Leaving my comfort zone?

I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple weeks. Cheryl and I have discussed this at length, but I’ve waited to put this up until after her big day. I didn’t want her dealing with this, any more than she already would have been, when she was already going to be stressed talking to the folks at the home office in Tallahassee.

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It’s easy to see life altering events after they’ve passed. Sometimes we think we can see them coming, but find that foresight isn’t a reliable predictor of a happiness. Such an event may loom in my near future. As if you couldn’t already guess.

Cheryl had a job interview today. It was out of town, in Tallahassee, FL.

How many of you think moving to a new city sounds exciting? There was a time when I did. What’s not to like? New opportunities. New places to see and explore. Expanding horizons a bit further than the daily commute. All of these sound good, so why does it seem I’m wired differently than folks who see these things with an optimist’s eye? I hate myself for being a killjoy.

Let’s start at home. This is home. With a couple interruptions, it has been since 1979. I’ve loved this place with equal measure hate, so it shouldn’t hold me as strong as it does. But home has the capacity to comfort you like no other place when life doesn’t treat you well. I can’t imagine slogging through leukemia, chronic pain and illness, my mother’s mental collapse and long hospitalization, a couple surgeries, and my ongoing struggles with depression – in these last six years – if they happened somewhere else.

So why would we be considering a move to Tallahassee? For those of you not up on your Florida geography, it’s about halfway across the state (lengthwise), yet is far enough to easily get you to another state most other places in this country (outside of Alaska, Texas, California, and Hawaii). Although Tallahassee leans progressive due to two universities and the state capital, it’s in a region (not always) affectionately known as Lower Alabama (the panhandle). Florida is unique in that you have to drive north to go “South,” with the rest of the state made up of first and second generation, midwestern or northeastern transplants.

The short answer: Cheryl works two jobs to cover my medical bills, private school for a child in the autism spectrum, and more private school for another child who we fear would suffer similar problems in our beleaguered public schools. Please note: we don’t blame the schools themselves. They’ve been under siege by a hostile, crazy-conservative state legislature hell bent on removing “public” from any discussion. She has an interview for a job which pays more money, where she wouldn’t have to work two jobs.

“Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it can rent it for a while.” I don’t know who said that, if it was a serious comment, or where I heard it, but I think I understand it. I don’t want Cheryl to feel she has to work two jobs, and this position with the central office in her department could solve this problem. Working night shifts in hospital security has taken a physical and emotional toll, and I feel responsible. Hurting someone you love, however indirectly, is a terrible feeling. So go ahead and add one more thing to my list of suffering a couple paragraphs back: self-pitying anchor.

No matter what I say going forward, no matter how much unsympathetic whining I do, I feel there’s no real choice. I can’t…. I won’t be responsible for my wife’s suffering.

The Problem: I don’t want to move. By this I don’t mean I’d prefer not to move. The idea fills me with anxiety on so many levels I could sit distracted for hours, thinking of nothing but worry. Still, I also can’t be the reason for Cheryl’s misery… resentment… fill in the blank with the help of your trusty thesaurus.

Anxiety’s Root: Well, there’s the obvious answer: brain chemistry/wiring. I can feel o.k. for months, working my way through pressures at work and home with aplomb. It’s almost like I’m a normal person. Then there’s a trigger. There’s no telling what it might be. I could be something as trivial as leaving my phone at home. Then I’m in free-fall and everything feels insurmountable. It can last hours or months, but for years it stayed away… until six years ago.

A few causes are easier to understand. They share elements experienced by many folks first or second hand. For example, I feel marginally employable due to health problems and my attendance record over the last six years. As someone who’s had a hand in hiring for the last fifteen, I know it’s an important consideration. Whether there’s a good reason for absenteeism or not, employers like to have employees who are capable AND who will be there regularly to show off their abilities. I feel lucky to be somewhere NOW, where I’m valued despite my history of health problems. Despite what you may think about working for the government, there’s no guarantee of a job for me in my department just because my wife gets a promotion and/or transfers. I have to be acceptable in the eyes of management where I’d be transferring. Over the last six years, I’m the potential candidate who’s used all of his own leave, used chunks of leave donated by others, and is on his third year under the protection of the Family Medical Leave Act. Tempting, aren’t I?

Plus I really like my job, right where I am. I’ve put the better part of twenty years towards learning most of the nuances of my job, and the somewhat unique version of it which exists in my office. To some this would mark the time to move on to other things. But to me, it creates another opportunity: to help not only our clients but my coworkers. People outside my team (sometimes calling long distance) trust me with an answer, and a sincere thank you often means more to me than money. Folks often complain recognition in government (at least in Florida) rarely involves financial reward, but I’m not one of those people.

