Why I’ll be easy to spot at the Pride Parade

Pride 2014I should probably start this post by acknowledging that there are many things I’m proud of, but being gay isn’t one of them.  I’m proud to be a psychologist because I had to work hard to get that degree. I’m proud of my blog because I feel I’m learning and growing from this project. I’m proud to be a fairly decent person because it’s something I think a lot about and work hard at. But I’m not especially proud to be gay, since I was born that way. (Anyone who believes otherwise should take a look at Is it a choice? by Eric Marcus.) I’m not ashamed to be gay, at least not anymore, since internalized homophobia is so passé.

Maybe I’d be proud to be gay if I felt I were a better gay person, but I’m not, just like I’m not a very good Jew–I would eat a lot of bacon were I not on a low-sodium diet–and I’m not a very good athlete. I’ve never volunteered within the gay community and I haven’t participated in many community-sponsored events with my people. I am sorry for my gay inadequacies. Whether or not I’m a “good gay”, as a much-better-gay-than-me friend recently called herself, I love going to Calgary’s annual Pride Parade, held every year on Sunday of the Labour Day Weekend.

In fact, I cry a river of happy tears from beginning to end. I cry at the people who march in the parade, young and old, parents and children, such a mix of people from all walks of life. I cry when I see participants from police and fire and so many others, including religious groups (hey, we should get the Jews out!), businesses, athletes, and politicians. (Shout out to Rob Anders, my bigoted, homophobic MP: this may be your last year to show your support!) I love the diversity of floats and the brave people marching. I love that the number of supporters of our varied groups gets bigger and bigger each year, both in the parade and on the sidelines. I’m proud of the many people in our sexual- and gender minorities who are likely attending such an event for the first time, because, as I recall, the first time is the hardest. I love seeing kids both in the parade and among the spectators, and, like them, I get excited when people on the floats throw candy at us. And I admire how comfortable the younger generations seem to be with who they are. That’s thanks to the hard work of the generations that preceded them. Hard to believe it wasn’t so long ago that a homophobic spectator spit at my friend.

I hate to bring it back to cancer–I always seem to–but Canada’s progressive stance toward us folk is all the more critical to J. and me now. To think that if I lived in many American states, J. and I could not be married, which could affect her input into my medical care. Also, I could not be on her health plan, which would cause us huge financial hardship. And there are many far less progressive countries than the U.S.

This year, a group of friends will be joining J. and me at the parade. These friends are gay and straight and unconditionally supportive of who we are. What could make the day more special? Know you’re welcome to join us. Just look for the gal who’s crying.

Pride heart

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Dream Interpretation 101

I could not teach Dream Interpretation 201, or the advanced seminar, Special Topics in Dream Interpretation, because I am a failure at dream interpretation. In fact, unlike Freud, I’m not much of a believer in the whole dream thing, mostly because my own mind is too simple. I dread clients’ asking me about their dreams, and often fall back on the old standard: “What do you think it might mean?” This way, I can learn from their insightful interpretations.

Forget the notion of dreams as symbolic; my dreams simply reflect my day-to-day life. You may be much deeper than me and have dreams that can be interpreted on many levels. Not me, I’m afraid. My dreams are painfully transparent, not replete with mysterious hidden meanings.

Those dreams we all have of falling? Mine occur when I have rolled so close to the edge of my bed that I am at risk of falling off. I’ve also admitted previously to dreaming about having to pee very very badly when I have  to pee very very badly. (Thankfully, I always wake up before I wet the bed.) For years I dreamt that I was late or ill prepared for an exam, I couldn’t find the exam room, I kept getting held up, I was in a panic. I’d have this dream the night before an exam. Even my unconscious is concrete and predictable.

Sometimes I dream that I or someone close to me has cancer. Not surprising since I have leukemia. I had these dreams infrequently before I was diagnosed with cancer. (Maybe my psyche was deeper then.) I’d awaken in a panic. Now, although I may be a bit unsettled when I wake up, I quickly remind myself that I already do have cancer. Why worry about something I’ve already got? So I roll over and go back to sleep.

