Burning Down the House — of Shame

How Shingles (and Maybe a Medical Procedure) Melted My Anxiety

Jun 23 · 11 min read
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

It started with getting shingles — that recurrence of chicken pox that rouses itself from slumber in the nerves near the brain. Anyone who’s had chicken pox in their lives is susceptible. The common belief is that shingles tends to strike people with compromised immune systems — the aged, the weak, the ill, the HIV-infected. I have since met several people who had it in their teens and/or twenties, turning that myth somewhat on its head, to my relief.

But, I also received my share of comments along the lines of, “Shingles! You’re too young for shingles!” (apparently not).

Anyway, it hurt, the shingles. It attacks the nerves. The rash on the skin is none too pleasant, but it’s the inflamed nerve endings beneath the skin that cause the real pain. For six weeks, I hobbled around, whimpering. There was nothing I could do but wait it out.

Resting didn’t help. My body hurt as much in bed as out of it. So, there was no reason not to work. If anything, working took my mind off the pain somewhat. So I continued to go into the office, breathing shallowly as fireworks of pain exploded under the surface of my skin at random intervals.

I quickly noticed I was different at work.

Without making the decision to, or being aware it was happening at all, I found myself much more focused. Much less tolerant of time-wasting maneuvers, niceties, falsities of any kind. The pain was such that I had no patience for any of this. My focus was such that I could only train it on either the pain or work. There was no room, no bandwidth, for anything else. Like anxiety. My anxiety, a constant (and constantly annoying, in fact, heart-breaking, sidekick in my life), melted away.

Without the crippling anxiety which had shaped my personality for decades, my entire demeanor changed. I found myself relaxed and alert, and able to cut through crap fast. To my great surprise, I found myself interrupting long-winded talkers in meetings, something I would never dared to have done in the past.

Everything hurt. I was wincing constantly. My breath was short from pain. But my attention, when not on pain, was razor-sharp. I heard what was important, what was essential, what mattered. I got to the point. I got my work done. I got twice as much done as usual.

I noticed it happening, but I was in too much pain to ponder it for very long. I didn’t marvel at it or think about it until later, until after the pain had subsided, sometime around the seventh week, when my hip stopped throbbing constantly (laced as it was with nerve endings inflamed and pulsing). When the burning feeling across my right side and belly eased.

Then, I got curious. And delight crept upon me.

I waited cautiously, nervously, for my anxiety to re-appear. For my normal life to begin again. To my delight, it remained at bay. I found myself breathing easier, caring less what others thought. I continued to assert myself at work. I created the reports and documents (“assets,” we call them) quickly and without caring much if they worked or not, reasonably assured someone would let me know if they needed to be changed. I plowed through my work, making decisions quickly, taking risks, eliminating blocks.

My new, relaxed demeanor extended to the rest of my life as well. A friend and former lover who wanted to start things up again suddenly made a lot of sense. I accepted his invitation. I told him exactly why I had cooled on our connection, without shyness or embarrassment.

“That time you ignored me at that party? That didn’t work for me. I know you want to keep our affair a secret. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore me. You have to care for your lovers, B. You have to show them we occupy a special place in your heart, in your life. I don’t care who else you’re sleeping with. I don’t care that you’re not interested in a relationship. But I do need you to protect the special space we share.”

My old self could not say that. Would not say that. It was impossible. It would be admitting too much. It would be demeaning. My new self didn’t cotton to that kind of thinking, that moral code, that shame, at all. Shame didn’t exist. Realness did.

Lots of things became easier. After years of trying to clean out my closet, down to the bone, one day I just walked in and did just that. It was easy to see what no longer served me. I wasn’t stricken by paroxysms of guilt (“I can’t get rid of that! My mother gave it to me!”).

The garden no longer mocked me. I was able to go outside and look dispassionately at the sad “garden” and not feel it was a direct reflection of sad me. In the past, when I’d walk out and dare to look critically at the garden, I’d be overcome by the withering voice that has lived inside of me my entire life. The voice would mock me, the garden would mock me.

“Why can’t you do anything right? How hard can it be to know you don’t plant an avocado tree in a tiny strip of land beside the driveway? How stupid can you get? How hard is it to read a fucking book about gardening? Why can’t you plan? Why can’t you commit? Why can’t you garden? How embarrassing. How shameful. How sad. How can you be attracted to gardening, yet do such a shitty job at it? It’s not rocket science, you know.”

That’s the voice. And that voice has accompanied me my entire life.

