Monday, December 12, 2011

Day 585: Dear Abby

"Dear Abby:

I recently went through a traumatic event, and I find that I'm "numbing" myself, not through alcohol or drugs, but through things like housework, crosswords, and the Internet. My kids have noticed and I just tell them that mommy is distracted. What should I do?"

I read a letter very similar to this one in the paper this morning. It wasn't to Abby, since she is no longer living, and the details might be off a bit, but you get the gist. Of course, the response was to go to therapy to work through the grief of losing a loved one. Can I be an advice columnist? How hard is it to tell everyone and her mother to go to therapy? I would love to be the Abby who says, honey, just keep doing what you're doing. Crosswords? It doesn't get more innocuous! Be proud you're not in prison! You're doing fine, you are an excellent example of someone who needed a coping mechanism and found it! Anyway, I felt a great amount of empathy for this person, and a lightbulb went off in my head as I realized that I am, perhaps, doing the same thing. And I think my coping mechanisms, while flawed, seem to be getting the job done--most of the time.

Everyone reading this knows I'm not big on vice. We're getting better at it over here, spiking our hot cocoa with Bailey's, playing hooky from work once in a while, stuff like that. At a party the other night, one of our old neighbors said he was "proud" of us for having so many pudding shots. So we're not the wildest bunch, and yet, I do think that while I might not drown my sorrows or cheat on my husband or do anything truly "bad," I am, in fact, numbing myself these days. Perhaps I have always done that, to some extent. I'm always trying to get away from my own thoughts.

Gabe chastised me this morning for yelling at the kids while they were refusing to get ready for school. In that scenario, I don't actually feel bad about yelling. Augie was being absolutely impossible--IMPOSSIBLE. Sometimes, nothing else gets through to that kid. But in general, I think that even if he doesn't say it, Gabe feels that I need to be more nurturing with the kids. I don't think he would believe that if I spent more of what we call "quality time" with them. And I do spend that time--I have changed my schedule, quit doing certain sports etc., so I could be home for dinner and to put them to bed. But so much of the time, I am running around, cooking, cleaning, leaving the house to exercise, and while it relaxes me to some extent, I still feel restless much of the time, and I need to be alone, and I lose my patience with the kids and with Gabe.

I have always needed my solitude. Maybe it's that annoying selfish writer person in me. I need the house to myself, and if I can't have that, I need to leave. That's always been true. I need time to get away because my mind is always racing; I have so many thoughts and internal conversations happening at the same time, that being around other people--even my own family--can be overwhelming if I don't get a break. Post-cancer, this has just been more true. I've admitted to how I acted right after my diagnosis, when I couldn't be around anyone or talk to anyone, and I left the house for long stretches of time. I just haven't admitted that that behavior has never really left--it's eased up, I've learned to modify, but the instinct's still there.

I wish that I believed that therapy would help, if I am indeed numbing through manic amounts of activity. But here's the thing--I know exactly what my problem is. It helps to verbalize it, so I'm going to do that here. I had cancer, and cancer can come back at any time, if it's an aggressive form of cancer it can come back even if you caught it very early, and there's not much you can do about it. Oh, everyone wants you to think you can change this cancer thing that's entered your life. The new studies talk about eating right, never drinking, never smoking, not going on the pill or having CT scans. They talk about how important it is not to be obese, especially post-menopause. Thanks, but what does obesity after age 50 have to do with size 2, 34 year old Katy? Why don't these studies control for hormone receptor status? And why do I need to fall into a funk just by reading the paper, which tells me that every drink I ever had, every cigarette I bummed from college friends, every pill I took for 11 years that was supposed to PROTECT me from cancer, that period I had for the first time at 11, those babies I didn't have until I was 30, those CT scans I had for epilepsy--that this is why I had cancer, and hey, it's all my fault? And then, as long as I avoid all possible "bad" human behaviors, and as long as I have a kick-ass, happy-go-lucky attitude, cancer won't visit me again.

I think about all the breast cancer survivors I've met recently--so many of them younger, skinny, athletic women I've met at the gym, spinning, what have you. I think about the triple negative, BRCA-positive survivor I met at pilates who said that she hates how cancer has made her feel nervous, insecure and slightly depressed all the time. I think about the woman who was diagnosed two weeks after I was, who is 16 years older than me but still so young and fit and thin, who was on tamoxifen and just had to come off of it because it gave her two mini-strokes. She was talking about how she felt depressed about cancer and was taking anti-depressants, and how it was so far from her diagnosis that it caught her by surprise. I said to her: well, I'm sure those strokes didn't help your feelings of depression. These are the things breast cancer survivors laugh about while they're taking walks together. Oh some genius found out that young women who are single and young women who have children are more likely to be depressed if they've had breast cancer! I never would have guessed.

