17 March 2015

Facing Fears Head-On

A while back, I wrote about Living with an Expiration Date  and my determination not to let those daily "what ifs" of living with a brain tumor stop me from living my life. Usually, I'm pretty good at remembering all of the great advice I gave myself in that blog post. Usually, I can brush off the weird symptoms and ignore the strange side effects of living with a brain tumor. And most days, I'm genuinely grateful for the little daily trials that help me to remember all the major blessings that get me through.

But for the past couple of months, I've been struggling. I'm not sleeping well, my dizzy spells have increased, I'm having more muscle spasms than usual, and I've lost count of the times I've simply stopped breathing because I wasn't consciously thinking about inhaling and exhaling. These are all "red flag" symptoms that could easily be nothing (might be stress or exhaustion or even a common virus) but this particular group of symptoms was also the exact combination that finally led to the discovery of my brain tumor in the first place.

And two years after my radiation, this combination of symptoms was the reason my doctors and I decided to run another set of MRI and CT scans to see if the tumor was growing again. It was. (That's when I had my surgery.)

So even though I know it could be nothing, and even though I've dealt with each of these symptoms in a myriad of different configurations over the years, facing them all together like this sends the "what if" monster into a frenzy. Unfortunately, this time around a series of scans won't help us to see if the tumor is growing again. Because the remaining tumor is invisible to scans, so there's no way to know for sure.

I've been reminding myself daily that it's probably nothing. And I'm trying to believe that. Because it's probably the truth. And I've been hiding my fears from everyone, because I didn't want to worry anyone. And I've had so many people tell me that my optimistic outlook is an inspiration ... so it feels like I'm letting the whole world down if I'm not always "on."

So I've plastered on a happy smile and painted rainbows and bubbles across the sky. And I've tried to be the most positive, upbeat, cheerful person ever. Because that's who I am. And that's who I want to be.

Meanwhile, I've been operating in panic mode for the past three months, battling the strongest what if monsters I've ever encountered. "I need to knit enough hats and scarves and mittens to last my family throughout the rest of all eternity, because what if I'm not here next winter to make more?" "I must organize all of our family photos and kids' artwork and random bits of memorabilia into scrapbooks, because what if no one remembers that this group of fast food receipts was from the anniversary when we were too poor to go out for a nice dinner, so we bought one thing at each of six different fast food chains instead?" "I must write ALL THE BOOKS, and sell them to publishers NOW, because what if I die before I get the chance, and NO ONE REMEMBERS ME EVER???"

I even joined an anonymous online brain tumor support group, so I could talk about my fears with total strangers, carefully hiding any identifying details that might let people in my real life know that I'm worried. But I haven't been hiding the crazy as well as I thought I was, so there's been an added layer of tension in all of my relationships for the past few months, as I push people away "Because what if they start to rely on me, and then I die and leave them without that support? I need to pull away ... to make them find other people to lean on instead." (On some levels, this has totally worked. My friends and family members are turning more and more to each other for help, and they're less likely to come to me with their problems. I'm much more isolated these days than I used to be... which may not be an actual good thing.)

And yesterday, all of the fears and what-ifs and craziness came crashing down on me all at once when I had a major meltdown over something that, honestly, wasn't even worth shedding a tear about. Because in all of my crazy what-ifs, I'd made a secret deal with myself: If this one thing that I was hoping for (that actually looked like it was pretty likely) came out the way I was hoping it would, I'd have proof that God loved me enough to hold off all the scary what-ifs I keep imagining. I set this private ultimatum on something I was 98% sure would happen, because I knew it would be an easy way for me to prove to myself that all the fears and worries were baseless. All I had to do was get past this one easy hurdle, and then I could rest assured that I'm not dying and my family will be okay, and people won't forget my name by tomorrow.

But that 98% sure thing? Yeah, turns out it wasn't as certain as I thought. It didn't happen, and the whole fragile system of hope I'd built on this flimsy premise crashed all around me. And my poor friend who got caught in the middle of my meltdown had no idea how this really very tiny, almost insignificant, thing (which was actually, ironically, good news ... just not the picture of events I'd determined to be my "you're not dying" signal) set me spinning into such a severe spiral. And the more she tried to comfort me, the more those fragile barricades I'd built for myself exploded, until I was hyperventilating and she was wondering what the heck just happened.

Today is Tuesday, the day I set aside each week to worship in the Temple, to refresh my spirit and gain the strength I need to face all of the fears and worries of another week. But I had reached such an all-time low that I couldn't even make myself go inside. I sat in the parking lot, staring at the Temple through my windshield, wondering if I shouldn't just skip this week. Because I feel closer to the Holy Spirit inside the Temple than anywhere else, and that's where I always get the tough answers to my most difficult prayers. What if I asked, and He told me that yes, I am dying?

But I was already there, so I decided I might as well go inside. I took a deep breath and opened the car door ... and my phone trilled with an email from my friend, who was checking up on me after my meltdown yesterday.

So of course I had another, even bigger, meltdown.

We emailed back and forth for over an hour as I sat in the parking lot, afraid to go inside and face the Lord. And I'm pretty sure I hurt my friend's feelings many times over in the course of my meltdown ... But I couldn't rationally explain myself. Because fears like this aren't rational. And even though I knew I'd regret it later, I only wanted to lash out - to push her away, so that if I die, she won't have to be hurt.

So, in an attempt to salvage my friendship before I completely destroyed it, I stopped answering her emails. And I called my husband to let him know I was going to skip going to the Temple today and meet him for lunch instead.

He told me to go inside, and he'd see me for a late lunch afterward, whenever I was finished conversing with the Lord.

Have I mentioned that my husband is very wise?

I sat in the quiet peace of the Temple, opened a Bible to 2 Timothy and began to read. In chapter one, verse seven, it says, "For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."

As I felt the love of the Savior wrapping around me, I realized something profound.

I don't know if I'm dying. I don't know if I have five minutes left on the earth or five days or five decades. But if I did die today, it would be okay. My children are amazing and well-prepared for just about anything life throws at them. My friends won't forget me. And my husband and I have a bond that will last throughout all eternity, and not just until death do us part. And if I can feel that safe and loved in the Lord's presence, I don't have anything to fear on the other side.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't have any plans to die today. I intend to live fully each day that I'm blessed to remain on this earth. But I don't need to be afraid of the possibility. And if I die today, before I get a chance to go skydiving or to meet my favorite celebrities or finish another book or any of the other things I've been worried that I might not get to before it's too late ... well, it doesn't really matter, does it? Because that's not what life is about anyway. And death isn't really the end.

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