Of course, it’s the voice of my mother. My mother who was filled with such self-loathing that she actually drank herself to death — a slow suicide. Somehow, that voice had/has? immense power over me.

I’m sure I still have much work to do to excise it. But, for the first time in my life, at the age of 51, it’s beginning to release its hold. And how incredible is that? Incredible to the nth degree. That’s how incredible. I cannot even imagine how much space that voice has taken up in me, how damaging it’s been, how much it’s held me back.

Three or four weeks after the shingles released me from its grip, I had a colonoscopy scheduled. My friend J. had been stricken with advanced stage colon cancer that had spread to his liver. He is four years younger than I am. He beseeched us, his friends, to get a colonoscopy. He told us colon cancer is greatly on the rise, no one knows why, that it’s striking younger people, no one knows why, and would we all please commit to getting a colonoscopy, please? It was no big deal, he said. He wished he had done so, he said.

I put it off several times. Then, my doctor reminded me of my promise and scheduled me one more time.

The detailed story of my colonoscopy is longer than this article can fit. I will tell it another time, because there was a lot to it. It was quite scary for me. I had never been hospitalized, never had a broken bone, never been given anesthetics of any kind. I thought the colonoscopy wouldn’t be a big deal. But when I got to the hospital, I was given a hospital gown and led to a bed.

A bed?

That freaked me out. I had never been in a hospital bed. I was filled with doom and foreboding. Upset. Pissed. And ready to bolt. It certainly didn’t help that the prior two “procedures” I’d had done at Kaiser were both botched. One ended up with me passed out on the sidewalk in front of the hospital, the other with me bleeding from the ear and being wheeled in a chair to another building to make sure they hadn’t punctured my brain or something when they were cleaning wax from my ear.

I almost bolted at least three times.

The nurses weren’t very good, weren’t very compassionate, and they looked more like pole dancers or club workers to me than nurses, with too much make-up and not a lot of evident intelligence. It was only when an older Ethiopian or Eritrean nurse arrived that I began to calm a little.

She said, “You know, once a month we open the chance for a colonoscopy to people who can’t otherwise afford it. You are so lucky your insurance allows you to take care of yourself this way.”

That quieted me somewhat.

They put an IV in my arm. I looked on in disbelief and a kind of contempt. I was pissed.

Each moment, I was ready to bolt. But, I’d already fasted for four days for this damn procedure. I thought about J. I thought about what my Eritrean nurse said. Minute by minute I coached myself to stay, stay, stay. Like training a dog. I worked on my breathing.

A blonde woman showed up. She introduced herself to me as my anesthesiologist. I freaked out even more, as impossible as that seemed. I didn’t like her energy, didn’t like her eyes. They were not warm, not lively. She looked tired, cold, sardonic. Unfriendly.

I said, “What drugs do you use?” She said two names. One of them was “fentanyl.”

“FENTANYL?” I said, weakly.

She affirmed I had heard correctly.

I nearly swooned.

She wheeled my bed down a hall. Every second I was ready to bolt.

We went to Room #1.

Fuck.

Everything seemed filled with foreboding to a comical degree.

I felt like I was being absorbed by a vortex.

The room was rather large. The anesthesiologist and I were alone there for about twenty minutes. She was behind me, working on a computer, a machine, something.

I said, “Um, can you please tell me what you’re doing, as you’re doing it?”

She said she would. But she didn’t.

I heard a beeping.

“What’s that??” I screeched.

“That’s my monitor,” she said, not exactly answering my question.

I was so freaked out that twice I felt she was administering drugs, when she insisted nothing was happening, she hadn’t done anything, the doctor wasn’t there yet.

I was terrified of feeling the drugs enter my system.

A man in a white coat entered the room, apparently the doctor, followed by a young woman who introduced herself as his assistant. The doctor went straight to the opposite side of the room without so much as looking at me, though my eyes were trained on him.

I waited for him to acknowledge my presence.

It took some time.

After fussing around, washing his hands (?), and other things, he turned and came toward me. He fixed his eyes on mine. I sought signs of intelligence, warmth, compassion, professionalism. For confidence. For reassurance.

I couldn’t see him very well. He was inscrutable. But not too bad.

I said, “I’ve never done anything like this in my life.” My voice was squeaky with fear.

He said, “You know, this is voluntary. You can go anytime you like before we begin the procedure.”

