Forgetting to grieve…

I remember the day I decided to finally quit smoking for good. Well, not the exact day, but it was probably a New Year’s resolution or something of that sort. Actually, now that I think about it, it was New Year’s Day at some point in my late 20s. Memory tells me it was 1991…but my brain sucks and can’t remember anything for shit, so here goes…

It was the third time in my life since taking up this vile “habit” at the age of 15 that my New Year’s resolution was to quit, and this time I was determined to make it stick.

The first time I tried to quit, the hubby was still smoking. (FYI, quitting a drug when your partner is still using makes “breaking the habit” a thousand times more difficult, if not impossible.) So, naturally over the following months, after finding the hubby in various places with his new apartment building smoker buddies, including the Egyptian taxi driver across the hall who fashioned a hookah out of car parts and smoked the finest Turkish tobacco only money could buy the equivalent to the best cocaine on the planet, I found myself wanting to join in on the “pleasure” I was missing not being part of the smoking crowd.

The second time I tried to quit was about two months before the wedding of a mutual college friend the hubby and I shared. Once again, the hubby was still smoking. Watching as he and his new wedding smoker buddies convened their pleasure circle outside the reception tent, I could hear the laughter of possibly the best time ever a group of people could have at a wedding…outside the wedding reception. Ever notice how the people having more fun than you are the ones using when you’re not? It’s amazing how people who are stoned and/or drunk out of their minds can make standing around doing nothing look like the rave of the century. My exact thoughts at that moment while sitting at the table with a former college acquaintance suffering unmedicated schizophrenia and an unnatural affinity toward Irish women, along with a former college boyfriend who was sitting with his new bride?

Me: “F**k this!”

Storming out of the wedding tent, I marched up to the hubby, grabbed his pack of Marlboros, lit up like a Christmas tree and joined in on the fun. Yup…I was once again sucked down that never-ending smoker’s rabbit hole.

For the record, smoking is not a “habit” my friends – it’s an addiction. According to the American Addiction Centers in a November 25, 2019 article, “6 of the Hardest Drugs to Quit,” nicotine is the fifth most difficult addiction to break and the “number one cause of preventable death in America.” Even with this knowledge in mind by the end of 1991, my argument to myself was, “If the price of cigarettes goes to $2 a pack, I’m quitting!” And guess what happened by the end of that year?

So, fast forward to the third time I decided to quit – New Year’s Day 1992 (or thereabouts)…

This time it was going to happen. I was determined and did my research.

The first thing I read was that approximately 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February…

Me: “Oh great! F**k! Okay, so now what?!”

Phantom article: “Set a different date later in the year to start said resolution.

Me: “Seriously?! That’s it?!

Phantom article: “Yup…”

I don’t remember exactly how I came up with the date, but I set May 1, 1992 as the day to start my New Year’s resolution.

The second thing I read about stopping an addiction had to do with what I attached to it. What purpose does the addiction serve me? What does this substance bring to my life that nothing else can? How does it make me feel? To this day, I don’t know how I came up with the idea to utilize grief therapy as a means of coping through withdrawal (although working in a drug rehab for three years probably taught me a thing or two), but it worked…along with a nicotine patch or two over a three-week period. Another friend told me about the healing power of sucking on licorice root, which I attempted and failed, later settling on organic panda black licorice chews instead.

All in all, through this process, I discovered that smoking went way back to elementary school, where, for some reason, I found the smoking crowd to be the coolest…and the most feared.

Ho…wait! I want to be cool AND feared. And that was it…

It was that simple. After years of being bullied – being the nerd, the thumb sucker, the fatty, the ugly one – my love affair with nicotine started at age 12, landed me an at-home suspension at age 14 for smoking in the girls room (now I was cool), became a full-blown habit by age 15, receiving two in-school detentions for smoking in the girls room and the hallway (because now I was an idiot), and was a hard-core addiction by age 27 (we’re talking looking-for-butts-in-random-ashtrays-to-suck-the-last-few-drags-of-nicotine addiction). So, at the age of 27, I had to convince myself that being a nerd, a thumb sucker, fat and ugly was okay; that I didn’t need to smoke to prove I was or wasn’t any of those things. And it worked…and then I gained 30 pounds and developed a rare neurological condition…BUT I never picked up smoking again.

That lesson in grief has stuck with me for almost 30 years. Each situation in my life requiring grief needed to be addressed situationally, and that’s what this blog has been for me. It helped me to process the loss of seven family members over a seven-year period…and now I’m back to NOT grieve.

