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Monday, August 22, 2016

Perpetual Crisis Averted

Job 6:11-12, "What strength do I have, that I should still hope?  What prospects, that I should be patient?  Do I have the strength of stone?  Is my flesh bronze?" (NIV).

Job has intrigued me since I was a child.  I was a weird kid.  It's OK.  Something I love about Job is his lack of filters.  I can relate.  Oh, how I can relate.  But...

Even in the midst of spilling my stuff all over the place, I have been quiet about some things that have been going on in my life.  I have had very good reasons for this, and the last thing I want is for this post to circulate widely enough that people I love will get angry with me.  I know that might happen, but I need to put this out there (wherever "there" is) at this point.  I used to enjoy listening to Paul Harvey as he shared "the rest of the story" on his radio broadcast.  Now it's my turn.

As a general rule, I am about as anti-drama as it gets.  Granted, I love hyperbole, and I have been described as an excellent storyteller, so you have to understand that there are certainly aspects of dramatic flair, but the drama that causes blood pressure spikes and hurt feelings is just not for me.  I thrive in high pressure, hard deadline, 11th hour moments, because I like the adrenaline rush.  I have spent most of my life capable of being very cool in the midst of crisis (although I do cry afterward), but I have recently learned that I cannot function in perpetual crisis mode.  I just can't.

As some of my readers may recall, my family was decorating our Christmas tree last year when I turned slightly to pick up my phone to take a picture of the kids.  It was an incredibly normal thing to do.  As I turned back, I heard a loud pop followed by multiple snapping noises.  The noises were accompanied by a painful sensation traveling down my spine.  I am stubborn and have a ridiculously high level of pain tolerance.  I did not expect to find myself unable to crawl from my bed to the shower, without help, the next morning, and I was not nice to my husband when he forced me to go to redi-med.  I was not nice, at all.

I was also not particularly nice when the redi-med doctor did not even look at my back and handed me three prescriptions.  I think two were for pain and one was a muscle relaxant, and even though I did fill them, I threw them out, because reading about the potential side effects was more frightening than the pain. 

I probably reached very, very, very not nice at some point during the several hours while I sat in the ER waiting room and then, when I was finally called back, a well meaning nurse followed the directions of another doctor who did not look at my back and shot something in my arm that allowed me to do incredible things such as floating around the room and walking on the ceiling.  Seriously friends, I could never be a drug addict, because I have control issues, and I cannot be climbing walls!

But then finally, a physical therapist came in and actually bothered to look at me.  It took her less than four seconds to suck in a deep gasp and exclaim, "You popped your ribs!"  I had no idea what that meant.  It sounded awful, but there was a certain sense of relief, because I do not like to feel as if I am crazy, and here was someone who was willing to validate the assumption that I'm not.  She spent about an hour trying to put my ribs back where they belonged, and she did, indeed, make some progress, but I left with a referral to see a spine doctor and more prescriptions in hand.  I decided that I would take something for the pain.  No, in retrospect, I don't think I actually decided that.  I think I was still strung out on whatever they gave me at the ER and my husband probably force fed me a Tylenol with Codeine, which is 100% guaranteed to knock me out within minutes.  But the point is, I finally had some relief and some answers, with hope that more would come.

It took several weeks to get an appointment with the spine doctor.  During this time, I did stupid things like traveling for hours on end and refusing pain meds unless I thought I was going to die.  I think I popped two or three pills during this time.  When I finally got in to see the spine guy, I explained that the PT at the ER said that I had popped my ribs, and he sort of chuckled, as if that was definitely not the issue.  We talked for probably ten minutes or so, I described how I had injured myself taking a picture with my phone, and I am almost certain that we were heading down the, "Oh my goodness, why do they send me crazy patients," road, but he was very nice and finally decided to look at my back.  He took a deep breath, exclaimed, "Oh!" and I knew I was probably not going to be committed any time soon.  He explained to me that he was adding a note to my chart stating that I was a very pleasant, reasonable, intelligent person.  No kidding.  I began to think that maybe, just maybe, this is the kind of injury that people do not normally endure while standing up and walking into doctor's offices on their own.  He ordered an x-ray to determine whether or not I had also broken any ribs, and he ordered PT.  You know...  for my ribs that were apparently no longer touching my spine where they should be.

This is the part of the story you all already know, though.  Thanks for sticking with me through almost 1,000 words of re-run.  That was fun, right?

I did the x-ray, and armed with a plan for how to resume normal life, Phil and I went out of our way to stop for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory, where I came pretty close to having a migraine, because I finally relaxed every muscle in my body for the first time in weeks.  And for about an hour, life felt manageable again.

