Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I feel a little uncertain writing about what's going on.  It may seem crazy to some to share here, in this space, these intimate details and fears. 

But I'm grateful for the urge to write, to come here and put words on a page.  I feel like I'm on shaky ground, and writing orients me, plants my feet firmly underneath me.

The next few days are going to be challenging. 

Earlier this month, when I first went to see the doctor about my swollen lymph node, in a fit of bravery I also scheduled an annual physical and routine mammogram.  I hadn't had a physical in two years, and had yet to schedule my first mammogram, even though I'm 42 - two years over the recommended age to begin having annual mammograms.  Fear has always stopped me, before.

The physical was Friday, and the doctor recommended an ultrasound of my neck, as well as an ultrasound of my ovaries; when I delivered Finn they discovered cysts and I was supposed to follow up and monitor them.  Six years ago.

My mammogram was on Friday.  I knew going into it that follow-up pictures and ultrasounds are very common, so I steeled myself for the call that said I had to come in for follow-up.  My doctor even said to me that many women have to have follow-up visits, and - in her words - she advised me "not to freak out".

All my bravado didn't help much when the call came today, asking me to come Monday for more pictures and a bilateral breast ultrasound, to follow up on questionable images that appeared in the mammogram.

Over the next five days, I have an ENT appointment for my swollen lymph node, neck and ovary ultrasounds and an additional mammogram and breast ultrasound.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared.

My rational brain says to me:  Good for you, Ellie. You're covering all the bases, looking for answers, facing all of these issues head-on.

Unfortunately, not all of my brain in rational.  As I hung up the phone after getting the call about the follow-up mammogram, I was trembling with fear.  No more, I thought.  I can't take anymore.

On the heels of this thought was a craving for a drink. It hit me like a tidal wave - a knee buckling desire to hide from everything. 

I walked to the couch and sat down, taking deep breaths.  The craving followed me like an imp from hell, leaping madly about and cackling:  you don't have to feel this, you know, .

I sat with the craving for a while; examined it curiously.  I can go to the liquor store anytime I want to. The kids are at school, I could have a couple of pops and sober up by the time everyone got home.   The imp waved its hands over its head in delight, squealing:  yes!  yes!  

Feeling something almost like regret, I sighed, because I knew I wasn't going to drink.  A drink would leave me ashamed, afraid and alone, and none of my other problems or fears would be any better.  I know this, but it doesn't stop the cravings from coming.  I'm an alcoholic; the urge to drink may always be my default reaction to fear.

I stared at the phone, knowing I should call someone in recovery and talk this through, but I didn't have the energy.  Just sit with it for a while, Ellie, I thought. Think it through.

After a while it came to me, what the trigger to hide is about: uncertainty.  While I am afraid of a scary diagnosis from any of these health issues, I'm much more afraid of the not-knowing. 

What I can't stand is being in this purgatory - this limbo - where my anxiety is free to run wild.

This is what life on life's terms is really about: uncertainty.  The irony is that the uncertainty is always there, but it's only when something comes along to knock us off the rails that the full scope of uncertainty comes into view. 

It's like we're walking along a flat, grassy plain, the moments and days sliding effortlessly by, when suddenly we round a corner and are met with an obstacle: a rocky mountain path. 

We have a choice. We can fall in a heap at the base of the mountain and bemoan our situation, disappear in a drink, a drug or other form of escape, wondering why me?   Or we can climb, slowly but steadily, and tackle the mountain one step at a time, instead of collapsing under the thought of its massiveness.

I choose to climb.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Not Leaping Before Grace

This isn't a post.  Not really. 

I haven't blogged or written a word in almost two weeks; that's never happened before.  My creative/writing brain is off somewhere... it has fled to the hills, or wherever it goes, and I don't have it in me to write something creative. So this is just an update, of sorts.

I've gotten so many 'where are you' and 'are you okay?' emails, and I appreciate each and every one of them.  Thank you, everyone, for all your heartfelt words of encouragement, advice and support.  I will try to respond to all of them, but truth be told I'm not on the computer much these days.

I'm okay. Mostly. Or, at least, I will be.

I'm in a kind of purgatory, an emotional limbo.  The anxiety is still there, and it sucks so much of my mental energy that I've scaled way back, simplified my life, focusing my energy on the thing that matters most: my family.

There is some kind of medical thing going on; the swollen lymph node in my neck that I wrote about in my last post is still there, and it is the source of most of my anxiety.  I don't have answers, not yet, as to what it is.  I'm getting lots of tests, talking to doctors and specialists. I'm not sticking my head in the sand and ignoring it, which would have been my old response to fear.  I'm talking to people - my close friends and family - and I'm not isolating, even though I want to.  Badly.