One of the things that helped me heal after being diagnosed with that rare neurological condition was playing piano. At that point I had been playing piano for almost 30 years. Piano had been my love since I could speak and/or sit upright unattended banging the keys of a keyboard stenciled with numbers and letters. Playing piano helped the pain go away, if even for a minute or two. However, as my condition improved, not only did my interest in playing cease, I found that the condition would later rob me of certain memories, including my knowledge of playing piano. I grieved this loss of music ability that had served me so well over a lifetime just like I had grieved my nicotine. I later realized it had served its purpose and that was that…it was okay to let it go.

It’s been a little over a year since I stopped blogging about my bike rides. Over the past few months I noticed that I was visiting the cemetery less and less, merely stopping by out of guilt on the way back from somewhere else along the way. As birthdays and wedding and death anniversaries swiftly passed by, I would catch myself days, weeks and sometimes months later realizing I had forgotten the date…and it didn’t bother me…which brings me back to this blog.

This blog’s purpose was initially started to follow my bike rides so that my brother, Michael, could follow along while he lay dying of cancer in hospital. Over the past year I haven’t taken many bike rides but always made sure to take photos ultimately never posted.

 

Cancer is an unwanted visitor that has visited me and my family and friends over the past 10 years. After all we’ve been through, it is no longer welcome in my home, despite its insistence.

Dealing with my own battle of pre-cancer over the past 20 years, bike riding in 2019 has taken its toll and has not been a constant thing this year thanks to multiple procedures necessary to thwart off my unwelcome visitor…and that pisses me off. At some point I lost interest…again…and this time it wasn’t okay to let it go.

Last year I missed the American Cancer Society Bridge to the Beach ride and decided that it was time to get back in the saddle and take on this challenge once again – for Michael and everyone else fighting this beast. Today I forced myself to go to the gym despite the cold rain outside to begin my first phase of training – 30 miles in 8 weeks…pathetic…cause I gotta do 60+ miles in one day, starting from home at 6:00AM and on the Atlantic City Expressway before 3:00PM.  Feeling dejected, I put on my largest pair of bike capris owned (thanks to a ten-pound weight gain in 2019), drove to the gym six miles from home (I could’ve ridden to back in the day), perched myself atop the brand-new stationary bikes recently purchased (thank you Planet Fitness) and cycled 80-90RPMs according to my schedule…for 10 minutes…ugh…

It’s time to get back to life and continue the purpose!

Now, teacher, don’t you fill me up with your rules
But everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school

Smokin’ in the Boys Room – Brownsville Station

 

It only hurts when I burp

Lying on a gurney in the PCCU (Progressive Cardiac Care Unit) there was only one detail I kept focusing on – my heart was at peace.

For those of you who know me and/or have been following my blog, for over 20 years I have suffered from SVT (supraventricular tachycardia) (May 7, 2017 – Thank you Pearl and fuck you heart! May 16, 2017 – Me Day…June 25, 2017 – My life is going down the toilet…Israel: Part I – The path to acceptance):

“Atrial or Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) is a fast heart rate that starts in the upper chambers of the heart…Electrical signals in the heart’s upper chambers fire abnormally, which interferes with electrical signals coming from the sinoatrial (SA) node — the heart’s natural pacemaker. A series of early beats in the atria speeds up the heart rate. The rapid heartbeat does not allow enough time for the heart to fill before it contracts so blood flow to the rest of the body is compromised.” – American Heart Association

At some point in my 20s, I had an EKG (electrocardiogram) administered for no apparent reason and discovered an arrhythmia (a condition in which the heart beats with an irregular or abnormal rhythm) in my heart. After being told it was a common occurrence and knowing that mostly every member of my family had some kind of irregular heartbeat, I wasn’t concerned at the time. Several follow-up EKGs over the next few years pretty much repeated what I already knew – the arrhythmia wasn’t going away. If not for those EKGs, I never would’ve known I had this issue. And it wasn’t effecting my health in any way…until 1995…

As I mentioned in my last blog (January 12, 2018 – Go the f**k to sleep), in 1995 I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition known as pseudotumor cerebri after two years of misdiagnosis while living in a painful hell. Electing not to have a stent surgically planted in my spine, I was prescribed the only medication that was going to alleviate my symptoms and get me back on the road to recovery – a medication that took advantage of the arrhythmia residing in my heart, setting forth the beginning of SVT over the next 22 years. Even though this medication was stopped when I got pregnant with the kid, SVT became a permanent fixture during the third trimester, landing me for the first time in the emergency room. A new medication helped to control the abnormal rhythm during pregnancy, but after giving birth my heart rate plummeted to 40 BPM and the medication was no longer an option. As SVT worsened over the years, I learned to control my heart rate by completely cutting out caffeine and it worked…until last year…

A year ago an endocrinologist prescribed levothyroxine (a generic form of Synthroid) due to a long-term battle with hypothyroidism. Unbeknownst to me at that time, its number one side effect is heart palpitations. Five months later, after arguing with this doctor ad nauseum about daily episodes of SVT (three of which were very serious episodes while riding my bike long distance), I took myself off levothyroxine and finally called my cardiologist…who was no longer practicing…now I needed to find a new endocrinologist and a new cardiologist.

