Thursday, May 18, 2017

What We Still Can Do

Recently I visited a patient whose husband was asleep in her room. He woke up a few minutes later, pulled the earplugs out of his ears, and asked, sounding almost angry, “Who is this person and why are you telling her about that?” The visit went on, with all three of us talking, and at the end, he said, “Say, could I ask your advice about something?” That was rather gratifying.

I have been eating fewer and fewer high-FODMAP foods, per the dietician at the student health center, and arrived at a point where I was completely off them. The effect on my symptoms has been that they have gotten worse and worse, with bloating underway as soon as I take a small bite of any food whatsoever. I was by several days ago three-quarters convinced that I have ovarian cancer, which has symptoms identical to IBS.

There is so much cancer in my family, including three cases in my immediate family, two of which were estrogen-related, one of which was my own case of cancer, that this suspicion easily arises. Probably it’s not and in two months, everything will be fine. But if it is, rather than worry about that (especially since this diagnosis is not exactly in hand), I can be grateful that I got to live for as many years as I have.

Hanging around with the palliative care team for these several weeks has altered how I think about what I would do if I got a terminal diagnosis. I always thought I would at least start with the standard treatments and see how far I could get, but now I’m not sure I would do that. I think now that I would put much more importance on quality of life and maybe not do any treatment at all, depending on the trade-offs. In the meantime, I’m grateful that I’m alive right now, that I could get out of bed this morning and put on my socks without help and cook my own breakfast.

Gratitude is also helping immensely when it comes to F. Since our breakup, I have so often remembered this or that lovely moment and felt anguished that there’s no way to have that moment, or one like it, ever again. At least, not with him. On the night I met the anxious and sad woman in the emergency department, I decided to start practicing gratitude for what I used to have instead of longing for it to come back. Maybe one day I will develop dementia and be unable to choose where to place my focus. Having the ability to do that at the moment is a gift. Now when I think of F., I say silently, “Thank you for two splendid years! How wonderful that I got to have that experience. Thank you so much for all you gave me.” This has been very helpful, on the whole; there are still moments of searing pain. It occurred to me today that it is in working with inevitable sufferings that we learn about optional suffering. F. leaving was the former. Brooding about it forever would be the latter.

Darned if I didn’t feel queasy again in a patient room on Monday. Focusing on my feet didn’t really help and nor did focusing on my breath. The most helpful thing was just to notice the bad feeling in my stomach and tell myself silently, “Just this moment, just this moment.” Later Jodie said it’s also perfectly fine to step out of the room briefly and return; she said sometimes that can reset things. It started to happen again today, and this time I reminded myself that this can also happen when I’m sitting in meditation and that if I can get through it there, I can get through it anywhere (in theory). I made my field of awareness large and expansive, and surveyed the various things within it: these sights, these sounds, this smell, this taste, these internal and external sensations. And then I put my attention on awareness itself, and the experience then seemed entirely manageable.

More and more, it seems to me that life is what we’ve lost plus what we still can do. One by one, the things in the second category move into the first: Last year, I could get things out of the bottom cupboards in my kitchen; now I can’t bend down that far. Last month, I could get out of bed. Two weeks ago, I could still see at least dark and light. Every single thing I still can do is something to celebrate—every single thing. Because every last one of them will go away.
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