“You’ve been under the blanket for two minutes, it’s not like Xanax, it doesn’t work that fast.”
“But it’s so heavy, I feel like I can’t breathe.”
“Of course it’s heavy, it’s a weighted blanket. And you’re breathing just fine. They’ve sold millions of these, we would have heard if people were being smothered to death.”
“But we didn’t buy this blanket, your mother knit it. And your mother hates me, maybe she overweighted it. Maybe I’m dying as we speak.”
“Oh My God Laura, stop with the theatrics. My mother doesn’t hate you, she’s trying to help. She doesn’t want you to become addicted to pills, she’s worried.”
“You told me your mother doesn’t believe in anxiety. You told me she said I was just looking for attention.”
“True, she did say that, but that was like two years ago. Recently one of the ladies in her book club confided in her that she suffers from anxiety, so now she’s a believer.”
“Well I still think she judges me for it, but it was kind of her to knit the blanket.”
“Yes it was. She’s a good woman. I’m going to run a few errands and I’ll pick something up for dinner. Love you.”
“Love you too. Get some wine, we’re almost out.”
Laura put on her Sarah McLachlan playlist and closed her eyes. The blanket smelled really good, like lavender. Maybe Jeremy’s mother didn’t hate her after all. I mean knitting a blanket this thick was a huge undertaking. Laura decided to invite Mrs. Peters out for a girls afternoon. They would get mani pedis and then have a lovely lunch at The Row House, which was very old-school, white linen, shrimp cocktail-fancy. It would make Jeremy happy too.
She took a deep breath then slowly let it out, pulling the blanket all the way up to her chin.
But I fear I have nothing to give I have so much to lose
“I love Sarah McLachlan, she doesn’t get enough credit. I mean she created Lilith Fair for God’s sake.”
The heaviness of the blanket forced Laura to breathe slowly. It put her into a calm and somewhat meditative state. She started making a mental list of all that she was grateful for: – Jeremy – their beloved, but now dead cat Gus – her new hair style – their families and friends – of course their rent-controlled apartment – their relatively good health, not counting her anxiety – her fall Stuart Weitzman boots
“I think this crazy weighted blanket really is working. I feel peaceful, kind of tired like I’m ready for a nap. I wonder how much longer I should lie under it?”
Laura adjusted the blanket so that it went around her neck, with just her head poking out. She would make this Saturday night special. After taking a nap she would dress up in something pretty and light some candles for dinner. They would watch a Criterion film and then make love.
Laura’s breath slowed, like it does at the end of a yoga class when the instructor guides everyone into a tranquil state.
“This is better than taking pills. Then again I can’t use it in public. Imagine me dragging my weighted blanket around like Linus from Charlie Brown. Hilarious!” She giggled.
Surrendering to the blanket, Laura drifted off ~ breathing quietly like a tiny mouse. She felt cocooned in a field of lavender.
“They were out of your favorite wine, but I found another one, it’s French. Apparently it has notes of lavender, which I thought was cool.”
“You’ll feel like you were hit by a truck after the operation.”
“The surgery will take 9-12 hours, including administering hot chemo into your abdomen.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to save my reproductive system?”
“We’ll try, but it’s likely that it will all have to come out.”
“We will be giving you an ileostomy and it could end up being permanent. Be prepared for that.”
“Oh my God.”
“I know it’s a lot to digest. If you have any other questions please let me know. I’ll see you on the 18th.”
“Thank you Dr. Govindajan.”
I left the hospital in a daze, walking aimlessly for several blocks. A pub down the street caught my eye and I went in and grabbed a booth at the back. It was only 11:00 AM but I ordered a glass of wine. I also ordered a grilled cheese so I didn’t look like a sad alcoholic. I opened my notebook where I’d had written down everything my oncologist had just told me.
“Here’s your wine sweetie, tough morning?”
“Ya. I have cancer and I’m getting operated on in two weeks.”