Despite more recent health problems, I’ve put many years earning this respect, my friends, and a good reputation. I fear starting over someplace else and losing it all – the things I’ve come to like most about my job. I fear it will be many times harder the second time around – when the 1995 model Me is just words in a file, and the 2013 model is broken.

The circle is complete. None of this changes Cheryl’s problems. I haven’t lived them so I won’t do them the disservice of explaining them poorly, but I understand the toll they’ve taken all too well. The lack of time off, never stopping, and carrying more than her share is wearing her down. I read this post and my guilt leaves the linear track, exploding with exponents. I’m not just an anchor, resisting with equal and opposite force. Most of you remember high school physics, right? I fear I’m an anchor that can’t/won’t see past it’s own fear and pulls back harder.

I don’t think I’m deluding myself when I say I try. The privacy train left the station on this blog years ago, so it’s odd I can’t bring myself to name the ways now. Hell, what’s a little social stigma after this post? I’ll just say I’ve spoken to many people, in many disciplines, at times spending lots of money, over many years, to get a a grip on some of my problems. That should be enough to spark a bit of your imagination, eh?

God help me (yes, I’ve spoken to him too), I don’t want to be a terrible person.


Freak out

I’ve started this post once or twice a week for months. I get out a sentence or two and stop – too tired, too fried, or too apathetic to continue. I’ve been MIA most of this year, clicking the occasional “like” the few times I venture out into social media. Reasons and excuses abound, but there’s no biggie I can point to and say, “that’s the one you can blame.”

Well, that’s what I tell myself, choosing to deny it as if acknowledgment will make it real: depression. Denial is easy with the apparent presence of cause. In addition to a handful of issues, I’m fighting a losing battle with disks going bad up and down my neck. It’s been bugging me (off and on) for the better part of twenty years, but early this year the pain escalated to a full time problem. I don’t have the energy to go through the rest of the laundry list tonight.

Me and depression go way back. It’s half-brother anxiety hangs around too. More often than not they seem to come without an obvious cause, so it was easy to dismiss my dark moods as a personal failing: an inability to shake self-pity.

Inspired by a friend, I’d made a little more progress on this post than usual this week, but the kicker was a letter I received in the mail Friday.

You may have heard about a New England company (the New England Compounding Center) responsible for a nationwide outbreak of fungal meningitis, involving a tainted batch of steroids injected near the spine to treat back pain. The letter I received told me the series of injections I received in my neck earlier this year contained a steroid manufactured by this company. The upside is there have been no confirmed cases of meningitis linked to the steroid my doctor used, but it has been recalled and physicians have been instructed by the Department of Health to notify patients.

Here’s a quote from the letter: “All of us at xxx xxxx xxxxx understand that his information is alarming and frightening. Please do not hesitate to call us about this matter.” I can’t tell you how relieved I am that I have their permission to be alarmed and frightened.

The letter provides phone numbers and web site addresses for the FDA Division of Drug Information and the Centers for Disease Control. You know what that says to my anxiety prone mind? “The CDC is expecting your call.” I don’t want to be someone the CDC is expecting to hear from.

And then there’s every hypochondriac’s dream: I’ve had half the symptoms I’m supposed to watch for since before the injections. Headache, stiff neck, nausea, and sensitivity to light… I’ve had them all with great frequency this year, either due to the pain in my neck or the migraines it’s triggered.

My goal for the next few days is to focus on the following words: “there have been no confirmed cases.” Surely there would have been one by now, right?

In the mean time, my spare thoughts are with those of you with your own problems, and anyone facing an encounter with Hurricane Sandy.

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Feeling safe until I don’t

Work is a safe zone. It’s one of the few places I can speak freely. It’s one of the few places I feel competent, where I can act and speak with confidence. But it’s fragile state. It’s not just the people I work with, though they are great (my second family). It’s the setting. It’s the subject matter of most discussions, or the ones most likely to come up. It all combines to create a comfort zone that exists in too few places in my world.

Every three months we’re allowed to take a long lunch as a team. It’s our quarterly luncheon. It consists of most of us (since all of us usually can’t get away from court on the same day), a restaurant, a meal, a brief meeting, and time to just hang out away from the office. It is not a safe zone. Take away the office and it’s like any other social setting. My mere presence requires effort, which requires energy, which slowly drains as time passes. I can feel my silence physically. It hangs around my neck like a heavy sign that says, “pray for me, I’m a doofus.” Words don’t just fail me, they abandon ship, and without them I sink.

It’s quite a transformation and it exposes one root of my shyness. Unless I’m extremely familiar with the people AND the topic discussed, I feel inferior. What’s worse, this feeling creates a feedback loop, decreasing the likelihood I’ll have something to say exponentially. I feel inferior so I don’t join in right away. Then I feel self conscious about my silence which leads to anxiety, which in turn leads to greater feelings of inferiority.

