Now that I have your attention, I must tell you in advance that this entry might be a bit boring. Or not. Looking at your own writing is a mixed bag. Unfortunately, what I’m writing about is not sex, drugs, and rock & roll. I mean, it should be. I’m not that old. Ok, I’m 44, and medical advice has changed. I didn’t think I’d be getting a mammogram for at least another year or two. Conventional wisdom has changed to over 40. I was officially NOT. IMPRESSED.
This is because I’ve heard so many horror stories about how much it hurts to have your boobs squished into a machine one at a time. Either the machinery has changed, or the women telling those stories were “jeweling the elephant.” In case you’ve never heard that term before, it comes from an Armistead Maupin novel called The Night Listener.
The main character talks about a friend who went to India for a wedding. It was small and intimate, but by the time the friend came back to the United States, the groom had ridden in on a jeweled elephant. Thus, a great phrase was born (the friend was not from Texas, but I assure you that Texans are not immune to this concept…. a three inch bass that had to be thrown back is a 12-inch keeper at the ice house). So what I’m saying is that it’s a strong possibility that the memory of the mammogram was maybe worse than the test itself. On the other hand, my previous point stands. Perhaps advances in mammography have led to the test being much less painful. I’m going to bet on that.
I felt pressure, certainly, but no actual pain (from the test itself…………………..). A few weeks ago, I fell and got a horrible muscle spasm in my back, bad enough to need muscle relaxers and a trip to an orthopedist and physical therapy twice a week. The hardest and most excruciating pain was just having to stand up for 10-15 minutes in a row.
I was also in a lot of emotional pain, because the date was my mother’s birthday. I haven’t felt the overwhelming grief of my mother dying in a long time (every day it’s a dull buzz that runs constantly in my head), but it surfaced mightily when I realized she couldn’t fly up to be with me, nor could I debrief with her over the phone. It was primal, four-year-old child “I want my Mommy.” Because here’s the thing. No matter whether you have family history of breast cancer or not (I don’t), what kind of breast tissue you have (mine is extraordinarily dense and required a couple of takes to get the test right), or whether the person doing the test has one year of experience or 20, the fact that it takes at least a week for the results to come back makes you nervous. You have thoughts that range from “I hope I’m okay” to “I’m probably dying.” I got them earlier this week and they were completely normal.
I also learned that I’m not interested in changing my pronouns or coming out again, but I had a moment of clarity in which I’d never felt more non-binary in my life. I was wearing my hair short and punk, had on both earrings and a cartilage piercing, and was dressed in men’s jeans and an old Ubuntu Studio t-shirt. I’d also brought my well-worn CIA baseball cap for after the test as my emotional support item. It makes me feel braver and stronger than I actually am.
As I was standing there naked from the waist up, I felt truly disconnected from my femininity. It was if my breasts had a life of their own, separate and of me at the same time. I was also completely focused on other things. My pain level was at a seven. I was trying to cover it up with jokes, which brought the pain down to a six and a half. I was also thinking constantly about how I had no idea what was happening most of the time (shut it).
And even though it was completely platonic and professional, I hadn’t been even partially naked in front of another woman for at least seven years, so that was uncomfortable as well… but not in terms of attraction. It was akin to changing in front of other women at a gym……. in seventh grade.
I told the technician that it was my first mammogram, and she said that I had come to the right place. She had 20 years of experience and would make everything as painless and easy as possible, plus, she REALLY loves her job. I said she’d have to, because no matter what the job is, you’d have to love it to do it that long. I made her laugh. Score. Witty rapport with her and endorphins for me.
I was drawn into her bubbly personality. I was wearing this (actually kind of cool) scrub top that tied in two places. She offered to let me drop one side of it at a time, but it unwieldy and time-consuming. I said, “would it be easier for both of us if I just took it off? If you’ve been doing this for 20 years, I’m going to bet you’ve seen a breast before.” She said that was the right answer and we’d be done much quicker.