Last night, I had a dream I’ve had several times since resuming work after suspending my practice. In the dream, I mess up a scheduled appointment by not getting back to my office in time, double booking, or forgetting altogether. Now, just so you know, these behaviours would be highly out of character, although I did double book twice in the year prior to my leukemia diagnosis. That same year I had three car accidents, in addition to a variety of other gross attention lapses. (FYI: Swiss cheese can survive the freezer.) When I had the dream last night, I reminded myself that I am currently seeing only one client per week. Hard to double book or not show up when you only have one person to keep track of. So far, since my return, I’ve shown up to every single client on time. Maybe this dream has run its course.

And so today’s client arrived at the appointed time, and I was there waiting and ready. And thankfully there was no discussion of dreams, the client’s or mine.

Baby sleeping on back with arms outstretched, broad smile on face.

I might be able to interpret this dream.

Treat yourself. You’re worth it.

I want you to think over this past weekend, or past week, or even the past month if you can remember back that far. How often did you deny yourself something you really wanted? And I’m not just talking about things that cost money. Whether it’s that matinee movie, ice cream for dessert, or a sleep in on Sunday morning, I know we all short change ourselves in different ways.

I can tell you the many ways I deny myself. Most, but not all of them, have to do with food because of my darn low-sodium diet. And last weekend, J. offered to walk Jelly because I was wiped, but I turned her down. I shouldn’t have.

How often do we allow ourselves what we want without guilt or shame or self-recrimination? Well, some days I do just because I need cheering up. To give you one example, recently I was walking past our reading room, and this is what I saw:

Large stuffed Grover from Sesame Street sitting on yoga mat

The picture of happy relaxation.

Yes, it’s my almost-life-sized Grover doing yoga. This fuzzy blue monster was an indulgence three years ago. J. bought him to cheer me up on a very down day, brought on by bad news about my health. We had wandered into a store and spotted this huge, glorious Grover, alongside a like-sized Big (BIG!) Bird, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch.

Large Sesame Street Grover character posed in downward dog on yoga mat.

Grover in downward monster.

Not only was this stuffed Grover bigger than any Grover I’d ever seen, he was on sale. (I guess life-sized Sesame Street characters are not in high demand in Calgary, particularly not by middle-aged women.) And so J. bought him for me.

And he did cheer me up, as soon as we belted him into the back seat of our car and brought him home, people smiling and waving as we passed. He spent months occupying an empty seat at our dining table–no, we didn’t feed him, that would be weird–and lounging on the couch with us while we watched TV. And he still brings me joy, especially when J. poses him in different rooms of the house. Until this week, I hadn’t appreciated his passion for yoga.

I have had quite the fascination with the fuzzy blue monster since I named my first dog Grover. Like the fuzzy blue monster, my four-legged son was a little dumb but ever loveable. Unlike the Sesame Street character, however, my dog’s fur was not blue.

Three years later, I still adore my huge stuffed Grover. He’s always sporting that huge pink smile. I just love that he’s always so irrepressibly happy. I haven’t regretted that purchase once, and not just because J. paid. So next time you want to indulge yourself, do it. You deserve it.

Sesame Street character Grover in Savasana pose.

Grover in savasana.

 

My love-hate relationship with the CBC

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation logoYou might think I’m talking about my favourite public radio station, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I don’t like all the summer repeats any more than you do but relentless cutbacks will do that. That’s not today’s topic, however.

Rather, I’m referring to the Complete Blood Count, the window to my disordered bone marrow. A harmless CBC completed with my annual physical 15 years ago first revealed a problem, and, ultimately, my diagnosis with polycythemia. Polycythemia is, by definition, an excess of red blood cells, although for some special people their white blood cells and platelets go along for the ride. Hoarder that I am, I developed an excess of all three.

And so, about 10 years ago, my white blood count started rising, and rising, and rising. The normal range is between 4-11 and I tipped the scale at 100 or so at my highest. As it rose, doctors unfamiliar with my history began questioning leukemia, but that diagnosis did not come until 8 years later, when a very astute hematologist noticed that the medication intended to suppress that white blood count wasn’t working very well and pursued other explanations.

