Ruanita is sitting across from me. She is talking to me about…something. Maybe it’s about the kids. Maybe it’s about the dog. Or our bills. Or the weather. Or our summer vacation plans. I don’t know because I’m not listening.
All I want to do is punch her in the face.
She’s done nothing wrong. She’s said nothing wrong. But I am consumed by an anger that hits out of the blue and takes my breath away. My hands are shaking. My heart is racing. I take deep breaths to try to calm the rabid wolverine inside of me. Eventually the anger does fade. It passes as suddenly as it arrived, with a final, long exhale.
I am me again. And I did not punch Ruanita in the face.
This sudden, inexplicable anger comes and goes at the most inopportune of moments. Siting in traffic. Walking the aisles of Target. Trying to convince my kids that yes, they do need to empty the dishwasher when I ask them to and not an hour from now when they get bored with the video game they are playing. The anger always comes as a surprise. To those around me, but especially to me. And it is second in frequency only to the anxiety that hits on a daily basis and causes me to freeze in my tracks.
I’ve never been an extremely anxious person.
Okay, that may be a lie. When I was a kid, I had a “nervous tummy” that caused me to cry a lot and miss more than a few days of school. My mother gave me Maalox by the boatload to ease my fears and calm my raging belly. That was way back when Maalox was a prescription drug and had none of the “delicious” flavor punch it packs today. In 1980, Maalox was white. It tasted like someone had gathered together all the chalk dust floating around all the chalk boards in all the 2nd grade classrooms in all the world – and combined it in one dreadful, hated bottle. I drank it with my nose pinched and my gag reflex on high alert. And it did nothing to ease my anxiety.
I began biting my fingernails the day I first sprouted an upper tooth and a lower tooth that, in unison, could chomp onto a nail with the ferocity of an angry chihuahua trying to prove its mettle against larger and stronger dogs. I gnawed on my nails until they were nothing more than saliva-covered nubs. Then I chewed the nubs until they bled. Biting my nails gave me a sense of purpose when things around me made no sense. Biting my nails gave me a singular goal to focus on. Make it short. Make it smooth. Make it hurt.
I still bite my nails – though with less enthusiasm as I did in my youth – but my nervous stomach is a thing of the past. I survived high school. I went to college. I became an adult with a job and a mortgage and a wife and somewhat mentally stable offspring. My anxiety did not follow me past childhood. I am an anxiety-free adult.
That is, I was an anxiety-free adult.
Up to this point, I have been extremely proud of the way in which I have managed my cancer diagnosis and treatment. Cancer did not break me. I managed to make it through treatment with an untouched bottle of Ativan and a positive attitude that I consider my saving grace.
So what the fuck is going on now?
Since completing treatment on December 30th, that bottle of Ativan is almost gone. I have trouble falling asleep at night. I feel a constant weight – like a boulder – sitting on my chest. It’s heavy and the weight of it makes it difficult to move sometimes. Even to breathe.
Apparently, this is something no one tells you about cancer treatment. The anxiety, the anger, the hopelessness, the rage, the adrenaline, the immobilizing fear – they all hit you at once. And it isn’t when you are diagnosed. It isn’t when you first hear those words, “You have cancer.” It’s not when you would expect it, in the throes of treatment. Sitting in the infusion chair during chemo. Laying topless under the humming radiation machine. Crying because the drains sewn into your sides hurt so completely that you can’t fathom ever being rid of them. It doesn’t hit when you are prepared for it. It doesn’t hit when everyone is at your side cheering you on. It doesn’t hit when people are sending cards and calling and dropping by with coffee and treats.
It happens at the end.
When it’s over. When you are just starting to feel human again. When the well-wishers have moved on, confident in their friend’s full recovery. It hits you when you least expect. Sitting across from your wife talking about…who knows what. Because you can’t focus on the words she is saying because you are imagining your hands around the neck of the person you love most in the world. Not because you want to hurt her. But because you are so angry that you want to lash out. So outraged that this had to happen to you. To her. To your children. So angry that the last year of your life has been spent lying on a couch. Sleeping away hours upon hours that you will never get back. Missing choir concerts and soccer games and violin recitals. Apologizing over and over for not being there. For not being you. For not being human.
And that rage is fueled by fear. When I was in constant contact with my doctor, I felt safe. I felt secure in the knowledge that I was doing something to combat the monster growing inside me. That it would not grow unchecked under my skin. I was part of a team whose sole purpose was to make me better. Team Shannon. They would save me. Together, we would make everything normal again. One day.
Then that day came, and I was suddenly alone again. Sure, I have my oncologist on speed dial, but I have no appointments scheduled. I am not going to see him tomorrow. Or the next day. I don’t want to bother him. In many ways, it’s like he’s broken up with me. I’m a jilted bride. Left at the altar. I am alone in this fight. It is up to me to save me now.
Every shoulder twinge, every knee ache, every stomach turn. They are all sure signs of metastasis. Surely the cancer has spread. Surely it is growing unchecked inside me. I didn’t feel the weight of my mortality until I was better. Until I was on the road to recovery. Until I no longer needed constant monitoring. Suddenly, I am acutely aware that it could come back. It might come back. It surely will come back. I have no control whatsoever.
And this lack of control makes me incredibly anxious.
All the time.
And Facebook is scary. And we elected a fascist. And public education is in danger. And immigrants need our help. And a racist fuck-face is on the National Security Council. And my rights as a lesbian are on the chopping block. And the environment is under attack from…tree haters? And park rangers are resisting. And black lives do matter. And Twitter rants are stupid. And I don’t own a pussy hat. And my hair is too curly. And gray. And alternative facts are not facts. And I’m not sure if all these petitions accomplish anything at all. And Sean Spicer is going to stroke out if he insists on being such an angry little troll. And I want to donate to the ACLU, but T-Mobile wants me to pay my phone bill. And the kids need to know that I am okay – now more than ever. And Ruanita misses me – wants me. But I am not sure where to find the me she wants.
Anxiety is my life right now.
I think I might puke.
I am told all of this jumbled emotional upheaval is normal. I am not a violent freak of nature. I am not even moderately weird. Now that I am not go-go-going all the time, my brain has the luxury of processing what I have been through. And those emotions that have been held in check for so long because I needed to survive the treatment have been freed now that treatment is over. And rather than take turns in a polite manner – as I would expect the emotions of a polite person like myself to behave – they have decided to all hit me at once in full force. Rather rude, if you ask me.
But I’m normal. Perfectly, pleasantly, pedantically normal.
Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel better.