“So what I think your challenge is, and I’m going out on a limb when I say this, but I might just be right, is that you have a whole novel in your head, and you’re having all this anxiety that you just don’t have time to write it. You look at the number of hours in a day, and you say, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t find the time.’ And it’s driving you nuts. You’re thinking ‘but I have so much to say, and I can’t find the time to say it’, and you’re worrying that it will go away, that it will never get said. But I can assure you, you will find the time. You will be able to write it. But now, when you’re taking 5 classes and you’re working and doing a ton of extra stuff, it just can’t happen, and that’s ok. It will get done.”
–me, in Creative Writing class, today
Today I found myself offering this sage advice to a student who was struggling with the fact that he was 3000 words into a 2000-3000 words short story assignment, only finished with the “opening” of his epic tale. I wasn’t sure if I had him pegged right, but the look of recognition on his face said it all: I had guessed correctly. He nodded sheepishly, and he looked a bit relieved, that I had understood him, but also, near to tears.
As I spoke those words, I knew that I knew them only because the struggle is real, and it is my own, as well. But it’s not just about writing a novel. It’s about everything.
My 50th birthday was the end of January this year, and the evening prior, I had finally reached my limit of pain tolerance, having had 3 weeks of sinus problems, so I told myself, ‘don’t ruin your own birthday. Go to the doctor and get an antibiotic and then you can enjoy your family visiting.’ So I did.
I had no sign of an infection in nose or ears, but the doctor gave me a round of antibiotics and even a steroid, because he could tell how bad the inflammation in my face was. I’d never jumped back off the table when someone pressed my cheeks before. I guess I had a lurking sinus infection. I took the prescription and gladly began taking the meds.
Only nothing happened.
I never got better.
In fact, I got worse.
A few days later, my family’s visit was lovely in some ways but also a constant source of anxiety for me, because I simply could not ignore how badly I felt, I went to train in reiki I. Now it must be said, that when I have to go outside of my comfort zone, and meet new people, I get very nervous, though you wouldn’t see it much on the outside. I’m a masker of emotions. I have been my entire life. I can’t stop it. I try. I can’t. It takes a lot for them to come out on the outside. If they do, you know that they are very strong. Mostly I’m just the Queen of the Resting Bitch Face. It’s not because I’m bitchy. It’s because I’m masking. At any rate, I was nervous to meet new people, but I pushed through and went. I realized quickly that I could avoid that dreaded “talking to people I don’t know” by simply studying my materials in my class book during breaks, which I did. But I did at least participate a few times.
The only problem, then, was the pain. By this morning, I had unrelenting head, neck, and shoulder pain, as well as this ringing in my left ear. Here I was in the presence of a skilled shaman and in a roomful of very friendly, accepting women, and I could not relax, because of the pain. I was so worried that I was reacting to the meds.
I left the training and thought, “I must be different from everyone else. I would like to continue with reiki II, but I simply CANNOT. I am in so much pain. My ear is ringing so badly. My head hurts so much. I can’t be a healer. I can’t help anyone. Because I can’t even take care of myself. This is the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.”
I drove home and thought, “the threat of meeting new people is gone. It will get better.”
Only it didn’t.
I thought, “you can stop taking those meds. Maybe they are causing it.”
They weren’t. Nothing went away.
So on I continued, working and trying to meditate it all away. I began to go to work and come home and do nothing else. I couldn’t. It was too hard. Everything was too difficult. I was lucky if I could just get the cats fed, litter and garbage out, and keep the house minimally straightened up and papers graded. If I felt up to it, I knitted. But otherwise, I mostly tried to sleep it away. I kept saying, “when I wake up, it will all be gone. I’ll be back to how I was in the fall. I didn’t have these symptoms then.”
Only I woke up and it was all still there.
It turned out that the only time I get relief from symptoms is when I’m asleep, but a new conundrum presented itself: I started to wake up choking, having aspirated fluid into my lungs. One night I began to wheeze and this awful crackling sound would happen when I exhaled. What in the 7 hells was this?
It turned out that if I stopped consuming alcohol and I made sure not to eat for about 5 hours before I laid down, I could avoid all of that mess. So I did all of that. Scratch ever “unwinding” with a drink or three. I couldn’t do it anymore without planning ahead that I’d be awake for enough hours before crashing.
Normal people would probably go to the doctor immediately, but my mind tied me completely in knots over that. I thought, ‘it costs too much, and they won’t help me anyway. My symptoms are so diverse. They make no sense. It could be a million different things.’ So I didn’t go. For weeks I did nothing but try to manage. Meditate. Do reiki on myself. Journal. OH MY GOD I wrote more than ever. I understand that the mind can have extreme impacts on the body, making one unwell with the mere power of thought. I have been a person who manifests physical symptoms when I’m emotionally triggered or stressed for my entire life, so obviously, that’s what had to be going on. If I could just lower my stress, impose some rules on myself about food or drink or sleep, use the neti pot enough, drink more water, take more vitamins or herbs, I could figure this out and get better.