At this point, you’re probably asking,”What the hell were you waiting for woman?!” Trust me, I’ve repeatedly asked myself the same question over the past year…and my reasons are quite simple:

(1) I “don’t do sick.” (March 30, 2017 – Death defying…) That’s just me and my genetics, plain and simple.

(2) About 15 years ago I had a cardiologist who performed a treadmill stress test and concluded that I needed a pacemaker – I wasn’t even 40-years-old and had a toddler at home. Needless to say, I ran from his office never to be seen there again.

(3) Ten years ago I was forced to find a new cardiologist who could perform a nuclear stress test prior to having laser surgery to eradicate some cancerous growths. Making the “mistake” of mentioning a history of heart issues, my oncologist insisted on the test before undergoing the laser to make sure I could handle the anesthesia. Luckily, my heart cooperated that day, and I passed the test with flying colors – hence my belief that I had SVT under control and surgery was no longer necessary.

(4) Seven years ago I had to have the same laser surgery, but this time the oncologist only wanted a treadmill stress test. Although the cardiologist was able to induce some palpitations and recommended cardiac ablation, he deemed my heart healthy enough to undergo anesthesia without incident. Of course I followed through with the laser surgery, but didn’t return to discuss the ablation.

(5) People die in hospitals…which I’ve witnessed firsthand. After 36 hours of labor and 3 hours of pushing the kid out of my body at 11:30am, I was ready to leave by dinner time. Following my hysterectomy, I could’ve easily jumped from my hospital bed dragging my morphine drip and urinary catheter behind me. Don’t get me wrong, most days I’m a really good patient…until you put me in the hospital.

(6) Anxiety – I’m that 1% who suffers the “worst case scenario.” It’s my track record and just my plain dumb luck…

So after 20 years of denial reinforced by doctors, EKGs, stress tests, echocardiograms and ultrasounds, I convinced myself that I could live with it.

The good news was that I had found a new cardiologist last summer who I liked and trusted, mostly because he agreed that the levothyroxine had been the culprit in bringing my SVT out of hiding with a vengeance. However, he also strongly recommended cardiac ablation. I agreed to follow up with the electrophysiologist within the same practice and go through with the cardiac ablation by the end of 2017…until the kid called about making aliyah and we impulsively flew to Israel…and then I came down with a respiratory infection that lasted over a month…more excuses…until that last trip to Israel when I had that hour-long bout of SVT before takeoff. On that flight I promised the hubby I would call the cardiologist as soon as we returned to the states.

And I kept my promise and scheduled a cardiac ablation for January 16th.

Barely capable of sleeping the night before and fasting since midnight, the hubby drove me to the hospital. Arriving fifteen minutes early, the hubby made a B-line for the toilet and I signed in as a receptionist slapped onto my wrist a red plastic bracelet with bold capital letters reading “ALLERGIES.” Okay, the first hurdle of anxiety has been jumped – someone has actually read my chart and knows of my numerous and potentially lethal allergies. Before I could sit down and make myself comfortable, I was whisked off to an office where a woman slapped another plastic bracelet onto my wrist, this one white and containing personal information. Second hurdle of anxiety jumped – no one’s going to confuse me with the patient who’s getting prosthetic testicle implants…

Fifteen minutes later I was called back to prep for the procedure. Walking by the nurses’ station, my escort was asked by her supervisor what my name was, to which I announced in a sing-song voice with jazz hands, “Alice!” My escort followed suit and all the staff giggled. Anxiety hurdle number three – everyone’s nice and easily entertained.

Changing into a hospital gown and hopping onto a gurney, I was greeted by another nurse with a fabulous sense of humor and an ability to avoid pain through distraction – wiggle your toes while I shove this IV needle into your vein…and it actually helped. Fourth anxiety hurdle – limited pain through genuine kindness. Another nurse administered one last EKG confirming the long ago diagnosed arrhythmia lived with for over 20 years…and the hubby was allowed to wait with me…and we waited.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had met the electrophysiologist only twice – once eight years ago and the second back in August of 2017…what he hell did he look like?! What if some dude came over and claimed he was my physician?! What if I did end up with testicular implants?! Thankfully, all the staff confirmed his identity as he approached my little corner of pre-op. Anxiety hurdle number five – doctor recognition.