When I started on chemotherapy for CML, miracle of miracles, my white blood count gradually returned to the normal range. For a while. And then it started creeping back up. 12…15…17. Which made me a little anxious. Because a lot of things do. Which led to my recent repeat CBC, two weeks after my last. And the 23. And utter panic. Okay, let’s be honest, a teeny meltdown in my car after I found out, within view of a kind young father and his son. How embarrassing. Unstable psychologist rears her ugly head.

Therapist taking notes while client cries on couch

That’s my client taking the notes.

So what did I do? I texted J. first, of course. And then I went to work. Bad, bad Annie, scheduling a client after a doctor’s appointment. I know from experience that this is not a good idea. I never know what I’ll find out at the doctor, or how I’ll feel after the appointment, and I’ve had many years to learn not to schedule clients after I go to the doctor. Dumb, dumb, dumb me. So I pulled it together and saw my client. Because I had to.

And then I contacted my second voice of reason, my lovely nurse practitioner at the Cancer Centre. She called me back right away, since I don’t often belabour her with my anxiety, and within moments reassured me that it’s not my cancer. That’s when I learned that the kind of white blood cells that would suggest a cancer-related problem are fine; it’s the ones related to possible infection that aren’t. You’d think a blood disorders aficionado like me might know that by now. Oh well, live and learn, lowly layperson.

So I stopped crying. Okay, maybe not immediately. Actually not until J., sensing my distress in my text–amazing how she can do that–arrived home early from work and gave me a hug. She always knows just what to do.

You too are welcome to hug me when you see me. But if you could be gentle, since my platelets are pretty low right now, so even a gentle nudge can leave a bruise. But I’m not worried about that.

Let’s talk more about talking about it

I may not be working, but don’t say my days aren’t full. Over the past few days, I’ve had four chats with acquaintances about my health. Bear with me through my public debrief.

One well-meaning woman asked me if I was feeling better. To be fair, I may not have told her I had leukemia; I likely just said I hadn’t been well. Still, I was at a loss for words. I don’t know how I should have responded, but I know I was wrong in saying I wasn’t feeling better. Since I could have handled myself better, I get a Fail for that one.

Then there was the person I bumped into who asked about my health–she knew I had the big C–but in that “Poor you” kind of way I hate, accompanied by the pitying looks I hate even more. After a short chat, I asked her not to look at me that way. Not my finest moment. Another Fail for me.

Then, early one morning, in the public shower at the pool, I encountered another acquaintance who very astutely noted: “You must get those bruises from injecting yourself.” When I responded by telling her my platelets were low, she was wise enough to realize I might be ill and asked about my health. It seemed only fair at that point to disclose my leukemia, and so I did. She didn’t give me the pitying look, but asked several reasonable questions. I answered as honestly as I could. We had a quick chat and went on with our days. I got a Pass but she got an A+.

German shepherd puppy with quizzical look on face, head cocked to side

Did I hear you correctly?

Later that day, I bumped in to a woman I barely knew at the medical lab. She noticed my bruises and followed me out of the waiting room when I was finished because she felt my “energy was off”. And I thought I was having a pretty good day, notwithstanding having cancer and all. When I told her I had leukemia–I was trying to give her credit for her sensitive energy fields–she immediately asked me what my prognosis was.

In the past, I’ve tried to guide you, dear readers, on how to talk to someone who has cancer. Obviously my stellar insights have not reached this woman. I can tell you with assurance that you should not ask anyone who discloses she has cancer about her prognosis. It’s not something we Cancer Club members talk a lot about because it’s a little morbid, frankly. Sure, I think about how long I’ll live but I try not to focus on it because it brings me down. And anyhow, whatever my prognosis is, I plan to outlive it. Prognoses are based on averages, while I aspire to be the outlier. That’s me, striving for excellence in every endeavour!

So what did I tell this woman? I told her as far as I could tell I was still alive. And then ever so rudely I turned around and left. I know I should have taken the time to educate her for the next person, but I was weary by then, so I left that noble task for someone else. Rightly or wrongly, I gave myself a Pass for this one, but she got an automatic F.

