Archives for category: PTSD and cancer

You know, you’d think that after about 7 years you would have your hands around something and have regained some semblance of control. There you are walking along, your cool-collected self, sticking your toe back into the cancer pool. A thing of the past it is, the trauma now seems manageable. While not always nonchalant, you can begin to at least chitchat casually about the experience of cancer without totally losing your cookies. Read the rest of this entry »

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Last week, I found myself on the receiving end of a big, fat, loud “Pshaw.”

I guess Pshaw is what you call it, that’s what it sounded like at least. An exasperated sigh plus eye roll; an unspoken, “Oh brother, give me a break.” Read the rest of this entry »

I treat children for sexual abuse.

It is not so much a task of erasing memories, but of diffusing them; decreasing the impact and diminishing the power of the symptoms of trauma. Helping kids sort and put fragments into drawers and compartments and teaching them how to manage how the trauma; the triggers and hypervigilance are now a part of their life. Read the rest of this entry »

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!”

Spoiler alert.

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.

~ Meandering~

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.”

~Meandering~

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”

                                                                          Crush–Finding Nemo

I’ve been avoidant. 

Okay, maybe a little lazy with a capital Z mixed in as well. 

A little unfocused. Perhaps a little scattered and overextended.

But really.

Mostly avoidant.

Despite the urging and friendly Yoo-Hoo’s of others to come back out to play, I have dug my heels in and looked away. 

In fact, I have a confession to make. Please forgive me y’all. I’ve been avoidant of reading the other bloggesses blogs as well.

Truth is, way back yonder in December I promised I’d be back soon. And “soon” by any stretch of the definition well, “soon” has done come and gone. And I still sit here, avoidant.

At first I thought I just needed a little break. I really loved writing my lil blog every week, and kinda got to where it was a part of me. Initially, it felt good to empty out the trash can, and to spill out the rummage left behind in my head by cancer. I felt humbly, that I had figured out why I was still here. At first.

My little über analyzing brain has tried and tried to figure out what’s up with the delay of my return to the blogosphere. After a year of writing about the ick and nonsense and cancer drama, I can only describe to you more what I didn’t feel than what I did.

What I didn’t feel anymore was the gratification of the purge; I didn’t feel the expected satisfaction of succinctly tying up so many loose ends and setting them free. At the end of it, I no longer felt the organized glee of putting them all into neatly categorized drawers and boxes and sliding the drawers shut.

No, I didn’t feel the satisfaction of the emptied attic. It left me with nothing to do with my hands. And really, what’s the point of being the crazy old woman in the attic if there is no fodder, if there are no chests to open and frantically grab and wildly throw the contents about while screaming about cancer? 

The empty space, albeit peaceful, haunted me more some days than a head chock full of trauma bits.

I mean, who was I if I wasn’t the girl with cancer? What should I do with a mind born to dissect and analyze everything to death when there was thankfully, no apparent death to analyze? 

Perhaps (I entertained but for only a moment) I am a tad histrionic after all, thriving on drama and needing crisis to feel like I was alive, forever needing something to do with my racing mind and hands. Perhaps it’s why the stillness, which I did not really resent, felt odd.

What I felt was nothing. Not good or bad, not relief or angst. Nothing. A void. An absence of something that had taken up a whole lot of space. Emptiness where the cancer was, a big empty attic previously taken up by the cancer.

And a reluctance to refill the room with those thoughts again.

Early on in my cancer diagnosis, I was sitting in Grandmother Willow’s office. This was shortly after the dirty little secret of breast cancer was whispered in my ear; that the trick is not it getting rid of it the first time, but in keeping it away. Grandmother Willow was trying to stem my rapidly racing thoughts as they made loop after loop, trying to assure me that one day this cancer would all seem an afterthought.

Because I can sometimes be a Little Miss Know It All, I often tend to call bullshit on theories that don’t match up with my picture of the world, and that day was no different. I remember thinking maybe she was the crazy old lady in the attic because I could see nothing but a life from here on in with the grim reaper as my constant traveling companion, forever bound like members of a chain gang with his endless whisper distracting me for eternity.

