It’s been almost 2 1/2 years since my bilateral mastectomy; and since then, I’ve become a collector of scars. In the space between my collarbone and my belly button, I have 10 reddish-brown scars.
And, on Friday, I added my 11th.
Now, this week has been particularly difficult for me. I have had a number of school assignments, work deadlines, conferences, a singing gig, and a grant proposal for a graduate assistantship. My kids had their own homework, my after school babysitter came down with a nasty flu-like bug, and our full-time babysitter is leaving for a month.
Now, I usually thrive in stress, deadlines, and unexpected tasks. But, this week, my body and brain shut down. I cried nearly every day this week. And, while officially taking a “vacation day” and locking myself in my office to write a paper, I had an anxiety attack. A full blown one. I was paralyzed in my desk chair, my hands were shaking, my heart racing, and I knew I only had a few seconds to text my husband and a close friend “About to have a panic attack. But, don’t worry, I’m safe” before the muscles in my hands went limp.
I have only had 2 panic attacks my entire life, but I knew what was coming. I kept breathing, tuned into the voices of my co-workers who were outside of my office talking about their Easter weekend plans, and repeated to myself, “This will pass. This will pass.”
After a few minutes, I felt my arms again and I pulled a set of headphones out of my bag, booted up iTunes, clicked on my “paper writing” playlist, and banged out 8 pages in 60 minutes. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Furiously. Focused.
I’ve been writing 12-25 page papers for the past two years; my body knew what to do.
The next day in class, I couldn’t hold it together. I was looking forward to the distraction of my brilliant cohort sisters and professors, and even managed to pull together a 15-minute presentation. And, though I was entirely unprepared for the day’s discussions, I held my own.
By 4:00pm, the cement walls of the public university classroom were replaced by a well-lit beige walls in a comforting waiting room with the Ellen Degeneres show playing on the flat screen TV. My doctoral classmates became surgical residents. The seminar desks became the padded table with a slim covering of crinkly, white, disposable paper.
“This won’t take long, Liza, only about 15 minutes. Once we remove this mole, we should hear back from the pathology department in a week or so.”
It would take as long as my powerpoint presentation that I had thrown together for my AM class.
I am terrifically used to hospitals, doctor’s offices, and paper gowns. I no longer draw the courtesy curtain that separates the entry door from the table; they’ve seen it all anyways. And, I almost never pull the front of my gown closed.
As she prepared the small, metal tray that held various scissors, gauze pads, and suture kits, I made small talk with the nurse, asking her about her plans for the weekend, the food she was preparing for Easter dinner, and how she missed dressing up her kids in matching outfits for Easter photos. I shook the doctor’s hand when she walked in, joked about how she had “saved the best for last” on a Friday at 4:45pm, and assured her that I didn’t care about the scar she was adding to my collection. I joked that she should autograph it when she was done.
And, as I laid back on the table and drew my hair into a ponytail and tucked it under my neck, I slowly raised my hands above my head and felt the easy pull of my muscles along my silicone breasts. “I should really make an appointment with a physical therapist,” I thought as I struggled to keep my elbows parallel to the floor.
I flashed the doctor and nurse a “let’s do this” smile and inhaled.
But, in that small, exact moment when the inhale breath turns around and leaves the body, I began to sob. Timidly at first, but soon uncontrollably. I felt the doctor’s hands on my breast, marking the cut-lines around the mole she was so gravely concerned about when she saw me just a few weeks ago.
I apologized profusely, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m so sorry….”
“Your body remembers, Liza. It remembers this same feeling. It remembers being drawn upon, pushed, moved around. It remembers, even when you think your mind has already forgotten.”
As she moved the anesthetic needle in and out to numb my skin, I cried harder. Instead of numbness, I felt pain. I felt tiny little knives piercing my skin. I knew it was sleepy nerves deep within that had not been touched since November 2010.
Even after the anesthesia had settled, the pressure of the silicone on my tissues was unbearable. I could see the top of my doctor’s knuckles as she carefully moved along my skin. Closing my eyes was worse — when I did that, all I could focus on was the sensation of feeling nothing.
I had been in denial about this procedure for weeks. I didn’t prepare for help. Didn’t prepare for what it would feel like. I didn’t even prepare for coming home — I had parked a 1/2 mile away from the office thinking “What a beautiful day for a walk”; never realizing that I would have to walk to the parking garage, my face tear stained, my eyes swollen from crying, and dodging the end-of-day commuters on their busy walk home on the streets of Boston.
When I finally reached my car, I cried more.
I called my sisters and cried more.
Came home, and cried more.
And, when I finally looked at the compression bandage on my chest, I sat on the bathroom floor and cried more.
Today, when I changed the bandage in the shower, the act of pulling off the tape brought back those tiny little knives. Touching the tape sent nerve endings firing; separating the clear lining from my brown skin nearly brought me to my knees.
It’s a strange sensation — the combined feelings of numbness and pain — and nearly impossible to describe.
But, it almost seems foolish to try.
Because no matter how well I try to recall it, there is no need.
The body already remembers.
Peace, love, and waiting for pathology,