Now, if you guys could just hold off on the health questions for a few days, I could use a little breather. Thanks.

In defence of our medical system

Long line of people waiting

Save me a spot at the back of the line.

Yesterday, an acquaintance was complaining about her frustration with Calgary’s health system, and I found myself wanting to speak up in its defence. Thankfully it was just my inside voice shouting–I gave myself a headache–but I caught myself getting riled up. This woman was annoyed that, although she had a referral for a specific scan, she asked the technician to complete a second scan from a different, later referral rather than go back in the queue. In other words, she’d wanted access to the buffet but she’d only paid for the entree. She figured she’d be saving the system time and money.

I know the system isn’t perfect. I’m a frequent flyer so I’ve had many opportunities to assess its functioning, at least with respect to my own care. This month alone, I will go for blood testing three times and to doctors twice, and I’m on a low-maintenance schedule currently. But during my high-maintenance phases, when I’ve really needed it, the health system has been there for me. I’ve had access to all the tests I’ve needed when I’ve been deathly ill, and others, like this woman, have probably been kept waiting as a result. I’m not proud of getting in faster than lower-priority patients at those times, but I know I could have been in dire straits had I had to wait. Life-or-death straits. Did I deserve the test more? No, but I probably needed it more at that time, and I’m grateful that I got access as quickly as I did.

And I believe, were this woman in medical crisis, that she too would have been scheduled sooner for her second test, but the system must not have seen her as a high priority, whether rightly or wrongly. Every visit to the Cancer Centre reminds me that there are people suffering more than me, people who are likely higher up any queue I might be on, and I’m glad to wait so they can go first. I’m not the one awaiting a follow-up scan after radiation or investigation of an ominous lump on some body part.

In fact, one of the things I’ve realized over time is that having to wait is a good thing, even though I might prefer an immediate answer to any concern my doctor raises. Having to wait means the doctor isn’t all that worried about me. It means she doesn’t think I’m going to die if I don’t get the answer right away. In fact, I worry more when I’m at the top of the queue.

I’m not saying the system always works. Sometimes I’ve had to wait for procedures that should have happened sooner because of misplaced paperwork or other factors, human or otherwise. But most of the time everything has worked as I’ve needed it to when I’ve needed it to, and the successes far outweigh the missteps.

Maybe someday this woman will have a different appreciation for the medical system as it stands. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I hope this woman never jumps to the front of the line. Sometimes being first isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Milestones are for passing

Now that I’ve lived two years post cancer diagnosis, I feel invincible. Hence my decision to draw your attention to a recent blogging milestone, humble by many standards but significant for me. As of this week, I have over 75 followers. In other words, over 75 people are harassed each time I post a new entry.

Now, this news is significant because I am an absolute failure in the blogging community in many ways. I peruse few blogs and check in on other blogs only sporadically, for several reasons. First, I don’t have time because my own blog takes up every spare minute I have. Second, I fear what I might read about in others’ blogs, especially if any of these bloggers are dealing with health challenges like me. (I am a touch health anxious sometimes, remember.) But third, and perhaps most importantly, I fear I’ll discover that everything I’ve written is wholly unoriginal.

So I am truly lucky to have garnered 75+ followers. I don’t deserve the interest and devotion. But I’m not getting too big for my britches, don’t worry. A large number of these followers are people I’ve roped into reading my blog, including friends and colleagues who would have had a hard time saying no. (It’s not too late, dear friend; you have my explicit permission to stop following anytime. If your unfollowing makes me sad, that’s my problem.)

A number of fellow bloggers follow my blog as well. Some have significant health challenges, others an interest in mental health for personal or professional reasons, but the majority are trying to sell me something. These sales-bloggers believes their writing and/or marketing prowess could benefit me in some way. Frankly, I’m a bit hurt by this last group’s interest, since these folk seem to be implying that my blog needs their help. I’ve previously acknowledged my lack of confidence in my writing skills, so their interest only reinforces my insecurity.

