The Monster Under the Bed
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how closely my feelings and emotions are tied to my physical health. When I have lots going on, things to look forward to, I feel like I’m going to beat this and I’m happy and excited about life. I feel invincible. Then I have times (usually right after the good times) where I’m tired and need to stay home to rest and recuperate and be quiet, and I start to feel blah again. II start to feel a little down and it's harder to reach out and connect with friends cause I'm just not feeling it. Like I said, Blah.
A few weeks ago I was really sick with another bowel obstruction. If I'm counting right this was the fourth time that it’s happened, so I know the drill and what I need to do to get better. I'm acutely aware of what’s happening in my body from minute to minute, constantly monitoring and worrying about whether I’m losing too much weight, whether I’m getting enough fluids, whether it’s been too long without anything passing, and how long is this going to last?… the list is a long one. One of my Doctors told me to keep an extra 10 pounds on me so that I can make it through the times when I'm really sick or in case I have to have another surgery. Another one told me that certain foods could kill me. Another one told me that I have three or four days when that happens to turn things around before I get really sick and it's too late. The surgeons don’t want to touch me with a ten foot pole, and frankly, I don’t want them anywhere near me either. So yeah, when I do have a blockage I am keenly aware of everything going on and it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by anxiety.
I thought I’d learned, unfortunately by experience, what the early warning signs were and to switch to a liquid diet for a few days until I feel better. This time was different though because it hit me really fast and I can’t figure out what I ate that made me so sick. The other three times I knew exactly what I ate to cause it (red meat) and trust me, after experiencing that a few times I’m quite fine with never eating another steak again. The cows love me. So after 4 days of throwing everything up the blockage finally passed and I was starving. My stomach was growling, but I couldn’t eat. The anxiety was so overwhelming that I couldn’t swallow anything. I had a big ball of anxiety in my chest, I could feel it there, and was trying everything I could think of to get rid of it - deep breathing, meditation, shoving food in really fast before my brain caught up to what I was doing. Any trick I could think of to actually be able to get food down.
I’ve also been trying to eat really healthy, organic, nutritionally dense food. I’ve cut out sugar, dairy, processed food, anything that’s not healthy in order to give my body the best chance to heal itself. But none of those foods were the least bit appetising to me and made me feel more anxious and nauseous, but the thought of eating unhealthy food was also causing anxiety. In the end I had to let go of the anxiety around junk food as it was pretty apparent that I just needed calories going in. Glenn reminded me that we had some halloween size chocolate bars up in the pantry, why don’t you try those? They melt in your mouth so it won’t hurt you, but you’re also getting some calories. Brilliant! I started by sucking on aero and coffee crisp chocolate bars, then graduated to ginger ale and then Ichiban noodles. Nothing like a ton of sugar and salt to get you going again. Then on to bananas because I figured the sodium levels needed to be balanced out with some potassium. I’m not sure if that’s true, but one of the few things I remember from anatomy class is that our cells need a balance of sodium and potassium to function. Sounded good to me, and hey, mind over matter, right?
I still couldn’t eat real food though. Something else was going on and I didn’t know what. Then a friend reminded me to sit with the anxiety and talk to it, invite it in instead of trying to push it away. So I sat in my recliner and talked to the knot in my chest, asked it what was going on and reassured that part of me that I was feeling better and was back in control, monitoring everything to make sure that didn’t happen again, and I instantly started to feel better. Finally that night I was able to eat a little bit and managed to polish off a whole bowl of chicken noodle soup that a friend had brought over. It was the best bowl of chicken noodle soup that I’ve ever tasted. Then I took an ativan and had the best sleep I’d had in a while.
(My stomach looking like one of the paintings of hell inspired by Dante's Inferno, and that's me on the hamster wheel, madly trying to stay ahead and on top of everything going on inside.)
The next morning I woke up feeling better, but as soon as I tried to eat the anxiety was back. I sat and talked to those parts again, asking what was going on, and I got my answer.
A few weeks previous I had a check-up with my Oncologist and I asked him whether he thought I might actually survive this and get better and he said no without any hesitation. It wasn’t what I was expecting - I’ve been doing so well lately I thought that he’d at least say maybe, so when I heard the no without any pause, and the explanation that cancer just doesn’t work that way I was surprised. But I didn’t take the time to process any of that information, just did my usual schtick of covering it up with a joke or a “We’ll just have to see about that” and shoved it deep deep down inside. After a few days I kind of forgot about it, but I guess I didn’t really, because my body was still hanging onto it.
When I started to be curious and talk to that part I got my answer. I had a vision of me with a steel rod through my breastbone, a symbol of my cancer. It had me pinned to the wall and I couldn’t breathe. So I sat there and felt the pain and anguish wash over me again and I sat and cried, and then slept some more thanks to last nights’ ativan, and then cried some more and slept some more, from early morning until sometime in the mid-afternoon. I felt the pain and anxiety, allowed it in, dealt with it, and then it was gone.
It wasn't just the anxiety about eating that was gone. For weeks I’d been having a hard time choking down my chemo drugs. I had the same anxiety there as I did around eating. These pills make me feel sick, therefore I can’t swallow them. I finally felt relief from that as well and I’ve been able to take my pills without much problem since.
So yeah, I guess the moral of the story is don’t be like me. Don’t bury your feelings and emotions, deal with them, face the monsters. Allow yourself to feel them, and when you're ready, let them go. I’m a life-long burier, with lots of walls built up to protect myself from any hurt from the outside, but look where that got me - I have cancer! Years ago I was given the advice to never let people see me sweat. Never let them see any weakness because they will attack. That's probably the worst advice I've ever gotten, but advice that I followed for a long, long time. So now I’m learning to process my feelings and emotions, and deal with my baggage, but it’s a learning curve after so many years of doing things a different way. When I started to do that last fall I started to get better, so I guess there must be something to it, and thus, the blog.
It seems like everyone is having a hard time right now though, because there's always something. It's part of life. We've just come through more than two years of a worldwide pandemic and now we're watching what's happening in Ukraine and it's just too much sometimes. I don't know what the answer is, but I guess what I'm trying to say is this: when you feel anxious, helpless, angry, whatever, spend some time with those feelings. Instead of pushing them down deep inside where they just fester into something else, invite them in. Talk to them. Get to know and understand them. Don't be afraid - they can't hurt you, they're just feelings. Figure out what's really going on, fix the things you can, and be vulnerable enough to talk to someone you trust. Because the one thing I've figured out is when I face those scary things head-on, they lose their power. The air leaks out of them like a punctured tire, and suddenly the monsters aren't so big and scary anymore.
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