Thursday, January 11, 2018

Booby Trap

I walked out of work early on the Friday before New Year’s, feeling pleased with the good year that was 2017, yet another vacation weekend ahead and all the lovely responses to a question I put out to my Facebook friends asking about the best thing to happen to them this year. Two hours later I was laying on a hospital table, while a radiologist I had just met was squeezing hot ultrasound jelly on my left breast.

A few months earlier I did what obedient women in their 40s do and followed my doctor’s recommendation to get my first mammogram. They are, everyone said, no big deal. It so happened that my company had a mobile imaging truck coming that month so one Tuesday I awkwardly giggled my way through getting my breasts squeezed by a big machine in the parking lot of my office. Aside from some jokes about being topless at work, I didn’t think too much about it. Normal. Routine. Responsible even.

Until I had a voicemail from a local number I didn’t recognize. The breast people. Some things weren’t clear, a few more pictures, we’ll send these to your doctor, can you come back in?

My doctor said it was normal, my friends who have had second rounds of images said it was normal. It was just not worth getting worked up because it was all, super, super normal.

Holidays were busy, I didn’t feel any sense of urgency and waited until after Christmas to go back in.  

So there I am, leaving work and that happy Facebook thread on the last Friday of the year. I had plans to take my niece ice skating. I made a joke to my sister about seeing if they could “squeeze me in” early and told her I would be there easily by 3 to get Nina.

My sum total of personal hospital experience is a four-hour kidney stone episode about seven years ago so they feel quite foreign to me. I checked in and waited until a nice nurse took me back, gave me a gown, and told me to lock my cell phone away with my clothes. I went into another waiting room where a bunch of older ladies were sitting around telling chemo stories. I looked for a seat away from all of them. I didn’t want anyone to ask me anything and risk hearing any kind of “yeah they thought mine was nothing too” cancer story. There was a TV on, and the program was about a violent rape and murder case so I focused all my attention on that creepy show. Easier to fill my head with that stranger’s horrible experience than to allow even a tiny thought that this was going to be anything more than a few extra images and off to the skating rink.

The technician was nice. She pointed out the little specks she was magnifying. She said, “this really doesn’t seem like anything but I’ll show the radiologist and he’ll decide if you need an ultrasound”.

The room you wait in to see if you need an ultrasound is small, no windows, a couple of old magazines on the table. Family Circle. Reader’s Digest. A clear demographic that usually sits in this room. I’m now late to pick up Nina but I don’t have my phone.

When the door opens I already know she’s here to tell me I need an ultrasound. I lay back and I think about how most women have their first ultrasound experience looking for a baby heart beat and here is mine, looking for cancer. She gets started and I go to ask a question but it catches in my throat and I can feel myself starting to cry and I really don’t want to so all I get out is “what are you doing?”. She is kind, tells me what she sees, explains that she’s taking the pictures but the radiologist will have to look at them too. She leaves to find him, then comes back and says he’s in a procedure and it will be ten more minutes and is that OK? I tell her I’m late to pick up my niece. No cell allowed but if I know my sister’s number I can call her from the phone in the room. She leaves and I call Emily, hoping she’ll pick up a strange number. She does, I tell her I’m still there and she instantly says she’s coming over. I know they won’t let her back but I’m glad she’s on her way.  I didn’t think to bring anyone because this was all so routine.

There are no magazines in this room either. I have this keychain bracelet from the locker on my wrist so I’m playing with that while I count tiles on the ceiling. Eight minutes, seven minutes. We aren’t going ice skating. I don’t want cancer. I mean, no one wants cancer but I’m 41 and I’m single and dating already sucks so hard and what? I’m going to be a cancer patient? No thank you.

The radiologist comes in. He’s so nice. Kind of a goof. He’s the third stranger of the day with his hands all over my left breast. He tells me exactly what he’s looking for and what he sees. “There it is”, he tells the technician. Ah. So, there is an “it”.