Except nothing was working.
Meanwhile, I started to notice my heart palpitations. Should I feel like my chest or upper back has a bird living inside of it? Probably not. Well, it doesn’t hurt. So it can’t be a heart issue.
Or can it? My brother had open heart surgery last year. My grandpa passed after a stress test. My parents were both on blood pressure meds. Could it be my heart? Nah. Not me.
Then one day talking to my mom, I said I’m just such a mess. I can’t get better but I don’t know what’s wrong. I feel like a crazy person. I feel like my anxiety, which before was only “situation-specific”, is now about 80% of the time. I suddenly have a full-fledged anxiety disorder? But my head is stuffed up and my ears ring? And my heart is beating out of my chest? What?
So she and I talked and I decided to go to the ER. I had too many symptoms similar to my brother to wait any longer.
The next day I did, and I was diagnosed with heart palpitations, hypertension, and premature ventricular contractions (which are benign, but mine happen about every 5th beat, which is a lot of extra beats). I described the signs of a particular type of brain tumor, so they ran a CT scan. Nope. Nothing. I breathed a sigh of relief about that, anyway, but I left the hospital with a beta blocker and finally felt better. They knew what was wrong. I was going to feel better.
Over the next week, I adjusted to the bp med, and my galloping heart and that “thud” I felt every time my heart threw the extra beat quieted. It’s still happening, but I have to be very still and quiet to notice it, most of the time. But as for everything else? The ear ringing, the headaches, the neck pain, the anxiety, the depression, the feeling like I have to quit my job because it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing, and by the way why have I not ever noticed how completely debilitating it is to have students argue with me before, that all stayed.
In the weeks following the ER, I have had to wait (like everyone else, I’m sure) for doctor appointments, because apparently the ER is the only place in our broken healthcare system where there are available doctors and specialists. In the world outside the ER, it takes FOREVER to be seen. Waiting a month or more to see a doctor when you know you have “something” wrong but no idea what it is feels like forever and a day, especially if you are an anxiety sufferer.
I’ve always had health anxiety. It’s the one thing about me that is extremely debilitating. I get nearly frantic (again—not on the outside that you’d see much, but on the inside) waiting for appointments. I had a full-fledged panic attack last year when a doctor gravely told me “I don’t think we’ll find anything, but we need to get you a test” last year, and I took first available appointment and it was still 48 hours away. Yep. Sat in the parking lot of the doctor’s office and I panicked so badly that I couldn’t drive for an hour till I calmed down. Over only 48 hours’ wait.
So. One can imagine what 6 weeks and then some, till I get the ECG and see a cardiologist, has done to me. I’m a wreck (only you won’t see it on the outside because I keep it together in public.)
But that’s not all of it. There’s also menopause. (see how long it took me to get to the point? That’s menopause for you. I started to write this about that and got sidetracked).
I have GOT to be in it. Having had a hysterectomy 5 years ago, I guess you could say it’s hard to “know” for sure, although I just completed a saliva hormone profile yesterday to mail off to get some data to check. (of course I left myself a reminder alarm on my phone to take the box with the vials to work to mail today and yet I still was 3 miles away from the house before I remembered the box, and I had to drive back and get it and be late for a meeting). I suppose I could say one of my greatest fears right now is that the test comes back and tells me I’m NOT in it, which will be utterly devastating, because I NEED AN EXPLANATION FOR WHY MY BODY FEELS LIKE IT IS NO LONGER MINE.
For that’s it, in a nutshell. My body doesn’t feel like my own. This is what I never heard, nor read, about menopause. Aside from all the hot flashes, which can happen twice an hour if I’m under stress, or the insomnia, or the headaches that never go away or respond to Tylenol or ibuprofen, aside from the skin that is losing its collagen, aside from the fact that I can’t drink much anymore without suffering mightily, there are the mood swings, the way I go from anxiety to depression and back around again, seemingly with no cause. I wake up and it’s there. I go teach a class and it goes fine, but I want to quit. I drive home and it should feel like relief, but there is just this knowledge that my safest space, my home, is ALSO a place where I’ve mentally felt despair that I cannot make go away.
Years ago, during my divorce, I felt despair, anguish, grief, depression, and anxiety. I thought that was the worst I could ever feel in this life. I was wrong.
It’s one thing to feel those emotions when there is a cause. A real cause. Losing a person instrumental to your life, for whatever reason, can generate all of those terrible feelings. But I think that there is some sense a person might have of control in that situation. You can choose how you respond to loss, after some point. You can distract yourself. You can do like I did—get yourself so involved in book projects that you see your loss as a gain, a path that is opening towards something different. But none of that works now. I was younger then, I tell myself. My body didn’t feel terrible then, only my mind. Now, it’s both. It’s insurmountable, fighting back both demons alone.