I thought about that for a minute. I thought about fasting for four days. Drinking gallons of the disgusting colon-cleansing solution for two days. Sitting on the toilet for two days. Enduring lightheadedness for two days.

I said, “Let’s go ahead,” to my own disbelieving ears.

He asked me how strongly I wanted to be “out.” Did I want a small, medium, or large dose?

I said, “Small! No, large! No, I don’t want you to kill me! Medium?”

He said, “Okay. Medium.”

Then, there was this weird checklist/procedural conversation between him and the anesthesiologist behind me. He indicated she should administer 50 mg. of fentanyl. She repeated in a weird, staccato kind of count-down voice his instructions.

Then the doctor said to me, “What is your name?” I told him. He said, “What procedure are you here for?” I said, “Colonoscopy.”

Then, I think they asked me to turn on my side.

And that was it.

Incredibly, I felt nothing at all. But, also incredibly, I could hear the staff talking. I could hear the radio on. I could hear music. I felt nothing at all. If anything I felt cozy, safe, and utterly relaxed. Yet totally myself.

What was apparently a short while later, I was sitting up again in the bed. They must have lifted me up. The doctor was talking to me. “We found one tiny polyp, but I’m almost certain it’s benign. We’ll send it in to be sure.” And he showed it to me. In a little plastic baggy. Less than a millimeter big, a little skin tag sort of thing.

I was wheeled back to my room.

I was utterly relaxed. I didn’t feel drugged in the slightest. I felt relaxed, yet alert, and completely free of anxiety.

The feeling of no-anxiety lasted for the rest of the day and evening.

I had no side effects, no hangover, no headache, no signs whatsoever that drugs had been in my system.

In fact, the experience had been pleasant. I had to admit it. I also had no tenderness whatsoever in my anus, my gut, or anything. No sign at all that anything had occurred, even thought they’d scoped six feet of my guts.

The feeling of extra-relaxation added itself to my new post-shingles demeanor.

That was about three weeks ago.

I don’t know how long this rarefied state will last. But it’s still in me. I’m still of it. It’s like I have new air to breathe, an ether that is illuminating, enlightening.

I’m easy-going with my kids. I’m easy-going with my lovers. I’m easy-going with myself.

When I don’t make it to see my dad, I don’t crumple inside myself from guilt. When I cook a new recipe, I’m not awash in anxiety. Not frozen by the voice that used to bubble up any time I tried something new.

“Why don’t you know how to begin this recipe? Haven’t you cooked long enough by now? Why do you have to check the recipe so often? Why don’t you know what you’re doing, even yet? Why can’t you remember what you just read? How dare you call yourself a cook? Who do you think you are? Why are you so feeble? Are you stupid?”

To be honest, I’m not sure how I’ve survived at all with this debilitating voice inside of me all of these years. It’s not gone yet, I know that. It can creep up on me at the weirdest times. It was a constant presence in my dance-learning these last six years. And, I believe dance has helped me to expose it in all it’s ugly glory, to present it for inspection. To allow me to see just how mean and how toxic it really is. But, that, also, is subject for another article. How dance saved my life.

So, maybe it’s been a process.

Maybe I feel so light and free not because of shingles, or fentanyl, or dance, but because my second child is two weeks shy of 18. She finished junior year in the International Baccalaureate program at her stellar public high school and is ripe and ready for what is setting up to be a thrilling college application process in the fall.

Which means, my work is done. Or a significant part of my work, anyway. My son, 21. My daughter, 18. A twenty-one year project of raising my two children to adulthood. I’m sure I haven’t been perfect, not by any means, but it’s been okay. I’ve done okay, I think. Especially for someone with no model for parenting, no model for relationship except an entirely toxic one.

Maybe I’m finally patting myself on the back a little. Giving myself a little credit.

I don’t know how long this new phase will last. I don’t know quite why it came or from whence. All I know is that it’s nice, it feels good. All I know is that it’s the right path, I know that with certainty. All I know is that all I need to do is feel it, nurture it, care for it.

Care for me, nurture me, feel me.

Because I’m cautiously willing to believe maybe that’s what this is. Me. Just my self, my own self, emerging from beneath the toxic mantle of my very ill mother.

Now that I’m done parenting my children, maybe it’s time for me to parent myself. I’m up to the task, willing and ready and waiting for the next sign from what is shaping up to be a benevolent universe.

Christiana White

Written by

I write personal essays about food, travel, love, loss — the viscera of life. Currently at work on a memoir. Visit me at ChristianaWhite.com.

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