An open letter to a CML newbie

Part of hand holding pen and writing a letter

Dear CML Newbie:

I see that you stumbled upon my blog yesterday in your search for information about CML. Your exact search terms were: “cml terrified the drugs won’t work”. I don’t know anything else about you except that you or someone you love may be dealing with a CML diagnosis. I realize you may never seek out my blog again, especially since I’ve been on a cancer vacation lately, but I’m writing in case you do.

I had similar fears once, after the denial that I had cancer and the wondering how soon I’d kick the bucket. What kind of crazy doctor would tell me my diagnosis was a good thing because my cancer was treatable? I was utterly petrified, and it didn’t help when my first chemotherapy made me so ill that I landed in the ICU.

I survived that hiccup, but then my doctor prescribed another drug she asserted would have the same effect on my CML without the deadly side effects. I remember asking for a reprieve before I’d try it, but I needn’t have. That was over three years ago. I’ve suffered few side effects from this new medication, my health has stabilized, and my cancer cells have run for the hills. In other words, my CML is well under control.

Over time, you will understand that CML drugs are miracle workers. They may not cure our cancer but they sure keep it at bay. I have met fellow CMLers who have lived for years on these drugs, who are still leading full lives, and who traipse down to their hematologist only a few times a year. Maybe you’ll be one of these people.

But I don’t want to give you false hope. I am not a medical doctor, and your experience may be different from mine. Just know that my body was grossly compromised before my CML diagnosis and I have still had great success on my current drug. And I’m aware that new CML drugs are being developed all the time.

I can’t say I know exactly how you feel because I don’t. I don’t know what your life is like, whether you have the phenomenal social supports I’ve been blessed with or the incredible medical team I trust with my life. Maybe you are single, or divorced, or even married with children who need you. You may lack the financial means we have to survive on one income. I realize that I am lucky in so many ways, and I’ll hope that you are too.

Call on all the resources you have and tell them what you need, whether it’s a home-cooked meal for your family, a well-walked dog, or a listening ear. If your cancer centre offers counselling, seek it out. People will jump out of the woodwork to help you if you guide them. And if anyone’s words or actions are not helping, let them know. They can’t better meet your needs without your feedback.

Good luck and may your journey with cancer be long. Not every day will feel so scary. And trust me, if I can survive this illness, anyone can.

Annie

Am I too big for my britches?

Enough Christmas posts already. You’re probably wondering whether I’m really Jewish. I hear you. Of course I’m Jewish, although I’m not sure the Pope is Catholic.

Today, let’s move on to weightier matters. Despite what this post title might suggest, I do not plan to talk about the size of my tuchus in this post, however. I’ve done enough of that in recent weeks. Rather, I plan to talk about my intelligence.

As part of our training, psychologists learn to administer intelligence tests. Whether or not you believe in the validity of such tests is a matter for another day. I used these tests extensively in my work with both children and adults. I’d like to believe that many of my assessments provided useful information and even insights.

Because I have administered IQ tests extensively, for many years I lived with the fallacy that I was smarter than everyone around me. I know the answers to every question on those tests, don’t I? Forget the fact that the answers were right in front of me whenever I administered the tests, allowing me to score the client’s responses correctly. Yes, I falsely assumed that I would have gotten every item correct whether or not I had access to the answers. As a result, I was sure that I was brilliant.

The test constructors burst my bubble several years ago when they came out with a new version of the most commonly administered adult IQ test. I knew all the answers to the old test, but not to the new one. In fact, several questions stumped me. I may have known the correct answers, yet I had no idea why they were correct. I remember discussions with my fellow psychologists when this test first came out about the items I didn’t understand. What a blow to my aggrandized sense of self.

But I’ve had an even more recent reminder that I am not the smartest one in the room. J. and I have been completing our annual jigsaw puzzle. Yes, another activity that I can do while I am firmly planted upon my tuchus, because I don’t spend enough time sitting as it is. No wonder I am getting too big for my britches.

But we’re not talking about britches. We’re talking about our respective approaches to said challenging puzzle. J. learned years ago to leave me all the easy parts while she completes the hard ones. I always do the puzzle frame, for example, while right now, J. is working on the sky. In this puzzle, the sky is various shades of white. Good luck, honey.