“Well, it’s likely nothing, but we like to be safe so I’d like to biopsy this one.” We are three layers deep into “this is no big deal” so those words have lost all their meaning. Didn’t every cancer story start with “this is probably nothing’”? He’s so nice. He asks me if I have good New Year’s plans and please don’t let this ruin my weekend. Yes. I have good plans. And then I say that hey it might be my last so no this won’t ruin my weekend, I have incentive for it to be the best ever. They are used to gallows humor so we all laugh.

I finally get to put my clothes back on and go out and my sister shows up a few minutes later. She sits with me while we set up the biopsy appointment.

I didn’t really want to be alone that evening so I went to see the zoo lights with Emily and her family. My niece Nina drove with me and she requested that I play “Little Red Corvette” in the car. We sang “Baby you’re much too fast”, Nina’s favorite part, at the top of our lungs and I was glad it was dark and she sits in the back so I didn’t have to explain the tears over a song we listen to every time we are together. I told myself I could have that night and the next day to worry all I wanted and then I would put it away.

When I woke up on Saturday, I felt a kind of crushing anxiety I have only experienced a few times in my life. As if I didn’t move, or open my eyes, and if I could make myself as small as possible, I could freeze time and none of this would be happening. I laid there for a few hours, holding still, willing myself to fall back to sleep so the endless loop of dread in my head would shut off.   

I had told my brother-in-law I would go with him to take the kids skiing, and the thought of spending the day in the mountains with them broke through and I got up. I love the routine of getting ready for a ski day and I was feeling something close to cheerful as I left the house. My sister-in-law, who is a nurse and who I had texted the night before because I couldn’t say any of it out loud, called while I was driving. I pulled into a parking lot at the bottom of the canyon and cried but also felt comforted as she walked me through all the ways this wasn’t as scary as it sounded. She struck a perfect balance between acknowledging that it sucked but also, making me feel hopeful.  I headed up the canyon blasting a playlist I had made last summer of all my favorite female artist “anthems” and had made a couple of resolutions by the time I got up to Solitude.

I play by all the healthy human rules. I work out. I eat my veggies. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I sleep. I go to the doctor. I live an active life. If something nefarious was in my body, I didn’t do anything to put it there. There was nothing to second guess, nothing for me to dissect and overthink, no “cause” that I could run through my mind over and over as I tried to fall asleep.

And whatever it was, it was already there. For the next 12 days, I could worry and freak out and nothing would change. I could drive myself crazy overthinking everything like I am prone to do, or I could just. Let it go. Allow it to play out without losing my mind because it’s completely beyond my control.

I was essentially born worried. And for the most part, for my adult life, I’m always in the driver’s seat on everything. So, you take a natural worrier who likes to be in constant control and you have a person who wastes a fair amount of time tied up in useless knots. I have, as the kids say, “no chill”. So much of quitting my job and taking some time off last year was about learning how to let things go, to trust the universe a little bit more, and to pry that death grip off the steering wheel.  I spent the last half of 2017 feeling like a much calmer, saner, less worried version of myself. I recognized on that drive that now was a pretty outstanding opportunity to see if that was a version that could stick in the face of things beyond job stress and some guy not calling.

So that is what I have done. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had a couple of small meltdowns, or that there hasn’t been some staring at the ceiling of my bedroom in the middle of the night time. But for the most part, I have been uncharacteristically calm in the face of probably the scariest process I have ever been through. The biopsy was on Monday and although I’m not in a huge rush to have four big needles stuck in my breast again anytime soon, it was a relatively easy experience. I was watching everything on the screen and the doctor kept telling my “young breast tissue” was a little harder to get through, which DELIGHTED me in the midst of a day where I definitely cried when each successive nurse asked me to confirm my full name and birthday. My mom and sister came, and having all the kiddos in the waiting room was a sweet “life goes on” way to wrap it up. There is now a band-aid on my breast that I can’t stop looking at and laughing. It looks so innocuous, like I got a paper cut or something, not two weeks of wondering if my body is manufacturing poison. 

