What’s Keeping Me Awake

Of late I’ve had an uncomfortable medical issue related to repeated heartburn. It’s gotten much worse and I have to go to the doctor. But not, of course, until I’ve Googled myself into a full anxiety attack. It’s after midnight and I’m tossing and turning and just a little terrified – because so many roads lead to cancer and I’m 51 and I still have a teenager at home and I don’t want to die.

Several years ago, I had an irregular mammogram and I had to go back for another test. It turned out alright, but afterwards, I sat in my car sobbing for a good half hour. The palpable relief that I’d still be around for my kid made me crumble. After researching my latest symptoms, my insides are quaking with fear. My symptoms suggest that whatever I have, I’m about to go on a medical diagnostic journey.

Going to the doctor is like going to the gym. Getting through the door is the hardest part. BarrenTreeBWI’ve been fortunate up to this point in my life to have the luxury of infrequent visits to medical establishments. The downside is that nearly every interaction I have with medical personnel is when something bad is happening. I always leave with a new syndrome or condition, feeling much worse off than when I arrived.

When you have the luxury and fortune of good health and things start to go awry, you realize what a coward you are. I’ve never had a dental cavity – a combination of genetics and compulsive brushing. I imagine the first time I get one, I’ll become the biggest baby ever. Yet I know people who have chronic conditions, who have to line up their medications every day, and who have more replacement parts than original and they are still wildly successful at being human beings.

Here I am, though, so filled with fear and anxiety that I cannot sleep. And I know logically, it will only make things worse if I am tired. How do you find a sense of peace or calm in all of this? How do you let go of the visions of death that dance before you? How do you not tearfully hug your husband and daughter as they go out the door to have their Mondays?

On the outside, I tend to under-react in times of crisis, even as my brain is riddled with anxiety. I imagine tomorrow morning will be like any other day. I will close the door behind my family and begin to count the minutes to calling the doctor’s office. They will ask who my primary physician is and I will mumble “I don’t know”. I have a feeling that by the time diagnosis is over and I’m on some sort of treatment plan, cancer or not, I’ll know my primary physician’s name and a few specialists’ names as well.

It is my nature to distance myself, to stand outside of myself in the middle of fear. It is why I’m writing now. Writing gives my story, with all its unanswered questions, some shape, a measure of control. Or at least the illusion of it. Over the last month, I’ve been reading a lot of the classic short story writers and their bios. Quite a few of them were dead in their 40s, with hundreds of stories written. But they never felt the pride of that. They just did it until the TB or syphilis took them.

In the midst of my fears, not having been published turns out to be the least of them. Sometimes it’s good to have those kind of realizations, when all your priorities suddenly sift away, leaving only the large, important things. For me, it will always be my family.

canstockphoto1218783I’d been feeling depressed over the last month or so – the side effect of a long winter and the loss of my mother-in-law a few months ago. I’d been wallowing in self-pity about my inability to be a prolific writer. Sporadic writer is more like it – whinging on about being a caregiver of sick cats, of having no sense of self beyond the drudgery of laundry and dishes and ferrying people about. And how it felt like such a big deal to allow my brown hair to be sheared off to reveal the silvery gray beneath a few weeks ago. I am a little ashamed about that now. How trivial and superficial my anxieties can be.

Writing this reminds me of the ability I have of finding the upside to things. This fear, this insomnia-ridden anxiety, shoves aside my petty concerns, makes me open my eyes and see what is true. I hope I remember this in the cold light of morning, watching as the clock ticks closer to office hours.

40 Comments on “What’s Keeping Me Awake

  1. Something like two decades ago (which would put me right around the age you are now) I went to the doctor with a similar complaint. She told me that as we age the sphincter which closes off the top of the stomach tends to become incompetent, letting stomach acid spill out. She put me on omperazole and the thing cleared up. Periodically, it resurfaces in some slightly changed form, but none of it’s been life threatening.