When we got back to the van, I realized that I had several missed calls and a voicemail.  It was the phone number from the doctor's office.  The only thing that came to mind was that I must, in fact, have broken ribs (well that stinks), so I called back to speak to the doctor who I expected might actually not be at the office, because he had shared that he was going to see the new Star Wars Movie that night with his girlfriend and her kids, and, quite frankly, I thought it was probably well past time that he should have left to go home.  Except, he hadn't left, because he was waiting for me to call back, because my chest x-ray showed a nodule on my left lung that required a CT scan.

Wait.  Hold the phone.  At this point, I know he's still talking and saying lots of affirming things like, "you're young, and you're otherwise healthy, and you don't smoke, and this is not an emergency, but I did send the order for the CT and you need to call on Monday to get it set up," and I'm entirely silent, and shaking, hearing it all but not processing any of it, really.  And I'm hating this adrenaline rush which would normally inspire fight or flight but has so overloaded my nervous system that I am completely frozen.  I don't remember a whole lot more about that night, but I'm pretty sure it included things like trying to explain this phone conversation to my husband even though my mouth wasn't working and there were no words that made sense, and coming home to my computer where I spent far too many hours researching lung cancer while sitting next to my (then) five year old waiting for her to fall asleep after reading bedtime stories about cartoon animals.

Since non-emergency (yes, please try to define this for me) CT scans tend to be scheduled well in advance, I took the only quickly available option, 6:30 am on Christmas Eve morning, because this is, of course, what every mother of five wants to be prepping for on Christmas Eve, right?  I made some decisions about who to share all of this with, and if you are a close friend who has children who are close to my children, you didn't make the cut, because I could find no logical reason to risk scaring my kids half to death.  I chose people who I thought would pray hard and have no inclination to slip this information to my little people or tag me in a Facebook post that my teenagers might read.  I did not share with extended family, either.  It was easier for me that way, and I am going to insist that this has to be OK with everybody, because I did what I was capable of handling.

I have never felt so panicked and miserable on Christmas, but I hid it as well as I could.

When the test results came back, every indicator, every... single... one... was sort of "middle of the road."  The size of the nodule indicated that it may or may not be cancer.  The shape of the nodule indicated that it may or may not be cancer.  The composition of the nodule indicated that it may or may not be cancer.  The location of the nodule indicated that it may or may not be cancer.  The radiology report showed that every common non-cancerous cause had been eliminated, but that because there were no high risk factors in my life (minus family history), they still believed the nodule to likely be benign.  I am a detail person.  I need to know things with some amount of certainty.  I don't necessarily need to know everything, although that is helpful, but I need to know something.  I just couldn't deal with any of that. 

The suggested option was to wait and to do another CT scan in eight weeks to see if the nodule was growing.  The only other real option was a needle biopsy that would require puncturing the chest wall and possibly leading to a collapsed lung because of the location of the nodule.  I have never been such a mess in a doctor's office.  Waiting eight weeks seemed stupid.  Subjecting my body to testing that could do much more harm than good seemed (at least) equally stupid.  And there was seriously no indicator that might sway me one direction or the other?  None?  I asked my doctor (late twenties or early thirties with two babies at home) what she would do if it was her.  She said she would wait the eight weeks and do the next CT scan.  With much anxiety, I decided to go ahead and follow that suggestion.  I hadn't slept in days.  There was no way I could make a calculated decision on my own.

I spent the next eight weeks doing things that are outside the norm for me, some of them by far.  In my desperation to get some sleep, with all of the typical things I might try (essential oils and lavender candles and running myself into the ground and stuff) failing miserably, I went through the rest of the Tylenol with Codeine.  I tried herbal teas.  I read and read and read until my eyes should have shut.  I watched more TV than I have in my adult life.  I drank a beer for the first time ever.  I listened to music.  I put blankets up over my windows.  Sleep did not come in more than a couple of hours at a time, here and there, for the most part.  There were a few times when my body was exhausted enough to shut down in the middle of the day.  I am still fighting hard to re-set the natural rhythms that have long since ceased to exist.

I booked flights to conferences and weekends away with friends.  I hate flying, but since I was relatively convinced I was dying, anyway, I figured it was worth the risk.  What's a couple of months in the grand scheme of things?  If a plane crashed, it crashed.  But there was more to it than this. 

