Day 205: a bad day

I hadn’t met this nurse before and I didn’t warm to her.

“First day of last menstrual period?” she enquired.

I made a face, “I mean, about a week ago …”

“I need a date,” she said. “Do you want to look it up?”

“Uh, no,” I said, smirking mirthlessly at the idea that she thought that I had a place where I could look up such information.

“Let’s just say May 1st,” I said.

I thought I saw her roll her eyes slightly when she wrote the date down.

In the examining room, she stood in front of the monitor updating my information.

“Any new medications?”

“Yeah … it’s … actually I can’t remember what it’s called but I have the container right here.”

I fished it out of my purse. As she took it from me she caught sight of my face. It was the first time we’d made sustained eye-contact. I noticed her long, beautiful eyelashes. She noticed, I’m guessing, my puffy eyelids and contorted expression. Her face softened.

“Oh my God, are you OK?”

I started to sob.

“I’m … I’m just having kind of a bad day,” I said.

“Oh my dear!”

Before she had seemed impassive and now she seemed the opposite: almost anguished at my distress.

She hesitated.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, my voice breaking. “Yes, please.” She gathered me in her arms and stroked my back.

“Thank you,” I mumbled into her shoulder.

“You give really good hugs,” I said as she released me from her embrace.

She still had to finish updating my information, so at first I thought I’d misheard her when she asked, “What makes you happy?”

“What makes me what?” I asked.

“What makes you happy?” she repeated, more softly and slowly, still staring at the monitor.

I thought for a second. “Dancing,” I replied. “Dancing … and writing.”

“What makes you happy?” I asked.

She considered. “Well I like dancing too, and, I mean, I can dance,” she declared, and I believed her. “And listening to music. And napping in the sun.”

“Those are all good things,” I agreed.

When my doctor—whom I adore—swept into the room a minute later, I duly explained to her, too, after she expressed concern upon catching sight of my face (which is apparently quite alarming looking, if measured by the number of strangers who’ve expressed concern for me today), that I was having a bad day,

I was beginning to feel that it was not only my body that was stark naked—I was having both a pelvic exam and a breast exam, so all clothes were off—but also my soul.

My beautiful doctor hesitated after I explained that I was having a bad day.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just that … I just feel bad that I’m about to give you a pelvic exam, which I doubt will make you feel any better.”

I shrugged. “You never know!”

I actually think that combatting one kind of pain with a different sort can be quite effective. I pinched myself very hard when I was in labor. Recently, for the first time in over a year, I started running again; and not because I’ve rediscovered a love for running, but, on the contrary, because I find it quite relentlessly awful. It’s only something that’s relentlessly awful that can take you out of another sort of pain.

Luckily for me, I had a mammogram scheduled right after my pelvic exam!

The mammogram technician was especially lovely.

“Do you have a hair band to tie your hair back?” she asked, adding, “if not, it’s OK.”

I shook my head.

She nodded and gently guided me into position close to the machine. It felt intimate, as if she were a dance instructor correcting my positioning with a new partner. She draped my right arm more tightly around the machine. My body was tilted but also leaning in. She tenderly pulled my hair back over my shoulders. I almost started crying again because it felt so good, the way my Mum would adjust my hair.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, as she clamped my right breast between the plates.

Having nursed two infants, my breasts at this point are not especially sensitive. But I also have an inverted sternum—a sternum that protrudes outwards. I like to think of this aspect of my anatomy as a feature rather than a bug, but it makes getting a mammogram rather awkward.

“It’s not my breast,” I explained, “it’s because I have this weird sternum.”

She nodded, “yes, I can see you have a protruding sternum,” she said, trying to angle me to avoid pressing on the bone.

“Now throw your head back!” she commanded, sounding even more like a dance instructor.

When it came to my left breast, the machine dug even more painfully into my sternum. I flinched in pain.

“You can yell at me!” she suggested. “Go on, take your chance!” she urged me.

I laughed uncomfortably in my constricted position.

“I don’t feel like yelling at you,” I said. “There are some other people I could yell at, but …”

Boys,” she interrupted, knowingly. “This machine,” she added, “was designed by a man, I’m sure of it. Now throw your head up again,” she commanded.

A machine that images breasts. Now in 3D! Not perhaps quite what Sterne had in mind when he imagined “the fixture of Momus’s glass in the human breast.”

No, this here, this duck-rabbit hole: this is the dioptrical bee-hive, is it not? Have you pulled up a chair? Hush! You must move softly if you wish to see the maggots gamboling.

