Wednesday, March 17, 2010
On the way into the office this morning, I saw tulip blossoms (pictured above) poking through the dark ground and I almost cried -- it was just so beautiful. Spring! New life! Rebirth! And it's an apt metaphor for what I've been feeling lately: contentedness, optimism, peace.
Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, and it's dizzying to consider all the changes that have happened in the last twelve months. When I started writing here, I was terrified; I hadn't even tested positive for the gene mutation yet, but I was so scared and so alone that I needed to create a forum in which I could express myself. A year later, while I still love writing here (and reading your comments, which I'm a little sad to see have petered off recently. I miss you guys! Say hi to me!), I'm in a totally different emotional state: I'm happy, sometimes deliriously so.
If spring is a rebirth, the winter -- and its gray weather and leafless trees -- is a kind of death. If I'm now reborn, it follows that I was a little unanimated before. And I realize with the benefit of hindsight, that, if I wasn't quite dead before my surgery, I was deadened: my joy was tempered, my optimism was muffled, my anxiety piloted me. And now, after surgery, I'm alive, more so than I've been in a long time.
The last time I wrote about my post-mastectomy emotions, I talked about my post-surgery blues. But equally important, and to my mind more astonishing, is the phase I find myself in now: unadulterated glee. I was down for only about the first two weeks after surgery; once my drains came out and my house guests left, I began to feel more like myself and less like a patient. But the real return -- or perhaps the ascent -- to happiness began shortly after I returned to work. The most mundane things -- the way the sun shone through the window of the southbound el train as I headed to the office, the simple pleasure of doing my makeup and blow drying my hair, bundling up and braving the Chicago cold -- suddenly seemed new and beautiful; the normalcy of a simple life no longer clouded by the fear of cancer was blindingly bright. And it wasn't just being back at work where I felt different; at home, my laptop lay clamped shut rather than propped open, forever searching the internet for information about breast cancer. I began baking and cooking -- domestic activities I was never known for -- and found immense joy in creating and nourishing. I found myself with so much free brain space: the part of my mind that was clogged with fear and worry had been cleared, and now it is filled with a sense of empowerment. And this feeling of accomplishment has turned into happiness.
After surgery, I feel I can do anything. I can take on any challenge. I can climb mountains. My BRCA year was life-altering and life-sucking, and now that I have recaptured the elan, there is nothing that is too hard. Which leads me to my next point. Before BRCA, the initials that ruled my life were OCD: I presented with symptoms during puberty and have struggled my whole adult life to control the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behavior. This is real OCD, not just oh-yeah-I-like-my-shoes-lined-up-neat-too kind: every second of every day I struggle with irrational thinking and palliative rituals. It's a hellish disorder, but I decided a long time ago I wouldn't be held prisoner by it. And it's a testament that many of my friends and acquaintances don't know this secret shame: I work really hard to control my behavior so that I'm not stigmatized as that nutjob girl.
But I've also spent most of my adult life medicated. I long considered OCD a chronic condition that, like, say, diabetes, required constant medication; my SSRI was like insulin. I had been wanting for a while to switch up medications; the pill I took was notorious for being particularly side-effect laden and difficult to wean from. But in my BRCA year, with so many changes afoot, I thought it would be prudent to wait. But after surgery, I felt strong enough to try something new; after all, I felt I'd be given a new lease on life and I had a check-list full of things I was anxious to start working on. So in February, I spoke to my doctor about trying something new; she devised a plan by which I would gradually taper off the old drug and get onto the new one. But something happened halfway through the weaning: I realized I wanted to make a go of it without medicine. I had heard such nightmarish stories about the withdraw symptoms that I worried whether I'd be strong enough to get through it. But I discovered, not only was it not as bad as I thought it would be, I didn't feel all that different. So when I got to the end of my weaning period, I stopped. No more pills. And it's been wonderful. I don't feel all that different, to be honest. Sure, I still have symptoms of OCD, but no more than I did when I was supposedly controlling them with medication. It's been about a month, and I feel great: I can access my emotions -- both sadness and happiness -- more readily and I feel things more acutely, but this is what I want: no buffer, just life. It's like my mind has been reborn, or at least reawakened.
I'm a big believer of better living through chemistry, and I think medication can do a lot for a lot of people. And I'm not writing off the possibility that one day I might once again set sail on the S.S. SSRI. But right now, I'm seeing what life is like through these eyes. And so far, everything I see is beautiful. It's spring and I have new boobs and a clear mind: I'm reborn and I'm happy.