The funniest part was that she adjusted the machine before I took my top off, and she said, “I have clearly miscalculated.” I laughed so hard that my stomach hurt, and the words of an old girlfriend floated through my head….. “awwww, you got the boobs I always wanted.” That moment of levity carried me through the rest of the test with ease in terms of erasing nervousness, and I think the laughter even brought down my pain more for a minute or so. The hardest part of the test was standing still for fifteen minutes.
A couple of days after the mammogram, physical therapy started. The first session was sublime, because all they did was have me lay on my stomach and massage me for almost an hour and a half. I thought they were all going to be like that.
The second session started with 10 minutes on a bicycle to “warm up.” I am what you would call, as Jim Gaffigan says, “indoorsy.” I haven’t exercised in years. I learned something good about myself, which is that even though it had been a long time, it didn’t feel like my calves were going to drop off until the 10 minutes were up.
After that was when my problems really began to kick in. The whole idea is that my arthritis stems from a birth defect. It’s called retrolisthesis, and it occurs when a single vertebra slips and moves back along the intervertebral disc underneath or above it. The quickest way to fix it permanently is to surgically fuse the discs, but my doctor said to try Physical Therapy first and strengthen my core.
When I started those exercises, my other birth defects kicked in. I have a mild case of cerebral palsy, which hasn’t affected my brain or speech, but completely changes my movement and balance. I fall all the time. In fact, I fall so much that I’m bruised all over the place and can never match up which fall goes with which injury. So, of course, the first exercise was trying to balance on a board that sat atop a rubber ball. I could tell that my physical therapist thought I was exaggerating when I couldn’t do it, so I clued him in. He said, “I need you to try a little harder because this exercise is really, really important. Of course it was. And, of course, I was even more terrible at it when I felt under pressure to do well. I am a perfectionist, and any time I feel like I’ve done something less than perfectly, my anxiety kicks up and I feel like a total failure….. even in times where I get 70-80% right.
But this? Grading this would be a zero.
I also told my physical therapist that I saw a treadmill, an eliptical, and a bike, and to never, ever put me on the eliptical, even if God himself came down and told him it was okay. My balance is so off that I fell off the first time I used it. Thinking I just didn’t know how to use the machine, I tried it three more times, which led to (you guessed it) three more falls.
Two weeks ago, we also tried cupping. Apparently it’s supposed to increase the blood flow around your injury, allowing it a better chance to heal itself. I would be willing to try it again, but the first time all I felt was weirdness. Like, the strangest sensation I’ve ever felt in my life. Like other things, though, perhaps it takes more than one session to feel like it helped. But we haven’t done it again. I’ve laid on my stomach and used electrostim with either heat or ice.
The most frustrating part of all this is twofold. The first is that the physical therapy is helping, but I’m not getting better very fast. The second is that the longer I’m in pain, the more my mental health suffers, because nothing in my body feels good. My psych meds and the muscle relaxers help, but like my physical pain, I’m not getting better very fast. Also, don’t tell my doctor, but I’m cheating. She said that she’d like me to take the muscle relaxers instead of NSAIDS because the NSAIDS might make my acid reflux worse. After a week of that bullshit, I bought four bottles of omeprazole and a year’s worth of Aleve. Along with my back pain, I’ve had arthritis in my hands since I was 30, and my knees have been 44 since I was 19. All of it has to do with working in a kitchen. In college, I was a waitress. When I was older, I became a cook. The repetitive strain injuries have mostly gone away, except for the times when I’m typing like a madman. The arthritis is here to stay. Pretty sure it’s osteo and not rheumatoid, because my knuckles/fingers look normal.
That being said, my stepmother is a rheumatologist and a lot of her patients are women my age…. so of course I’m a tiny, tiny bit paranoid about developing an autoimmune disease.
The upside of all this is that my friends have been amazing, checking in on me a lot and offering to rub my back with Voltaren cream or Icy Hot. It lightens my mood, because since I’m perpetually single (by choice), the one bad thing about it is that I am continually touch-starved…. just not right now.
Next week I’m getting a different massage therapist while my current one goes to visit his family in Tehran. I nearly fainted when he said that because Argo is my favorite movie of all time and space. I joked with him. I said, “could you take a picture of the bazaar for me? I don’t have one without Ben Affleck in it.”
And then we laughed so hard I almost fell over……………………..