Today, however, the maggots are sluggish (can maggots be said to be sluggish?). And I did not have the heart to dance. So I wrote instead.




Day 132: sexpectation

This morning I invented a new word, inspired by Dr. Lake, who described my life over the past 72 hours or so as a “sex expectation rollercoaster.”

Note (and this is important) that she did not say a “sex rollercoaster.” She said a “sex expectation rollercoaster.” Now, I don’t know exactly what a “sex rollercoaster” would entail, precisely, but presumably it would involve actual sex. Presumably, it would be some kind of wild sex ride. The sex expectation rollercoaster, by contrast, involves no sex whatsoever. None.

The portmanteau sexpectation refers (duh), to the expectation that one is to have sex.

Now, one could take the Freudian approach and argue that sexpectation is the ur form of expectation. In this account, all expectation is simply a sublimated form of sexpectation. Sexpectation would be to expectation as sexual desire is to narrative desire; it is the presumption that the reader’s avid page-turning operates on the same erotic principle as sexual longing that underlies literary theories such as Peter Brooks’s in Reading for the Plot.

But if sexpectation and desire are parallel concepts, they are not, I maintain, synonymous. Sexpectation is not a drive. It is not so much about longing but rather an epistemological orientation, more about anticipation, which might be either pleasurable or not.

Is expectation is a sublimated form of sexpectation or is sexpectation a sexualized version of expectation? Who knows? What I’m interested in is the extent to which some people, namely, me, experience both erotic and non-erotic forms of expectation with a painfully visceral intensity.

Let’s take non-erotic examples first.

  • Despite smugly considering itself to be something of a critical thinker, the duck-rabbit is extraordinarily gullible. If you say something outlandish to it while maintaining a completely deadpan expression, its likely response will not be to roll its eyes knowingly but rather to gasp, clap its paw-wing over its mouth and then exclaim, “Really????!!!!” The duck-rabbit moves very quickly from hearing someone propose an idea to anticipating its actualization. This, I’ve been told, is what makes the duck-rabbit so fun to tease.
  • The duck-rabbit is so ticklish that it cannot bear even the remotest suggestion that someone might tickle it. It breaks down in helpless hysterical laughter and curls up into a self-protective ball if someone so much as makes a plausible tickling gesture with their hand, especially if it is directed at its downy neck, from across the room. (And, yes, the duck-rabbit’s children know this about it and exploit this vulnerability mercilessly.) As in the gullibility scenario, the duck-rabbit anticipatorily reacts to the actualization of the proposed action before it has even happened.
  • When the duck-rabbit discovers a song that makes it want to dance, it listens to it over and over, either dancing to it or, more pathetically, fantasizing about dancing to it, including, yes, choreographing particular sequences in its mind. Recently it’s been “Come Get it Bae,” (and on the word “bae,” see here), which is earwormingly catchy. But the duck-rabbit’s enjoyment of it has nothing to do with the melody, and certainly not the lyrics (which involve a hackneyed come-ride-my-motorcycle-baby ifyouknowwhatImean-conceit). No, the appeal of the song is its dancability, which is something the song’s producers clearly understand, because the video, which the duck-rabbit must have watched a half dozen times in the last week, is of a group of gorgeous women having a grand old time dancing to it. Pharrell Williams, who is surely one of the most uncharismatic popstars in the history of pop, is utterly redundant in the video; you just wish he would get out the way. Even more redundant is Miley Cyrus, who pops up in a manner oddly evocative of Dawn French in one of the French & Saunders music video parodies halfway through. Anyway. I’m digressing. The point is that when the duck-rabbit hears this song, all it can do is dance in its head.

Do you see the pattern? You tell the outrageous story – I’m already aghast. You wiggle your fingers – I’m already hysterical; you play the music – I’m already dancing. All of this doubtless has something to do with the embodied simulation hypothesis. But let’s not go down that duck-rabbit hole.

Now, I expect that everyone experiences some degree of sexpectation, but I also suspect that some people experience it more viscerally than others, just like some people anticipate being tickled more viscerally. Although the two are closely linked, by sexpectation I don’t mean arousal; or, at least, I mean the element of arousal that is the vertiginous feeling of falling before you kiss someone. That can be an exciting feeling if there is someone there to kiss you back, but if there isn’t, and you’re in this vertiginous state for a sustained period of time, it’s more akin to motion-sickness, hence the aptness of the roller-coaster metaphor.