I don't get to go around things anymore; I don't hide in a bottle or curl up into a ball.  I'm mostly grateful to be sober, to be present and feel my feelings, work through this instead of skirting around it.  Whatever the outcome, I know this is a hurdle I'm meant to face; I'm learning, slowly, how to sit with fear, breathe and talk through it. Fear is forcing me to grow and stretch in ways I haven't had to do since I got sober. It hurts, but it's like the ache you feel after a tough workout - I feel a twinge of pride in the pain, knowing that I'm pushing myself towards something.  A breakthrough, not a breakdown.

Day to day life hasn't changed much at all. I shuttle the kids back and forth to activities, make small talk on the sidelines of soccer fields and birthday parties. I play with the kids, help with homework, administer baths and read bedtime stories. I pack lunches and prepare dinners; I show up where I'm needed, and I try mightily to be fully present for my kids.  Through all this an engine of fear churns madly in the background of my brain, and during the day I tuck it away, put my Mommy poker face on for the kids. 

Then I tuck them into bed, the house grows quiet and the engine churns louder - it's clanging and banging is a familiar soundtrack, now. 

I reach for other distractions - reading, exercising or sleeping, mostly.  Two things I don't do?  I don't drink or eat myself into oblivion.  I have to keep reminding myself that this is progress.

I've been thinking a lot about control, about how badly I want the hard stuff to be solved - tied up in a neat little package with a pretty bow on top.  So much of the challenges in the past few months have been completely outside my control.  My Dad's sudden death in June, and my unexplained health problem.  These things just are, and I can't think my way out of them.  Anxiety is my brain's way of trying to control the uncontrollable.

I ride the emotional ups and downs.  I sit with pain. I breathe through fear. I have gratitude for the peaceful moments. I hug my kids and my husband.  I talk and talk and talk. 

I try not to leap before grace. 

I don't know how much I will be writing here in the coming days. That's outside of my control, too. I know I can't force words that don't want to come.  I have faith they will come back, in their own time.

In the meantime, I wait. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Talking About It

I'm typing this post - just sitting and writing - without any idea what I'm going to say.  Usually, when I sit down to write, I have been rolling a thought, image or idea through my head for a couple of days, mentally writing and editing the post, so by the time I sit down to type the words flow freely.

But there isn't much that is usual about things these days.

I'm struggling.

The anxiety I wrote about in my last post has a stranglehold on me.  It's so hard to write about it, to find words that describe the breathless, panicky feeling that permeates my existence these days.  It leaves me feeling spent, exhausted, flat, and I move through my days like an automaton; the simple act of moving from one end of the day to the other feels overwhelming, most of the time.

It's ironic, in a way, because in the wake of the Redbook article I'm getting several emails a day from women who saw their own story in the words, and most of them are asking one simple question:  HOW?  How do I get through just one simple day without my nightly crutch of wine?

The advice that pores from my fingertips is straightforward, and yet hard to do: get honest, start talking, ask for help, break your old patterns, find healthy distractions, and don't try to do this alone.

In the grip of anxiety I feel exactly like I did when I first got sober, like my skin has been peeled back and I'm a walking exposed nerve.  Lights and sounds bother me, I struggle not to be short with the kids, and the simple act of going to the grocery store feels overwhelming.  To keep the panic at bay, I slip into neutral, my face and voice go flat, and the spark in my eyes is dim.  I read and sleep a lot -- two places where my brain leaves me alone for a period of time - and drop eagerly into the escape they bring.

It's a balancing act of facing fear head-on and keeping things as simple as I can.  I'm breaking old behavior patterns, changing my old reactions to fear. Health worries have always been where my anxiety manifests itself the most - even when I was a child - and now that there is a legitimate concern my mind obsesses on it, constantly.  Instead of sticking my head in the sand and avoiding the doctor due to fear, I'm talking to her, trying to get some answers and some help. 

I'm also cutting out stress where I can.  We made the difficult decision not to sell our house, for a variety of reasons, but the stress it introduced into my already fragile state was a factor.  

I'm talking to people.  A lot. When trusted friends ask me if I'm okay, I answer honestly that I'm struggling.  The mere act of unburdening my load - sharing it with others - is a profound relief.  It's hard to tell people I'm not okay, that I need help.  My ego winces - shouldn't I be able to handle this?  But I know in my heart that I can't make it through this alone.

Logically, I understand where this is coming from, that my Dad's sudden death triggered this ancient fear, and the added stress of selling the house and health worries were simply too much.  But I can't think my way out of this; knowing where it's coming from is of little help when I'm in the grips of a panic attack.

It's bigger than me.

And I know, too, that I will be okay.  I know I'll be okay because when obstacles are thrown in my path it means I am in the process of stretching, growing, learning.  Whatever the outcome, of any of this, I know that because I'm going through it, not around it, I will emerge with deeper self-awareness, strength and faith.