Here’s the bad news for those bloggers who wants me to pay them for help: If you missed the post on my allowance a while back, I don’t have any money to give you. I use my meagre disability pension to contribute in whatever small way I can to our family; I’m afraid I don’t have enough left over to share with you.

And frankly, I’m a little insulted that you think I need your help, since I think I’m doing just fine on my own. I may never have thousands of followers or move to Hollywood to star in my own sitcom, and I may never make money from my blog, but if what I write touches one or two people every so often, I will have met my goal.

Now that you know the truth, I’ll understand if you budding entrepreneurs stop following my blog. I may need your help desperately, especially in your eyes, but our priorities obviously differ. Good luck finding other bloggers to sign lucrative deals with you. May your ventures be fruitful and multiply! My blog and I will continue to amble along slowly and independently and under most radars because that’s just how we roll.

New Yorker cartoon: Two dogs facing one another, one says to other: "I had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking."

The upside of side effects

Picture of pill dispenser with many pillsI started taking medication daily 14 years ago, when I was first put on blood thinners because of my humongous blood clot. Since then, I’ve been on and off a variety of drugs to manage various medical challenges. Usually, the medications do what they’re supposed to. For example, the blood thinners stop my clot from growing, and the high doses of diuretics I take stop my belly from ballooning from second- to third-trimester pregnant.

We tend to think of medication side effects as bad and for some people they are truly intolerable. The effects of chemotherapy can be horrendous, but people undergoing such treatments rarely feel they can opt out. I am lucky that my chemotherapy is nothing like that–I barely notice the little pill I take each morning–and I feel deeply for people who have to endure a much more gruelling regimen.

On my current drug regimen, I have an almost-perfect combination of side effects. The ones that speed up my gut are balanced by the ones that slow it down. And what weight-preoccupied person would be displeased with any pill that depresses appetite a bit? Plus the fatigue caused by some of my medications, while increasing my risk of walking into inanimate objects, has actually improved my sleep.

Stuffed toy in shape of liver with smile and eyes.

Not just happy but cuddly.

10 years ago, I started on a medication to lower the blood pressure in the clotted vein outside my liver. Increased blood pressure in this vein may damage my liver by putting extra stress on it. I don’t want that, since livers are for living. Sure, there are some side effects with this medication that aren’t great. Low blood pressure makes me dizzy occasionally, maybe a bit spacey too, but who cares if my liver is happy?

Before I started on this medication, I’d get one or two migraines a month, sometimes more if Calgary’s weather changes were particularly extreme. But once I started taking this drug, my migraines virtually disappeared. I might get one every year or two instead of one every week or two.

Don’t feel bad for me for having migraines, though, since mine are utterly wimpy. I just get doggone tired before, my vision gets a little weird for a spell, and then my head aches a bit. I know migraines are much, much worse for many people. (Just ask my friend who vomited into my wastebasket during one of hers many years ago.) My migraines have never interfered with work or play to any significant extent.

Recently the migraines have returned, but I don’t know why, since my blood pressure is still shockingly low. Maybe I’ll discuss this change with Dr. Liver when I see him. I’m not eager to increase my dosage, since I did that for a while many years back and I spent several weeks in a fog.

It’s crossed my mind that maybe stress is to blame. I’ve taken on more lately, with new clients and swimming and the blog and even occasionally washing the floor. (J. revoked my mopping privileges after my last attempt.) For a psychologist, I have remarkably poor coping skills, after all. No need to rub that one in with your comments, thanks.

 

It’s about time I come out

Cartoon character joyfully yelling "Smash all the closets!"

Let this be a reminder that you can’t judge a post by its title.

I suspect you think I’m going to talk about being gay, but that wouldn’t be very enlightening would it? If you haven’t yet picked that up, you really haven’t been reading very carefully. There’s no need to belabour my sexual orientation any more than I already have.

In fact, I’ve written before about how tricky self-disclosure can be with clients, and how I need to think of the potential therapeutic value (or harm) to each client before I blab about something personal. I’ve been very careful about what I’ve shared about myself with clients. But I do think it’s time to come clean on a few issues.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’ve already come out as Jewish, as utterly uncoordinated, and as a psychologist (though I try not to share that one at parties because I don’t want to be accused of analyzing you). I’ve come out as anxious and cautious and inappropriately disinhibited, especially for someone in my profession.