This division of puzzle labour allows me to retain the last vestige of self-esteem that I cling to. I feel like I am making progress on tempo with J., even though the sections she is working on are much harder than mine. Yes, she is by far the superior puzzler in our relationship.

Come to think of it, I’m sure she’d have understood those really hard IQ test questions that I couldn’t solve. But don’t tell her that, okay? I’d hate for it to go to her head.

Pie with crust that says "humble" on top

What if Christmas isn’t so merry?

I am decorating the Christmas tree in my Hanukkah pyjamas.

My new Hanukkah pyjamas

Two more sleeps ’til Christmas is upon us. The tree is up, the presents are wrapped, and our carol-singing Snoopy adorns our coffee table. There’s one mysterious box under the tree that I can’t identify despite all the shaking and fondling. Oh, that Santa is a mischievous sort.

Turns out the line for Santa was very short at our local mall the other day. I’m sure he was the real Santa–his “Ho Ho Ho!” reverberated all the way down the hall. I imagine that within fifteen minutes or less I could have been sitting on his knee, asking him what was in that mysterious box. (I’d already written him the letter so he knew what I wanted, but I figured, as an all-knowing chap, he could tell me what I’d actually received.) But I thought the others in line, parents and children alike, might think it strange were I to hop into Santa’s lap, so I kept walking. A Christmas first I’ll save for another time.

In my limited exposure to Christmas traditions over the past several years, I’ve learned that people long for happy celebrations but many of those festivities are anything but merry. In the lead up to Christmas over the years, I’ve had many discussions with clients about how to get through the holiday season.

We all know the typical stresses. Deciding whether or not to travel home, finding the perfect gift for Aunt Sally, having enough money to get through the season, and managing the family conflict at the Christmas table. But those are merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

Christmas is so emotionally charged, and this year, a number of our friends are dealing with significant losses. The specifics aren’t important to you–loss takes so many forms–but I anticipate these friends will struggle at some point over the holidays. Sadly there’s nothing we can do to take that struggle away, except to be there in whatever way we can.

Traditions change over time, for good reasons and bad. Maybe mom isn’t well enough to make the turkey this year, or maybe she won’t even be at the table because of illness or death. Most important, I think, is to acknowledge those changes and create traditions that honour your past and your present. You may have to learn how to cook a turkey, or you could make ham instead because it’s easier. (It is easier, isn’t it? I don’t really know. I don’t recall a lot of ham for Passover.) When I try to pretend things are unchanged when I know they’re not, I feel worse, not better.

If Sadness has taught me anything, it’s that when things are tough, I’ll move through it faster if I wallow for a bit first. It’s okay to be sad this holiday if you need to, knowing that next year will likely be easier. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling so you don’t feel so alone. And if all else fails, I’d be glad to loan you Sadness. Whatever it takes to get Joy back in the picture.

Jelly’s pre-Christmas cleanse

Dog eating box of Valentine's chocolates.

Our dear Jelly is a sensitive pup. We buy her expensive kibble to keep her tummy happy, which is a huge waste of money since she scrounges any morsel of detritus she can find on our walks. She is also relentlessly itchy and scratchy. Our vet believes these symptoms may indicate allergies.

Last week, after a few nights disrupted by Jelly’s pacing, whining, relentless middle-of-the-night scratching, and frequent trips outside, we placed the dog on an elimination diet under our vet’s guidance. Consider it a cleanse of sorts, just in time for the usual seasonal overindulgence. We boiled chicken and rice, mixing them with unsweetened applesauce to stop her from picking out the poultry.

Initially, Jelly responded well on her new diet. She sat at attention while we prepared her meals and ate voraciously, licking her dish clean. But more importantly, she stopped waking us at night to go out, her scratching decreased, and we thought we were making progress. Until Saturday, that is.

Jelly waited until the coast was clear–J. was outside and I dared to go pee–and consumed a large portion of the 600 g of Lindt milk chocolate I had painstakingly chopped for my annual Christmas baking. (FYI: Of course Jews do Christmas baking, at least those who bake. This year, mine just happened to include rugelach.)