“Oh I’m so sorry. My sister had cancer and she’s fine now. You’ll be okay too, don’t worry.”
“Thank you, that’s nice of you to say.”
Actually I’m probably not going to be okay because my cancer is very rare and there’s no cure and there’s not much research on it.
I started making a list of things I would need for the hospital: facial wipes, lip balm, reading glasses, secret stash of Xanax, cotton pillow case because the ones in hospitals are gross polyester, mirror, phone charger…
The grilled cheese arrived and looked delicious. I took a bite and then another. On my third bite I got that familiar feeling again, the one that had been plaguing me since I was first diagnosed with Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma.
My throat is closing. I can’t breathe. I’m dying. Please someone help me.
I pushed the grilled cheese aside and grabbed my pills. As I tried to swallow one it felt like there was no room for it to go down.
Oh My God the cheese has coated my throat and now I’m choking.
Thankfully the Xanax kicked in quickly and I felt like I could breathe again, but I couldn’t eat another bite. I had already lost ten pounds and I wanted to gain weight before going into the hospital, but food had become my enemy.
After the pub I headed to a nearby department store. In the shoe department I chatted with a friendly salesperson about our favorite fall fashion trends. I bought three pairs: tall wedge booties and fringed mid-calf cowboy-ish boots, plus a cool pair of men’s style oxfords.
Where are you wearing these? You’ll be dead soon.
In the cab home I leaned back and shut my eyes. Wait, so I’m going to go through menopause all at once? Like – BAM! – I’m a crone now? Is that how it works? Why? Why is this happening?
Do I even want this operation? Like, what’s the point? With this disease I’m basically fucked, so why go through all of this? And why the hell can’t they save my female bits? Is it bececause I’m 46 and they figure I don’t need them anymore? I do need them and I want them God Damn it.
And, side note, why can’t I have a normal cancer like breast cancer? I mean Mesothelioma? Caused by exposure to asbestos as a child? What the actual fuck?
Having only been dating my boyfriend for one year I felt my diagnosis and everything it involved was just too much pressure on us. We should break up now before we became more attached. He didn’t sign up for menopause and an ileostomy bag and God knows what other complications, plus a high probability of me dying soon.
I wondered about the whole dying with dignity thing. Oregon had recently made it legal for individuals to choose to end their lives when they were sick and suffering and since I was an American Citizen I reasoned I could move there. But what if you wanted to end your life before you got to the sick and suffering part. Like kind of preemptively end your life? That should be allowed too.
I could go the straight suicide route. I had just filled my prescription for Xanax and it was surely enough to kill me. The problem is I would have to do it immediately before I had another panic attack. The more panic attacks I had the more Xanax I used up, which would not leave me with enough pills to end my life.
Back at home I continued thinking through my Xanax plan. One of the many issues with it was that knowing me I would have a panic attack while trying to swallow all the pills.
A panic attack while trying to kill myself. Ridiculous.
The other complication with my plan was that it would devastate my family, boyfriend and close friends. I didn’t want to hurt them, but I also didn’t want to be forced to live through this nightmare. Suddenly I felt resentful of them. Now, because of them, I was going to have to endure a horrendous surgery with some weird hot chemo poured into my stomach, making my abdomen a poisonous soup. Then I would wake up sweating from hot flashes with a stoma spewing waste into a bag attached to my tummy.
Not fucking fair!
Within minutes the rage I felt turned to sadness, but I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t scream or cry or do anything to get the emotions out. They were all trapped in my chest. I lay in bed for an hour not moving, my 100 pound dog Leroy lay with me, his giant head on my stomach.
I could not leave Leroy that’s for sure. I had dragged him with me all the way from Los Angeles to Toronto and he considered himself my husband. Though he tolerated my boyfriend, he would have preferred to have me all back to himself. During my marriage Leroy had saved me. Though I had rescued him, he had emotionally rescued me and I was forever grateful.
It was time for Leroy’s mid-day walk. I put on his fall sweater – blue hand knit with a giant red crab design – and we went out in the sunny, cool air. We ambled along and he scored half a croissant out of a bush. Having previously lived on the streets of LA, he was adept at sourcing food.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked him. I kissed his beautiful brindled head as he licked the last of the buttery croisssant off his lips.
Three women were walking towards us on the opposite sidewalk. They were dressed in black abayas, but the woman in the middle was wearing the most beautiful sparkly one – it looked like silver metallic sparkly stars. I waved to them and they waved back, the one wearing the sparkles flashing me the peace sign.
In that moment I realized that I would go through with the wretched operation and scary tummy chemo soup.
I didn’t want to, but I would.
I hated my lack of options, but I would.
I was mad as hell at God and the Universe, but I would.
I didn’t know if my relationship could survive it, but I would.
I had no idea how life could possibly go on after this all, but I would.
I would because there was a woman wearing a sparkly metallic abaya flashing me the peace sign and for some reason I took that as a sign. I would.
The first day Emily slept until 3:00, walked to Sunset and bought an ice cream cone from Icy Rush. Back home, with caramel still glossing her lips, she flopped on her bed, not waking until 10:00 pm. After microwaving a frozen burrito, Emily watched reruns of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” the episodes where they still looked human.
Day Two Emily woke at 1:00, threw on old Levis cut-offs, a white tank, Birkenstocks and a vintage kimono. She Ubered over to Figaro Bistrot, (she didn’t trust herself to drive yet, the exhaustion was only just now beginning to seep out from her body). Sitting on the sidewalk patio, Emily ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, a Croque Monsieur with frites and then settled in to people watch from behind her scratched Ray Bans.
“That’s an insane kimono. LOVE.” said the woman sitting next to her.
“Thanks, I love it too. It was a gift from a Costume Designer I worked for,” answered Emily as she stabbed frites with her fork.
The woman was on her way out and they waved goodbye.
“Thank God,” thought Emily, “I don’t have the energy for an actual conversation.” Before leaving the bistrot she bought several desserts to go, then got into a yellow Uber sedan.
“Hideous,” thought Emily. She despised yellow cars. Only vintage Volkswagen Bugs like the one Goldie Hawn drove in Foul Play should be yellow.
Once home Emily answered a bunch of texts and emails then grabbed the desserts and headed over to her neighbor Jim’s house. She actually had five neighbors: the six of them each lived in tiny one-bedroom casitas, sharing a main courtyard filled with aloe vera and jade succulents. Jim was a writer who had recently – finally – sold his first screenplay. Emily had been on location when she heard the exciting news, so she hadn’t been able to properly congratulate him and celebrate.
“Jim, you there? I come bearing sweets and a rad vintage Metallica t-shirt that I scored for you.”
Jim opened the door,
“Holy shit balls, you’re back!”
He grabbed forks for them and they settled on lounge chairs in the courtyard, passing the box of desserts back and forth.
“Jesus, these are delicious, thx Em. And I love my t-shirt, I think it might actually be a collectors item. Where did u find it?”
“Toronto. I was there shooting the new Lily Collins movie. It’s a cool city, but I barely made it through filming. I was so exhausted that my whole system went out of whack: I felt really depressed, no energy and I started getting anxiety attacks when eating. It was actually really scary.”
“Oh God Em, I’m sorry. You’ve been going from project to project, working ludicrous hours – it’s not sustainable. I’ve been worried about you.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that, I really do. My Doctor says I’m suffering from burn-out. She wants me to take a few months off, she’s writing me some kind of note. It’s ridiculous though, what am I going to do, give a doctor’s note to my wardrobe union? Plus, I’m due to start working on a new series in two weeks, it’s filming in LA thank God. But enough about my stupid health drama, I want to hear all about your screenplay selling, tell me everything!”
After her visit with Jim, Emily slept until 8:30. She had just enough time to grab a ride-share and bike over to the Vista Theatre where they were playing “The Maltese Falcon,” a classic which she’d never seen. Emily settled into a back row seat and ripped open her Red Vines, jamming a whole piece in her mouth.
It was an especially beautiful evening, so Emily decided to walk home even though she was tired. As she made her way east on Sunset towards Echo Park, she spied the cutest couple holding hands. They were dressed in a very i-D Magazine mash-up of 80’s preppy/70’s punk. She was tempted to speed up so she could eavesdrop on their conversation, but she was distracted by a well-dressed elderly couple drinking expresso at a rickety cafe table. She stopped for a moment to take a few sips from her water bottle, leaning against a mural-ed wall. On the street in front of her were two young blond women kissing. It felt as if their kisses were sending off little rays of love into the universe.
She was about to start walking again when she felt wobbly. Was it anxiety? Maybe she needed to call an Uber. She sat down beneath the Mi Familia mural and took a few deep breaths. But it didn’t feel like the anxiety she had recently experienced. What was it then? Why was she sitting on the dirty street like a homeless waif feeling wobbly?
Suddenly she felt like a character in a scene from a movie she might have worked on. As a wardrobe shopper Emily would have shopped her character’s whole look, from her floral underwear to the vintage kimono. It had always been Emily’s dream to work in the film industry. She loved storytelling and the role that clothing played in it. But when did Emily get to write her own story? When was there even time for her to live her own story?
Seeing the three couples – the hand-holders, the smartly-dressed seniors and the two blondes – had penetrated something within Emily. Something very fragile that she had been keeping buried within her, without even knowing she was, without even knowing what it was, had been punctured. She felt like she was bleeding out. Bleeding out invisibly on Sunset Boulevard – now there’s a screenplay idea for Jim.
She looked down on the grimy pavement, smeared with God knows what and realized she was not having an anxiety attack – she was having a loneliness attack. “But is that even a thing?” asked the rational side of Emily’s brain. “Can a person be so deeply lonely that their body manifests a physical reaction?” “Yes,” she said out loud, “Yes it can.”
Emily wondered if her Doctor would write her a second note:
Dear Wardrobe Union: Your highly esteemed member & wardrobe shopper Emily Jenkins, is suffering from a life threatening case of loneliness. As you probably know, but perhaps you don’t think about, as a wardrobe shopper Emily works primarily on her own. She spends her days in malls, boutiques and costume houses, with almost no opportunities to meet available straight men. I have written Emily a prescription which requires you to provide her with one hour a day of exposure to at least three men. These men must be emotionally mature, ready for a relationship and politically left-leaning. Thank You. Sincerely, Doctor Govindarajan.
Emily laughed at the idea of the letter, got up and continued walking home. She’d forgotten how long a walk it was, but she needed – as Taylor Swift said – to shake it off. So she walked and walked and walked. Tears started falling and she let them do their thing, not wiping them away. Soon she started sniffling and within a few minutes she was full on sobbing, the ugly variety, with snot and tears mixing together, forming a kind of sadness facial.
“Senorita, estas bien?” asked an older woman.
“Si, yo soy bien, gracias,” answered Emily in her best Spanish.
“God, I must look like a woman having a nervous breakdown,” she thought.
Emily broke out into a slow jog, not ideal in Birkenstocks, until she made it home. Inside she quickly locked the door, as if she could keep additional loneliness from entering if she locked it fast enough.
She considered taking a shower since she was sweaty, snotty and tear-stained, but then decided against it. “Fuck it,” she thought, “let’s see if this snotty, tear-stained sadness facial makes my skin all glow-y in the morning. You never know.” She took off her clothes, letting them drop on the floor, got under her favorite linen sheets and was asleep within a minute.
And in the morning Emily’s skin was glow-y. She was lonely, but radiant as hell.
“Let’s have you pee in a bed pan today!” My nurse exclaimed with an air of excitement, like we were about to go see our favorite band.
I had been in the hospital for almost four weeks, (to treat Peritoneal Mesothelioma, a rare cancer), peeing through a catheter the entire time. I was game to try going on my own, but I was weak and wasn’t sure I would have the strength to pull myself up on the bed. My nurse took out my catheter then helped me into an awkward position, crouched above a cardboard pan.
The pan looked like a larger version of those biodegradable herb pots, with my vulva like an alien spacecraft hovering above the brown pebbled earth.
“I’ll give you some privacy,” said my nurse, leaving the room.
I looked out the window at the falling snow. No urine was exiting my body. “I command you to pee!” I said in a theatrical voice to an empty room. Nada. Not a drop. I was sweating and wanted to lie down, the position required too much strength to hold.
The succulent-crystal gurus say, “Ask The Universe – with love and gratitude – for what you need. Then visualize having what you need – and poof! – you will manifest it.” So I asked the universe to help me pee, in what I hoped was a loving and grateful manner. Then I visualized a long river-like flow of urine exiting my body – swoosh! I paused, ears tilted, in full manifestation mode. Nothing. Maybe the universe was busy helping people with more serious problems, like those living in war torn countries. I couldn’t blame the universe, I’d do the same thing if I had magical powers & everyone was hounding me for help.
I was sure I was due for another blast of Hydromorphone. After two surgeries and HIPEC, (hot chemo poured in the abdomen and swished around), I was ablaze with pain. I buzzed the nurse’s station:
“Hi. I can’t pee. Nothing is coming out. Also, I think I’m due for more painkillers.” My nurse responded, “be patient, keep trying, it’ll come. And no, you’re not due for more pain meds yet.”
I stared gloomily at my crotch. “I know you’re in there, come out come out wherever you are!” Still nothing. I tried reaching for my water cup and fell into the pan.
My nurse appeared, “don’t worry sweetie, your bladder is just waking up from a long sleep, we’ll try again tomorrow.”
She helped me lie down and inserted a new catheter and we chatted about her weekend plans. I loved my nurse, I loved all of my nurses – they were like athletic shoe-wearing angels tending to me with care and quiet confidence.
“I’ll see about your pain meds” she said, as she handed me a damp towel for my sweating brow.
After five weeks in the hospital – and no peeing on my own – I was transferred to a Rehab Hospital to work on regaining strength, gaining weight and learning to walk again. My left femoral nerve had conked out during surgery, (from being splayed out for so long on the operating table) and I had awoken to find that I couldn’t move my leg.
The nurses at the rehab hospital were hardcore, they were like the Marine Corp of Nurses. They immediately took out my catheter and started “bladder training.” They seemed confident that I would be peeing in no time.
I was instructed to try peeing on my own every two hours. I would slowly make my way over to the bathroom using my walker, trying my best to avoid looking at my emaciated body in the mirror. Sitting on the toilet with the sink water running, I would wait five minutes, then get up and do my haunted girl shuffle back to bed.
Bladder training required waiting six hours before being allowed to have a catheter inserted to void the urine. In between physiotherapy, sleeping and doing my laps around the floor, my bladder would fill up to the brim; it was horrible. At this point I was no longer on pain meds, but I would often sneak a Xanax from my private stash just so that I didn’t completely lose it.
The nurses were required to scan my bladder to see how much urine I was retaining before they were allowed to insert a catheter to drain me. A catheter, in this case a long rubbery one which looked like a hose, was lubed up then inserted into my urethra. The urine would then drain out into the brown organic pan – it was called doing an “in and out.”
Then came the day when one of my favorite nurses dropped a bomb: “you’ll be going home very soon and your bladder nerves are still not working. So today I’m going to start teaching you how to do your own in and outs.” Dear God, have mercy on me please.
