Halloween is a coming and it’s time for ghosts and goblins and all the spooky stuff that makes you quiver and quake! (I mean of course beyond the onslaught of bone chilling pink neon of October reminding you that A) you had cancer and B) there is still not a cure, but I digress.) I’m a pumpkin carving, costume making girl myself; a girl not too keen on hard-core horror shenaniganry. But it is Halloween and I realize some people enjoy that edgy fear that is brought on by terror and fear so, if you are NOT one of those thrill seeking people, this blog is not for you. And for you adrenaline junkies out there who crave a little foray into dark crevices of a psychological thriller, I won’t disappoint.
Follow me to a place where anxiety whips you around the craggy corners and “What Ifs” taunt you as they dangle from the trees like sinister Spanish moss come alive, waiting to grab you with its gnarly fingers. Let’s go to a place where cesspools of bubbling yuck abound, spewing slime on you as they percolate endlessly. In this little House O’ Horror, you’ll find that the unexpectedness of the path is the worse part, cause one second you are on the Pleasantville train all safe and buckled in, and the next you are hanging out of the window as it careens over a cliff and you holding on by your fingertips. Ghosts from the past whisper warnings of death, wrapping around you like a filmy, wet covering of doom you can’t wipe away and skeletons jangle their bones in a rhythm that is hauntingly familiar. You run, but you cannot hide.
You my dear, have entered the haunted hallows of my neurotic little mind. You timidly tread on a path worn by years of the anxious wanderings of the crazy woman in the attic and her vigilant pacing back and forth as she scans the horizon for what is to come. Madness drives her repeatedly back and forth back and forth as she screams her banshee laughter and cackles, “It’s coming!”
It occurs to me that I am a little neurotic. I know right? Big freaking surprise to those of you who have had the honor of standing next to me during what I personally perceived to be a high alert situation. Shocking to those who have felt the anxiety shed off of me like a constant molt of yuck and who have heard me endlessly repeat things, as if that could contain the worms in the can. Truth is, I come from a long line of anxious people, my momma and daddy were both Nervous Nellies; and I seem to have gotten a double whammy of the worrywart gene on my catastrophic death spiraling helix. Add to that mix a healthy dose of cancer trauma, and yep, you’ve got yourself quite a psychological horror story.
Quick psychology lesson. DSM-IV will tell you that the trait known as Anxiety shows up in a host of outfits; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Attacks and Phobias are some. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Social Anxiety are also members of the family and Anxiety, not being chintzy can also give people a combo platter of several types. Me, I have always been a garden variety catchall Generalized Anxiety kinda girl, little bit of this and a little bit of dat; nothing special about me.
In an oversimplified version, Anxiety is controlled by a little almond-shaped thing in our brain called the amygdala.(ah mig dah lah)Powerful little nut that amygdala is; a little panic button per se. When a normal person sees something that feels worrisome like say a snake, that little almond is in charge of sounding the warning (or “Uh-Oh” response as Reid Wilson-anxiety guru calls it.) The “Uh-Oh” is the signal that sets off the adrenal glands, makes us fire cortisol, and engages all the other chemical responses to act; responses which are generally helpful in a normal threat situation. Note the word “normal.”
When someone like me has anxiety, a whole, whole lotta nebulous stuff has the ability to set off that “Uh-Oh” response, things that likely the average bear never even notices as she goes about her day. Experiencing a trauma, like say CANCER introduces yet a multitude of new, invisible to the naked eye of a normal non traumatized person items to set off the panicked feelings. When these triggers, the things that poke at the amygdala and shout “DO SOMETHING!” are related to past trauma, we professionals call the response hypervigilence and PTSD. I think its fair to say that most of us who have worn the pink dress have a wee bit of PTSD after almost dying and all. And its fair to say that a lot of the cancer related triggers seem to make absolutely no sense to us or our family and friends, until of course, you backtrack to the fall of the first dominoes in the series. Phobias are a little different in that they really don’t have an identifiable precursor, but triggers generally have trauma as the culprit.
Admittedly I had this cute, overworked lil almond of an amygdala long before cancer; but now I seemingly have a whole bag o’ nuts. Cancer and all the wonderful experiences that go with it, simply makes us scared of things that the normal chick probably never even notices, like illness, wearing hats or say the smell of band aids, sharpies or skin burning. Sometimes, we are scratching our now hair covered heads going, “What the hell? Why am I wigging out at a baseball hat?”
So add trauma to an already anxious girl, and my amygdala came out of cancer in “Uh-Oh” overdrive with a hair-trigger to boot. To manage it, I have decidedly taken an offensive stance to heading the “Uh-Ohs” off at the pass. Scanning the horizon as good PTSD patients do, I remain ever watchful on the widow’s walk of my mind. Then when I spot something on the horizon (whether real or conjured in my banshee imagination) I rapidly assess the “What If’s” to proactively diffuse it. I generate a plan a,b,c and d if “What If” happens. This serves, in my crazy little mind at least to stem the tide of adrenalin when it does occur by providing it with premade, neat little controlled channels in which to flow like levees in a hurricane.
Cancer made me start considering thinks I never thought before; new and improved“What if’s” materialized because in part, the notion was reinforced that small things can indeed rapidly become BIG things. Cancer also blindsided me, and made me feel I missed something, its cackle of BwaaHaHa! resonates to this day, echoing the notion that had I been on a more watchful guard, it wouldn’t have gotten to me.
Cancer made me crazier. Cause I now spend likely an unhealthy amount of my life in, “What If?” It is hard for me to imagine that a lump on my thigh could possibly be cellulite and not cancer.
I like to think, being the positive spinmeister that I am, that I spend so much time in “What If” to innoculate my brain with controlled little doses of adrenalin, so when real things occur they are not as overwhelming. (Sounds good in theory doesn’t it?) My dad always says that worry is money spent on a debt not yet owed, and boy debt scares me; I have gone bankrupt emotionally at times with worry. Ironically in the face of this habit, I will swear to you I am an optimist, because where some might see a pessimistic doomsday Eeyore I see a good Boy Scout. Albeit a good Boy Scout who annoys the hell out of others with endless preparedness drills.
Blindsides, of which I have had many over the years, make my free-floating anxiety worse and have put my amygdala on a constant state of heightened alert. When I get blindsided, I’m useless for days; I get paralyzed by the flood of adrenalin, like a deer in the headlights, I can’t move and think. See, I can handle a “What do we do now?” as long as “now” is played out in my head long before the event actually takes place. But when I am in blindsided like I was with cancer, I spend my time grieving in my angst and anger over my failure to see it coming. In the end, I am left not trusting myself, not knowing what is solid and true, feeling like the worst Boy Scout on the face of the earth. Blindsides have made me suspicious that the status is never ever really quo, and amplified my global need to take the pulse of everything, over and over cause certainly I missed something; some sign of sickness in the relationship or my body.
I am a shoot my ducks down as soon as they pop up girl, but now I have taken it one further, aiming my gun at the place I suspect they will pop up and sometimes even shooting rounds at the empty space. I am a pre griever, a pre worrier, a preparer for the worst. I exhaust my friends, my dad, my kids and Grandmother Willow. And me. Sigh. I blame cancer.
Cancer did a lot of bad things to me, it took a chunk of my body, it made me have to get poisoned on a regular basis, it burned my skin, it financially devastated me and it stole a few years of my life by making me too sick to do anything. But one of the worst things it did to me was reinforce the notion that a limp in the dog could mean he will die tomorrow, that someone not calling me means they ending their relationship, that a fever could mean meningitis, and that I could die from a dog bite. It made me afraid of normal life events, like checkups and even getting a cold and made me live in “What if?” A friend admonished me the other day when I talked yet again, about Scout dying. “Jesus Lauren,” he said with the beleaguered exhaustion well-known to my friends, “You have had that dog in pine box at least five times in the last three years.” And he’s right, and I have had me there too.
Cancer made me a bit of a drama queen I guess.
Cancer leftovers suck. They are cold and even yuckier when reheated. And the trouble is you never know when your mind, like the frugal,well-meaning grandma is gonna pull the foil off an old unidentifiable clump covered with mold and say, “Oh yes, this will be yummy reheated.” Your mind smells it and says, “Uh-Oh.” Hell, your mind just hears the crinkle of the foil, or the refrigerator door open and you are off to the adrenalin races.
And you know what? Cancer stocks our fridges to the gills with that shit.
I talk a lot in this blog about the PTSD that comes with cancer. The smells and feelings and visual things our minds and muscles secretly recorded unbeknownst to us, and meticulously covered with foil and stuck in the freezer drawer. Vapory, ghostly wisps that covertly reheat later to poke and prod at our sweet lil’ amygdala, sometimes without us knowing it until it boils over. Double, double toil and trouble for sure. Yeah, I am a drama queen alright, but damn it, I earned it.
David Sedaris does this hilarious piece about a purchasing a genuine human skeleton as a gift for his artist partner, Hugh. He suspected Hugh would take the skeleton his art studio but Hugh instead decided he wanted to keep it in the house, hanging it in their bedroom. David writes that every time he sees it, he hears it whispering to him, “You will die.” In fact, he can hear it whispering from the other rooms in the house, pestering him as he works….”You will die.”
A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend on the phone. He had a head cold and as we talked, I could feel my amygdala kicking in and I got all squirmy. I got kinda freaky in that weird way that your body feels fear, but you don’t know why. I wanted to hang up quickly and I did.
It has started to occur to me that I get a little too hinky about getting sick, about being around people who are sick or by being exposed to things that I think will make me sick. While the germaphobe thing was likely always there for me, it was dialed up a thousand notches by cancer. Illness, and all the smells and feels of it are all too familiar and I spend a lot of time and energy avoiding it. The potential of catching something, of getting sick is the first domino; it tips all the rest of the triggers and let me tell you, it’s Guinness Book qualifying long line of them after cancer.
Getting sick scares me now because my mind travels down that well-worn Path O’ Terror to the place where small things can morph in a millisecond into big things. It is hard for me to believe now that strep throat won’t kill me by attacking my heart. I tend to pay way too much attention to small things that are wrong, a tiny red bite that may be a harbinger for lyme disease or even the interplay of my stress levels causing cancer. Because I realize how what I wrongly assessed as a small thing in the past, was in fact a big thing and it blindsided me.
So now it’s all BIG. Cancer makes it hard for small things to stay small ever again, working like a trick mirror on the haunted trail, distorting…distorting and magnifying. “Uh-oh” comes with the slightest sniffle, with the smallest pea of a nodule in your thigh and with the slightest murmur from a lymph node.
When you are trutzing around with a grand total of about fifteen white blood cells circulating through your system, you suddenly realize a small thing like a cold can take you out. A fever can put you in the hospital, where you are susceptible to even more illness, and funny as the notion sounds, being sick delays chemo treatments, and that too can kill you. And when you get sick now those fears, silently recorded, get played.
Cold’s whisper, “You will die, I will kill you.” And your amygdala does not forget that lesson. Sneezes by the guy behind you line at the grocery store scare the shit out of you, even after five years.
I have had this little heart flutter thing of late. While I got checked and was told it was normal, but it still has a stranglehold on me when it happens. It feels like when Herceptin almost killed me, like the day 38 treatments in, when my heart almost stopped. One minute I said to the chemo nurse, “Hey Marci, listen to this,” and the next minute there was panic in the chemo lounge as my line was pulled and I was whisked to cardiac care.
Flutters rattle the skeleton and he whispers, “You could die from this.”
By week 32 of chemo you feel like you have had the flu for well, 32 weeks. Feeling sick, fatigued and vomity, swallowing oodles of pills and feeling dizzy all becomes a constant. When you look in the mirror, a sickly ghostly being looks back at you whispering, “You could die from this.” And suddenly, all the things associated with being sick, become cattle prods to the amygdala.
Now, just feeling sick scares the hell out of me. It rips the foil off the old stuff from the back of the fridge and makes me taste it again as it shoves it down my throat. The few times I have had colds or illness since cancer I am miserable, not a whiny sniffling way but in that edgy free-floating fear as you walk through a haunted house kinda way. Like a pink-eyed zombie, any illness has the ability to grab me and takes me back to the visceral depths of the places I hoped never to visit again by mimicking what I felt all those months. The muscle memory kicks in, the hard wiring fires, the tape recorder hits play and you hear, “You will die.” And even if in your mind you know better, stopping adrenalin is like stopping a train; no can do.
Scan the horizon I do, for coughing ducks.
The good catholic girl in me would like to believe (and does) that the avoidance is not so much of death, as much as it is avoidance of the ghosts of cancer; of the tastes and smells and fear and fatigue and feelings that whisper with their haunting familiarity, “You have cancer. You will die.” I will do anything to prevent those bones from rattling. I will do anything to manage ahead of time that of which I am most fearful. An acrobatic and exhausting avoidance of the haunted place where I once lived and almost died. Avoidance of anything that makes me, my muscles and my sweet little amygdala hear, “Cancer.” Anything… to avoid fear. A fellow blogger coined the phrase, “My fear kicks my other fears ass.” Boy ain’t that the truth?
Skeletons in my closet indeed. Boo.
“You got serious thrill issues, dude”