Sometimes I think this quality manifests itself in perceived negativity. Every so often, Clarke accuses me of focusing on the negative. I can’t say I think he’s wrong, I just think he’s wrong about what drives the concern.
It’s not that I focus on the negative. I just want to be prepared for whatever I am about to confront—good or bad. Of course, being prepared for bad things is harder. But I’m not even sure that I’m ready for good things to come my way.
Here it is in a nutshell: I have a terrible fear of being unprepared.
I never entered “suitcase parties.” These type of lotteries were popular in college. A business would purchase 2 round trip tickets and donate them to a sorority (or other organization) as part of a fund-raiser. You packed a suitcase and went to the drawing. If they chose your name, you and a guest would leave directly from the party to go to the airport.
The twist was, you had no idea where you would be going. You packed your suitcase and showed up without knowledge of whether you were headed to the Caribbean or Vermont. It could be anything, so you had to pack accordingly.
Sound fun? Not to me. Not appealing—at all. I never entered any of them.
I was always like this. But it really changed in December of 2006. The one time I wasn’t worried I got bitten on the ass. When I went back for my second mammogram I wasn’t concerned– in the least. There was no lump, I had just had a clear mammogram 18 months earlier, I was 37 years old, and I had had multiple benign lumps removed throughout my life. Every time I had needed a lump removed, I had worked myself into a tizzy of fear. And each time I had been proven wrong: the lumps were benign.
So to have vague density issues in one breast a few months after I stopped nursing my third child did not provoke worry in me at all.
So when they kept taking pictures I wasn’t worried. When they did the ultrasound I wasn’t worried. When the technician called in the radiologist to look at the ultrasound images I wasn’t worried. When they took me into a separate “discussion room” I still wasn’t worried.
But then the radiologist said words that scared me… hearing words I wasn’t prepared for was devastating.
It’s as if the words she said weren’t in my vocabulary. And therefore, when I heard what she was telling me… it’s probably cancer… I had no reflex in place to catch me while I fell. Here I was, unprepared in every way to digest the news.
So from then on I was fixated on preparing for what lay ahead. I didn’t want to be unprepared for the biopsy, for the double mastectomy, for the chemo. I walked through the world in a blur for that month while decisions were made. My body shut down and I was anxiety-laden. I knew I needed to get a plan. In getting a plan I would feel more powerful, more in control. And I did. Once my decisions were made about surgery and adjuvant therapy (chemo and long term hormone therapies), I think I became resigned. I needed to know what to expect. I needed to know what I might be able to do to take care of my family and how to carry on during what would likely be one of the toughest physical and emotional challenges of my life.
When my hair started to come out in clumps on the morning of my second round of chemo I went to the garage with my clippers and shaved my head. I needed to take control.
“What ifs” are my lifeblood. What if my cancer comes back? What if I die from this? What if I have such a poor quality of life that it’s not worth it anymore? What if I made a mistake being as aggressive as I have been?
The passage of time is helping me with these questions. I know you can’t control it all. And I don’t have the energy to worry all the time. But I also know that in being prepared I am self-soothing, rubbing my mental worry beads, trying to reassure myself that things will be okay.
I’m not sure I believe that yet. It’s a daily struggle. But I learned my lesson by dropping my guard. As a student of life, I failed once. I won’t do it again. Control what I can, be prepared for what I can’t. That’s as far as I am right now.