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.

 

 

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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.

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