I distinctly remember her telling me about woman who recently came to see her who, after a whole first session of spilling her current emotional history said, “And oh yeah, and I had breast cancer ten years ago.” “Oh yeah,” like she had forgotten about it. “Oh yeah,” like it was an afterthought.

“Bullshit,” I thought.

Sitting bald and frightened on her couch, it seemed inconceivable that cancer would one day take up so little room in my life; that it would become such a non entity in my identity. That in the game board of Lauren’s life, cancer would become such a non player in my current emotions on any given future day.

Yet, this is how I have felt these last months. I have felt the absence of cancer. 

After years of thinking about nothing but cancer, I have somehow managed to get to where it is not part of the complexion of my being. One day last week, a neighbor stopped to tell me she had gotten her port out that morning. I felt this blankness when she said it, not lack of empathy, but more a situation where I was unable to summon the empathy because I had forgotten how it felt to be in her shoes. I knew she must feel relief, but I couldn’t feel the taste of it in my mouth anymore. When I started to try to remember what I had blogged about ports, I couldn’t even remember what I had written. All I could remember was how hilarious it was that Wendy had made hers into a daisy.

When I went back to read that blog, I swear to you,  it was as if someone else had written it. Sometimes this happens with my mom; I can’t remember what she looked like until I look at pictures, and then I am surprised at features in her face that I forgot.

I was detached from cancer. Detached from the chain gang.

Years ago, big surprise, I had to take Concerta for my ADD. With that drug, the thought of food and hunger vanished. I’m not saying I wasn’t hungry or my appetite was curbed, I am saying that the thought of food no longer crossed my mind. I’d be sitting there feeling faint and go, “Oh, yeah, I haven’t eaten in two days.” This little pill took away the emotion and rituals and grooves in my brain that were attached to food and eating; it eliminated the craving and the timing and desire to indulge in this so familiar and daily ritual.

This little blog did the same with cancer. I don’t indulge in cancer much these days. But, it’s not healthy to not need food, nor is healthy to avoid part of your being.

I remember reading how Lance was in an doctor’s office finding out he was just covered with cancer. It seemed insurmountable, yet a few days later after he talked to doctor after doctor about what each intended to do with each and every metastasis he proclaimed, “We had talked this thing down to size.”

Blog by blog, a bite of the proverbial elephant (or grim reaper) at a time, I too had talked the memories and trauma, the cancer down to size.

While the bell can never be un-rung, somehow, somehow….swirling my pen around in the well un-cast the dye. Like a magnet, my pen pulled the dye cast long ago from the water, bringing it from pink to very, very pale, almost indiscernible pink.

Perhaps I lived my way into (at least some of) the answers.

Perhaps I am just reluctant, not avoidant. Perhaps I am detached; not sure that I want to re-attach, or how to re-attach without it filling the room up again.

Perhaps, I have just moved seamlessly, as we do with grief, into acceptance.

Perhaps, I have indeed outlived it.

So in these last months, my life has been filled with all the stuff of teenagers. Colleges visits, college apps, obsessing about the right high school and college choices, proms and dances, driving lessons, graduation preparations for two and undergoing some good old-fashioned teenaged drama teaching me I better grow some thick skin real fast. (Suddenly, I have become a whole lot less smart and a whole lot less funny.) My pop survived another wicked pneumonia, and Scout is still the best dog ever made at the dog factory. Through all of this, I have worn some very good friends down with my new looping obsession; my anticipatory grief that life is gonna change real soon as the kids and people and dogs I love fly away. But in all this, we are busy, busy, busy here at the ranch distracted by life not death; indeed life is moving forward at warp speed.

And oh yeah, six years ago I had cancer.

 

 

I’m back.

 A little at a time, so as not to fill the attic,

but I’m back. 

xoxo

Lauren

Pink.

Who knew such a benign and gentle hue could summon such strong emotions, and could wield such power? Read the rest of this entry »

Once, when Amelia was about three or four years old, she, Colton and I were driving along. The two of them were of course in the back seat and all of the sudden Amelia yells, “Who’s driving the car!?” In the seconds that I was trying to figure out what she meant, Colton chimed in and answered, “Mom is.  The person who has their hands on the big wheel up in front is the one who is driving the car.” Read the rest of this entry »

I am so sick of talking about breast cancer.

In fact, Grandmother Willow and I recently had a fifty minute-ish chat about it as I crawled all over my psyche looking for clues to my blues. This little Suzy Sunshine was très dissatisfied with her last months of little black rain cloud funkity funk and darn it, I told her, I needed to find the source of my gloomy river and fix it pronto. I speculated, as I have during several recent chats that the business of tiptoeing around the mine field that is cancer while writing this blog has had a little something to do with my sad state of affairs. Maybe even a big little something to do with it.

A minefield indeed; a desolate battleground from a long ago war. A place where still, even years later, I must tread carefully as mines are left that have yet to be detonated. Shards of shrapnel remain, ready to slice into my still tender skin as I wander through, and the remains of what was lost still litter the ground creating sometimes massive obstacles to my progress. A land where I occasionally find a bullet in the soil; a tiny yet lethal missile that missed its mark many years ago, which in my hand weighs heavier than I would speculate of its tiny mass, as I mentally gauge the potential it carried as it was fired in my path all those years ago.

I spend most of my days in my professional life seeing and talking about very ugly things; cesspool of human failure things. Over the last 20 or so years in working with abused wee ones, I have learned a little about the cost of caring, the cost of going over and over traumatic events and quite awful things. Compassion fatigue has often been an unwanted traveling companion in my life. It takes a toll on your psyche to care and listen, and it is the high internal price you pay for dealing with highly emotional traumatic events of others over a long period of time. 

Like with the artist formerly known as Prince, PTSD is the reaction formerly known as Battle Fatigue, (the cost of dealing with your own highly emotional traumatic events over a long period of time.) And you know what? Cancer is a long ass battle for sure, its got physical and mental staying power. The endgame (that is really the never-ending game) is that dealing with cancer and thinking about cancer and worrying about cancer is freaking exhausting. Revisiting the war zone that is and was cancer, even years later, is exhausting.

I my friends, have cancer fatigue. Cancer has done wore me out.

Because even after five years, there are still bombs that have yet to detonate and that scares me. Daily, I find a bullet in the soil and pick it up and realize how close it came to taking me down; while that act of holding the bullet in hand is in itself is frightening, more terrifying is the realization that there may still be bullets in the gun.

As I write this blog, I realize that I have been anxiously and cautiously tiptoeing along, carefully calculating each step and holding my breath even as I sleep. I’m feeling physically exhausted and mentally fatigued by the constant mindfulness to cancer, from the perpetual heaviness of the armor I attempt to don as I write, and by the tiny yet constant effort needed in the hunch up of my shoulders as I tread.

Years ago, when I got fired for having chemo brain and then opened my own practice I found, as cliché as it sounds, a gift in it (I mean besides not having to work with really dysfunctional people anymore.) I made my own schedule, and likely worked 100 more hours a week but all the sudden one day I realized that my 20 years of amassed compassion fatigue had virtually disappeared. 

Now, statistics people could find all kinds of confounds in the causal nature of this phenomenon in my life, such as I was so focused on cancer that work ick seemed small next to it, or it was because I had a break from all the yuck during treatment. But because I know me better than anyone knows me, I will tell you my theory. In owning my practice, I can schedule cases as I like. I can review quite ugly photographs when I am ready and I can say no to the task when I am not ready. I can set boundaries about when and where and how I talk about the sometimes very violent/graphic details of sexual and physical abuse. I can set the pace of cases I see, and take breaks as needed (although I find I don’t need as many breaks as I thought I would.)

The compassion fatigue evaporated as the trauma was more in my control.  Work and trauma no longer controlled me; I controlled it. I could control the ebb and flow of kids and cases, and set boundaries about not talking about child abuse in the walls of my house or on weekends or at cocktail parties for that matter (and not look like a bad/rude/chemo brain employee for doing so.)