I’m now waiting on results and there is some stress in that, but for thirteen days I have taken good care of myself.  I wore all the sequins and went to a big crazy party for New Year’s, cooked good food, worked out, did yoga. I’ve been productive at work, spent time with people I love, stayed out late on a work night to see a favorite band. Just lived my life the way I always do, instead of moving through this time feeling scared and out of control. 

I get a little choked up still when I think about it, but I’m not afraid. Whatever happens, there will be another plan, another chance to grow, another layer of empathy.

I wrote this piece before I had the results. I didn’t want the outcome to color the experience of what it felt like through the process. I got the “all clear” call from my doctor today and felt relief in every cell in my body. I'm celebrating with a workout and a cupcake, as you do. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beauty School Drop Out

In the space of 10 months last year I moved back to my hometown, bought my first home and turned 40. Having spent most of my adult life as a bit of a gypsy, constantly moving and traveling, I was excited to put down some real roots. And reaching a culturally significant, albeit arbitrary, age milestone lent itself to some serious self-reflection. I sailed into my birthday with a solid job, the reassurance from my doctor that babies of my own were still biologically on the table, the most optimism toward dating I had felt in a long time, and check marks next to a giant list of impressive accomplishments. I spent my 40th weekend at a posh hotel in Park City, surrounded by family and good friends. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had successfully avoided any kind of mid-life meltdown.

But you know what’s coming right? That I’m not here to write about how flawlessly I handled actually BEING 40?

Around the beginning of the year, I started feeling exhausted all the time. I couldn’t get enough rest; I’d slog through the day and then come home and fall asleep on the couch. I was in bed until 11 or 12 on the weekends. I was terrified that this was some kind of new reality of getting older. I went to my doctor, she did some tests and it turned out I was running too low on iron. We got me on some supplements and within days, all my physically energy came roaring back. I was relieved. But it was also clear to me that although I wasn’t tired and my body was feeling normal again, my mind and my heart were still sluggish and out of sorts.

I was crossing the road to work one morning when I found myself thinking “so wait, is this it then? I’m just going to get up and go to a job every day for the rest of forever? And then go home and spend an hour swiping left and right on an increasingly grim pool of potential mates? Is this really it?”  Every. Single. Mid-life Crisis. Cliché. Floated through my head.

I was heartbroken. I tried so hard, for so long, to take every opportunity, to say yes more than I said no, to do more, to set goals, to try, to go and to go and to go, and now here I was, metaphorically and often literally, laying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, feeling empty and tired and like maybe I had done it all wrong. I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t just look around at what a good life I had built and feel grateful. And I was embarrassed that I turned 40 and immediately lost my shit. How very, very basic of me.

I wallowed in it for a bit. I cried a lot. I watched too much Netflix. I channeled a fair amount of frustration into the treadmill.  I actually cried on a date, which was definitely a life low point, and probably one of the catalysts that pushed me to figure out a solution.

I had spent 17 years moving to new cities, starting my life over time after time, giving too much of myself to crazy high pressure jobs, often spending as much time in hotel rooms as I did at home. I lost my dad, I had a couple of incredibly disappointing breakups and I always, always kept my chin up, always tried to be the best little soldier. And in the process of trying to live at the top of my lungs, I burned myself out.   

What I needed was a break.  Not a wild adventure, not another brand new slate. But an opportunity to slow down, to own all of my time, to be all the way present in the parts of my life that I most care about.  I needed to do something to show my heart and my soul that no, this wasn’t “it”.

So I quit my job. Just. Quit. I’m a world-class worrier who likes security and often panics when I do something dramatic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite as peaceful about any decision in my entire life.  I left my office on the last day and drove straight to Southern Utah where my brother and brother-in-law and I took five small children camping in the Grand Canyon, the first time there for all of us.

