Home.

I went home last weekend to be with Melinda for the first anniversary of her husband’s death. Those 24 hours turned out to be about so much more than that.

Where I thought there would be tears, there was alcohol. As I lay in Melinda’s former marriage bed, now exiled to the guest room, I listen to her repeatedly throwing up. Later, she tells me she passed out on the bathroom floor. I wondered why the bathroom fan ran for so long. I am stone cold sober.

Meanwhile, her sister in law is audibly moaning in the living room, as she is drunkenly hooking up with a man who claims to have been a friend of her brother’s. I doubt the veracity of his story as any man who really was friends with her brother would not be having sex with her right now. The next morning, she will say she has no recollection of being with him. I recognize the extremely problematic nature of this entire situation, seeing as she was clearly blitzed at the bar and not able to consent. I do not say anything, as she isn’t enlightened about these matters to the extent I am and I don’t believe it’s my place to say anything now.

It’s 7:30am and I am the only one up. I get dressed and get in my car, driving to the nearest Starbucks. I want to return to Los Angeles right now. But Melinda is actually sleeping, and I don’t want to wake her, nor leave without saying good-bye. I am in Carlsbad. It’s cookie cutter gross, the rolling coastal hills packed to the gills with stucco tract housing that surely costs seven figures. My skin crawls. I feel claustrophobic. I take my time returning to the apartment. I decide to leave at 10am if Melinda is awake. She is, but then I feel guilty just running off so we hang out in her room and talk.  I wait until 10:45am, then I make my move.

“Traffic will get even worse if I wait much longer,” I say.  Pulling the traffic card always works when you are an Angeleno. She doesn’t resist. Her sister-in-law is throwing up in the bathroom while we talk. Melinda herself is hungover, her eyes drooping.  She walks me out, we embrace and I cannot get out of there fast enough.

“I was a rebellious asshole! And you were always so nice! I’m sorry I was so mean.” I am in the bar with Tracy, someone I have known since middle school. She bullied me. Now she is a dissatisfied mother of three, holding her beer in one hand while yelling at me about her alcoholic mother and how mean she was Back in the Day. I’m nodding. I’m not really enjoying her mea culpa; this is not something I think about all that much anymore.  What I am thinking about it is a night out in Hillcrest over ten years ago, where I am the designated driver and at the end of the night, my Honda is filled with people from my high school graduating class.

Nothing has changed. It’s like any other night out with Melinda when I lived there. We are older and that’s about it. It’s 12:30am. If my bag were in my car, I would drive the 90 minutes home right now.

Earlier…

“Come home! Come home you cunt!” Jena is yelling at me, her hands on my shoulders. “We’re your family and we’re here! I know you aren’t happy!” She’s not wrong, but I have no desire to go back to the future. That’s been made clear.

Two days later, I am sitting in traffic on the north 110 on my way to a job interview at an academic medical center. I look on the horizon and I see my San Gabriel Mountains, the downtown LA skyline, the faint outline of the Hollywood sign. I relax. I am home.