When I first got sick, my oh so wonderful Pop and bestest friend MJ called me at least once, if not twice, if not three times a day through diagnosis and in those early weeks of the crazy firehose of test results and treatment plans. Cancer was coming at me from all angles, as you all know it does when diagnosis is fresh, and tests and results are being done, and war strategy is being made. I talked cancer, and ate cancer, and I slept cancer, and like poor Jan Brady lamented with sister Marcia, “Cancer Cancer Cancer,” was all I heard.

One day I just got to where I wanted to talk about something else, anything else, but cancer. Heck, discussing toenail fungus or dead pets would have been infinitely better than talking about cancer at that point. I had to set the limit and say, “Look, I want to take a week off of talking about cancer okay?  Let’s take a break and talk about something else, anything else for a while when you call.” And because they are good people they did just that, and it helped. A lot.

The moral of the story here is that sometimes you just have to take control and set a boundary with cancer, even after five years. Sometimes, you have to place a moratorium on cancerspeak, and that goes for you, the people around you and for that neurotic little voice in your head.

One of my girlfriends told me that right after she was diagnosed and just before chemo started, she and her 12-year-old daughter (with her onc’s blessing) took a long before cancer came a knockin’ planned trip to Greece. My girlfriend really has the coolest kid; I adore that little cutie pie for her effervescent and eccentric grooviness. Don’t you know that girl took a piece of paper and wrote “CANCER” on it, put it in a box and placed it on the mantle in the house. As they left for the airport, this cool kid was pulling the front door shut and she turned back and said to the box, “Cancer, you are too heavy to carry all over Greece. We know you will be here when we get back and we will be ready for you.”

After five years, it is sometimes still all about cancer. Some months it’s worse than others (if you get my potentially ungrateful sounding drift.) So for the rest of this week, I am declaring a moratorium on cancer. I am instead painting my toenails a delightful shade of robin’s egg blue and with my sweet daughter, I am boarding a plane to Disneyworld.

And with that I will say, “Cancer, you are too heavy to carry all over Disneyworld…even in an elephant that can fly.”

Look out! Look out!
Pink elephants on parade
Here they come!
Hippety hoppety
They’re here and there
Pink elephants everywhere

Look out! Look out!
They’re walking around the bed
On their head
Clippety cloppety
Arrayed in braid
Pink elephants on parade

What’ll I do?
What’ll I do?
What an unusual view

I can stand the sight of worms
And look at microscopic germs
But technicolor pachyderms is really too much for me

I am not the type to faint
When things are odd or things are quaint
But seeing things you know that ain’t, can certainly give you an awful fright

What a sight!
Chase ’em away! Chase ’em away!
I’m afraid, need your aid
Pink elephants on parade
Pink elephants…
Pink elephants…
Pink elephants…

Pink Elephants on Parade~ Disney’s Dumbo

 

 

I am a woman of extremes. 

In Lauren’s world, there is very little middle ground; to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, no nix that, extreme reaction. I frequently find myself either somersaulting into a dead of black night chasm or leap frogging into dazzling Clorox white. Little Miss A or Z, I am. Like in Wonkaland, my emotional elevator doesn’t just go to the top floor; it explodes through the ceiling and into the stratosphere. Conversely there is no end to the rabbit hole into which I can tumble, plunging into the earth to depths unknown.

“Grayness,” I insist to those trying to reason with me, “lacks luster.” Middle ground is bland and ho-hum; unemotional and flat, passionless people perplex me at times, I mean, how could you exist in that way? Extremes feel passionate and remind me I am alive; stretching the rubber band as far as it can go, I say, go big or go home.

Oh I know, I know, it’s a little worrisome. Even the psychologist in me points out to the anxious me that the edges of the bell curve are often not good places to be. Grandmother Willow reminds me on a quite regular basis, as she reels me in like the expert fisherwoman that while I go back and forth, I always come to the middle and will every time.

“Pshaw…” I say.

Now before you start thinking bipolar nutcase here, I will assure you it is simply not so. In fact to observe a day in the life of me, you’d think, “boring old middle-aged woman.” Nope, no drama queen here, no erratic borderline-ish, histrionic-ish crazy cat lady stuff. My polarity is mostly covert, just a little seesaw endlessly seeing and sawing in my lil’ noggin.