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    • I’m getting food stuck, so I’m guessing I have scarring due to the heartburn, which is hopefully just a benign esophageal stricture and will need dilation. And yes, I didn’t know any of that until I spent the evening on the internet. On the flip side, everything can also always be cancer. I’m going to be napping after I get that appointment scheduled, because the sleep is not coming.

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  2. Having had the chronic health conditions for my entire adult life, I can still say that it’s still no easier to go through the unexpected results on a mammogram and the subsequent referral for the next round of testing (my current state of holding pattern) … I think we all are faced with the difficult-to-process emotions at times like these no matter what health cards we have been dealt before, no matter how many times we’ve sat at the challenges table. If you’re looking for something to fill in the hours that you will be awake anyway, and if you have access to Netflix, check out the documentary titled “Heal”. It’s an excellent 90 or so minutes on the topic of mind/body medicine and how our beliefs can do more for healing ourselves than reliance on traditional medicine alone.

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    • It’s funny how quickly I’ll get back to meditating – usually when something crops up, like a lapsed Christian to prayer. Many years ago, I had to have surgery to fix a deviated septum and I spent weeks before the surgery listening to the hypnosis CD “Successful Surgery” by Belleruth Naparstek. I think our ability to ease the anxiety around things is marvelous and critical to allowing ourselves to heal. I know, given time and rest, I will be able to re-center to whatever my new reality is, minor or major.

      So sorry that you’re in a holding pattern, but I appreciate you sharing your experience and perspective.

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    • That drives me batty, since I know the thing that will impact my perspective most is being rested! But I finally stopped trying to make myself sleep, as it was feeling a bit torturous to toss and turn. Hopefully once I’ve taken action in the right direction, my brain can take some down time.

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  3. My mom always said, “…don’t worry until there is something to worry about”. Sounds so easy but we all seem to have the same worries as we get older. It is amazing to me how things like proper hydration and stress and eating the wrong foods can mimic terrible other symptoms. I will be thinking about you today and will be praying your fears are unfounded. Hang in there. ❤️

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    • Thanks for the good wishes. I am unfortunately one of those people who can easily convince myself things are fine until they really aren’t. The “really aren’t” stage is good and serious for me now, and should this turn out worse than I hope, I’m going to have a lot of self-blame to deal with.

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  4. 51, you are getting to the stage where some of your body parts warranties are about to expire. I was there a couple of decades ago. I too had acid reflux about your age and like Ellen above, I was put on omperazole. I got food stuck in my throat and had that fixed by an endoscopy to widen out the narrow restricture. That was a simple procedure.

    Depression, well that’s another thing we share. Winter can be brutal for me but just remind yourself that sunny Spring days are just around the corner.

    All that aside, my lesson in life for you is to try your best to not be so fearful. Fear alone can lead to acid problems. About 90% of what we worry about never comes to pass. Take that lesson and just live in the day and pray for a good tomorrow. I don’t always do that but at least I try to, and that alond helps.

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    • Thanks, RJ – your comment is really comforting, as I believe that is the condition I’m likely dealing with. Fortunately, I scored an appointment this morning and can start taking some action. Always much more helpful than hand-wringing.

      Despite being surrounded by several feet of snow, the birds were singing this morning – a sure sign that spring is just a few weeks away. I’m watching as large, melting clumps of snow fall from the trees. Thanks again.

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  5. I hope you get an appointment quickly, because waiting is agony — and that this turns out to be nothing or something easy to treat.

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  6. Thoughts in the deepest hours of the night have the aspect and character of the nightmares that inhabit that realm. Everything is scarier in the dark. There be monsters unfathomable and unconquerable. Bring them into the light may help defeat them. Or might reveal how big the bastards you have to fight really are. (I suspect my analogies are particularly warped this morning. Perhaps more tea would help.) However big, however bad, however numerous the monsters, you are more than you can see in the dark too. Give them hell.