Here's my problem. I had breast cancer, an aggressive form of it, at a time in my life when I was completely unprepared for it, and every single one of my contemporaries was unprepared for it too, and unsure how to interact with me. The reality of my cancer is still there--the possibility of recurrence, but more than that, the very real fact of death. Yes, perhaps I will survive this beast. Perhaps not, though. And even if I do, death is still there, it's there for all of us, but it just recently slapped me pretty hard in the face. And the fact of my own very imminent death, and even that of my children, is what's behind this numbing, this need to be distracted all the time. Sometimes it's still hard for me to be around my kids, even when I'm happy and they're happy, because my love for them makes me feel weak, and scared, and I need to block those thoughts. To some extent, all new parents go through this, when that tiny helpless person makes you see the world the way it really is, and you think holy shit, what have I done. Now, I'm not a new parent--I'm just new to cancer, AND I'm a parent, and that makes things tough. It makes me wish there was some magic; I wish I could be like Lenny, who in the middle of her uber-smart, logical, mind, can think of a way that Santa is real, she can rationalize how he gets through all the time zones (geography NERD), how he knows everything about you, because she wants and needs so badly to believe it. I envy her.

Though this might alienate some readers, I am going to say that at times, I wish I was a religious person. Some people are not religious in the sense that they don't often go to church. I am not religious in the sense that I don't believe in God and I don't believe in an afterlife. For many years, I have thought it would be nice if I could change my mind, but I can't. Parenthood made me wish this somewhat desperately, as I would love to imagine a world, no mater how corporeal, without pain, where I could always see my kids again. But more than that, it is the other tenets of religion that I find alluring, especially post-cancer. In particular, I covet the forgiveness. That divine forgiveness! A pardon for all of these earthly trespasses, all of these flaws, all of these self-induced distractions. One of the reasons I don't believe in therapy in my case is that it seems such an exercise in selfishness, just one more thing to make me feel better, on top of all the other things I've already chosen to do: work out, carve out time for myself, cook, whatever. What I need is some way to know that these things I'm doing, which aren't terrible things, and aren't specific to me either, are forgivable, that my kids and even other people will someday understand why I've done what I've done. I need a big helping of given forgiveness, if you will.

We all have our damage. Gabe had a very rough childhood, and when he acts in certain ways, it's like I can see that written on his face, but he can't see it at all. It doesn't excuse bad behavior, but the knowledge of why people can behave imperfectly is a path to forgiveness of that behavior. My mom used to dust or clean obsessively, strip floors, "kill snakes" as we said. Her mother made jello. This was a family joke--talking about Marthagene making jello when she was nervous. What do I love about that story? I love that we all knew why she did it, what it meant, and that it was illogical, and even unhelpful. It was right there on the surface, so we could laugh about it, look past it--and forgive it. The same held true for killing snakes. I'm sorry if I need to keep chopping those snakes' heads off, I'm sorry I can't sit still, I'm sorry I have no patience. Perhaps I'm writing this, this whole damn thing for the last 585 days, because I knew how I would behave, and I knew my kids would be too young to understand, and my friends would not be around me enough to notice, and my husband would be too overwhelmed himself, and my family would worry about me and want me to see a specialist, so I started this project, this long letter asking for forgiveness.

I often relate funny tales from my dating days, from past loves or conquests or whatever you want to call them. There's a reason--I think the way we interact in our romantic lives says something deeper about us as people. So here's another one, one I might regret writing about, but oh well. When I was newly single, out of a 6+ year relationship that ended in a way that very much felt like a divorce, my mom actually tried to set me up with someone. I knew this was a bad, bad idea. Now that I'm a mom, I vow to never set up one of my kids. It's just BAD. Sorry, mom. Anyway, she was in grad school at the time, and was friends with a guy who was close to my age--he was 27 and I was 24, I think. He was also very religious, and, get this--he was a virgin.

Did I mention that this was a bad idea? Now I have nothing against virginity, but I also had no clue what that was all about, not at our age. When this guy, who was very good looking, funny, easy to talk to, and smart, came to my apartment to pick me up, he wouldn't come in the door. I invited him in, said I needed to get my coat (he was early), and he just stood there. It took me a minute to realize that he wouldn't come in because I lived alone, and he wouldn't be alone with me. I found that creepy on so many levels--because it implied that as soon as we were alone together we'd be attacking each other, and because it just made for an awkward interaction. But the date continued, and we had fun; we went to a movie after dinner--a horror movie, in fact. And I could go to the movies with my grandma, but I would still be slapping her thigh and talking about shit, and hell, this was a horror movie, and it was a date, so how could I help grabbing him when I was freaked out? I've been doing that since I was 12. He almost jumped out of his seat when I touched his leg though, and I think he was more afraid of me than the film. At the end of the day, we never went out again, which was definitely for the best.