I give 200% or nothing. I don’t just feel hurt, I feel crushed. I give and give and rarely take. I let people either kinda suck me dry or surprise them when I completely buck up and tell them to knock it off. I am in or out, on or off, too good or not good enough. I am either working full steam or being avoidant. This dichotomy is what makes me either a whole lotta fun depending on the circumstance, or a whole lotta exasperation and exhaustion.

Maybe it’s because I really have had an all or nothing adult life. Many, many really, really good things have happened to me, and many, many really, really bad things have happened to me. Little of my life has been just status quo and middle of the road. Perhaps because I know better what to do with extremes, I tend to jack things up or down a bit. Perhaps as is with my life, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. Perhaps status quo is just uncomfortable and foreign to me. Perhaps…I dunno.

Ok so maybe I experience things a tad bit more extremely than others, but it just feels wholehearted to me is all. I feel life and passion in Technicolor; where the rest of the world has a box of 8 Crayola’s to feel and describe their world, I have the jumbo box of 64 and perhaps a box of the Metallics in my holster as well. Raw Umber and Maize just can’t do what Green With Twinkling Turquoise Glitter can do for me and I said good riddance when they were retired. And boy do I love to color.

In the Disney movie Tangled, Rapunzel runs free on the ground after living her whole life in the tower. We watch as she goes through the day; her feet feeling the tickle of the Aquamarine water and the Granny Smith Apple grass, yet she is continually voicing the tick and the tock of her internal tug of war between the guilt of leaving her mother yet the joy of experiencing her freedom. In a scene I just love, she teeter totters between the elation and guilt shouting, “This is the best day ever!” and then, “I am a despicable person!” 

I so get that, that tangle of stuff.

For me, if it’s not the best day ever, it’s what a client of mine cleverly and accurately coined, “The Catastrophic Death Spiral.” When you are in The Catastrophic Death Spiral, it’s never just gonna turn out bad, it’s gonna turn out very bad. It’s not going to be just an unfortunate outcome, it’s going to be the worst possible outcome ever and everyone is gonna die likely involving thumbtacks in your skin, weepy lesions and a horrible burning sensations in unfortunate places as well.

Here is how the spiral goes. Last week, Scout the Wonderdog had a back injury and I was in tears on the phone with a friend, explaining to him just how very very very bad it was. He calmly said, “Now stop. Don’t be putting him in the ground just yet,” and he added a bit snarkily, “Because we know that would be so unlike you to go there already.” He suggested perhaps a good idea would be to go to the vet for an opinion before I decided on a time for afternoon euthanasia. A wise man indeed; accurately assessing my parachute-less run toward the rim of the catastrophic death spiral, and lasso-ing me just before the jump. And voila! By that afternoon, a vet visit and couple of tranqs and pain killers later (for Scout, not me silly) there I was considering what Santa was going to bring Scout for Christmas this year. That is how it goes.

So it follows that when I got cancer, I was gonna die.  Not only was I gonna die, but die quickly and likely painfully. I didn’t just have breast cancer; I had bone cancer and mets in my brain and lungs for sure. I had body cancer.

In this Spiral O’ Tragedy the future was Granite Grey bleak, my motherless kids would be dressed in rags, chronically starved for home-made chocolate chip cookies…emotional orphans crying out in their sleep for their mommy for the rest of their lives. They would have no one to guard them from the Copper Penny evils in the world, and all types of peril would befall them from bad manners, to not having clean underwear, and chronically unsigned homework. They would have no more fantastic Christmases making cookies and finding wonderful gifts under a beautiful Green with Glittering Turquoise tree, and they would have to subsist on junk food. They would have eternally dirty Licorice Black fingernails and the worst part of all of it was that they would have to have store-bought Halloween costumes! They would go to proms where their Tumbleweed stained suits and Burnished Brown dresses were wrinkled, and of course, they would be forever scarred by losing their momma at a young age and would likely be unable to ever function as adults.