    Whatever style of confrontation you do, I suspect taking the first step toward whatever news you have to find will hep you to cope. It’s just making that first call to set the gears in motion that is the hard thing to do. Good hunting.

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  7. This is so relatable, these anxieties that awaken us during interminable nights. The particuiar fear hardly matters, though it may seem to matter a great deal in the moment. I loved this: “Writing gives my story, with all its unanswered questions, some shape, a measure of control.” Yes! it’s a way — a creative, skillful way — to domesticate difficult emotion while recognizing and conveying its power. Keep doing that, please, for yourself and the rest of us. Good luck, friend.

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    • I love the idea of writing being some form of domestication for the wild and feral thoughts that run rampant through one’s mind. Great metaphor, Cate. Recovering from my lack of sleep and I took action to start the diagnostic process, so now the animals are back in their cages and I can focus on the present moment.

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  8. I can relate to this! I have at least one medical condition but in the last year I’ve developed the weirdest symptoms without much worry from doctors. From what I can gather, since medical professionals have brushed me off, I have something called perimenopause, some evil thing that can happen ten years before menopause and create all kinds of weird symptoms. Most days I just try to roll with the odd symptoms but on other days I am a ball of anxiety and crying. Two years ago my calcium was high. For four months I was convinced I was dying of cancer and fell apart mentally. The numbers eventually came back down and even when the doctors said the worse I probably had was something called hyperparathyroidism, (and might need a minor surgery) I was convinced they were wrong and the end was near. Sigh… for me it’s something that I’ve had for a long time- hypochondriac tendencies – but when I hit my mid to late 30s it jumped up tenfold.

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    • I have a feeling that I’m in the home stretch before menopause and I totally understand weird symptoms. No one tells you that your body will be going haywire long before you are no longer fertile, so a lot of us discover it through trial and error. All I know is that this is where the internet is a wondrous thing. 7 billion people out there – someone, somewhere has experienced exactly what you are going through.
      I attribute my growing medical anxiety to the fact that we’ve reached the age where people are literally dropping dead or acquiring chronic illnesses all around us. Some of us are in deep with the medical decline of elderly parents, while navigating our own aging ecosystems and hearing about our peers’ cancers and joint replacements. It’s hard not to get a little worried!

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  9. 51! A mere child compared to me.
    I use to be a worrier especially before my husband died 6 years ago. I didn’t want anything to happen to him or to me, but alas, it did.

    So far I’m lucky with health, but that can change in a heartbeat. In my older wiser age, I’m trying to get a grip on death that is traveling down the road to meet me and I oscillate between truly living in the moment and longing for the past and dreading the thought of non existence.

    It can get depressing at times, as it can seem like such hard work.

    Oh and the winter snowy gloomy cold weather…that’s why I had to move to a warmer sunnier state. Mentally I would not have survived.

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    • I have been wondering lately about the wisdom of living in a cold climate. However, I so loathe hot weather. That may change as I age and become chronically chilled, but if I were to move, it would be to the Pacific Northwest – a little warmer with enough inclement weather to keep the northerner in me happy. And how the wide ocean keeps everything in perspective…

      I’m sorry to hear that your husband passed. You’re right, now matter what we do, things happen that can’t be prevented. There should be some balance between appropriate caution and joie de vivre – I just keep swinging wildly from outright panic to desolate nihilism. I need to settle down a bit!

      You make a good point about the hard work required to enjoy life, while understanding that it will end. It’s unique to the human condition and has befuddled philosophers for centuries.

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  10. I have multiple chronic conditions, and it’s still scary to go to a doctor for something new. I just had a visit with my gastroenterologist today. The good news is, most things *aren’t cancer, and most things are resolved pretty easily.

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    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s easy to see how one never gets used to new symptoms that crop up and new concerns, regardless your medical state. I have an endoscopy scheduled for next week and my mantra will be “most things aren’t cancer” until I get it done. Thank you.