Why am I telling this story? Here's why. As I said, he was extremely religious, and he was friends with my mom, a noted atheist. And, as I found out over time, he really liked me. I don't know if he liked me romantically, but he liked me, and he liked my mom especially. He thought we were good people. He told my mom that he believed we would go to heaven, and he prayed for us. She thanked him, and then asked how we would get into heaven if we didn't believe in God. He was raised to think that non-believers would go straight to hell. Did he feel that God would make an exception for us? No, he was much too steadfast in his beliefs for that. Instead, he told her that we were both very good people, that we both had big hearts, and that therefore, we really did believe in God, we just didn't know it. He had decided a way for us to be saved; he had spent time figuring it out, because it mattered to him that we wouldn't suffer for all eternity.

He was forgiving us. Us! These heathens! My mom, a divorced woman! Me, the apparent physical manifestation of all sin! I know that only divine forgiveness is truly divine to those who believe that and I know this is literally blasphemy to some, but that moment of human forgiveness was one that I will never forget, especially because it came from someone who seemed to feel that he would be brought straight into the depths of hell on earth if he spent more than three hours with me.

I guess that's what I'm asking for--for those who know me now, and for my kids who will read this one day, maybe when I'm still here, maybe not--to forgive me my trespasses, my distraction, my impatience. To believe what another man told me once, which is that I am not a sweet person, I am not even always a nice person, but that I was the only inherently good person he had ever known. I don't need to be the only one, but I do try to be one of those people. I always loved that line in the Natural, my all-time favorite movie: "He'd give his left arm to give Pop the pennant." I might sigh in an exasperated tone if you show up at my house uninvited, but I'd let you in; if I know you well enough, hell, I'd give you my left arm.

What use is it to me these days, anyway? I might as well give it away. As I've been coming up with new ways to try and distract myself, I've been thinking about doing some new kind of workout, some new sport. And I just had to stop myself. I realize that on the one hand, I need these things, this constant movement, to be sane, to sleep, to not be a bitch, to try to live longer. On the other, I have nothing left to prove, no desire to compete with myself and my body anymore. You see me, and you see a healthy, small, young woman. You don't see the wars that have taken place in this body, the fight to be able to walk, the fear that the next seizure I have will happen while I'm driving my entire family somewhere on the highway at 70 mph, the things that have been taken from me that I fought to get back. It's tiring.

This morning I was spinning, and it was hard because I've been sick with a terrible cold, but I've missed a few days and had trouble sleeping. The instructor asked me where I'd been (when I say a few, I mean I haven't gone since Friday) and I felt like Norm from Cheers. She said they felt the room had been lopsided without me in my usual place, and it made me feel emotional somehow, to be a "regular" somewhere; the same is true at the gym at work, where no one ever takes my place on the floor. Is this sick? I don't know, but I started to think about this numbness, and in the middle of the ride I had to get up and leave, to go to the bathroom, but also to cry. What the hell? What strange being has invaded me?

Oh, right--cancer. That's the rub. Someone said the other day during a discussion of working out, "why can't you do pullups? Lots of people have injuries! You can do it! You can learn to do anything!" Yes, that's true. And I have, I have learned how to do just about everything, including the things that other people never think about because they could do them all along. I get pissed at my body, frustrated at the pain in physical therapy, and then my unnatural response is to think about how can I do something more, something bigger, something difficult with my body. Then I have to slap myself and say no, what this is, this imperfect, scarred up, stretch-marked, half-gimpy, arthritic, 5'5", 116 pound, size 2, all legs, short-mop-haired self is, is a petite middle finger to the world just for still working.

I don't go to church. I don't go to therapy. I write this blog. If I act crazy, please forgive me. Perhaps one day I will forgive myself, cut myself a break. Perhaps not. Just know there was a method to the madness, and much madness to the method, but I meant well. Thanks, Abby.


  1. I know it's not for or about me. But I get it and I will always forgive you and be grateful that you understand me. Sometimes we will both be frustrated. But we will endure as long as mortal coils allow and yet longer still in what we impart unto our progeny. Thank you as always for your unmatchable words.

  2. Reader's digest version of therapy (aka, what I learned in therapy other than I hate therapy) -- quit being so hard on yourself. Also, have you developed a computer program to track days now? 585? Now I'm just in awe of the math.