I hear you screaming: “But chocolate can be toxic to dogs!” After a little cursing, threatening, and, finally, internet searching, we learned that milk chocolate is not nearly as toxic to dogs as high-cocoa-content dark chocolate. Thank goodness I’ve always preferred milk chocolate over dark. Time to encourage J. to come over to the milk side.

We were no longer worried that Jelly might join her former siblings in Bad Dog Heaven, but we wondered how she’d respond to this lapse in her restricted diet. We found out at 5 the next morning when she woke us by scratching her ears furiously for a full hour. I stumbled out of bed, took her outside, and got her back to sleep. Another sleepless night, another insight into our beloved pup: mlik chocolate won’t kill her, but it will make her itchy.

As you likely know already, parenting is a challenge at the best of times. How often have I counselled parents not to make special meals for their picky eaters? This hypocrite is now cooking chicken and rice for her dog. And Jelly will most likely refuse kibble once we quit this nonsense.

Furthermore, forget depriving your child of her favourite foods; she’ll sneak them when you’re not looking. What do you really think your teenager is spending her allowance on? The answer lies in a mobbed convenience store by a junior high over lunch.

I’m not sure what to tell the vet when she calls today to check in. “Yes, Dr. Animal, Jelly is responding beautifully to the restricted diet, although we’ve learned she is allergic to chocolate.” Whose tail is between her legs now?

Oh well, like any diet, we can always start again. In fact, last night, finally, we all slept like puppies. Come to think of it, I may have even dreamt about chasing bunnies.

Santa came through for this Jew!

Our vacation has come and gone with little fanfare. The torrential downpour and high winds kept us close to our hotel, but did not dampen our spirits. I highly recommend a vacation. Hopefully you too will get a change of pace over the holidays.

If you read the comments on my last post, you’ll know that Santa brought me the Sadness doll I’d asked for. He was a little verklempt when he received a letter from a Jew–as if he doesn’t have enough on his plate (and I don’t just mean cookies) this next while–so he dropped the gift off on the last day of Hanukkah. An appropriate compromise, don’t you think?

I love Sadness and take her with me everywhere I go, in the house, that is. I’m self-aware enough to know I’d look a little odd if I took her out in public, although I miss her when I leave her at home. She’s cuddly and blue, of course, and her hair sparkles with rainbow glitter. She wears an appropriately frumpy sweater to camouflage her big hips. Come to think of it, I may look a little bit like her of late, except for the blue hair.

I like Sadness because she’s nerdy and gloomy and the human equivalent of “glass half empty”. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have a little part of her in us. I’m admitting aloud that she’s a part of me, which seems to concern some of you.

We all have characters we relate to, don’t we? You already know I love Grover because he’s fearful and brave at the same time. Who’d have ever thought to make a monster fearful? I love Linus because he’s a wise, intellectual sort who nonetheless keeps his security blanket within reach. Come to think of it, all my favourite characters have some underlying anxiety, except for Sadness, who is depressed.

Don’t fret, dear readers, all is okay. Sadness is just a part of me, not all of me. By admitting she’s a part of me, I feel better. just like the little girl in Inside Out. Remember how hard Joy worked to ensure Sadness didn’t take over? Joy must have been absolutely exhausted by the end of filming.

If you’re really worried about my preoccupation with Sadness, maybe Santa can put Fear under the tree for you. Or if you’re mocking me and my childish ways, Disgust may be more appropriate. If Santa doesn’t bring you what you were hoping for, I’ll see if I can score you Anger. Or maybe you’re in denial about all those negative feelings, in which case a stuffed Joy may be in order.

But if you, like me, are down sometimes, you’re welcome to borrow Sadness. Christmas is such a stressful time of year, even for Jews, and she may cheer you up too. If Sadness fails to help, we can always talk instead. I am a trained professional, you know.

 

A Jewish girl’s letter to Santa

After my last post, where I lauded the superiority of Hanukkah over Christmas, my logic was challenged in a well-scripted comment. My friend pointed out all I’d miss by not being able to write Santa with my wish list. I’d also miss anticipating whether he’d fulfill all my not-so-secret desires on Christmas morning. I daresay she had a point. I’m still eating humble pie.