And poor Scout! He wouldn’t have a home either! He’d be wandering the streets with his matted dirty coat, (instead of his current Baby Powder White fur) an empty dog food bowl in his mouth, begging for milkbones with hungry children trailing behind him eating milkbone crumbs and…. OH MY GOD, it would was all gonna be just awful because I didn’t just have cancer, I had BBBAAAADDDD cancer. This scenario of course, unfolded before any diagnostic testing was done. In fact this was all worked out and settled in my head before the phone was back in the cradle after the call where I was told that unfortunately, I had cancer.

The catastrophic death spiral makes us think a lump in our thigh is thigh cancer, a headache is brain cancer, and shortness of breath after running is surely announcing lung cancer.

The catastrophic death spiral is the vortex that is cancer.

Is there any value or good in extremes? Do extremes serve any function? Sometimes. Without them life doesn’t break loose and move like it should. I once heard a story of the Sequoia and the forest ranger’s efforts to save and protect them. For years, they did all they could to keep forest fires away from the giants, guarding them from being burned like a human firewall. But one day they realized that no little baby Sequoia trees were sprouting anywhere, as it seemed no fertile seeds were being launched from the way up yonder cones in the Jungle Green canopy. It was then they realized it takes extreme heat to cause the pinecones to launch and release fertile seeds, and without the heat, nothing happened. So the next fire they let burn as nature intended, and what do ya know, the trees lived, able to withstand heat they never thought possible. And soon, new baby Sequoia sprouted; new Sheen Green leaves, and Illuminated Emerald shoots and tiny Blast Off Bronze trunks emerging from the Milky Way black charred ground where once it seemed, all was lost.

Yes, sometimes a good old butt burning makes us grow and move and release what is needed and yes, sometimes we all deserve and thrive with wide open fantastic Technicolor joy. Sometimes yes, extremes serve us well, sometimes.  Not all the time.

Life is rarely A or Z . I must fight myself to stay in LMNOP, and trust that LMNOP  is how life most often is, and that despite the initial blast off or leap into, LMNOP will find me, if I just wait.

If it sounds too good to be true it likely is, and nothing is as bad as it seems. LMNOP. This will be on my tombstone.

This old Sequoia has learned a lot in life, through some wicked Wild Blue Yonder storms and trials by Burnt Orange fire, and by living through many joyful Laser Lemon days. The tonic of time simply passing finds balance. Stretching the band of that extreme reaction, I ride it out like a wave, and it passes. Middle ground and balance always finds me in a day or two. I arrive at LMNOP just like that, perhaps a day late, perhaps a dollar short, but better late than never.

Things always do look better in the morning, maybe not an Atomic Tangerine, Metallic Sunburst morning, but good old Yellow sunrise for sure. And who could ask for more than that?

There is inherent mental comfort and calming in the rubber band snapping back.

Taking pause before selecting the color of the crayon with which to color my life may not yield the most stunning and exciting picture, but likely it will produce the most accurate one. And it’s infinitely easier to stay within the lines that way.

I don’t think that even after five years I have reached the opposite extreme of the “I’m gonna die” vortex-like Catastrophic Death Spiral that is cancer; I have not gotten to where I am blasting into the stratosphere of “I am gonna live a long and happy life.” Truth is, the reality of what will unfold in my life is likely somewhere in between, somewhere in the LMNOP range, simply because that is life.

Still, some days Red Violet With Glitzy Gold Glitter, Inchworm Green and Deep Space Sparkle remind me I am alive and that life is better than good, and some days life is still just a reckless back and forth aggressive scribble of Onyx Black. But most often, the box of 8 is really all I need to get by. To crack open the tiny box and breathe in their fresh smell, and see the optimistic faces of the ordinary colors of life all lined up expectantly waiting, that is LMNOP. 

Everything in moderation. Walls and lines keep us safe inside, but wow it’s a big world when we let our hair down and go over them…once in a while….once…in a great while.

Stay in center and embrace peace, simplicity, patience and compassion. 

Embrace the possibility of death and you will endure. 

Embrace the possibility of life and you will endure.

~tao te ching~

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