Monday, April 30, 2007

Little Miss Meltdown

So the salient topic du jour over in my favorite corner of the cancer blogosphere this week is emotional meltdowns.

Raise your hand if it comes as a complete surprise to you that an otherwise sane, rational, intelligent cancer patient might occasionally lose it, might experience a sudden deflation or explosive detonation of her normal healthy coping mechanisms, launching her into a dramatic meltdown.

Hmm. Ok, the rest of us will wait here while those of you with your hands flailing around in the air like insane sea anemones stop smoking crack and take a big fat hit on the clue bong instead. When you're all ready, come on over: it's consciousness raising day here at the Ranch o' Defeated Tumors! Breaking news: Meltdowns happen!

As regular readers know, I am most definitely Not A Trouper. In fact, I am the official 2006-2007 poster child for the militant wing of the Do It To Julia! Do It To Julia, Not Me! Brigade. To the dismay of friends, family, medical personnel, and innocent bystanders, I am prone to occasional meltdowns.

So what exactly is a meltdown, you ask, and what are its triggers? Well, let's take a look at three random but typical examples from my very own extensive repertoire.

  1. Meltdown A: The day after I was diagnosed with aggressive stage IV lymphoma, the man I was in love with and engaged to marry went out dancing, without me, while I sat home alone reeling with terror and shock. He also decided this was as good a time as any to vent his feelings about every little thing I had ever done to irritate him, so he emailed me a long laundry list of my most annoying faults. We lived 90 miles apart, and the next day he sent me another cold aloof email saying he wouldn't have time to come visit me because he had tickets to a football game and he had agreed to help a friend move; surely, he insisted, I would understand.

    Oh hell yeah, I understood all right. I understood that just about everything and everybody on earth was more appealing to him that day than me and my newly diagnosed cancer. The emotional pain of this abrupt rejection and the loss of support from the one person I had been relying on most was too overwhelming to bear, and I had a complete and total meltdown that consisted of sobbing nonstop, obliterating my former blog, and refusing to speak to anyone for 48 hours.

  2. Meltdowns B-1, B-2, & B-3 all occurred in a single day, so I'm lumping them together here as one. Six days after my first chemo treatment, I came down with the most horribly intense migraine I have ever experienced. This was probably caused by low blood counts, or maybe by coming off of five days of Prednisone. But whatever, the blinding pounding stabbing eyeball-searing pain was so severe it was making me vomit, and neither Hydrocodone nor Phenergan offered any relief. To make matters worse, I had a routine appointment at the oncology clinic that morning, which entailed a four hour wait. Stressed to the max, I spent those four hours moaning in fetal position, packed into in a freezing cold waiting room full of coughing sniffling infectious sick people.

    When the oncology resident finally saw me, she decided that my heartbeat sounded hinky and I needed an echocardiogram. This meant I would have another four hour wait. I experienced meltdown B-1 at that moment, bursting into tears in the exam room, tearing my hair out (literally!) and screaming that NO NO NO, I would NOT wait four more hours, I was sick and I HAD to go home NOW. Somehow the poor panicked resident arranged to schedule an immediate emergency echo, and I was escorted to the cardiology department by two brusque burly nurses to prevent me from escaping Against Medical Advice. Because there was already a sticker on my chart announcing that I have a record of acting AMA.

    Anyway, the two young cardiography techs who performed the test resented that this emergency appointment was delaying their lunch hour, and they complained loudly right in front of me, grumbling about me as if I wasn't even there. "I'm starving!" said one of them to her co-worker. "Would you rather get pizza or a burrito?" She then ground the transducer right into the tender incision where a chemo port had recently been implanted in my chest wall. "Ow ow ow, that hurts!" I wailed, straining not to vomit. "Hold still," she admonished, shoving me back onto the table and still grinding away. The colleague replied, "I dunno, I feel like a burrito, but they'll be sold out if we don't hurry. I don't see why we have to do this echo on her in such a big hurry, since she just had one a month ago." "Yeah," said the other woman. "Hey look, is this kind of enlarged? Do you think we should call Dr. X?" Colleague: "Nah, don't bother, it looks ok. Let's wrap it up. What do you think about those fish tacos they had last week?" And to me: "Just wipe the lube off with your shirt." Meltdown B-2 happened at that point, and consisted of 3 hours spent weeping silent tears of bitter despair accompanied by a complete inability to speak.