So I’ve decided, Jewish or not, to write my first letter to Santa here. Even Jewish people know Santa’s address, but I think I’ve missed Canada Post’s North Pole delivery date. If Santa is really omniscient, his actually receiving the letter won’t matter; he’ll know exactly what I want, letter or not. And I don’t think it should matter that I’m all grown up, in body at least. Adults have wishes too, don’t they?

Let me give this a try. This feels…unJewish.

Dear Santa:

We’ve never met before because I’m Jewish. You and Rudolph skipped my house when I was little, but I understand that mezuzah on the door post prompted you to pass over us.

This year, there are a few things I’d really like for Christmas. I’ve never asked before, and I likely won’t again, but my need feels pressing. I don’t want anything material because that will render more clutter for J. to ditch when I’m gone. Remember, I’ve spent the year trying to get rid of toys and books.

What I really want, more than anything these days, is to be well enough to work more. I’ve had a few clients this past while, and I’m not meaning to be greedy, but I really miss helping people. It’s in my blood, along with all those darn mutated cells. I don’t care about the money–I could donate it all if you like–but I wouldn’t mind lessening the financial pressure on J. if I could. She’s working her tail off of late.

Picture of New York City skyline with Statue of Liberty in foreground

Give me liberty or give me death, Santa!

Also, could you get my doctors to drop the no-travel advisories? We used to go to New York City every few years. I know a lot of people (with a lot of germs) live there, but if we go, I promise to let J. open all the germy doors, to wash my hands obsessively, and to run for cover when anyone coughs. While we’re at it, London was the bomb. Any chance we might get to Picadilly Circus once more? Perhaps a quick jaunt over to the Netherlands for some licorice while we’re there? I’m not asking you to pay for these trips–our vacation budget remains largely untouched of late–but could you cover the medical bills if I get sick? I know that even you couldn’t secure travel insurance for me, so I won’t even ask.

I’d promised nothing costly, but if you had an extra Sadness doll from Inside Out, my toy shelves are empty. Sadness dolls seem to be in short supply everywhere–must be a lot of depressed people out there–but I’m sure that “all-knowing” thing will help you find one.

Thanks for considering my requests. If you come through, maybe I’ll write again next year.

Regards to Mrs. Claus.

Annie

 

I’d take Hanukkah over Christmas any day

I am pleased to report that Hanukkah is proceeding swimmingly. J. has bestowed 2 more gifts upon me since I last wrote. On Night 4, she insisted I throw out my homosexual hosiery and replace all with pristine white sport socks (Night 4). I feel straight wearing them, but wearing them I am, as we speak. Yes, with my new socks on, I don’t look remotely gay. Night 5? Edible treats from the Dutch store. Once you’ve had Dutch licorice, there’s no going back. And Dutch milk chocolate? I don’t know what those cows eat, but their milk makes darn fine chocolate.

Our friends W. and C. have jumped on the Hanukkah bandwagon this year too, leaving a gift per day in our mailbox. I’ve received all sorts of great stuff, including a no-salt-added daal spice mix (a true Hannukah miracle), matches in a stunning box to light the Hanukkah candles, and, because they are such diligent blog readers, an apple with local honey following my last post. I love this holiday! Yesterday, they dropped the gifts for the three remaining nights off so I could open them on vacation.

Yes, Hanukkah has so many things going for it. Instead of getting all your gifts on one day, everything is spread out over 8 days. Sure, you may have the 12 days of Christmas, but what the heck are you going to do with 8 maids a-milking? 10 lords a-leaping?

Picture of 10 lords a leaping

Lordy lordy lordy!

And consider the festive foods: I’d take latkes and jelly donuts over turkey and green bean casserole anytime. Of course Hanukkah food has to be better since all the traditional holiday foods are fried. Oh, and then there are those melt-in-your-mouth chocolate coins. All bases covered.

But the best part of Hanukkah gift giving is that it is in no way contingent on behaviour. I can be naughty all year and I’ll still get 8 days of presents. Come to think of it, having to be nice all year is a lot of pressure on a young child. It’s amazing more Christian children aren’t neurotic.