The doctor proceeded to walk us through the procedure – how they would sedate me, insert catheters into veins in both sides of my groin and thread these tubes to my heart in order to deliver energy in the form of heat to modify the tissue in my heart that was causing the arrhythmia. After years as a psychiatric social worker with a few years of medical transcription in between, his words didn’t phase me in the least. When he started to explain the possible “down sides” of the procedure, that’s when my brain got stuck…

Bleeding or infection at the site where the catheter was inserted – okay, I could deal with this one…wouldn’t be the first time.

Damage to your blood vessels where the catheter may have scraped as it traveled to my heart – okay, just try to visualize this one…that’s when the brain stops thinking…

Damage to my heart’s electrical system that could require a pacemaker…See! That cardiologist way back when was right!

Possible stroke -I had nightmares of this days leading up to the procedure.

There was no turning back…and the doctor literally evaporated…okay, so maybe not literally…

…and then I made it known loud and clear that I.WAS.ANXIOUS

By the end of the night, I was known as that “one who said she had anxiety…”

That’s when one of the OR nurses introduced herself (and when I started paying attention to names for some unknown reason at the time).  Her name was Holly, and she explained what her role was as well as all the other women (except for one man who she kinda blew off) that would be in the operating room with me. Obviously recognizing my anxiety (perhaps because of my repeated exclamations of feeling anxious), Holly managed to calm me down after answering the routine virally paranoid  questions about traveling abroad, to which I answered, “Yes…Israel” and to which she exclaimed her pending visit with her church group this coming October. Anxiety hurdle number six – interfaith love of Israel and a topic I love to talk about.

After meeting one of the anesthesiologists, Tom, who in the end had nothing to do with my surgery, Holly and I chatted about Israel as she wheeled me through a labyrinth of hallways to the OR. The last stop before D-Day, I waited and watched in the hallway as the ladies prepped the operating room…and, holding back sobs of fear, I clearly announced, once again, that I was ANXIOUS and guaranteed my heart would go into SVT upon request…and Holly, ever my savior, came back to reassure me that all was good with the world and we continued to talk about Israel. And then I met David (King David?!), the lead anesthesiologist who reminded me of my meeting Tom (doubting Thomas?!) and mentioned that Leah would be my anesthesiologist for the procedure (who, I would later find out, had a lunch break during my ablation?!) Wait…how many anesthesiologists do I need for this “quick” procedure?! Carefully sliding me from gurney to operating table, I made a note of all the names of the people present in the room – Holly, Kathy, Karen, Benjamin, Leah…and I reminded them about how anxious I was, trying to link their names to some personal significance…

Kathy! My oldest sister’s name is Kathy! Karen! Several of my best friends are named Karen! Benjamin (who was Asian and I referred to as Benyamin, which produced a giggle), the hubby’s paternal grandfather! Leah! Beautiful Leah, our matriarch and wife of Yacov! Anxiety hurdle number seven…as my vision got blurry and my speech slurred, I told Leah how sneaky she was for slipping me a Mickey when I wasn’t lookin’…

One of the things about my brain is that I dream very vividly – if I put my mind to it, my dreams would make fantastic screenplays. In essence, I sometimes have to consider whether or not my “dreams” are real or imagined. So when I found myself having conversations throughout my surgery, I thought nothing of it. I was simply “dreaming” about my experience. Only later did I come to find that I was actually conversing with the medical staff in the OR during the procedure.

Oh…the two things I failed to mention earlier:

(1) Warning the cardiologist that I was a sleep talker, and

(2) Asking Tom, the anesthesiologist, what would happen if I woke up during the procedure. Answers:

Cardiologist: “Can we record?!”

Anesthesiologist: “No problem! The drugs are so good you won’t even know what’s happening.”

I remember talking about Israel with Holly and having a conversation with Leah about being a red head. I “dreamed” about my mother and her family…did I discuss this out loud?! (Side bar – my mother’s father is buried across the street from the hospital (Meemaw – December 5th).