    By the time I got home, the migraine was so bad I was vomiting nonstop, and I was also starting to have severe chest pains (which I later learned were probably from the mediastinal tumor disintegrating). I was curled up on the bed wishing I was dead when the phone rang. It was the hospital calling to say that my blood tests from that morning had come back alarmingly low: my neutrophil count was a terrifying 0.04 (the normal range is 1.5 to 8.0). I was in grave danger of dying of infection within 24 hours, they said, instructing me to rush back down to the emergency room at Our Lady of the Damned STAT.

    After spending 45 minutes filling out duplicate forms in a filthy crowded ER triage room full of more sick coughing infectious people, the nurse on duty decided that since I was neutropenic I should be waiting to see a doctor in isolation. He plopped me in a wheelchair and shoved me into a tiny windowless 6' x 6' cinderblock cell containing nothing except a fan for ventilation, a harsh flickering fluorescent light that was aggravating the migraine exponentially, and a wastebasket that was overflowing with used tissues and a bloody kotex. He locked the door and left me there for over an hour. Ok now, wait, wait, wait: can you see it coming? Yes! Yes, you can! Here it comes, right on schedule, meltdown number B-3! And what did it look like? No, don't even ask.

  3. Meltdown C: Ok, this one was a doozy. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and two days before my birthday, and I wasn't going to be able to celebrate either. I had just walked in the kitchen door, home from my third chemo treatment, and I was already starting to feel the ground slip out from under me as I descended into that hell known around here as The Big Ick. I had barely taken off my hat when the front doorbell rang. I opened the door and there stood a large menacing sheriff's deputy, serving me papers to inform me that one of my creditors was suing me.

    I was sick, I was weak, I was scared, I was alone, I was broke, the debts were mounting, the chemo was kicking my ass real bad, and when that frickin asshole deputy recoiled in disgust at the sight of my shiny bald head for a second before handing me the papers, I totally lost it. At least I managed to stagger back into the kitchen before I collapsed. I spent the next two hours huddled in a ball on the cold hard floor in a corner of the kitchen, clutching the papers and drooling, my teeth chattering violently as I teetered on and off the brink of clinical catatonia.

I'll tell you the truth: these meltdowns are painfully embarrassing. Even talking about them now, months later when I'm ostensibly sane again, is embarrassing. It's horrible and mortifying to be publicly overwhelmed and lose control. And it's difficult for the onlookers as well: people generally just don't know what to do, and the onslaught of unbearable emotion makes them extremely uncomfortable. I lost a few friends who just couldn't take the fallout from my inevitable meltdowns.

Sometimes people try to help, but their efforts to stop the deafening roar of misery end up creating distance and alienating the meltee. For example: "You should see a therapist," a concerned loved-one might advise. Or, "You should get a stronger prescription for antidepressants. You should take up meditation, or yoga, or pray louder." There are several problems with this approach.

For one thing, giving advice always puts the giver in a one-up position, as the wise one who Knows The Answer. It simultaneously puts the givee in a one-down position, as the dumb ignoramus who never thought of the obvious. When I was feeling lonely and adrift, this split always made me feel even lonelier, and it pissed me off as well. Also, this kind of advice pinpoints the problem squarely inside of me, rather than in the world outside. It says that I am the problem, I am the defective one, I am the one failing, I am the one who is not coping properly, who is broken and needs to be fixed. Whether there's any truth to it or not, I just never found this implication to be at all helpful or comforting in times of dire distress.

Another common response to a meltdown was for a concerned onlooker to try to silence my uproar (or end my silence) by trying to rope me into denial, minimizing the problem. "Oh, it's probably nothing!" they might chirp gaily, gazing past the swollen lymph nodes that had ballooned up overnight to the size of hens' eggs. Or, "A 104 degree fever's not so high! Six weeks isn't such a long time to wait for treatment! That enormous needle they're about to stab straight into your bone could be a lot longer! You're going to be fine, you've just got to quit being so negative."

I've bitched about the whole bootstraps-happyface attitude thing repeatedly, but let me sum it up here by saying this: It's tantamount to an American sitting in a nice safe suburban living room offering glib advice to somebody who's screaming and cowering in burning exploding Baghdad basement. "Don't you think you're overreacting just a bit?" the glib American says. "Sure, another bomb could fall on you any minute, or armed soldiers could rush in there in a blast of gunfire and wipe out your entire family. But you know what, a meteorite could also fall on me any minute, and I could die too. But you don't hear me screaming, do you? You just can't spend your whole life being upset and freaked out! Now get out there and enjoy every minute you have left with a positive attitude, and stop subjecting us to these annoying meltdowns."

Can you imagine how helpful this would be? Think about it. Sometimes a meltdown is the only sane response to a situation, and maybe just maybe, awful as it is, it deserves a little respect.