Because I know I’m highly susceptible to this affliction, if I’m in a state of heightened sexpectation, I try very hard to distract myself. This weekend, alone, I threw a dinner party; I went to dance class three days in a row; I cycled everywhere as fast as I possibly could; I went to the farmers market, twice; I even cleaned my bloody apartment; I did three loads of laundry; I took a lot of showers. I ended up very well exercised, very clean, and very tired, but very much still unravished.

My sexpectations thus remained pitifully unfulfilled this week; on the upside, my dancing fantasies were gloriously, spectacularly fulfilled. Mere hours after I’d been watching “Come Get it Bae” for the fifth or sixth time, I went to dance class and, for the first time since I’ve been dancing at this studio, they played the song. And we all danced to it with big silly grins on our faces. It wasn’t remotely anticlimactic. On the contrary, it was everything I could have wished for. Sometimes dreams really do come true.


Day 115: at bay

Therapy has helped me become more attentive to the physical symptoms of emotions. So I know, for example, that there’s a certain kind of mental pain – one I associate with sadness, or hurt, or grief – that is accompanied by a sharp needle like pain that every now and then shoots through the tips of my fingers and a more steady ache in the roof of my mouth.

When I am tired of these sensations there are various remedies that alleviate them: lorazepam, alcohol, dancing, and writing this blog are my most favored methods. Writing is the one I employ the most and lorazepam is the one I employ the least. Dancing is definitely the most effective (it doesn’t work, unfortunately, if I just get up and dance around in my sitting room; I have to actually go to a class), and I think the high lasts the longest. Alcohol is probably the least effective. Lorazepam is effective but in a deadening kind of way.

Writing this blog is the pain relief method I find most mysterious.

If dancing is enlivening, drinking is relaxing, and Lorazepam is numbing, writing this blog bestows, albeit briefly, a feeling of connectedness. It’s effective, often, when I’m feeling lonely; as with exercise or drinking, the good feeling only lasts so long. Usually when I write a post, I get a heady rush when I post it and when I look at the statistics page and see that people are reading it; the high fades, gradually, as the satisfaction of writing the post recedes from my memory and as I see fewer and fewer people going to the site to read it. So then I have to write another. And another.

You get the idea.

Another more obvious strategy for alleviating melancholy and bestowing a sense of connectedness, one I think of as the Humean method, is spending time with other people. I’m not dating anyone but I’m making a deliberate effort to be merry with friends. I go out; I entertain at home; and I make liberal use of the wide range of communication methods that the digital age affords.

The times when I write here are when I long for a sense of connection, and feel that I’ve exhausted all my other options: I’ve emailed, I’ve texted, I’ve cuddled my children.

Although I, to state the bleeding obvious, have a strong impulse towards disclosure, I understand and respect that this impulse is not universal. And, indeed, maybe it is sometimes an impulse that would be better resisted than indulged. Or maybe it’s a matter of temperament or etiquette. I suspect many people think it’s an imposition to tell someone else when they feel sad, and maybe some people do feel burdened when a sad friend confides in them.

Speaking for myself, I feel deeply flattered when someone chooses to share something painful and intimate with me. Also—and maybe this doesn’t reflect too well on me—it’s not that I’m happy to discover that my friends are sad, but I do find it enormously reassuring to discover that others are struggling too. I think that’s why I love Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas more and more the older I get: because it attests to the universality of melancholy.

But maybe this feeling of relief in bearing witness to others’ troubles is less a general truth of human nature than a particular trait of mine. In grad school I worked for a counseling hotline; it was run by the university and aimed at grad students, and, honestly, we didn’t get that many calls. I must have only talked to a handful of people the whole time I volunteered there. But there was one regular caller, not a grad student, a middle aged woman not connected to the university, who called every night without fail. It clearly meant a lot to her that she could call us every night and that someone would be there, night after night, simply to listen without judgment.

I don’t think there is really a talking “cure”; I believe, with Johnson, that melancholy is here to stay; but I also believe, with Johnson, that (both literally and figuratively) you can’t take it lying down. That would be like sleeping with the enemy. No, as Johnson says, melancholy “shrinks from communication”; this blog avows my faith that disclosure may keep it at bay.

But just as, earlier today, my son was all out of tears, I find myself, now, all out of words. Neither woman nor duck-rabbit cannot live by words alone. And in support of that maxim, I’m now, finally, going to pick my arse off the sofa and go running.