To add insult to injury, I’ve recently learned–thanks a lot, you know who–that Santa is all seeing and all knowing, so even if you’re naughty and don’t get caught, Santa will add the infraction to your annual score sheet. There’s no hiding from that guy. Think about all the times you’ve done something you shouldn’t but no one found out so you got away with it. No sliding any of that past Santa. That’s a lot of pressure.

Whatever happened to unconditional love? Would a parent really leave nothing under the Christmas tree for a misbehaving child? That’s like a parent cancelling her child’s birthday party because the kid was a pain in the butt the day prior.

Don’t fret. We’re all naughty sometimes, Jews and non-Jews alike, and we still get our gifts. As we should.

 

Questions Jewish children never ask

I’m so glad not to have to be authentically grateful in today’s post. I’m all out of authenticity.

How about we discuss the miracle of Christmas for the Jewish child instead? Growing up, Christmas was around me but not in my home or community. We lived a short walk from bagels and rugelach, and absenteeism at our public elementary school was rampant on Jewish holidays. Ever the curious child, I never thought to ask these questions.

  1. Is Santa Claus real?
  2. Should Santa really be eating cookies at every house he goes to? Isn’t he worried about hypertension or metabolic syndrome?
  3. Why do I never wake up when the reindeer land on my roof?
  4. Can I put the star/angel/baby Jesus on top of the Christmas tree?
  5. May we go dashing through the snow on a one-horse open sleigh, over hills we go laughing all the way? (Ha ha ha.)

Questions Jewish adults with cancer never ask:

  1. Is this my last Christmas?

Okay, that’s the only question I can think of. Why would I ask this? I’m Jewish! I might ask whether it’s my last Hanukkah, but even that would be odd because Hanukkah is not the religious holiday Christmas is. Rather, I’d ask is this my last Yom Kippur, i.e., will I have another chance to atone for my many and varied sins against others and God? Or perhaps, is this my last Rosh HaShanah, since it doesn’t seem right dipping apples in honey at any other time, and I love apples in honey? What about, is this my last Passover? Alternatively, is this piece of matzah the last I’ll ever eat, and if so, could I have egg matzah or even chocolate-covered matzah rather than that plain cardboard stuff that is a little too reminiscent of the Jews’ 40 years in the desert.

Jewish or not, I’ll admit that on the second night of Hanukkah, I wondered whether this would be my last Christmas. That night, J. gave me a beautiful dog ornament–yes, it was one of those Christmas tree adornments–she had scored during the post-Christmas sales last year. (How’s that for the ultimate in anti-procrastination? J. started shopping for the holiday season just as last holiday season was ending. No wonder I feel I can never keep up with her.) When she gave me the gift, she told me she was sure I’d be around for another year to receive it. Wow, that’s faith for you.

Normally, I don’t let my mind go to this place of lasts. It’s much too sad and scary. I choose to focus on firsts instead. Today, for example, I learned how to adjust the storm door so it doesn’t slam shut. So much to learn, so little time. Or maybe not.

So on the third night of Hanukkah, my true love gave to me (wait for it) Minion pyjamas! Thankfully, this gift did not invoke a similar existential crisis as Night #2’s. I merely had to reconcile my love of children’s toys and movies and, if I could, clothes with my 52-year-old self. I’m already over it. Here’s looking forward to Night #4.

Child dressed in minion costume

You too could look like this.

 

The Grateful Undead

images

On the first night of Hanukkah my true love gave to me…Hanukkah socks! Not easy to score in this city of Calgary. One of the pairs even have nonslip Stars of David on the soles, which is handy for a slippy person like me.

Gratitude is quite the hot topic these days. Some people write down what they’re grateful for every night, while others share their gratitude openly with others. I’ll admit I’m a little more in tune to gratitude since I got sick, and especially since leukemia struck.

On the radio a few days ago, a woman was describing her practice of gratitude. Every day she identifies 20 things that she’s “authentically” grateful for. Yes, that’s the term she used. Good on you, Grateful Woman, but I don’t think I could come up with 20 things I’m grateful for every day. But you know how much I love a challenge.