I think it’s also important to disclose that I’m a nerd, through and through. While you were out on play dates, or, as a teenager, getting drunk and experimenting with drugs, I was studying. While you were working as a server in a restaurant or as a lifeguard at the local pool, I worked part-time in a library, for years and years and years. I may be gay, but I’m straight as an arrow in many respects.

More recently, since a few new clients have ambled into my office, I’ve been focussed on whether I come out as sick. I often felt I had to tell clients I had seen before because I disappeared without explanation for a while. Still, I share the news cautiously and try to manage clients’ reactions as they arise.

With my new clients, I feel I have more of a choice to disclose my health status. I decide what to broach with each client on a case-by-case basis. Do I say, “I have some health issues,” or do I acknowledge I have leukemia? Do I say nothing at all? I feel I need to share something about my health so clients will understand my restricted work hours.

I shared my leukemia with a client recently because I knew that the client could easily have found out through other sources and I’d rather the client hear it from me. Another client I did not share the specifics with, although I did acknowledge I was dealing with some health challenges. In this second case, I don’t feel the leukemia is relevant to our therapeutic relationship at this point, but if it becomes so at a later date, I will have to reconsider. Whatever I tell clients, I reassure them that my health is stable and that, other than my restricted work hours, our work together should not be affected in any way.

For each new client, I will decide what is best, with thoughts of the client’s needs first. I’m sure I’ll blow it sometimes. Because, in addition to being gay and a klutz and a nerd and all that other stuff, I’m human.

I’m just another life saved, I guess

Yesterday, J. and I spent the day at the Cancer Centre. We first met with a very smart medical fellow–a medical fellowship kind of fellow who is, in fact, a woman. As a lowly layperson, I understand that fellows are doctors with tons of years of additional training. They’ve completed their internships and residencies, and could be working independently as specialists but they’ve chosen to pack their brains just a bit more full of information and experience. They’re the ones who I hope will care for me if for some unexpected reason I outlast the one I’m with. Yes, I fantasize about outliving my doctor’s retirement. Crazy, I know, especially since I have several years on this one.

When Dr. Fellow returned with my hematologist, she (Dr. Blood) mentioned she had offered Dr. Fellow two CML cases, a simple one and a complicated one, and Dr. Fellow chose me,  Ms. Complicated. Dr. Fellow was perplexed, however, because I don’t really look so complicated at first glance. My medical complexities would have been more obvious a few years back when I almost died, but my health has been so stable lately, it’s easy to forget all that.

In fact, during our discussion, after Dr. Blood told me that I was doing well on the cancer front, I had to remind her of how she had saved my life two years ago. Maybe she was being humble–she strikes me as that kind of person–but I believe she really didn’t recall.

Three cherry tomatoes in a line

1 tomato, 2 tomatoes, 3 tomatoes, more….

How could a doctor forget saving a life? Do doctors save people from dying so often that they just take it for granted? I’ve been counting the number of tomatoes I’m harvesting from a very prolific plant gifted to us by an expert gardener, and my doctor isn’t counting the lives she’s saved?

With this in mind, I took it upon myself to retell the story to Dr. Blood. I figured it wouldn’t be bad for Dr. Fellow to overhear in case she’s ever in a similar situation with some other enigma like me. But mostly I shared it because I didn’t want Dr. Blood to forget why I am so deeply indebted to her.

And then Dr. Blood graciously accepted my offering of ugly but tasty baked goods. There were enough for her to share with her medical team, which she planned to do, even before she saw how ugly they were. (She didn’t have much choice but to share since I gave them to her in Dr. Fellow’s presence.)

And she sent me off to repeat my bloodwork in two weeks. Even though my cancer is in check, my liver copacetic, and even my kidneys fairly happy, my white blood count is a wee bit high. Not unusual with blood disorders of any kind, but warranting a recheck. And just in case you were wondering, no, I don’t count blood draws. That would be obsessive.