And then for eight, long, sunny, dreamy, perfect weeks, I did whatever I wanted. I’ve had a job since high school. I worked in college and then through the summers. My “gap year” was an LDS mission where all we did was work.  I haven’t owned every second of my time in my entire life. I made the joke that for once, what my life looked like on social media was actually underselling how great it was. I hiked, I played with my nieces and nephews, I napped when I felt like it, I sat at the pool for hours at a time, I went on long walks with friends and talked about things that mattered, I took the scenic route back from road trips, I went on dates, I worked out in the middle of the day, I showed up for friends in ways you can’t always do when you are working, I did some service, I reorganized a closet or two and planted so, so many flowers. I saw a few of my very favorite musicians, ate outside as often as I could, cooked a lot, didn’t check email almost ever. I broke some bad habits, figured out some boundaries I would set for the next job, and made a list of the compromises I wouldn’t make when I started working again.

But mostly, I tried to be truly present in everything I did. I wasn’t constantly processing the ten other things I needed to be doing or where I was going next or whether I could squeeze in this or that. I didn’t have the stress of my work life bleeding over into my life life.

After a few weeks of unspooling, it became so clear that I hadn’t had a full cup in a very long time. There was a calm and a confidence and a peace in my life that came crashing back during that time. I felt the most “me” I had felt in years. 

And then I got a job again. A job I am excited about, at a company that works hard to treat its people well. A company where the EVP told me he expects his team to really leave when they walk out the door at night. It will be a good challenge and a terrific place to work, but it won’t be my identity, and I won’t give it the parts of me it isn’t even asking for.

I’ve made a lot of good decisions in my life, but this one-putting aside a lot of fear and worry and doing something slightly crazy-is probably the thing I will look back on with the most pride. I know not everyone can just quit their jobs and drop out of responsible society for a few months. But I am quite convinced that when your life starts feeling like it’s living you instead of the other way around, there are ways to flip that script. Everyone has some version of taking a step off the cliff and finding out how the universe is going to make sure you grow wings. Six months ago I was convinced I had hit an expiration date. Sitting here tonight, I feel like I am in the prime of my life. Strong. Happy. Present. Open to an infinity of possibilities. I have no doubt that some of my very best chapters are still ahead.

So take that 40. You did your worst and I totally won. Boom. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Almond Counting

I belong to an online forum designed to support professional and educational achievement for LDS women. It’s full of both married and single women who don’t fit the traditional mold for my culture and has become for me a nice place to discuss issues that are rarely broached on Sunday. As an older, single, Obama loving, gay marriage supporting, unapologetic feminist, I don’t always feel like I fit in my church and this forum has connected me to other women who are also trying to figure out their place.

So it was with a bit of disappointment that I followed one particular thread that caught fire there this week.  A woman posted that her, by all accounts pretty amazing, 28-year-old daughter was beginning to despair that she would ever meet a nice LDS boy and get married and start a family. I expected support that 28 was young to worry about such a thing and that there are a multitude of ways to have a fulfilling life and instead, it devolved into tales of how horrifyingly late in life these ladies finally got married and got to leave the nightmare of single life and don’t worry, someone is out there for you girl, keep your chin up while you slog through your poor, poor sad lonely life until you find someone. Maybe it wasn’t that extreme.  However, married woman after married woman told her anecdote about how she or someone she knew had “not married until (insert an age where you can hardly believe someone was willing to take on the old crone)”. Their loud voices managed to drown out the single women here and there who were trying to say, “hey actually it might not happen and here’s how to have a good life no matter what” or “you know, let’s not tell this girl to move to another state to find a better dating pool because everywhere and nowhere is an ideal place to date”. I worried that maybe the forum’s usual encouragement of everyone having their own path and no one’s worth being contingent on their marital status was all lip service to cover a deep, abiding need for a prince to come along and save us.

I don’t believe it was intentional, or that any of those women realized that what they were  making being single sound a form of torture, but I’m turning 40 in three weeks and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what sort of advice would have been legitimately helpful from someone actually in the trenches of singledom when I was her age. So here we go, my old spinster advice to a 28-year-old single gal.

