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Brain Tumors and Other Boogiemen
“I have a brain tumor,” I confided to my friend as we arranged our dinner selections on our plates.
“So do I,” she said. We carried our plates to our chairs and sat down. “In fact, Peter really doesn’t like it when I get on the Internet anymore.” Kathy lowered her voice as her husband came within earshot.
“Brad feels the same,” I nodded, knowingly, thinking of all the medical sites my husband would love to block.
The conversation wasn’t really headed the direction I expected. I had no idea Kathy had a brain tumor, and she stole my thunder. No sign of concern, no follow-up questions, my tumor obviously wasn’t being taken seriously. This wasn’t the same, intermittent brain tumor that’s been known to flare up since grade school. This time, the world wide web was solidly backing my hypochondria.
I had realized earlier in the day that the fact that my right ear had been blocked for several years might be a problem. Once, I had a doctor check for wax, but none found, I accepted it as a one of life’s little quirks and forgot about it. Every now and then (although web research now indicates this was a mistake) I’d shove a q-tip as deep as I dared and wiggle it around a bit, or while showering, press my palm over top of my ear to create a bit of plunging action, but that was about it.
I attempted to explain to my husband and the ENT I later consulted why, after all these years, I had chosen now to investigate the problem. The truth, if you must know, is that I blame it on The Auto Mall, a mechanical group who has, at the time of this writing, taken over twelve weeks to perform a standard repair on my jeep. I no longer care, as I have long since given up hope that they can complete this maintenance before my young children graduate. The fate of the jeep is now left for the courts to determine and I wanted a new car anyway. But this was in the early days of the problem, when my husband still had to take the children and I to and from school in shifts in his two-seater pick up. I was subsequently left on the front step of the school building with absolutely nothing to do but think.
Now, I realize that I could have used the time to think about anything. The world was my palette. I had characters in works of fiction that I’d abandoned in grave peril weeks earlier. There was the stimulating article I’d read about the Irish potato famine. Doubtless, I had no dinner plans. But, no, none of those topics crossed my mind as I sat on the steps and wondered: Why is my ear is plugged?
As with all things I wonder, I decided to consult the Internet when I got home. The results were alarming.
A well-documented symptom, “fullness of the ear” could signal any of a widely varied range of dysfunction, some of which, I read with fascinated horror, had nothing to do with the ear at all. Fullness of the ear was obviously an overlooked malady. All these years I thought I was living in relative health, I actually had the dreaded fullness of the ear, harbinger of disorders ranging from ear wax and chronic infection on the tame end, capping off with MS, brain, and nasal tumors on the other.
“The symptoms you report are pretty common,” the ENT told me, just before I asked about two specific and especially insidious tumors I’d read about. Seeing no evidence of either, he quickly sapped me of any relief I was tempted to feel.
“Who knows? Could be a tumor, cancer, or worse. Could be absolutely anything or nothing at all. People worry about all kinds of things.” He gave me an order for a CT and a hearing test, and sent me on my way.
Worse than brain cancer? No web page anywhere had mentioned possibilities that could stack up against such a prognosis. This was exactly the kind of situation I feared: an ongoing investigation in search of unknown and potentially terrifying horrors.
Without a doubt, I’d end up like the faceless patients I’d read about in a recent newspaper article on new advancements in facial reconstruction. I would be hideous, if I even lived, and would I want to, anyway? My husband, the poor man, isn’t a lot of help at times like this. Having seen me through other tumors, gynecological uncertainties, and numerous suspicious moles, he’s become a bit hardened to medical drama.
“Your symptoms aren’t any different from the 20,000 other patients he’s seen,” said Brad, resorting to factual statistics to back up his unnerving calm. “How many people have you seen walking around Hampton without a face?” my husband demanded.
“Maybe one,” I said, determined not to lose ground. There was the facial reconstruction article. Truthfully, I didn’t know where the woman featured in the piece actually lived, but she was in my local paper and that was certainly good enough for the purposes of this argument.
“One?” my husband raised his eyebrows in challenge. “And the newspaper doesn’t count.”
Transactional Analysis, I remembered from my undergraduate psychology studies, purports the idea that we all live by a set of life scripts, or predetermined ways of responding to life events. TA- based therapy focuses on examining the predictable patterns, the scripts, by which we live by and changing or erasing those that are destructive or that we’ve outgrown.
As the author of scripts, director of productions, and small time actor, the concept of living by a psychological script intrigues me. On one hand, I don’t like the idea that I might interact with the world according to a limited range of predetermined responses. On the other hand, I am the author of the script, so the responses are mine.
There’s a very Dark Place I go when confronted with any type of medical uncertainty. After leaving the ENT, the Dark Place beckoned as if on cue.
In the Dark Place, I shuffle around listlessly. With a host of disfiguring treatments and the grim reaper looming, clearly, there was no point in working on my novel. Ditto for working out. Instead, I wonder if Brad and the kids will decorate for Christmas, and if they know the recipe for pasta fagoli. I burst into tears at the mere sight of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, because I’m certain I can’t hold on for enough family readings to see Frodo through to Mordor.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Images of the Dark Place don’t quickly fade and I don’t want to burden you with them. But somehow, this particular trip took an unexpected turn. A voice of reason—my husband will tell you it was his—somehow made a Hollywood-style plunge through the thick blanket of cloud that enveloped me. All it said was “you don’t have to behave this way.”
“Duh,” I answered the voice (it really was my husband.) Even as I scoffed, though, I understood for the first time that the Dark Place is nothing but a setting I’ve scripted for myself in which to worry and brood.
More importantly, in a flood of realization, I knew why I went there.
In one of those flip-of-the-switch discoveries, I knew it was the promise of euphoria drives me to the Dark Place. I totally get off on the moment when the whole tawdry affair is laid to rest by whatever negative x-ray, lab result or simple a reassuring office visit the situation requires.
I’d get the good news and realize that I was going to live. After which the sky would seem bluer, the air would smell cleaner and life’s little trials would roll off my shoulders with ease. After all, I just last week I was dying. Reveling in life, I called it. It was a tremendous high that can only be achieved by going very, very low.
Kathy’s response made me realize that we all have brain tumors. Some of us even refer to them as such. Other people have different names for their boogiemen. Fear of failure, fear of commitment, monsters under the bed—we all have something that sends us scurrying into our own personal hell. My “therapy moment” made me realize that growing up is not only about finding better ways to confront our ghouls, it’s discovering why we’re hanging out with them in the first place.
Evidently, I’ve been playing mine for cheap thrills.
Will all my new found wisdom keep me from running to the Internet the next time unusual symptoms crop up? I don’t know—I threw out my script.