I started pulling way back from my husband and kids.  I wrote a letter to my husband about all the stuff he should do if I died first, and I posted it to my personal blog (maybe here, too) and stood back and watched how he would react, how my oldest kids would react, how everyone in the world (or at least everyone in my world) would react.  After that, I was not convinced that he thought he could do it... life... without me.  It absolutely killed me to be sitting at the airport in Las Vegas while my daughter melted down at a quiz meet, halfway across the country, and my well meaning friends with no knowledge of this crisis, surrounded her saying things like, "It's hard when Mom's not here, isn't it," and one of my sweet friends who did know what was going on surrounded me by sending me live updates on how the finals round was going.  But I had to know that my family had people.  I'm a stinking hover mom!  I stopped hovering, because I was acutely aware that I might not be able to keep doing it.  I needed to see the kids depending on Phil.  I needed to see that people would come around them and love them if I couldn't.  We have really good people, but it made me want to throw up.

I pulled back at home, too.  I needed to know that the laundry and dishes would get done whether I was there or not and that somebody would read to "the baby" and that at the very least everybody could cook something hot for themselves, even if it was just toast.  I'm in a really weird position, now, because I sort of feel unneeded, but all parents are supposed to work themselves out of a job at some point, right?  I just accelerated the process a little bit.

When the eight weeks had passed and the second CT scan approached, I hit the wall hard at full force.  For most of my life, I have been prone to worry but not prone to full-fledged anxiety or panic attacks.  I might be concerned, but I have it under control.  The day before the scan, rocking back and forth on the bathroom floor and just about pulling my hair out, I had to tell Phil to take the kids to his mom's for the night, because I just couldn't handle being in the same space as them and having them find me like this.  He packed them up quickly and got them out of the house.

Scan #2 came back exactly the same as the first one.  This was really great news and allowed me to relax a little bit for a little while.  I mean, there was still the fact that every indicator told us absolutely nothing, but the nodule had not grown.  It had not grown at all.  Cancer supposedly grows at a certain rate, so there was some relief.  Because I had done so much research at this point, there wasn't as much relief for me as there would have been for someone typical who would just take the results for what they were, but some relief was better than no relief.  We scheduled a third scan, six months out.  I slept a little better over the next few months.  We told our oldest two kids about what had been going on, because they're really smart, and they deserved to know why Mom was a little crazy... and absent... and not herself as of late.  Their reactions were different from one another and both equally difficult to process.  Essentially, my oldest son let go so much it hurt, and my oldest daughter held on so tight it hurt.  It all just hurt.

After some amount of time, I began to panic that we were waiting too long, that we were going to do the third scan and find that the nodule was, indeed, growing and that we missed it because we did the second scan too early and the third one too late.  I started playing with numbers in my head, and let's face it-that's just a terrible plan for a non-numbers person.  The build up to the upcoming CT got more and more difficult, because I didn't really feel like I had anyone to debrief with.  I was sick of scaring my family.  I have great friends, but all of them (who were aware) seemed pretty confident that I was OK, based on the second scan.  I couldn't continue to talk about it, because I didn't have anything new to say, and I didn't want people to get tired of talking to me.  I didn't want to make something out of nothing, but I needed some people to talk to, even if I was just repeating the same thing over and over again.  I chose silence, though, even though it didn't feel good.  Ordinarily, I am a listener.  I am a problem solver.  I feel most alive when I am helping other people.  And yet I was so wrapped up in my own disaster, I found myself with nothing left to give and nothing left to say.

I pulled myself together, enough, before the third scan that I did not have to drop my kids off with Grandma.  I did another early morning CT, and I went straight home and proceeded to take a six hour nap.  I know you can't really call that a nap.  Whatever.  I decided not to contact my doctor's office.  I decided not to make an appointment for test results.  I decided that I would know what I needed to know when I needed to know it and that if nobody called me quickly, there was probably nothing too pressing, too catastrophic, too deadly.  I got an email a couple of days later telling me that there had, again, been absolutely no change.  Because the nodule has been this consistent for eight months, my doctor is now relatively confident that this is scar tissue of some sort.  Regardless of previous test results, I have spent two thirds of a year of my life convinced that I am dying of lung cancer.  But I'm not.  I'm not.  I am not dying any faster than anyone else.

Look, friends.  Me and my healthy lungs could be hit by a bolt of lightning, tomorrow.  We all know that life is short.  It's always shorter than we hoped it would be.  Always.  But we can't stop living. 

I have no idea if anyone has made it to the end of this post.  It's about three times longer than the typical long post I write.  But if you've made it this far, thank you.  And now, breathe in, breathe out, repeat ad nauseam even if it makes you sick, because it totally beats the alternative.

"I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.  I will not fear..." (Psalm 3:5-6, NIV).


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