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  11. Hope the appointment went well and the news was reassuring, Michelle. Anxiety seems to have a mind of its own–and sometimes even a (sick) sense of humor. Thinking of you.

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    • The diagnostic process has been initiated. I think I got tired out from anxiety all in one night, so I’m in a better place now (that’s probably the wrong phrase to use when discussing health). Thanks for the kind thoughts, Donna.

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  12. Michelle I hope your problem is one that is easily remedied. I had similar issues and finally went to the Doctor. Turns out is a good sized gall stone which will be removed along with its home organ in a couple weeks. Surgery sucks. But if it takes care of it, I’ll be relieved. It’s hard for us anti-establishment types not to be suspicious of the medical establishment, and yet we find ourselves relying on them in our most difficult times. Such a conundrum. And the waiting part is hell. Keep us informed Michelle. And try to calm that beast, anxiety, maybe with some music or a walk or two. Best Wishes.

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    • I don’t know what it is about our age or time of year, but anybody I’ve talked to about my anxieties, has their own story running. I know it’s hitting the 50s, but wow, a lot of shit is going wrong for a lot of people I know all at once. Sounds like you are on a path to solving your issues – I hope that everything goes well.

      My resistance to authority figures has a long history. I don’t trust and I spend a lot of time verifying anything that comes out of a human’s mouth whether they are doctors or teachers or politicians or military personnel (you can imagine how well my Army career went). I’m often amazed how people listen raptly to doctors, but it’s understandable – you’re sick and vulnerable and just want whatever is wrong with you fixed.

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      • Personally I don’t trust surgeons, because they tend to like what they do and that is cut us open to practice their craft. But I have had difficulty finding reliable info on line about whether I can forgo surgery with a gallstone in place. I know the possibility that it can cause more issues is always there, and that removing gallstones and not the organ is a real specialty not practiced that much, and they can come back. I guess I will lose the gall bladder. I wasn’t given many options other than that.
        Hope you can resolve your own health concerns easily Michelle. It sucks getting old, but we do want to stick around for our loved ones who need us, and because life is what we know. Take good care of you!

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  13. I am so sorry to hear that. I sincerely wish you get well soon. And being with your family and sharing those little moments should always be put in front.

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  14. Wow, its interesting that I read your blog post for the first time today. And, just this week I was discussing with my friends how scary the changes in our bodies can make you feel. You go to bed feeling fine and wake up with a new ache or pain. You go to the doctor feeling well and leave out having to take high blood pressure medication. Then all of sudden, now you are feeling your heart flutter and your ankles are swelling. Educate yourself in what ever decisions you need to make for your health and please know you are not alone in your concerns.

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    • I often joke that we’ve reached the age where “sleep injuries” are a thing. I’ve always been good about keeping myself educated about my health, but it’s another case where knowledge without action leads to the same outcome as someone who never bothers. I put some things off for a bit and now I’m reaping my “rewards”. Hopefully, I’m getting to things soon enough to hold off dire consequences.

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  15. Pingback: The Green Study on Spring Break | The Green Study

  16. If you are a coward, then I am as well. I am so fearful of doctors and internet self-diagnosis. Though I do go for checkups, they always terrify me. It seems to me that the purpose of a checkup is for doctors to try their best to find bad things, so walking into a medical facility feels eerily like walking the plank. I am looking forward to reading that your fears are for naught and this is just a speed bump.

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    • This is an unfortunate consequence of having really good imaginations! I think I’ve reached the point where I need to act like a grown up and be proactive about medical checkups. If I only visit when things go wrong, it will only ramp up my anxiety. I hope this is merely a course correction.

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      • It could be just a nudge from some greater power to remind you to take care of yourself. I once had a health scare that turned out to be much ado about nothing. But it uncovered something else that I was able to address before it became critical. Sometimes these health scares are a blessing. The human body is a complex machine that needs mechanical adjustments now and then. Best wishes.

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