No Hair Report This Week

I'm afraid this week's regular hair-watch 2007 update has been superceded by (or at least incorporated into) photos from yesterday's crawfish boil. Or crawfish "bawl" as they say around here. But look closely--the hair is there!

The hair and the Cobra.

The hair arrives at the crawfish bawl.

The hairdo almost looks like something somebody might have done on purpose, albeit somebody who was looped enough to have fallen off the fashion grid and landed in the gutter.

This is one of about twelve batches of boiled bugs produced over the course of the afternoon. The poor creatures got tossed into a huge spicy boiling pot while they were still alive and squirming, which is extremely bad karma. We're all going to come back in our next lives as toilet bowl brushes.

Dogs love crawfish, but like tourists they have a very hard time peeling them.

Bobby telling unruly jokes.

Ed and Mary analyzing the latest juicy gossip.

Rene and Rick tactfully pondering my deranged hairdo.

Russell looking exceedingly pleased with his own fine poodly hairdo, which I openly covet.

Ed mysitfies the rest of us by somehow not getting red crawfish gradoo all over his crisp white shirt.

A flock of art professors grazing peacefully beside the fountain on a lovely spring afternoon.

The hapless hair on the morning after.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Is It Just Me?

When I read this post on the Cheerful Oncologist's blog this morning it annoyed the holy heck out of me. There's something that's just way too sappy and preachy and smugly patronizing about it. He says:

The Enemy Within

Category: Lyrical

A brief message to all those who are living with a serious disease:

When you awakened today something was in the room with you. It sat patiently by the window, waiting for you to arise. It dearly wants to harm you. Are you aware of the danger?

If it sees you smile it slaps you in the face, to persuade you that happiness is no longer a part of your life.

If it hears you talking to a friend it poisons your words, to drive away those who love you.

If it finds out you're on the way to the doctor it chokes you, to weaken your spirit at the time it most needs boosting.

If it sees you sitting quietly it drills into your mind, to infect it with foul thoughts.

If you let it into your heart it will slowly corrode it, leaving you wandering alone and frightened.

There is only one defense against this enemy, and that is this: it cannot defeat you by itself. It must feed off of you in order to thrive. Like the parasite it is, it cannot harm those who refuse to nurture it. Fight the urge to give in to its siren song. Fight it hard. Refuse to give it any shelter. Start today, and soon you will be rid of it for the rest of your life, and the rest of your life will be a celebration of, as the poet e.e. cummings said, "everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes."

What is this baneful something that lives to watch you suffer? What is this obstacle to steadfast tranquility that can be defeated by refusing to accept its authority? Click below for the answer, and may you all sleep peacefully tonight - and every night.

It is despair.

Oh please. It's like he's saying--and not just to people like me, but to people like brainhell too, "Ok, so you've lost your health, lost your strength, lost your ability to do a lot of important and necessary things, lost your income, lost your savings, lost your home, lost your independence, lost your dignity, lost your autonomy, lost too many friendships and love and family. So you've even lost your very sense of self, and now you're worried and frightened about how much worse it's probably going to get. If you feel a touch of despair after all this, well, you know what? It's really your own damn fault for giving in and wallowing in it, for just not trying hard enough, not fighting hard enough, not making a big enough effort to butch up and get over it."

Bleagh. Is Dr. Hildreth angling for a lucrative book deal these days or something? Because it seems to me that he's gotten a whole lot sappier and smarmier and more chicken-soupy "inspirational" lately, and less authentic and informative than he used to be.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Instant Curls

So I've learned something about my hair: left to its own devices, it wants to lie absolutely flat (except for the ridiculous cupie doll cowlick), as it's growing in perfectly straight and parallel to my skull. This desolate pancakeness, coupled with the hubbahubba new blondeness, causes the hair to be virtually invisible to the naked eye.

c.f. last Monday's pancakehead do

But it turns out that a little tub of cheap drugstore product is a simple fast easy way to make my hair look longer and fuller. I just smear it around, scrunch my fuzz into little ringlets, and voila! Three seconds later I have a full halo of instant cherubic blonde curls. I didn't even have to reapply it when I woke up this morning, the touseled bedhead look survived overnight.

Silly as it sounds, this new hair thing gives me a renewed sense of hope for the future.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Garden Nobody Wants to Buy

'Rosarium Uetersen'

'Julia Child'

'Burgundy Iceberg'

'Falling In Love' (new Weeks introduction for 2008)

'Watercolors' (another new Weeks introduction for 2008)

'Buff Beauty'

'Sally Holmes'

'Lyda Rose' (with climbing 'Sombreuil' peeking over her shoulder)

'New Dawn' rambling along the porch

'New Dawn' up close

Explosion at the kaleidoscope factory

'Duchesse de Brabant' and 'Don Juan' with random yellow irises

More fun with product! (models are not for sale)

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Product Alert!

