Thursday, July 23, 2009

Seventh grade. I carried six notebooks most days for each subject, six binders, the occasional steno pad and calculator, all in a tired backpack populated by whole villages of broken pock-marked pencils and non-functional pens. The school year waxed and waned and my notebooks became predictably tattooed with notes, doodles, stains and other batterings.
I carried one folder. Inside this folder I kept the loose leaf collection of the awkward stories I wrote and let no one see. They were halting, haunting and very likely unfleshed. At the time I thought writing could only be an organic process – an unplanned and unsupervised ride powered by some punch-drunk muse.
The stories were universally dark… about suicide pacts, deadly car accidents, people wasting away with horrible diseases. If I had known what Goth or Emo meant, I might have found a niche. Perhaps not… I was horrified by the nightmare highway my muse continually chose. I was afraid and fascinated by my own propensity for darkness. It was manageable, however, because no one else knew.
It was eighth grade. That was the year terrible things began to happen. A classmate, already socially shunned and ridiculed, found out that his mother died during the school day. He disintegrated before our eyes into a mass of howls. That same year another classmate’s obese sister was found dead. There were rumors; she’d overdosed on diet pills, she’d had a heart attack, she’d choked on a sandwich, her brother killed her with emotional abuse. I felt I knew the truth then. These horrible things happened because I wrote them.
I remember so well the feeling that the events around me were like a camera’s iris, closing into tighter focus. I was choking inside that aperture like it was a 360 degree guillotine. Now I see that my brain was ready for all of it. I was an open soul, begging to be trod on and tried. I didn’t create the events; they blazed inward, highlighting pre-existing sensitivities. It was as though I had an acute sunburn in the winter time and was utterly surprised when dishwater scalded me.
I think of this today because my vocabulary of this life has expanded once more and opened me to new sensitivities. Where before I thought of cancer as a general, unfathomable disease, I can now hear the word cancer across a crowded subway train and it sets my brain reeling. I think of the women who call me at work begging for an earlier surgery. I think of the wheelchair-bound patients in the elevator with their wigs askew and their fragile, bare ankles. I think of how a nurse talked of one of her patients, how he already smelled like death.
So at my brother’s wedding my ears twitched open to the family friend, the woman we call “Aunt” and whose husband we call “Uncle.” Her cancer, I hadn’t known, was one I deal with daily. She asked me if I could pull strings to have her seen at Mass General. I told her, honestly, that I’m new there, and I have no idea. I didn’t want to discuss it further. I hated the immediacy of knowing the possibilities.
And now, a month later, another family friend was claimed by cancer. I saw the New York area code on my work phone but it didn’t click until halfway through my, “This is Jo, how can I help you.” My dad told me to call my mother tonight. Our old neighbor died after a long and strenuous fight. I asked about the kind of cancer, how long it’s been going on (and no one told me). She had a gynecologic cancer, the kind I deal with. She had metastases in her lungs.
Is it possible I was so self-involved before that I never noticed that the women I love on this earth are dying? Is there some energy in the world that draws these coincidences together? I want to believe that it has to do with this sensitivity, like the honing of a musical skill. I can hear the pitch and color of the word cancer in its full spectrum now. It existed before I could hear it and won’t stop its cacophonous echo now that I can.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

the incredible shrinking jobiv

I truly am disappearing. There's a positive aspect, at last: I'm losing weight.

I can't figure out how I'm doing it, either. At first it was pure poverty, and maybe the stress of running between four different jobs, never quite remembering my stomach needed feeding. There were several nights when I'd get home at 10 and realize that it was far too late for dinner.

And now, I think, it has something to do with financial security. I can't completely connect the dots, but perhaps it's that I grab and gulp less. I used to devour food whenever I could get my hands on it because it seemed like a precious commodity - one I couldn't afford most days. Now I'm at leisure to choose what I consume. Very new.

On the dark side of all this is my increasing need to become invisible. I am full to bursting with a distressing dichotomy: I'm ever so happy in my work life and find the rest of the world outside of it deeply embarrassing and troubling. More and more I find myself sending brainwave imperatives to those around me: "Don't look at me. Don't look too closely. I'm not here. Don't notice me."

This is apropos of the need for new clothes, by the way... I've been shopping because my clothes look funny on me - too big - but find myself shying away from colors I used to love. My wardrobe is a limited and muted spectrum of gray, beige, black and brown.

I am a cloud passing through. Don't notice me. I am a mud puddle. Avoid me. I am blending with the pavement, shiftitng my chameleonic skin to the steel of subway stations. I'm invisible.

Why, though... I push my thoughts out to grab at answers and they come back empty handed.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

in which our heroine hates doctors but takes a job in a hospital

Working among health professionals strikes me as perilous for a person as unhealthy as I am. I knew this, going in. I knew I'd be walking directly into the lion's den every morning and sitting among them, reeking of delicious eland or ibex or whatever lions particularly love to eat.

It's difficult to guard my health issues, most of which I keep extremely private because I usually think my body came along for the ride with my soul just to embarrass me. At a hospital, however, there is no thing they have not seen before. Practically.

One of my least favorite nurses, with whom I do not work directly, thank god, loudly pointed out my limp one day. "Do you have foot drop?" she exclaimed, like she'd discovered proof of my deep dark past and was displaying it to the jury. Yes, I told her... yes I do. I limp. I had a back thing. It's much better now. MOST people don't notice, or at least never mention it.

The woman who sits in my glass cage with me has noticed many a symptom by now. At first I was good at controlling my little issues, but soon enough the hair began to fall. I don't even notice when I'm pulling at it. She's never said anything, but she watches out of the corner of her eye with a creased forehead. I do it when I'm speaking to someone on the phone, begging for OR time, or convincing a woman with cancer that she can wait six weeks for surgery because the doctor said it's okay.

And of course the panic attacks haven't truly abated. The more I try to suppress them, the more likely they are to spread and fester. So I try to use every coping strategy I've ever learned. I try to pull from my secret stores of strength. There was one morning, though, when I couldn't control it and I hadn't even left for work yet. There was no mistaking that I'd been crying and distressed since the wee hours of the morning. I called my doctor's office for some other little thing, got an appointment, called in to work to say I had to see the doctor and would be in later... told people some vague thing about allergies - not a lie, but imprecise.

These disguises are so thin among women who work with distressed women. They notice everything, down to the nurse who points as she walks past and says, "squinting!" to remind me to visit the optometrist. In my more paranoid moments I'm sure she'll walk by, pointing and shouting out my darkest secrets, like the old crone in The Princess Bride who boos Princess Buttercup in her nightmare. "Bow down to the queen of putrescence," etc. I don't even know what this nurse could notice that could be so bad and why I think I'm not obvious as it is. Is it so horrible if people know I'm anxious or tend towards depression?

It is if it's incapacitating. If it interferes with my job... if I'm not able to help people get the care they need because my personal resources are so depleted...