I often tell myself stories, and not the good kind. Stories with unhappy endings. Negative fantasies.
Do you do that too?
George Washington said, “Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” And I am so often guilty of that, borrowing trouble. I have burned a lot of energy in my lifetime, worrying and losing sleep over things that never came to pass. And I’ve paid a lot of interest as a consequence.
And jumping to conclusions without simply getting the facts? I’m guilty of that too.
We’ve all heard stories of people who have found lumps or had worrisome symptoms and put off going to the doctor because they “didn’t want to know” if something bad was happening to them. I once knew a woman who waited until her breast tumor was visible from the outside before she went to the doctor. Of course, by that point, what was probably an easily treatable cancer had metastasized to a far higher stage, and she ultimately died.
I always thought I would never do such a thing. But in reality, I do exactly that, just on a smaller scale.
For instance: I’ve been dealing with some pretty debilitating side effects of chemotherapy since my treatment ended last summer. Neuropathy in my feet and hands; fatigue; muscle and joint pain … all of those symptoms that go with the territory when one subjects oneself to months of chemical infusions. And instead of getting better, some of my symptoms were actually getting worse. Specifically, my joint pain had become so bad that I felt I had aged a couple decades in the past year. And when I would get out of bed in the morning or get out of the car after a long drive, I was so stiff, I could barely walk. I felt like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, or an old lady in her 90s. This was not the post-treatment life I had envisioned for myself.
Now, the story I told myself was that the chemo had clearly eaten away at my joints, rendering my skeleton a decaying foundation. I’ve known women who have gone through chemotherapy and had to have hip, knee or shoulder surgery due to chemo joint damage. This was obviously happening to me, I thought, and not just in one area but many. My shoulders, elbows, hands, knees and feet … all had been damaged. I’d no doubt be wheelchair bound before I hit 50, if I lived that long. I wouldn’t be able to carry my child or dance with my husband. I may have beaten cancer, but at what cost?
So I’d been thinking these bad things (and keeping them to myself) for months. Finally, my pain got so bad that I went to see my regular doctor. And when I described to him my various aches and pains and symptoms, he pointed out to me that some of them didn’t sound at all systemic, and some likely had nothing to do with chemo. For instance, I was reminded that I’d had arthritis in my knees when I was still in my 30s, and had been treated successfully with injections. He also pointed out that there was a new factor in my life that had nothing to do with cancer: I had been toting around a growing child for the past 15 months. One can’t do this, especially at my age, without it taking a bit of a toll. He suggested that before jumping to conclusions, we get some scans and do some bloodwork. He also referred me to a sports medicine doc. I spent the ensuing week getting tests as well as answers.
Come to find out, I have tendonitis in one elbow, and a rotator cuff injury in the opposite shoulder – my baby lifting and carrying muscles and joints. And I still have arthritis in my knees, as well as the bases of my thumbs. With just a week of anti-inflammatory drugs (Naproxen) and dietary supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin and Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as being mindful of anti-inflammatory foods, I already feel better. Like a lot better. And I think to myself how much time I wasted telling myself stories rather than getting off my ass and doing something about it. I now know, having done my homework, that many former cancer patients suffer from fibromyalgia, a condition for which there is no cure, but for which there are many treatments. I am now on the way to managing my symptoms – some chemo-related, others simply a by-product of growing older – with diet changes, dietary supplements, physical therapy and exercise. I don’t have to accept this condition. What the hell was I thinking?
The truth is that I wasn’t thinking logically. I was paralyzed by fear. Fear with no supporting data beyond my wild imagination.
I did the same thing recently with my eyesight. I’ve worn glasses since age 7 and passed into the Coke-bottle phase before I was even out of high school. My parents and I were told that my vision would stop changing once I hit adulthood. Well, it didn’t. By the time I hit 40, I was wearing a -14.00 prescription. I’ve worn hard contacts since age 10 and while I crossed into legal blindness awhile back, I’ve always had this secret fear of going blind for real. The story I told myself was that one day I’d go to the ophthalmologist for a new prescription and he’d tell me that I’d maxed out … that they couldn’t go any higher. I started having some significant vision changes after my child was born and thought, “here we go”. This was the beginning of the end.
Well, after procrastinating for close to a year, I finally saw an eye specialist. And guess what? My vision had gotten shitty because my contact lens prescription had actually become too strong. It seems that once we get into our 40s, nearsightedness (myopia) can actually improve as our eye muscles weaken and we start doing that holding-the-menu-far-away thing to read small print. Turns out I just needed a slightly dialed down contact lens prescription combined with some progressive readers. A simple solution that I could have implemented nearly a year ago had I not been paralyzed with the fear of bad news.
So the lesson for me is a reminder of the old adage that knowledge is power. Before I go off spinning over some doomsday prophesy I’ve rendered myself, I should probably first get the facts. I’d certainly save myself a lot of time and energy, creating more space for enjoying the good stuff.
The other lesson for me relates to keeping secrets. If I am carrying around some secret fear, it’s just going to grow and snowball until it becomes a terrible burden. Telling someone – whether it be a trusted friend or a professional – helps bring that fear out into the light.
And things aren’t things always way less frightening in the light of day?