Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Wake Up Call

Here’s the thing: we’re all busy. It’s so easy to get into the groove of waking up in the cold and dark of early morning, hitting the ground running, and not stopping until you crash late in the night, way past the time when you said you’d put yourself to bed so that you’d be more rested tomorrow when you do it all over again. I was in that same grind. It wasn’t even a bad place to be, it was just life. And then life took a left turn I didn’t see coming.

It started out innocently enough. A week after my first unremarkable mammogram I got a letter saying they needed some extra scans. No big deal, right? I mean, the same thing happened to my sister, and after the additional scans, all was well. So I went in for my extra images of my right breast with my book in hand and chalked it up to an inconvenience that I was going to make the best of by catching up on some reading. As the tech crammed me into the mammogram machine we joked about our kids, the book I was reading, the coldness of the paddles in the machine. She took two quick pictures and had me dress and head back out to the waiting room. Minutes later I was called back in for another couple of images. The tech had me stay in the gown while the radiologist looked those scans over to make sure she had what she needed. When I was called back in for yet a third round of images, I knew something wasn’t right.

The chit-chat had stopped. The laughing had stopped. The tech took image after image and spoke to me in a calming voice that just made me more nervous. Calcification is normal, she assured me. It was my first mammogram. They were just getting an accurate baseline for my body, to compare to all future mammograms.

After the three rounds of scans I met with a very nice radiologist who explained that I had a cluster of calcifications she wanted to check again in six months, to make sure they weren’t anything to worry about. Both the friendly radiologist and my great regular doctor reassured me that all was well and I should put it out of my mind for the next six months. Which I mostly did.

I went in for my six-month follow-up certain that all was well and I’d be sent home after a few quick images. That didn’t happen. Instead, the same very kind radiologist sat me down in a stuffy overlit private waiting room and told me she still wasn’t sure what she was seeing, and that she’d like to do a biopsy. There really isn’t any way to hear that word without taking it to the worst-case-scenario of cancer, but I put on a brave face and told her I wanted the next available appointment. I wanted it over. I wanted a definitive answer as soon as possible. I made my appointment that day, and spent the next week waiting in a stress-hazed fog.

I told my immediate family and a couple of friends, but mostly just went through the motions of normal everyday life swinging between hope and fear for the next seven days. I slept fitfully at night and was exhausted all day. I meditated. I watched a lot of comedies. I cried and laughed and apologized to my kids for being spacy and cranky.

The day before my biopsy I had a powerful and emotional Reiki session with my amazing friend Heather. “This is a wake-up call,” Heather told me. “It’s time to stop putting everyone else first. Get in the driver’s seat of your own life. Be the powerhouse that you are.” This wasn’t new material. We’d covered the same issues in previous sessions. I’m a caretaker. I’ve had therapists, psychics, doctors, and healers all praise and criticize me for this natural tendency of mine. What I need is balance. What I need is permission from myself to just be myself, all the time. I need to learn how to put myself first even when the demands and needs of those around me are hammering down on me. Well, especially then. The difference with this particular Reiki session is that I got it. My body is not taking no for an answer. I love everyone around me and I want them all happy and whole and supported. But it’s not my job to keep them that way. My job is to take care of me, first and foremost.

I went to my biopsy with my boyfriend and my mother at my side, left them in the waiting room and made my way down the hall to meet my fate. During the long and uncomfortable procedure—lying face-down in an awkward position unable to move for a good forty minutes—I pulled out every positive visual I had in my mind. The Reiki session definitely helped: I was perfectly calm, even when they told me I was bleeding more than usual, and would need lots of compression and possibly a trip down to surgery for some stitches afterward. The biopsy itself was painless—I was numb and the team taking care of me was wonderful. The bleeding was an issue, and after the biopsy was over I spent another hour sitting with a nurse’s hand smashing my breast trying to get it to stop bleeding. Eventually my body responded and I was sent home, exhausted and sore but glad it was over. That was on a Friday afternoon. My results were expected on Monday afternoon.

I spent the weekend resting and visiting with family, trying to find a balance between being alone enough to rest, but not enough to let my imagination take off running down the dark alleys of my mind. Monday came, and with it the usual grind: waking sleepy kids, brushing their hair while they ate breakfast, rushing them out the door and into their classrooms in the pouring rain. I came home, changed out of my wet clothes, and spent four hours revising my latest novel. I want to start sending it out to agents by the end of the month, ahead of the holiday rush. It was a good distraction, immersing myself in a world of my own creation, with characters that have come to feel as real to me as anyone.

I called my doctor just before heading out to pick up my kids from school, but she didn’t have my results yet. Her office would be closing soon and I resigned myself to another restless night of waiting. I met my girls at their classrooms, chatted with some of the moms on the playground after school, and as I was leading the way to the parking lot with my kids in tow, my phone rang. It was the radiologist. I can’t recall our exact conversation, but the words “normal” and “no further treatment needed” were all I needed to hear. We were on our way to a dentist appointment for the kids, and they were excited and antsy to get there (Strange? Do your kids get so excited about trips to the dentist?) and I drove there in a lighter, brighter fog. I didn’t have time to sit and process until later that afternoon. It was over. I was fine. The biopsy was negative. I’ve never been so happy to fail a test in my entire life.

Wake up calls are terrifying things. We are never prepared for them. We don’t see them coming, and can’t see our way through them when they come. In the midst of them we lose all sense of control, and that is an awful feeling. But sometimes, they are exactly what we need.

I have a long to-do list in this life. I’ve known who I was and what I’m meant to do here from a very young age. I have a strong work ethic and can be very focused. But I also have a tendency to get pulled away from my various missions by trying to keep everyone around me happy and healthy and calm and focused. I stuff my own emotions to avoid making additional waves. I want to be everyone’s rock. I have a habit of ignoring my own wants and needs as I struggle to maintain a calm environment for everyone else’s benefit. No one gave me this job, I just took it on as a child and have been doing it ever since. And this wake up call has let me know that it no longer suits me.

While I can’t say that I’ll stop caring about the people who matter to me, I can say that I won’t be putting them first anymore, not at my own expense. I have books to write and kids to raise and exotic locations to see and many more amazing people to meet. And I need to take care of myself in order to make all of that happen. We never know what tomorrow will bring, what challenges will arise. So it’s better to get to that to-do list today. Not the one that other people put on you, but the one you made up for yourself long ago. Dust it off and get to work.