In the meantime, I'm talking, getting help and I'm not going through this alone.  The power of sharing my truth, and the support, comfort and community it brings to me, will never cease to amaze me.


This post is part of Just Write, a free writing link-up hosted by Heather of the Extraordinary Ordinary.  To learn more about it, click here.  To join us, click here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I'm sitting on the ratty couch at Finn's karate class. Greta is wiggling beside me, bored, playing Angry Birds on my phone. 

My mind is racing, thinking about my more-than-full plate; it has been a stressful week.  Steve is away on a trip, gone five days now, and I'm in the final throes of negotiating an offer to sell our house. Contractors and inspectors have been traipsing through my house for days; between them and meetings with brokers, juggling our hectic schedule and working, I feel stretched beyond my limits.

I sigh, and lean my chin on my hand.  My body freezes: what's this?  The heel of my palm feels a lump in my neck. As my fingers probe deeper, feel the contours of a hard, round ball nestled just below my jawline, an icy blade of fear slices through the middle of me.

My hands start to shake, my palms sweat.  My extremities go cold with panic, and my gut clenches. I can feel myself start to shut down.

Somehow I make it until the end of Finn's class, shuffle the kids home and go through the motions of cooking dinner, doing homework, brushing teeth.  They chatter on about the usual things, oblivious to the raging sea of panic that boils within me. I can barely concentrate, my brain is paralyzed with horrible images.

I tuck them into bed, slump downstairs and curl into a ball.  I'm dying, I think.  It's got to be something awful.  The anxiety that has been dogging me since my Dad's death, flitting around the edges of my consciousness, kicks in the door and settles on me like a cold blanket.

I remain frozen in a ball, unable to fight back the fear.  A tiny, rational part of me knows my reaction is disproportionate, that I'm coming unglued, but I can't help it.   I just don't have any reserves left.

I think about all the times I have told women to face fear, to talk about it, to feel pain and not go around it.  I would do anything to go around this, to disappear from myself for a while.  A drink would do that, I think.  Just a couple of drinks to take the edge off the fear, bring me back to baseline.

Even as I think these thoughts, I know I'm not going to drink. I know what I need to do.  I pick up the phone with trembling hands and make a doctor's appointment for the following morning.  Face it, Ellie, I think. Don't hide.  After making the appointment I call some friends, cry a little, and box myself in.  I tell them what is going on, and ask them to make sure I go to the appointment.  I know I'm in a place where I can't trust my own thinking.


The doctor rips off the blood pressure cuff with a loud scritch, and gives me a concerned look.  She tells me my blood pressure is scary high, and asks if I have been under stress lately.

I open my mouth to say 'yes, but nothing I can't handle', and instead hear myself babbling on about all the pressure I'm under, the knife blade of fear, the anxiety that won't leave me alone.  I am surprised to hear myself talking about how my Dad's death from an infection - so unexpected, when he was so healthy - has left me paralyzed with fear.  "It's all so fragile," I say.  "It scares me." The tears run down my cheeks as I unload it all. 

"I need help," I choke. "I can't live like this anymore." 

Three simple words:  I. Need. Help.   Oh, they are so hard to say, but once the words are out of my mouth, I feel a weight lifting, and a sense of lightness and peace comes over me. 

We talk awhile about anxiety, about how it is effecting my health, my blood pressure, and how there are medications that are safe to take in recovery.  She tells me it isn't about will power, that I can't think my way out of it, that anxiety is a physiological condition, and in it's acute form - like I'm experiencing - my usual tools of exercise, rest and good nutrition aren't enough.   We talk about how the anxiety jeopardizes my recovery, how I'm triggered when I'm hit with a panic attack. 

"It's okay," she says.  "This has nothing to do with how strong you are." 

I've been here before, when I got sober, and I know the drill.  Surrendering my will is hard, it feels like defeat, but I know in my heart it isn't.  It's the way out of my mental prison, the path to freedom.

We agree to watch the lump in my neck - I have other symptoms of a cold, so it could be a virus or infection causing a swollen lymph node - and make an appointment to follow up again in a few weeks. 

As I drive home, I think about acceptance, about how my brain longs to control something uncontrollable.  No amount of emotional hang-wringing or anxious thinking will change the outcome of anything; all anxiety does is ruin the moments right in front of me, here and now.   The fear tickles at my consciousness, scratches at the door, whispers: let me in.

I breathe in faith, breathe out fear, and bring myself back into the moment.   I'll get through it, whatever it is, I think. One moment at a time.



This post is written for Just Write, Heather of the Extraordinary Ordinary's writing exercise, where we, well, just write about our ordinary and extraordinary moments.  Come join us, here