  1. I’m grateful to be alive.
  2. I’m grateful that I barely had to drag myself out of bed this morning.
  3. I’m grateful that I don’t feel like I’ve been run over even by a Tonka truck today.
  4. I’m grateful to all the friends who have wished me a Happy Hanukkah.
  5. I am grateful to be wearing my new Hanukkah socks with the nonslip soles.
  6. I’m grateful that Hanukkah lasts 8 days.
  7. I’m grateful that my lovely cleaning person left our house spic and span today.
  8. I’m grateful that it is a glorious fall day.
  9. I’m grateful that Jelly and I were up to going to the park today.
  10. I’m grateful that my good friend, N., was at the park, even if her pooch rejected Jelly’s advances.
  11. I’m grateful that Jelly is too exhausted from a good run this morning to be mischievous and ill behaved.
  12. I’m sorry that J. has come home sick from work, but grateful she hasn’t shared her illness with me.
  13. I’m grateful to have survived a tough yoga class today, despite my stiffness from yesterday’s even tougher class.
  14. I’m grateful to be reading an engaging novel.
  15. I’m grateful to have a copy of the Saturday Globe’s annual list of 100 best books of the year. (How else to decide what to read next?)
  16. I’m grateful for the pre-Christmas miracle of no line at the post office today.
  17. I’m grateful not to be in hospital, as I was at this time last year.
  18. I’m grateful that in four more sleeps, we will be on vacation.
  19. I’m grateful that I don’t have to be this authentic every day.
  20. I’m grateful to the kind person at Canada Revenue Agency who sent me a well-deserved but unexpected cheque today.

I’ll explain that last one. Today I arrived home, not just to J. in p.j.s, but to a cheque reimbursing my overpaid taxes in the year of my leukemia diagnosis. I have no idea how this came about, but I’ll accept it as the government’s little Hanukkah gift to me. Thank you Canada!

There, I did it, all 20, but I felt completely inauthentic. I guess I have some work to do.

 

It’s “Annie Doe” to you

Picture of woman's head with hair hiding her face

You may have noticed by now that my last name is nowhere to be found on my blog. I am not trying to hide from the world, but, by omitting my last name, I am trying to retain some privacy. You know a lot about me; is my last name really that important?

Were I not a psychologist, I might make a different decision. Consider this: I don’t particularly want my clients, were they so curious as to wonder what I were up to, to find this blog too easily on the internet. I want to protect any client who may come upon my blog at some point. I’ve told you before I’m very careful about what kind of information I include here, and I don’t disclose everything, although I do share quite a bit.

I have, however, been increasingly open about my shortcomings and my emotional challenges as time has passed. I’m a great believer in being honest and vulnerable with the hope that others can relate to, and perhaps even be comforted by, my experience. If I were to insist that everything was hunky dory, despite the jarring news I get from doctors on a fairly regular basis, you, my discerning readers, would never believe me.

I graduated with my degree in psychology just before the social media explosion. Facebook didn’t even exist back then–I’m really old–or Twitter, or Instagram. My training did not address how to handle an internet presence, so I used my trusty ethical guidelines to sort these matters out. I can assure you I would never want my clients to know about my drunken weekend escapades (I’m a teetotaller, remember?) or me all Spocked out at the Trekkie convention (that would be my friend). You will not find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

I think you’d understand that, for my clients’ sake, I wouldn’t want my blog to be the first thing that comes up in an internet search of my name. If a client finds my blog, that’s just fine. I hope he’ll tell me, and we can talk about it. But the blog is all about me, and our therapeutic relationship is supposed to be all (or at least mostly) about you, and I don’t want that balance in sharing to shift. For this reason, I’ve held back my last name with the intent of making my blog harder for my clients to find.

I could solve this problem by creating a professional website. Some psychologists (not me, of course) used to scorn others with websites. Now having one is the rule, not the exception. I declined a website because I got leukemia when everyone else started jumping on the internet bandwagon. Creating one now would imply I’ve rehung a big shingle, which I haven’t, remember?

Oh, who cares about your obsessive rumination, Annie? Maybe staying hidden doesn’t really matter anymore. It’s time to come out already. My real name is Annie Incognito. Wow, that feels better. But don’t hold your breath for a real picture. That would be going too far.