Next thing I knew, Leah was talking to me about the procedure and I was WIDE awake…which apparently freaked out the entire medical staff…because I had been loaded up with twice the required sedation for someone my size…the words “elephant tranquilizer” whispered throughout the OR…

Although the procedure itself only took one hour (thanks to my cooperative heart going straight into SVT), apparently, it took almost an hour to get me sedated because I kept waking up throughout the procedure. Leah explained how I went under almost immediately…and then I opened my eyes and started talking again…repeatedly – something the hubby and the kid have experienced numerous times over the past several years. Yeah, it’s freaky for those witnesses, but I have no recollection whatsoever of these events. Leah explained that some people can metabolize chemical enzymes quicker than others. Who knew?! Either way, anesthesiologist Tom was right – I didn’t feel a thing and honestly didn’t give a s**t…

Doing better than anyone had expected, I actually skipped two levels of recovery because I was so alert. Four hours after surgery, the hubby was driving us home.

Two days post-surgery, I feel awesome…although the “elephant tranquilizers” are drastically wearing off and occasional chest pains remind me of my ordeal…but it only hurts when I burp…

I can’t get over how calm and quiet my heart feels. For the first time in 23 years my heart isn’t struggling and I barely notice it’s even there. Me and my happy heart are ready to live again.

I’m eagerly looking forward to my next bike ride…without incident…if only the weather would cooperate…

“Wo! I feel good, I knew that I would, now
I feel good, I knew that I would, now
So good, so good, I got you”

I Feel Good – James Brown

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump

Being dealt a 52-Card Pickup…

I did it! I made it to 52!

As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, my sister Maureen died four weeks before her 52nd birthday. A dreadful anxiety began to fester when I turned 50 – would I make it to 52? Mom had just died with Michael in her footsteps later that year. I tried convincing myself that it was all in my head, that I indeed would live to the ripe old age of 103 (a number generated by some online predict-your-age site I found on Facebook a number of years ago and threaten my daughter with whenever she complains about me). But my anxiety told me I was doomed. After my mother passed February 3rd two years ago, my health slowly started to decline. I had gained 15 lbs. while caring for my mother during her last months. As a result, a rare neurological condition resurfaced after a 20-year hiatus. My blood pressure quickly rose and refused to come back down. My cholesterol numbers were increasing. My joints ached to the point of walking with great difficulty. I was doomed alright…if I didn’t get myself back together, I feared the worst…

As I mentioned last time, my mother died the night before my 50th birthday. Today is the second anniversary of her death. My birthdays never seem to work out right. It’s not a huge deal, but at some point I’d like something fun and special to happen (no, this is not a hint!).

Turning 52 makes me think of the game “52-Card Pickup.” For those of you who may not know the “game,” I give you Wikipedia’s explanation:

“52-Card Pickup is a practical joke using a standard deck of 52 playing cards. The name has also been used for solitaire card games and for legitimate educational children’s games that are based on the fundamental principle of picking up scattered cards or objects.

Rules: Any deck of cards will do. “Unnecessary” cards such as jokers may be ceremoniously removed. The game mechanics require at least one player who is familiar with the game and one player who wants to be initiated into the game. The first player, as “dealer”, throws the entire deck into the air so the cards land strewn on the floor. The other player must then pick them up.”

This game seems to represent my life on most days. It’s something I would fall for every time – I’m as gullible as they get. I’ve been told numerous times throughout my life that my portrait stands next to the word “gullible” in the dictionary…and, yes, I also fell for that one as a young child…that’s how gullible I am…

But it’s not just the falling-for-it character of my gullibility in which this game describes my life. It’s the having to pick up all those cards every time – the humiliation of believing it was a real; the embarrassment of an others mean-spirited action towards me; the shame of having to clean up the mess I didn’t make…

Having been dealt such a deck in life, I’ve learned to “play the game.” Of course, it’s more fun to give than receive (and I’ve given a few people a 52-Card Pickup in the past). I’ve also come to embrace my idealism – I believe what you tell me, I roll with the punches and I don’t mind helping to clean up your mess. It’s what has made me a good social worker over a 25-year career span. Even when I truly do not believe what is being told to me, I give you the benefit of the doubt. I believe that you believe what you are saying. When what you tell me may seem incomprehensible or just downright insane, you won’t know it – people need to be able to tell their life story without judgment. And sometimes people just need a little guidance with or maybe just a little motivation towards cleaning up their own messes.

2015-02-09-12-06-48

This photo was taken five days after I turned 50 and six days after my mother’s death. It was also on what would have been my father’s 84th birthday. It is the last birthday I celebrated as a social worker. Half my life was spent as a helper and a caregiver…now I think I’d be happy simply working at the local Whole Foods Market…

“You’re what?!
Tin roof…
rusted!”

Love Shack – The B-52s

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump