On diagnosis and gratitude

I was meeting with an independent study student in my office when I felt The Wave move through me. It was part nausea, part vertigo, part the sounds of the world moving far from my ears as they do just before you faint. It was physical (my body got hot) and visceral (I felt a heavy sense of doom). It overtook me and for a moment in my mind’s eye I saw myself sprawled on the floor of my office, cramped between the desk, my work fridge, and the feet of my student. “He’s a good guy,” I thought of the student’s reaction. “He’ll know what to do.” 

office floor work fridge
In my mind’s eye I saw myself sprawled on the floor of my office, cramped between the desk, my work fridge, and the feet of my student

I was so sure I was going to pass out that I said, “I feel weird–something just passed through me–can you give me a minute?”  He asked polite questions, I gave a polite answer and yet all my energy was focused on not falling out of my chair. The wave passed after a minute or so, leaving a vague sense of unease in its wake. I was still talking about it for days with my husband and best friend. I was explaining it away in the most strange ways: “It was static electricity from the headphones I had just removed after recording hours of video lectures,” “I hadn’t slept well and drank too much coffee,” “it was an invisible spirit visitor,” and the all too easy to reach for cultural crutch: “I’m just busy, I have a lot going on.”

My 40th year on this planet was a tough one, and I had internalized most of the difficulties as a mid-life crisis. Even though I had accepted that reaction, it still surprised me because for most of my life I looked forward to the wisdom, experience, and freedom that come with age. Even if I met aging with a bit of trepidation, I could at least convince myself of the upside. But despite my best efforts, I was unable to access the optimism and gratitude that I think of as characteristically me.

In fact, I had become someone uncharacteristically me in many other ways, while becoming a great rationalizer. For instance, I spent hours in bed on many weekends, hiding from the world and feeling sad (I thought I was just slipping into a depression, which I’m no stranger to); I was quick to anger and frequently yelling (I thought this was just parenting young kids and/or watching Trump’s presidency unfold), I was having panic attacks minutes before teaching (I must be hitting the mid-life-female-anxiety-disorder that is not a thing but I had convinced myself must be); I got so winded on an easy bike ride with my brother that we had to stop frequently for me to catch my breath (he graciously joined me in blaming it on the bike, which we dubbed The Widow Maker). I woke up every night wet with sweat and most mornings with a headache (perimenopause, I thought). I always had a physical feeling in my chest that I was rushing from here to there (I thought this was because, in fact, I was overbooked and often rushing from here to there).  

even in bed, my children would come find me to play and take photographs

When I found out that there was something underlying all of these new traits, it was hard to accept because I had so wholeheartedly believed my explanations for them. I had come to learn to trust myself again, even if what I was trusting was lies. It was like a kid who finds out Santa isn’t real and then goes through the list, one by one, each time a bit more pissed off. “You mean you are the Tooth Fairy too!?…wait….what about the Easter Bunny? What about…..is God even real?”  Things started making a lot more logical sense all of a sudden, but there was some mourning that went along with it.

Eventually, what got me into the doctor was chronic wrist pain that had gotten so bad I could not grip the steering wheel of my car. It was there that my high blood pressure was revealed and I began a long process of medical tests, both big and small, that continue to this day. Ultimately, a doctor I had traveled an hour to see diagnosed me with an endocrine hormonal disorder called primary aldosteronism. Things started to make more sense. All of the things I was struggling to reluctantly accept as “the new 40-year-old me” were byproducts of an overactive adrenal gland. Technically, still me, but not a healthy version of me. Even before my treatment path was made clear, the diagnosis felt like a gift. 

taken from the parking lot of one of many, many doctor’s offices i visited

The diagnosis came almost a full year after The Wave, and now I think about it as the first sign I should have known something was wrong. Looking back, I understand that it was an incident of extreme hypertension when my blood pressure skyrocketed, a surplus of aldosterone pumped through my body at levels literally 400x normal, and my potassium was dangerously low. That alone is alarming, but more alarming to me now is the fact that I didn’t take The Wave as a warning sign.  I legitimately thought that a spirit visiting from another dimension was a more plausible conclusion than “you should check with a doctor.” (I will be blaming that magical thinking on the disease too, thank you very much.) We humans are great at not seeing what is right in front of us.

It is a relief to be able to access a practice that I’ve been practicing for as long as I can remember, but in earnest since the early 2000s: writing things I’m grateful for. It connects me with the me that I was starting to believe was fading away; it is the shortest path I know back to her.

For one, I’m grateful for access to quality health care and a primary care physician who didn’t just tell me to “eat better, exercise more, and lose weight” which numbers alone may have, but instead regularly referred to me as “an otherwise healthy 40-year-old-woman.” I’m grateful for the quiet moments I’ve had alone–sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms, laying on exams tables, zonked on anesthesia in a recovery room–where I had nothing but my thoughts to keep me company; this is an experience that is increasingly rare in our digitally connected and noisy world.  I’m also grateful that being sick got me back to writing and back to you, the reader.