“You need to reduce your stress,” my doctor said.
She said this at the tail end of a paragraph about all the things I wasn’t supposed to do in the aftermath of my procedure. I was not supposed to exercise, not even yoga. I was not supposed to soak in a hot bath. I was not supposed to masturbate. I certainly wasn’t supposed to smoke. I needed to avoid sugar and alcohol.
That essentially sums up my list of stress-reducing activities.
There is a point when stress shifts from being frustrating or inconvenient and becomes a genuine health risk. Considering the things on my proverbial plate, it’s frankly a shock that point hasn’t arrived sooner, but it’s here now. In the past nine months, I have had seven things cut off of my body that were cancerous or pre-cancerous. For the first time in thirteen years, I heard my doctor wondering aloud if I might have a brain tumor. It is significantly less funny these days.
“We’ll run the labs a few more times to be sure. In the meantime, you need to reduce your stress.”
Without eating chocolates or drinking or smoking or fucking or soaking in the tub or doing yoga. Reduce your stress.
“How is your husband doing?” she asked, ignoring these other pressing concerns.
“He’s doing well…” I fought the urge to add but but but but but but but because ‘doing well’ isn’t enough.
“That’s great!” she said, which is what everyone says. Because it is great that he’s doing well. But he’s not better. It is still a daily struggle, and that struggle is wearing us down.
I must have shown some of this on my face because she kept talking. “Try mindfulness. Coloring books. Drink some tea.”
My PTSD is running on overdrive and it’s all I can do to ground myself to this awful, shitty, terrifying moment instead of a worse one from the past, and she wants me to occupy this moment more fully? When I close my eyes I hear a man whispering that I’m broken and nobody will ever love me, that I deserve whatever he’s about to do. I look over my shoulder too frequently when I drive. When I’m home, I touch the table, I look out the window, and focus on the colors of the trees. Then I troubleshoot a Zoom meeting for virtual school or clean up whatever cup of water the cat has knocked over. I put away the laundry. I start the slow cooker.
“I do have some coloring books,” I said. What I’ve been coloring are apocalypse scenarios. Tidal waves hitting cities. Plagues of locusts. Toxic waste sites producing massive two-headed bears. Nuclear devastation. I’ve been coloring in between hours of desperately searching for a job that will provide my medically complex family with insurance when our COBRA runs out and the ACA disappears in the aftermath of a Trump victory. The idea of the world ending instead of all of these burdens landing on me is kind of comforting.
I don’t tell her I consume a half-gallon of hot tea each day, by any conservative estimate, plus the cold dregs leftover from every cup.
“Take long showers,” she said. “Let somebody else watch the kids. Do you like to cook?”
Actually, I love to cook. And I am letting* other people watch the kids. But three weeks ago it took me three hours to shower because I was interrupted in a state of undress by eight different people, including both physical and occupational therapists and one daughter carrying her Zoom classroom with her. I want to tell my doctor I’m trying, I’m trying so fucking hard, but there’s only one of me and there are twelve crises exploding across my life right now, today, what feels like always.
I want to tell her after my determination to buy nothing more from Amazon broke, I bought fire extinguishers on Prime Day. Two of our recent routine trips to the hospital involved unexpected flames leaping from allegedly safe environments, so it seemed prudent.
I want to tell her my car failed its emissions test. That there are electrical problems at the house. That my garage is loaded with medical gear I don’t know if we need and I can’t get rid of. That I need to replace my living room furniture so Mike can occupy that space. That my last in-person social call was a friend’s funeral in February. That I fantasize about crying sometimes, but I never do. That I dream about snaking the drains and being scolded for doing it wrong. That I dream about Megan Markle being disappointed in me as she steps into a limousine. That I dream about forgetting to use the vegetables in the fridge until they rot, and having to carry bag after bag of rancid trash to the curb. These aren’t nightmares, per se. They feel so mundane I rarely remark their strangeness until I step into the bathroom and there are no mountains of fetid hair beside the recognize, and I remember I have no mutual friend who apologized to the Duchess for making such a foolhardy introduction, and there are probably still a few days before the zucchini is beyond saving.
I want to tell her I’m not ready to be middle-aged and have normal, middle-aged health worries. That somebody needs to be healthy enough to take care of everybody else, that somebody needs to be young and energetic enough to manage the chaos. That somebody needs to be okay despite all the other circumstances. I know I’m not young at 36**, but I’m still young enough that if a sudden, stress-induced cancer steals me away from my family, people will talk about how young I was.
Instead I guffawed. It was an unhinged kind of laugh. I laugh like that a lot lately. It frightens the children***. “What am I supposed to do? How the fuck is any of that going to help?”
My doctor sighed, and said, “Fuck, girl, I don’t know. You’ve got to do something. You’re making yourself sick.”
I heard a man’s voice in my ear. “They always blame the victim.” The air was getting colder, and I didn’t know if the chill was the onset of true autumn or if it’s a remembered, long-ago blizzard that refuses to leave my understanding of the present. I looked out the window and wondered how I would ground myself to the present when I found myself trapped inside, looking at a timeless fall of snow.
With a nod, I pulled my feet underneath me in my paper gown to warm them against my thighs.
Days later, at home, I made a pot of soup. I drank chamomile tea. I colored the sun exploding, red and orange and yellow streaks in a violet sky. Once everyone was asleep, I put on some Stravinsky and lay with my eyes closed, on the floor, breathing into my spine, into my ribs, into the knots between my shoulder blades. And for a moment, the moment was.
There is always more to do. There is always another, sudden, last-minute thing. I am constantly correcting. There was no transcendent bliss, no lifting of the day’s worries, no unburdening. But there was a kind of quiet. There was a kind of stillness. There was a kind of love that existed within myself, for myself, untouched by anyone but me.
And when I opened my eyes, another moment began.
*AKA: begging and pleading and perhaps taking hostages.
**I spent a ridiculous amount of time verifying this number. I have been 36 for six months. It feels like it’s been years.
***It frightens me, too.
You can read more about my PTSD here: What It Means to be Sickened by the News
Read my most recent post here: The Inevitability of Hope and Change
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