The effort I talked about before comes into play at this point. This is where I maintain the front. The front is calm, cool, and collected. The front doesn’t sneak away to hide someplace safe. The front tracks the conversation with eye contact and appropriate facial expressions. The front erects a shell of comfort while the interior is anything but. The front is exhausting. Sometimes I wonder if my friends or family recognize the front when it’s present, if they realize how paralyzed I really am, or how often.

Work isn’t my only safe zone, and for that I’m very thankful.


Ready or not

I was mentally prepared for my doctor’s appointment on Friday. By prepared I mean it was sufficiently far off in the future I hadn’t thought about it.

His office called me this afternoon, asking if they could bump it up to tomorrow.

No, I’m not ready.

“Yeah, that’ll be fine. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”


So tomorrow it is. Another date with my oncologist. There’s no reason to worry.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t.

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Brain a buzz

A friend of mine likes to talk about “the karma truck” and it’s chances of running you over. I’ve pointed out that talking about it probably doesn’t help his chances, but some people just can’t be helped.

I wrote the last entry two weeks ago but I wasn’t going to post it. I’d shared it with Cheryl though, and she thought it was amusing. (It’s fine to love and lose, but I’d just as soon not precipitate the loss). Still, I didn’t want to offend anyone… mothers making up a large percentage of the reading public, and a fair portion of my audience (such as it is). The equation changed somewhat on Monday when I got clipped by my friend’s karma truck. I figured I might as well post it – if for no other reason than to give this one a little context. Besides, I’ve really enjoyed writing these last two paragraphs. They’re begging me for a raison d’être.

I had my quarterly visit with my oncologist on Monday. Her people drew some blood and ran the numbers, per usual. One number is normally out of range (my lymphocytes), but a couple more numbers were slightly out of range too. Still, my Doctor’s first reaction was, “this looks good.” It’s happened before and it was no big deal then. However, this time she followed it up with the most thorough physical exam since my initial diagnosis; asking me about localized pain, unexplained fevers, and checking all the places blood cells can collect when things go wrong (thumping my spleen and massaging my lymph nodes). I haven’t had any pain or fevers, but my answers seemed to surprise her. It could have been my imagination or deficient social skills, but it seemed like she was expecting a yes or two.

Well, by now I’ve revealed enough of myself and this visit for you to recognize the makings of a panic attack – the paralyzing variety. I’d planned to go back to work afterwards, but it was enough to send me home, take a pill, and chill.

We now return you to my appointment, already in progress.

I can put up a pretty good front as long as speech isn’t required. Not talking is a pretty revealing tell though. She tried to reassure me. “You’re fine,” she said. “I want to do a blood smear just in case, but everything looks great. Oh, and if you do have any unexplained pain or fever, give us a call right away.”

Um… ok. We need to work on our focus when we’re reassuring.

The last time they wanted to check my blood under a microscope it was to check for cell abnormalities – which they found. Oh, and wasn’t there an old revision of an AMA medical dictionary (before they went soft on bedside manner) that defined “right away” as “you better do it right fucking now before you drop dead?”

If I was smart, or I could string two meaningful words together under pressure, I would have asked questions, like: “Why do you want to take a closer look at my blood? Does something concern you? Why are you concerned about these particular symptoms?”

This is the part of the post where I tell you the worst thing that came from my little dance with leukemia two years ago was fear. It’s a scary word and I’m easily frightened.

Even if it did return to active duty, the kind I have is easily treated (relative to other cancers)… and none of this means it’s back. One of my numbers: a type of white blood cell that’s about half of what it should be, could be explained by a simple infection. Plus, the prior fight with my little hairy mutants left me with fewer of those cells to start with. I’m also two years into my remission. The chance of a reoccurrence at this point is quite low. There’s a window between ten and fifteen years where younger people tend to have another go at it, but I’m not there.

Hairy cell leukemia is quite rare already, but it’s even rarer in young people. It’s mostly a senior’s disease. (I never thought I’d be ahead of my time.) Over all relapse rates may be artificially low because patients tend to die of other, natural causes (not precipitated by the leukemia) before it has a chance to come back. However, I’ve been told that since I was so young, there’s a good chance it will eventually come back (unless I pick a fight with a truck in the mean time) but probably not now.

I’ve also been told that even if it does come back, there’s no change in treatment, and no change of prognosis – which is really good. The treatment is easy as chemotherapy goes (though I was an exception, requiring hospitalization – sensing a trend?), and the prognosis is excellent.

I’ve tried to show everything in it’s naturally occurring, good light in this post. I just wish I could make myself believe it. If it makes you feel any better, writing it down helped.