Another Relatable Experience
“I’m tired of having relatable experiences,” I complained to Mike through a veil of tears. “You can throw any woman at me and I have a 95% chance of having gone through any experience that she has. I’ve been raped, I have bipolar disorder, sexually assaulted, been abused, had an abortion, been dead broke and homeless, single motherhood, married, tragic and mysterious family death…seriously, what more could there be at this point? I know that they put me in a great position to help others, but I’m really sick and tired of going through this stuff.”
“I need someone I can be a mess with.”
I was sitting on the couch in his office, messy Kleenex in hand for an emergency appointment just three hours before a biopsy that would determine if I’d had the (mis)fortune to win yet another genetic lottery: breast cancer. I’d emailed him that morning, ready to call “uncle” on my mental state. “I’m hoping you can fit me in this week,” it said, “I need someone I can be a mess with.”
I come from a long line of Germanic people, which means that I believe in checking boxes and just Getting. Things. Done. (It’s one reason why the messiness of bipolar disorder wreaks havoc in my personal life.)
I’d turned 40 just 10 days earlier, and, prompted by an automated reminder, had my very first mammogram three days later. I’d been called back for a second mammogram and an ultrasound, but the doctor considered the ultrasound unnecessary: I was scheduled straight for a stereotactic biopsy. Things were moving quickly, faster than I could process. I was in a high-functioning depression, and pissed off about it.
“And the worst thing about it is that I don’t understand why I’m so emotional about everything. I’ve gone through all my worst-case scenarios.” A learned anxiety-fighting skill, it’s about facing fear head-on and evaluating its likelihood.
“So my worst-case, absolutely worst-case scenario is that I die. That means I get to meet Jesus. I have life insurance in place and we just finished the step-parent adoption of my daughter. Everyone is OK; that’s not terrible. Not ideal, but not terrible.” Mike nodded. “Do you think that’s even a realistic possibility?” “Not now that I’ve seen the mammogram. Assuming this really is cancer, we’re catching it early.”
My breasts are attached to me, but I’m not attached to them.
“OK,” I continued, “so my next worst-case scenario is a mastectomy. That’s not even a tragedy. I’m done having kids; these things have no usefulness to me now. I’m not attached to them. I mean, they’re attached to me, but I’m not attached to them.” We both giggled. “So that just means eight weeks of sitting on a couch with a lot of discomfort. I just watched my mom do that; not ideal, but not terrible. Eight weeks is not a big deal. And all the other possibilities aren’t a big deal after that.”
“Can I venture a thought?” Mike asked.
“Go for it.”
“I wonder if your emotion has to do with some of the sexual assault issues you’ve been dealing with.”
“But I’ve dealt with all that,” I rejoined.
“Have you?” Mike asked. “I wonder. Do you fear it could happen again?”
This is why you pay for a therapist; he pulled me up short with that question and my visceral reaction gave a clear answer.
“Absolutely. I know my weight is in part a protection mechanism. Getting rid of my breasts would be another. But the reality is that I know even those aren’t real protection. Predators don’t actually care what you look like; I know that now. But even knowing that I’m in a safer place and care for myself better, I can’t get it through to my heart. I still don’t feel safe.”
“Is it possible that God is asking you to really look at this question? To learn to trust on a different level?”
I nearly flipped Mike off at this point. I had no interest in probing this sensitive issue even closer, to peeling another layer on this onion. As we continued to examine and debate the question, I felt a peace settle over me. It wasn’t about cancer; I had work to do on my spirit. I left feeling drained from crying and ready for my biopsy.
The real cancer is in my spirit and the only cure is to walk the path before me.
I went into it that afternoon feeling mostly calm and comfortable. An hour later, I emerged back into the lobby a little shaky from lidocaine and settled in my mind. God has it from here. This isn’t an experience I would have chosen, and I’m not excited that my next step is surgery. On the other hand, this only touches my body; the real cancer is in my spirit and the only cure is to walk the path before me.
I think I’d rather have breast cancer.