And by “that” I mean the entire last year or so of my life.
At the end of 2017, things were going well…well-ish…with my writing and learning about how one monetizes ideas and I was beginning to find my way a little bit in a world I know nothing about. I had begun making goofy parenting videos that were gaining some traction and, although I was repeatedly told rather firmly that no one wanted to read the book I’d finished, I did at least finish something.
I made a plan. A plan to build email lists and coordinate blog posts with videos and article submissions. A plan to shine up my social media accounts, advertise, gain followers. I had meetings over coffee. I researched business products. It was all very grown up.
Unfortunately for my chances at successfully launching an internet presence, I absolutely hated it. I hated that I found myself lining up shots of my family in my head so I’d have a better Instagram post. I hated that I became obsessive about how many views a video had. I hated that even when something went according to plan, I lamented about how far away I was from actually being able to make money off of any of this.
It’s hard to express how overwhelmingly sad I became; mired in an angst-ridden tug of war for my mind and heart. I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, arms wrapped around my body, sobbing huge snotty tears in silence so I didn’t terrify my children.
I was overwhelmed. Heartsick. Broken in the mundane and disappointment and wearing weight of middle age. I kept thinking, “Where did I go?” and “How do I get myself back?” And somewhere, from deep inside my burning mind, was the answer. “This is not you. And you need help.”
And because I am sarcastic, even in my conversations with myself, the next lines my mind provided were, “Get up. You’re either menopausal, your thyroid has gone haywire, or you need a psychiatrist. Call a doctor.”
So I did. My internal self talk does not like to let me wallow. I made an appointment with my doctor, reignited communication with some close girlfriends by way of group text, and stopped crying. Action always makes me feel better.
I decided to put on hold my social media self for a few weeks. I’d take a step back and let go of the quest for attention in an effort to better focus my own attention on the actual life I was living in three full dimensions. I was afraid I was harming both my soul and my mental health. I may dream of riches and glory, but I know enough of life to value those first two things above the last two.
My doctor did not find any non-mental-heath reasons for feeling crazy, but she did remind me that I needed a mammogram, so that seemed like a mixed bag of an appointment. I continued on with life and was proud of myself for being an adult and feeding the children even though I mostly wanted to give up and only eat ice cream out of the carton while wearing sweatpants. Sometimes I did that, too, after the children were in bed.
Although it was now barely February, our family was tired. Our entire household had been stretched with ill parents on both sides, complicated work challenges, and just general life pressure pushing and pulling at us all.
So one afternoon, like all healthy adults who know how to handle stress, Jay and I picked our children up from school and ran away to Disney World. We felt like our kids deserved a couple of days of ridiculous excess to blow off steam and remind our family that we do actually all like each other and enjoy being together.
This is why I found out that I had a bad mammogram on a random Thursday while surrounded by the Bone Yard Playground of Animal Kingdom. I sat, in the Disney version of an archaeological dig, listening to the details that both breasts showed anomalies and I’d need to go to a diagnostic mammogram at the hospital’s Breast Care Center where I would meet with a radiologist immediately and probably some more words after that. I was holding my phone to my ear and covering the other with my free hand, pressing in to drown out the sounds of kids playing and parents calling their names and the general press of frustrated humanity that accompanies an amusement park. I was not okay.
Over the next few weeks I would learn that I did have breast cancer, but not the really bad kind, but I would need a mastectomy, but not on both sides, but I don’t carry the genes, but reconstruction will be tricky, but it needs to be done sooner rather than later and a whole host of other horrifying new facts and opinions from several different doctors. My fears about not being important enough, or successful enough, or impactful enough were replaced by a myriad of feelings about body image, surgical procedures, and what felt like an ocean of vulnerability.
Supposedly, when you fear for your life, your body reacts with a “fight or flight” response. I think mine just goes full ostrich. Fear and uncertainty make me want to curl up into a little ball and hide under the covers. I want to crawl into a cave with the loves of my life and bar the cave-door. I’m aware that hiding doesn’t make cancer go away so instead, I went to appointments and faced hard choices and then limped (mostly metaphorically, but sometimes literally) my way back into my little house for late night comedies and red wine. I’m an oenophile-ostrich.
And I built, around my mind and body, a shell to keep out all thought, reflection, and overwhelming emotions. Because I love both food and cooking shows, my bubble was made of sugar, like the toppers of elaborate cakes that almost always break when the contestants go to move it to its final spot before judging. I suppose that even my frazzled self knew enough about emotional shells to recognize that they are inherently fragile.
I didn’t write. I didn’t post pictures of vacations or anything else for that matter. I nursed my wounds and curled up with my pack of humans and sent snarky text observations about my fellow patients at the plastic surgeon’s office to my family. In some ways I regret that I did not document this year on paper, but I could not. Would not. Did not. Some version of not.
The 40-something fear that my role of mom had eclipsed all other facets of my identity and begun to make me less-than, invisible, and second class was sublimated by the physical removal of the most maternal part of my body. I became a stay at home mom who couldn’t nurse a baby if I wanted to. A mother with no milk. Already afraid of slipping into nothingness, I was now literally taking up less space on earth than I had originally claimed. I just didn’t have the words or the inclination to share my broken self for any of that.
I am significantly better today. My physical self is healing and without cancer. I have removed (or maybe eaten) my sugar-shell and begun to probe at the hurts, fears, and hopes of both now and before-now. I do not suddenly have solutions to all of my problems or a newfound zest for life. I’ve always been fairly zesty. But I am well enough to share my joys (travel, family, humor) and my moments of brokenness. Pain and failure are just as universal as warmth and love and all are part of the ride.
No matter what we plan.