I know it's not Monday yet, but I just couldn't wait to show y'all my very first foray back into the Wonderful World of Product. I bought a little tub of something that seems to be a cross between Silly Putty, Super Glue, and Oobleck. I think I need to experiment some more, though how many variations can one realistically hope to achieve with 1/2 inch of wispy thin hair? Nevertheless, I'm pleased as punch. I think this is a major milestone in my road to recovery.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Day I Exploded With Pride

Hey! It's another beautiful spring day, and another magnificent son's birthday. Yes, I was a big believer in popping them out in April: that way I never had to be all huge and pregnant when it was summer. Today I'm proud to announce my youngest son is 25 years old.

This is the son many of you know as Finnegan's Wakeup Call, and others may know as Kosovo Boy. Sure, I was proud of him for getting all crazyass famous when he was 16. But I'm even more proud of him because of the respect and affection he has earned from friends and colleagues, and for the incredibly brave and important work he's doing now.

Here are a few other fine things he's accomplished during his first quarter century:

He was the fattest baby in the entire history of the universe.

He holds a world record for eating the most hard-boiled Easter eggs whole, without even peeling the shell off.

He was imprisoned at age 5 for violating a city ordinance prohibiting the picking of more than one banjo at a time on a public roadway.

Always a sweet, gentle, pacifist child, he somehow spent most of his high school years fuming in a damn penalty box. But I swear to the mighty FSM it was never once his fault.

He refused to feign a sexual romance with a girl who was a good friend just so he could get his face on the cover of People magazine, settling for the contents page and an article near the back instead.

He survived four brutal years at Harvard with his faculties, principles, and sense of humor miraculously intact.

All his life he has been wildly adored by small children and dogs.

He and the world's most magnificent woman got married in a donut shop.

Seriously, folks: do I have the world's greatest boys or what? Happy birthday, kiddo!


Monday, April 16, 2007

The Crop On Top

Ye Olde Monday Morning Hair Report, plus miscellaneous life news: here I am at fourteen and a half weeks post-chemo.

Thick and turbulent on top, the crazy new hair has an odd wooly feel to it.

Rebellious and unruly in the back, no two hairs are the same length, the same color, or growing in the same direction. I can't do a damn thing with it.

Reluctant and still nearly invisible in the front: while the back and top are running amok foaming at the mouth, the tiny thin translucent fringe framing my face hasn't added a single molecule to its length in over a month. So every frickin time I look in the mirror, all I see is an old man. I despair!

But who cares about the mirror when colorful climbing roses are still exploding along the driveway? Here's the ever exuberant 'Fourth of July' doing its thang.

Rose without a name: I think this eye-catching beauty is one of the 2008 AARS winners, a grandiflora I'm growing as a "test" rose. So far it's pretty damn perfect. But is it magnificent enough sell an entire house? Stay tuned for the ultimate rose test!

I nabbed these irresistible lads at a junque shop in the French Quarter yesterday, where I mingled freely with festive crowds, enjoyed orgasmic grilled fresh asparagus in a restaurant, relieved myself in unsanitary public restroom facilities, made out with a ridiculous Great Dane puppy the size of a Buick, and lounged in the sunny but probably pee-soaked grass in Jackson Square, listening to live bands while inebriated toddlers staggered gleefully around my head. It sure is wonderful to have an immune system that's up and running, something I'll never ever take for granted again.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Honeymoon's Over

Yesterday the yard was a deranged riot of insane color. Crazy random flowers everywhere! Nothing matched! It looked like the Standard Brands paint truck had a head-on collision with the Jackson Perkins catalog in the heart of uptown Emerald City.

It's a good thing I took pictures, because last night my realtor came over to show the house to a family. While she and the mom were talking, the two little girls ran around the front yard playing "wedding party." And before the grownups realized what was happening, the junior bridelets had covered the entire front lawn with a festive blanket of rose petal confetti:

Shit. Oh well, they'll grow back. Maybe it's from spending eight months with my head stuck straight up mortality's asshole, or maybe it's the Cymbalta talking, but when the mortified realtor showed me what happened I just laughed. I seem to be all about the Noble Truth of Impermanence with a side of zen detachment these days. There's plenty more roses where those came from, and with any luck it won't even be my yard too much longer anyway. But it sure was pretty while it lasted.