A Young Girl's Guide to Getting Diagnosed
Sitting awkwardly in a radiologist's office, compulsively crossing and uncrossing my legs, and I think about you, all of you, every friend of mine well-versed in this hollowed-out dance routine of diagnosis and referral, diagnosis and followup, diagnosis and crying in a Starbucks bathroom. Nothing slaps us quite as sharply across the face as sickness does. Nothing changes us quite as rapidly. Yet throughout the past year and a half of hospital gowns and stethoscopes, as I learned I have not one but potentially three chronic illnesses, and as I watched numerous close friends and my boyfriend ride out the opening or hardest days of their own lifelong health battles, it has occurred to me just how little training any of us have ever had on the subject. I don't know and hopefully will never know anything of truly terminal or debilitating disease, and I don't pretend to speak for everyone's experience with the wars we wage against failing or flawed blood, but even still, I want to share what little sliver of mental resurrection I have managed to find on my way back from the scariest of places.
1. Never. Put. Anything. Off.
The fastest way to progress your problems is to pretend they do not exist. Trust me. Just trust me. As comfortable as it is to continually flip the page on your to-do list or rip it up entirely and binge your way through Netflix, if there is something wrong, you cannot be the only one who knows it. You will drive yourself crazy. You will not even notice the ways you fall apart. Not having anyone hold you accountable for followups or new symptoms or answer all of your little seemingly insubstantial questions feels a lot like a sick tree falling in an apathetic forest. Just do it. Just book the appointment. Rip the bandaid. Make a sound.
2. Look fierce as all hell in the waiting room
This seems beyond superfluous when your only focus is on what terrifying news lay in store for you at the doctor, I know. But nothing makes me feel less in control, and more of a teetering mess, than the possibility of being sick. If I manage to regain any sense of autonomy, even in the smallest of ways, I find it's a whole hell of a lot easier to march through the rest of my day, instead of just curling up in the doctor's office bathroom and dreaming disturbing dreams. I flirt with this stability by wearing some kick-ass lipstick. You might makeover your own demons with shoes. Or pencil skirts. Or whatever it is that you wear that makes you feel still capable and in charge.
3. Get the fuck off of WebMD.
Ahhhhhh. How can I stress this enough. The internet is a wonderful, Liz-Lemon-gif-filled thing, but in the realm of disease, it is the equivalent of a street-side magician, who can turn a simple head cold into a life-threatening, flesh-eating fever with the simple click of a wand. I had not even come close to realizing my mental preparedness or talking openly about how scary and overwhelming everything was by the time I found myself neck-deep in self-inflicted panic. Shit you not, I once inquired about a sore throat only to end up believing I had potentially been poisoned. This is a land of a thousand invisible holes, and they all lead to anxiety. You need to see a real live person who can give you real live feedback and deal with your real live emotional reactions.
4. Make something (or break something)
There is no corrrect emotional state to follow giant, glowering news. But I have found production and destruction to be interchangeably, exceptionally qualified for the role. Find a project to keep your mind otherwise occupied and to continue feeling a part of the normative, day-to-day world. Or, if anger is your groove these days, find an old, out-of-order electronic in your junk drawer and let that mother have it. I suggest old phones you inexplicably kept, or old printers a la Office Space. The best thing I have ever broken was a chunky old keyboard, and reeling, watched as all the letters and all the words and all the things I don't know how to say anymore flew astrally into disarray across the dumb space of the open room.
5. Do not alienate your friends.
This one is harder than I expected it to be. But you will find that suddenly there is a massive, gaping divide between you and the whole lot of people you once had everything in common with. Every conversation will suddenly strain you, because either you have to listen to the ways they fall oh-so-short of understanding what you are going through (and grasp at straws to find something to compare your issues to in their own repertoire of boys-failing-to-text-back), or you have to feel like some sort of downer machine who only spews conversations about death and dying. But it is no one's fault that they cannot understand. And if they still show up, and they still text back, and they still try, in the face of the massive, gaping divide that they, too, can see, then they are worth showing up for and texting back and trying for as well. And plus, for every ten friends who spew accidental condescension, and for every ten responses that fall short of helpful or empathetic, there will be one that gets through to you and helps you whether you realize it or not.
6. Maintain a vice.
In my experience, and from watching every one of my friends who also battle with disease, after innumerable people in your life force-feed regimen and medicine and vitamins and a strict strict diet down your throat (pun unintended), and after everything starts to feel just about as boxed in as a day-of-the-week pill-container, the best thing you can do to maintain sanity is to have a minuscule sense of rebellion. I'm not saying chain smoke Cubans or eat your weight in funnel cakes, but have one small go-to thing that you can indulge in. Mine for the time being is coffee. All the coffee. If you don't pick a vice, a vice will pick itself and all of a sudden you could have much worse problems on your hands. Make sure, however, that if you are consistently doing something bad for your body when it is at its most fragile, that you switch things up once in a while so as not to cause any long-term effects of your splurging.
7. Go on a music nostalgia tour.
Nothing quite like returning to the most angst-driven soundtrack of your hormonal days to remind you that all things eventually fall back into peace of some sort. I may or may not be shrouded in embarrassing emo middle school music at my most emotional moments. It reminds me of how far I have since come, and how far I have now to go.
8. Once you find your truth, that itching, blinding click of mind that holds you steady, and determined, and here, know that it is yours and yours alone. You cannot give it away or pay it forward.
This is the lesson I will spend my whole life learning. And re-learning. And re-learning. After you cross a personal finish line of sorts with something intensely emotional and gnawing, it seems impossible that no one else understands the peace you have finally found. And it seems impossible you can't just explain it to them with mere words. Especially given just how universal all human problems really are. Every time a friend spoke to me of body issues, after I had battled my own battles for years and came out still swinging, but blissfully, suddenly content, I kept feeling if only I could just talk enough or write enough poems for her or gather enough anecdotes for her she would be okay too. She would see just how much I understood, and through some mystical osmosis she would step out from under her problems and into my resolution.
As my own health becomes more and more manageable, I face this again watching my boyfriend's ups and downs of diabetes, and my best friend's journey towards diagnosing endometriosis. I keep finding myself wishing I could hand over the world. Sometimes I take the human form of a nutrition pamphlet and some days I turn full-blown hallmark card. But here is the ugly, inconvenient thing: this never. Fucking. Works. For body issues or boy issues or political issues or any issues alike.
If someone needs to walk through a thorny, prickling route to finally know what it means to fight for themselves, you need to let them do this. You cannot walk for them. You cannot fight for them. Whether they are grasped by thorns or drugs or depression, or the soured sound of their own impermanent body, you cannot rob them of the moment they learn all that it is they are in line to lose. So, so many people attempted to catapult me into wellness, and even if they had some persuasive impact on me, it never extended beyond a few weeks. This is no sprint, this is a body I need to show up for for the rest of my entire life. I am the only one who can. I am the only one who will.
Feature photo VIA Unsplash.