I knew something was wrong last fall.
Randomly I would have trouble swallowing, my throat getting tight and painful. I didn’t feel like I was choking or dying, but it just kept coming back even after I watched what I ate, eliminating things I thought were causing it. Was I suddenly allergic to something? Maybe I need to drink more water?
But nothing I ate was causing it; I could not eat all day and it would happen. I could eat less sugar, it would happen. I could chug gallons of water, it would happen. I could cut gluten, it would happen. It just kept happening.
I was tired all the time. For someone who doesn’t require much sleep, who loves to get up early in the morning, who can’t nap even if I try, this was hard to handle.
From the outside, no one could tell I was struggling. I was still juggling home life, writing commitments, a new job, and the upcoming holidays just fine.
But I was just so tired.
In January, I finally spoke up. I don’t feel good, I said. I think something is wrong.
It kicked off an endless set of appointments, referrals, and blood draws. In a ten-day span, I had my blood drawn five times. Everyone wants their own tests, their own results, their own work.
I was pricked and poked and bruised. Veins collapsed, tubes were filled and sometimes–when my body said no more–tubes were not filled.
I mostly kept quiet about my fears and worries.
Some of what we were discovering was genetics. Thyroid issues, autoimmune diseases, things that weren’t unfamilar to my family’s tree.
But there were a few things no one saw coming.
They’re swollen, my doctor said. It was a sunny Friday morning, I’d taken the day off, the girls were in school, and I felt light and free for a day of no responsibilities.
They’re swollen, and I’d like to do an ultrasound to make sure the nodules I’m feeling aren’t cancer.
I nodded and listened and no, I don’t have any questions.
Waiting for the appointment was hard. Why else would there be bumps? Why else would something smooth feel rough?
I knew it would be okay.
And then the next moment I knew it wasn’t going to be okay.
Here’s an unexpected hard thing in a sea of hard things: My husband is stronger and healthier than he’s ever been. But he is not strong enough to carry my burdens yet. He’s not able to shoulder my fears and worries, my concerns about my health and the scary visions I keep having about not living to see my girls grow up.
As I’m seeing doctors, he’s going to brainspotting, addressing parts of his childhood that would devastate anyone. It’s working, it’s healing him, but it’s also making him tender and emotional and weary. To deal with what his parents did to him, he has to remember it. He has to acknowledge it to keep healing.
Remembering brings up feelings of loneliness and the desire to drink. Things he hasn’t felt in a few years. We stand in a store holding each other as he sobs; we sit next to each other on the couch as he mourns the life stolen from him. He doesn’t have room for my stuff right now.
I mentioned one thing the doctor was concerned about one evening, and he had nightmares that night about me dying. Upsetting, horrible nightmares about my death. It just added to the nightmares he was having about his parents.
I don’t mention it again.
My friend Christine would come over on Friday nights. We’d sit at my kitchen table or on the couch, talking about what could happen, what the doctor said, diagnosing problems via the internet and what drugs we’d need to get better and possibly make us skinnier.
It was serious and it wasn’t. Just like anything that feels too overwhelming to face head on, we looked at it with sideways glances and muffled laughs.
I went in for the ultrasound on a Monday morning.
Is this the first time you’ve been seen for this? the ultrasound tech asked as she rolled her device back and forth across my throat.
Yes, I whispered, eyes closed and fists clenched in my sweatshirt pocket.
The world stopped by the end of the week: school was cancelled, stores closed, restaurants stopped seating customers. The coronavirus started overwhelming the health care system, and my worries about some test results seemed unimportant.
I dreamed of cancer. I’d wake up at 2 AM to a silent house, wondering what would happen if I wasn’t here anymore: would Chris remember what Harper wanted for her birthday? Who would fill Easter baskets and back-to-school lists and make banana bread?
I wasn’t going to die in the few weeks before Harper’s birthday, but that’s what my brain focused on. Who would remember to change the hand towels in the bathroom before they got gross? Does Chris know how to put the girls’ hair in buns?
My chest would tighten–is this what cancer feels like?–then I’d convince myself it was nothing. I was going to be fine. I was going to be fine.
I’d will my body back to sleep and pretend everything was okay.
I waited weeks for the doctor to call with my ultrasound results. I rationalized that doctors were really busy right now, and I just needed to wait my turn. I knew if my tests came back worrisome, I’d need a biopsy. I’d imagine what cutting into my neck would feel like, what kind of scar it would leave, how this might make my neck look old and saggy.
I was concerned about dying but also about aging. It was real and not real at the same time.
Three weeks passed. Some days I was sure I was dying, that I didn’t need a test to confirm what I knew. Other days, it was laughable that I was worried. I feel fine right now, the medicines are doing their job.
I cried when no one would know.
I worried when no one was around.
Christine worried for me when I couldn’t do it anymore.
She brought chili and bacon dip and Fritos to feed us even though I was perfectly well enough to make our own dinner.
She offered to go to appointments and take notes.
The medicine made me gain ten pounds almost overnight, but I started to eat and drink without pain. My throat didn’t feel tight, I couldn’t see my swollen thryoid in pictures anymore, I started to have a little more energy.
I’m probably not dying, I said to myself.
But the doctor still didn’t call. I’d write it on my to-do list: call endocrinologist. And then I’d skip that line on the paper. Rinse and repeat the next day. And the next. And the next.
I called the day before Harper’s birthday. It was a good day, a day when the ultrasound tech’s question of Is this the first time you’ve been seen for this? didn’t feel like blame or warning.
Everything looks good, the doctor said. The dark and light gray results confirm what we’ve already known and that your medicine is correct. There are no concerning nodules or masses.
He said it upbeat and nonchalantly, like the weight of the test hadn’t been suffocating me for three weeks.
No, I don’t have any questions, I said as I hung up the phone.
I sat in my quiet office, the girls upstairs in their rooms. I said a silent prayer of relief and thankfulness. I texted Christine and we celebrated with memes. I sat perfectly still at my desk, grateful for a throat that wasn’t currently trying to kill me. I felt like I had gotten away with it; gotten away with a longer life for just this moment at least. Like I had one single thing to do with it. I tried to talk my shoulders into relaxing. I thought about spring trying to creep its way to my yard, trees with tiny buds on their branches and the always-too-early tulips peeking over my office window. I thought about Harper’s birthday that was coming up and how she gets to turn nine and I get to see it and thank you.
It’s May now, and my shoulders have finally started to relax.
A little note: I’m vague about some stuff here on purpose. This is the story I feel okay sharing. Thanks for reading it. I have some answers to my health struggles, but there’s still a lot we’re working to figure out. The global pandemic put some of that on hold. I see more specialists in June. There are more things off (is that the best word?) with me, but I am okay. What feels the worst is that nothing going on with my body is something I can fix. Genetics are weird and wonderful; right now I’m getting a big dose of the weird part. It is what it is.
Since January I’ve felt stuck in my writing. The stories I want to tell don’t show up when I go to write them. I’m trying to work that out. This is my first attempt at showing up to tell a story with the emotions that feel vulnerable to tell you and just be okay with it. Pain and suffering makes me turn inward, it makes me hold my cards close; I’m slowly trying to pry my own arms back open. We’ll see how that goes.