Now, the cause is what, hormones? Fluctuating hormones? How am I supposed to beat that? HRT? What, so I can put this off more years and face it later? So I can end up with side effects (since I’m the Queen of Getting Side Effects to Pharmaceuticals). So I take supplements of all types, and I eat less and less, and I still gain 10 pounds in 2 months. (thankfully it was no more than that, but this is my new weight now, and my clothes are tight, and I feel more unattractive than I’ve ever felt in my entire life, and that includes puberty).
It never bothered me much over the past 8 ½ years that I was single. I dated for about a year or so there (online dating, since I’ve never organically met a single, single man since I have been single myself) but soon realized that it was at turns demoralizing, creepy, upsetting, and anxiety-provoking. After I decided “no more, unless I meet someone the normal way you meet people—through friends, or by chance, and we’re friends first”, I still didn’t care that I was single. Even though the years kept going on, and I felt more like a bit of an outsider, more odd, for not ever dating, I didn’t care, because life was challenging, but it was mine.
Only now, it’s not. I share my life with a host of menopausal and other as-yet-unnamed-undiagnosed physical problems. I was talking to a friend today who is a few years younger who said, “It’s like my body doesn’t belong to me anymore. I have no control over it.” And I thought “well, she’s in the best shape of her life, does hot yoga, eats the ‘right’ foods, never drinks, and treats her body like a temple, and she’s in the same boat as you are.” This actually helped alleviate the pressure I was already putting on myself for not exercising and for being overweight since college, but it’s still not cool, because it means that I could actually try harder (as if I even had the energy or felt well enough to), and I still wouldn’t escape this nightmare.
The kicker is that it’s the first time in my long-term single life that I actually care that I’m single. Now, I think about how unfair it is that I’m alone (because suddenly I’m a Very Jealous Person of Others Who Have Mates Who Help Them Out—another emotion that isn’t normally “mine” to this degree). How maybe it would be easier if I didn’t come home to my ever-spiralling out of control ruminating thoughts about things like “I hope I don’t have some serious illness no one has diagnosed yet” or “I want a new career but I can’t afford to quit” and instead came home to someone who might take my mind off my despair. Only that’s a terrible reason to want a partner, quite honestly.
And yet any time I talk to people older than I am, our discussion ends up on our declining health. Friends, too, depending on age. It all comes back to how shitty we feel. What doctor appointments we have. How frustrated we are with how our minds feel relatively young, but our bodies are just giving up. My friend Jenna said, “it’s like the whole left side of my body just quit.” I said, “YES! MINE TOO!!!” So maybe there is something to having a partner. At least you can share your medical woes.
I think, to bring this long saga back to my opening anecdote, that this is why I told my student that he’s upset that he’s got a novel in him that he has no time to write. It’s because time is the other thing I can’t stop thinking about. I’ve got novels in me, too. I’ve got tons of stories in me. I’ve got a website to design after I’ve learned how to design a website. I’ve got hundreds or thousands of things to knit. And the books: I’ve got more books to read than can be counted. I want to understand quantum physics. I want to complete ALL the courses of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. I want to learn Greek. No, really. Why not? I want to meet someone who can erase the memory of an ultimately bad marriage. Or at least, meet a man who can be a close, trusted friend. I want to spend more time with family and friends. I want to live with a lot less fear and anxiety. I want to be better at reiki. I want to learn to be a shaman. I want to understand astronomy. I want to be able to have a garden of vegetables again. For goodness’ sakes, I want a giant walking labyrinth in my backyard. I want a grove of tall, tall pine trees all around it. I want to be the Mother of Even More Cats.
But when am I supposed to do all of this when all I can think about is “why is my ear ringing for 2 months now except for those two times when I got my stress level down to nothing and it disappeared for an entire week?”
So Jimmy, that young man of 21 or so in my class, and I, might not have much in common otherwise, and I doubt he’s in hormonal crisis as I am, but something is driving his feelings of entrapment, too.
Sometimes, we are trapped in worlds of our own making, like college, extracurriculars, and work, worlds that are to our benefit but which can still suck the very life out of us and make us feel like we’ve accomplished nothing despite all we’ve done, simply because we can’t do that one thing that we really YEARN to be doing, right now. Other times, we are trapped in worlds that we haven’t necessarily made, but our bodies, and time, have made for us, which also make us feel like giving up.
I am reminded of the movie Only Lovers Left Alive, when Adam is in the midst of an existential lament, and he says “I just feel like all the sand’s at the bottom of the hourglass or something.” Eve replies, “Time to turn it over then.”
And so I will turn that hourglass over again, tomorrow. Do I expect things to change? No. I do not. I’ve been turning that hourglass over for a couple of months now, and it hasn’t happened yet. But a person I respect said to me recently, “When I was in the worst place in my life, I would say to myself, ‘Things in my life are chaotic now, and I’m not as well off as I once was, but I am managing despite it’.”
I said, “Uh, is that supposed to help?”
She said, “What it means is that you can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. But you believe that there is one.”
You know, maybe I don’t believe yet that there is a light for me, but I was able to tell Jimmy today that there was one. I guess I must still be managing, then, if I could at least find the light for him.