Thus began a brief chapter in my life called “Finding Urethra.” Because if you want to drain your urine, you first need to find the hole that it comes out of. And by hole, I mean a really tiny, almost imperceptible slit that is kind of hidden by the rest of the female bits. Maybe I’m in the minority or I missed a crucial health class back in high school, but I honestly didn’t really understand where the urethra was. So I used a mirror to watch the nurse and at night, under my blankets, I examined myself by the light of my cellphone.
I had an irrational fear of doing the procedure on my own. It’s like all my anxiety about having cancer was projected onto this one procedure and I couldn’t imagine that I would ever master the skill. I envisioned myself at home, swollen like a balloon with unreleased urine, until one day I just exploded, spraying pee everywhere.
But like anything in life, when your back is against the wall and you have no other options, you figure things out. One day, having finally located my elusive urethra, I successfully performed my own in and out! I basked in the glory of the moment, telling everyone on my floor my good news. I celebrated by eating an extra cup of ice cream (side note: the little hospital ice cream cups are, unlike all other hospital food, strangely delicious).
A few days later I was discharged from the hospital with a supply of tiny, clear catheters, lube, a giant splint on my leg, a walker, crutches and a cane. It would be six more months until my bladder woke up. Then, one day, while sitting on the toilet, I suddenly heard a beautiful noise – the swoosh of urine! The universe had finally granted me my wish.
Author’s Note: My bladder nerves only partially woke up; I still have to self-catheterize twice a day. This is what the little catheters, aka, pee sticks, look like:
Today I’m trying CBD tea for the first time. I’m hoping it will help my anxiety, which recently has taken possession of my stomach, making it difficult to eat (though I wouldn’t say “no” to a cookie right now). Now that I think of it, I think this little packet of CBD tea, (which I ordered from the Ontario Government), should come packaged with two shortbread cookies. Perhaps the cookies could be in the shape of pills – how fun would that be?!
Like most, (or perhaps all), CBD products, this tea has a tiny amount of THC, 1%. Now to most people I know, 1% of THC would be laughable, it wouldn’t even count. But I’m one of the those THC-sensitive types, it tends to make me paranoid instead of mellow. So let’s see how this experiment goes…I don’t want to end up in the ER again like the time I took too many bites of a pot cookie. 😬
photo from the website envisioningtheamericandream.com
This morning as I was tidying up, I briefly entered our laundry room/office which is our “crazy room.” I think most of us have one of these, or the equivalent – a crazy closet, drawer or cupboard. It’s the place where everything you don’t want to deal with goes to die. And I found myself thinking that the crazy room is very similar to that space in our psyche where we dump all of our emotional crap that we can’t deal with at the moment.
I keep telling my partner, “we need to deal with that room, it’s out of control.” And it’s true, it is out of control. For someone like me, who likes keeping the house clean and organized, the room makes me anxious. But the crazy room is actually more representative of my true emotional state than the rest of the tidy house. The crazy room has unopened boxes, piles of cords and computer stuff, unfolded clean sheets, my partner’s plaid shirts hanging from an IKEA shelf like little headless Grunge creatures, a dead plant, my ileostomy supplies (thank you cancer), a giant box of small catheter tubes (again, thank you cancer) and various other randomness.
And just like I side-step and avoid the issues that I don’t want to deal with, I also breeze right past the dead plant – sitting on the floor – to put in a load of laundry. Why not just pick up the plant and put it out in the green bin? That is what an emotionally healthy person would do, I think to myself as I breeze out of the room again. But somehow that damn dead plant and the rest of the crazy room has come to symbolize all the ways in which I am emotionally stuck, frozen, paralyzed.
I am extremely lucky in that I can afford to see a therapist, it’s a luxury many needy people don’t have. So in a sense I have an ’emotional cleaning lady’ who helps me clean up my personal crazy room twice a month. And yet, somehow, it seems no matter how hard I try, my crazy room never gets completely cleaned. Just as my cleaning lady and I finish cleaning one area of the room, another area beckons for attention. Its boxes need unpacking, its cords need untangling and its damn plant needs to be thrown out!