“So. I hear you are beginning to worry that the relation-ship has sailed for you and that you will be spending the rest of your life alone. First of all, may I say 28, that I have so much empathy for how you feel right now. But I feel equal parts like rolling my eyes right out of my head. I know that as an LDS woman, you have been watching your friends get married for ten years, but man, 28. It’s early to start thinking it’s already over.  

But this isn’t about age, and it’s not about dating. It’s about a promise to you, that your life will be infinitely better if you take the time right now to learn that your fundamental self does not change with your relationship status.

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast by a woman who has spent her whole life struggling with her weight. She talked about how she had always been heavy, but because it’s shameful to be fat, she spent her time interacting with thin people by always assuring them that she was definitely doing all she could to lose weight and be “one of them”. And then one day, she decided that being thin wasn’t going to change the fact that she was a smart, fun, interesting person and she didn’t want to waste her life counting almonds. So she told her friends, “guess what guys? I’m fat. And I’m ok with it, so let’s stop talking about it eh?”.

Don’t spend your life counting the dating almonds. Don’t relate to the married people around you by stressing how hard you are working to escape being a single person. Don’t position your value to yourself or any of the people in your life on a relationship status scale. You will have all manner of well-meaning friends and family assuring you that it’s going to happen for you, that they just know you will get married. The truth, my young awesome friend, it that you might. But it might be a few years, it might be a lot of years, and it really might be not at all. If you waste those years wallowing in worry and fear, I can promise you from a place of authority that you will regret every second you lost to being sad about something that is essentially out of your control. I have willed and worked myself into nearly every dream on my teenage checklist so I assure you that if a family was a thing you could earn, you would not know dozens of incredible men and women who have achieved success in every other aspect of their lives who are alone. You can go to every singles ward and be on every app and accept every set up, and it doesn’t mean you’ll find a partner. I approached a lot of experiences in my twenties and early thirties with the anticipation that maybe this is where I would meet “him”. I regret the opportunities that I allowed to be dampened by the disappointment of not being romantically fruitful.  So you can decide right now if you want to savor all the advantages of this season of your life or if you want to spend the next unknown amount of years always feeling like a little bit of a failure.   

I want you to do a little exercise for me. I want you to think about all the people you know who are married and ask yourself if any of them became fundamentally different people when they found a mate. Do you know a bunch of people who were lame but then they got married and became kind and good and interesting? No, you do not. Because getting married does not alter the core of a person. Are there unique lessons that only marriage can teach you that will make you grow in certain ways? Definitely. Can the same be said for being single? Absolutely.  Who you are, and what you can contribute to the world is unaffected by your marital status. There are douchey married guys, and mean and gossipy married ladies, and loads and loads of weirdos who manage to get hitched. Just like there are rad single people who are weary of hearing “gosh, you are a catch, why are you single?”. 

I turn 40 in about three weeks. I’m on the tail end of getting over a breakup so I am square one single right now. I have had an unreal, fulfilling, meaningful life so far. I used to feel like I needed to downplay how fortunate I’ve been so it didn’t seem like I was enjoying being single too much. When a friend would say something about all the interesting things I was doing I would always be sure to say, “oh but I would trade it all for a family!”. Here’s the truth. No I wouldn’t. I haven’t been stuck in a back-up version of my life, this isn’t some “plan B” I’ve had to endure because I am not part of a couple. I am so fucking proud of the person I have become and I’m here as a result of the twists and turns of a life that I know is exactly the right one for me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I might be different in some ways had I married, but I wouldn’t actually be a better or more worthwhile human.  

So here’s the net of my advice. Tell your friends, and your family, “guess what guys? I’m single. And I’m ok with it, so let’s stop talking about it eh?”. And then go live your life. Do things, try things, fail at things, succeed at things. Say yes more often than you say no. And when you turn 30, or 35 or 40 or 80, you will be the very best and most fulfilled version of yourself no matter who does or doesn’t fall in love with you.