Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Birthday post 2008

I looked out the window of my lab, down at the quad of the medical school. A line of second-year medical students was forming in front of a booth that had been set up to administer TB tests. Supposedly, I was a part of that group milling around down there, forming a nebulous line while exchanging beginning-of-the-school-year high-fives and hugs after having spent the summer apart, except that I didn’t know anybody to be high-fiving or hugging, and I have spent almost two years away from school.

As the summer has begun to wane and I look forward to finally re-joining second year of medical school, I have become increasingly worried about being able to keep up. It was daunting enough, before being addled by a flurry of pills and a slurry of secretions. Is it still reasonable to expect to achieve the goals I set Before? What future do I have to look forward to? Untrustworthy doctor? Med school dropout? Disgruntled lab tech? Disability recipient? Family mooch? There have been some pretty scary times over here.

I went downstairs and out into the sun. For a few minutes, I just stood there, sweating, alone in a crowd of people who all knew each other. And then one recognized me. And then I was introduced to someone else. We chatted. It wasn’t so bad. Say what you will about medical students (and I have), but I defy you to find another group of 170 people who are as social, energetic, and can-do as these people. I guess I can deal with that. I got up to the front of the line, and when the nurse asked my name, I started to explain that I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t on the list because you know it’s complicated I’ve been … Oh. I AM on the list? Wow. OK. Great.

After lunch, the herd moved upstairs to the building where our cubicles are. Not that I expected to have one… oh wait. Look! It’s my name! On a cubicle! (this very well may be the first time in recorded history that anyone has reacted positively to this sight). And they had a new badge for me. There I am, peering out from a plastic card! I must actually exist!

A couple of days later, I am walking through the lobby of Norris, the cancer hospital where I was treated, and I see Evelyn, one of my favorite nurses. We exchange hugs, and hold back tears. She asks if I have time to come upstairs and meet a new patient of hers who just started his first round of chemo. Of COURSE I do. He’s in 3314. I know which way to turn out of the elevator. I know where to find the hand sanitizer. And when I see this young man sitting on the bed, hooked up to an IV, looking shaken but courageous, and when I see his mother sitting beside him, looking calm and determined, I know them too.

I can do this.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


Since my diagnosis almost two years ago, I have felt justified in receiving more than I give. I remember the moment that I realized that I was about to have to call in all of my favors, to play all of my trump cards, and probably to rack up a hefty debt of goodwill. In a lot of ways, I really did need to be the center of attention. I relied on my doctors, residents, and especially nurses, to not forget ANYthing in their efforts to keep me alive, and to attend to my comfort 24 hours a day. I relied on friends to help me catch up on classwork that I was forced to miss, to buoy spirits in and out of the hospital, and to provide the souding boards I needed to come to terms with my illness. I relied on lovers to help me not to feel irrevocably damaged and undesirable, to provide intimacy in a life that had suddenly become all too public, and to bring tenderness to a time of sharp steel and sticky plastic. I depended on school administrators to give me the time and flexibility I needed to recover. The Physicians Aid Society covered thousands of dollars worth of medical bills. I have depended on the sympathy of co-workers to forgive distracted mistakes. In many ways, I relied on my parents for all of the above, and for too many other things to mention. I have been the beneficiary of the collective resources and goodwill of the entire society.

These days, I go to work; I play tennis; I do the laundry; I shop for groceries. There have been enough clear CTs and lab tests in a row that I no longer go to bed expecting that I might find myself back in the hospital the next day. But I am not out of the woods. Now that my life is back in my hands, I am only beginning to recognize dysfunctional behavior patterns that have emerged, or been strengthened, as a result of all that has come to pass.

I think that I probably went through a huge regression during this traumatic time. Children are dependent because they are children. It is also possible to become childish because of dependency.

Losing control of so much of my life meant that I felt justified in using the rest of it as I saw fit. I got used to doing what I wanted, when I wanted to do it, and feeling fine about ignoring the rest. Somewhere along the way, it started to feel like I deserved to be the center of attention because I’m ME, instead of because everybody recognized that their contribution to my well-being was vital. But recently having hurt many people I love with self-absorbed behavior, I am belatedly realizing that I cannot remain a black hole for people’s good will forever.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Window

How normal life feels. Which is strange. After all that I have been through, how is it that I have reverted back to so many behavior patterns and thought circles? Most of the time, it takes an intentful effort to regain the perspective on life that came so naturally when I was ill.

In retrospect, life was simplified, essentialized. You know the feeling when you are splayed out of the bathroom floor, feeling like there is absolutely nothing, nothing, except your guts, your tongue, and the white porcelain of the toilet bowl? (No, of course not a single one of you has ever felt like that!) Though I didn't actually spend very much time feeling nauseous, I spent a lot of time in that kind of mental box. But I not infrequently found myself in another, much more beautiful place. With all the complexity of the world dissolved away, a kind of clarity would sometimes come to me. The wonder of the world, of love, of connection, would hit me so hard that I would cry with simple, quiet joy.

I remember that it felt like I had opened a new window to the world, and that having looked out once, I would remain forever changed. But as my life mercifully has become more normal, my emotional relationship to the world, sadly, has become more mundane. The window has become smaller, harder to find. But as I realize this, I realize how important that window is to me, and I realize that I get to choose what I let go of, and what I hold on to.