"I yell a lot, I lose it sometimes...seems like I explode, especially around my period. This is the biggest problem, my moods around my period." I look her straight in the eyes, hoping not to be judged but knowing all along that this is exactly what I am here for.
"So I have to ask you a series of questions," the therapist said. "I am sure you know if you're getting abused, or abusing other people, or if you have thoughts of harming yourself or others I am required by law to report it." She is bone thin and I think to myself that I once I wanted that so badly that all I ate for months was two poached eggs and a dry English muffin for breakfast. I achieved that thinness, but it did not last.
"I understand." I told her. "I am not suicidal. No one is hurting me. It's my moods, and a bit of anxiety, and maybe a tiny bit of depression I think." I don't share that I couldn't get out of bed on Monday, it could be exhaustion. I haven't been getting a lot of sleep. But I don't say this out loud. I cross my legs.
"Well, you certainly have a lot on your plate." She has a kind face and sincere, serious eyes but she also looks a bit tired and I think for a moment that maybe I should ask her how she's been sleeping. "I see you just had surgery," she says. "Not that long ago right? I think if it were me I might be feeling a lot of different feelings and they might come out in anger. Is that what you are talking about when you say moods?"
She has that expression on her face, the one I've seen on a lot of people when I tell them I have cancer. Especially the first month or two when I didn't know how good I had it. When I thought it was a death sentence and I was calculating how old my youngest would be if I could last a year, maybe two. How the being in bed thing would affect my kids. Whenever anyone was kind to me I could feel hot tears starting to form and what I wanted to do was fold into their arms but what I did was straighten up and smile it off. Now I know I am not going to die, at least not from breast cancer and I sort of get the feeling that her expression is a little fake. I wonder if they practice that in therapy class; the concerned face.
"I actually think I am dealing with that whole thing pretty well," and I look down at the ground. "It is the anxiety that is getting to me, and the moods." I would just like her to prescribe a pill, I really don't want to talk about all this, some kind of pill is all I need.
Even though I filled out a four page survey with these same questions, she asks me how I am coping, if the "problem' is affecting my work, my ability to care for my kids, myself, "Do you have destructive thoughts?"
The thoughts I have are of crawling up into a ball and staying in bed all day but I never let myself do that so I say, "It doesn't really affect my daily life."
She wears one of those soft, drapy long skirts, with a non-descript print. The ones you wear with comfortable flat shoes; flat shoes I don't wear because I need every inch a heel can give me as short as I am. I think she might be a vegetarian. I don't know why I get that idea but I am making up her life in my head when I see a framed picture of some kids and an older woman on a shelf above her desk. The woman is not her. Is she a lesbian? Maybe she is single and the woman is her sister? She lives in a condo downtown. She goes to theater openings and probably owns tickets to the local lecture series. She is divorced and does yoga and eats organic. She composts.
My mind comes back to the question but for some reason, I get fixated on her necklace which has a black pendant that looks like some sort of carved goddess. I take a breath, "I've lost a little interest in day to day things, in people that used to be interesting to me. I find that I am impatient in conversations."
"Are you bored because of what you have been through - all that life changing stuff? Isn't it normal to think of every day things as a little mundane after fearing your own death?" I notice she is nervous. Is this a second career for her? She doesn't seem particularly good at it.
"Maybe," But what I want to tell her is of course she is right, a lot of things don't matter once you think you might die but that is actually the problem now. When I first got the call and I knew that it was cancer, hugs from my daughters were tighter, the looks between my husband and I lasted, there was a closeness that we were all in it together. Everything was sharper. The trees were clusters of pointy leaves, like when I was in third grade and they finally figured out that I needed glasses not a tutor. I want to tell her that I longed to feel the way I felt the first week after I was diagnosed only without the fear.
She sits straight and tall with great posture and her two feet are flat on the floor. I am surprised to see that her finger nails are those fake ones, and I try to imagine her going into the nail salon in her soft swaying skirt and her baggy top asking for a French manicure. "You wrote on here you had a death in your family."
'Yes, my father-in-law died a couple months ago."
"You have a lot going on." Her hair is grey, the kind of grey silver that actually makes her look younger because her face in contrast to her hair is young, not wrinkled. All my friends color their hair to avoid the grey but on her it looks handsome, interesting.
"Yes." And it hits me that it's more than my father in-law's death, more than my cancer. My daughter has started high school and that isn't even down on the paper the therapist is holding. My daughter is beginning to figure out what to do with her life. She is just starting. She hasn't taken any paths yet; she is still standing in the middle, without having made choices, without having made her mistakes. I want to say my daughter has her first boyfriend and I remember that exciting feeling of knowing someone sees me for the first time all shy and new. The feeling that there is someone who doesn't see all her chips and cracks and flaws and how I know I will never have that again after twenty years of marriage. My husband knows all my flaws and he knows some that he has made up that I can never convince him aren't there because of his own chips and cracks.
Again I wonder if this woman, this therapist, has a husband, a partner. Does she go home and say to who ever she lives with, "Pour me a huge glass of Chardonnay, you wouldn't believe the patient I had today?"
"The answers you put down on this sheet indicate you might have a tendency towards OCD, can you tell me about that?"
I want to tell her that I can see my daughter's first broken heart in the distance. How as soon as she gets used to being seen all shy and new, he will start to know her and realize, they both will realize, that they need something else new and her heart will be broken in a way that only a first love can break her heart. A way that stays with her through the years and in a way she will still remember when she is sitting in a psychiatrist's office wondering why she has to check the stove three times before she leaves the house.
"I check on a few things, like, is the garage door closed? And I circle back around to see if I closed it, because I am worried if I leave it open the dog will run off." I think about a ritual I used to have when I dropped my daughters off at school. I would say "Have a great day... I love you." and look them straight in the eyes so they would remember it all day in case there was an earthquake or a shooting. I would watch them walk away until I made sure they were well inside. If I didn't do one of those things I would worry about them all day long. I decide not to bring this up because I don't do that any more. I drop them off with a "See ya later," as they leap from the car waving to a friend or heading off to their classes, never making eye contact with me.
What I want to explain to her is that I didn't start out checking things over and over but once you start doing something in your life like checking the garage door, it feels odd not to be doing it, and to some people it may seem obsessive but in your life it is normal.
She has table fountain. These always make me feel like I have to go to the bathroom. I don't find them soothing. I actually find them a little overbearing, a bit of an attempt at forcing you into relaxing, like you aren't allowed not to relax with that bubbling next to you. There are a few plants and some little hand puzzles on the table next to me. I pick one up and start to try to get the curled metal piece off the square and round piece.
"Well, how is your husband about your current situation? Is he understanding?"
"Mostly, He really doesn't see much of the problem except that he notices I've been a bitch lately."
And I realize that in order to be understanding I would actually have to let him in on the problem, but it is something I haven't been able to explain.
I just turned 50. Maybe that is why I am moody. When I thought I might die, I thought to myself, "I've never become the mother and wife I set out to be." So I spent more time on homework, tucking everyone in at night, trying to do a special thing for everyone each day. I dressed up a bit more, put effort into making nice dinners only to hear that my husband had to stay late at work and my daughters had to study with friends or had a big lunch and I find myself sitting in my nice clean house in front of a meal that I made that I really don't feel like eating.
"Do you have friends, or some sort of support system...someone you can talk to?"
"Thursday nights we get together, my friends and I." My kindergarten friends, well not actually "my" kindergarten friends but my daughter's kindergarten friend's moms... We have raised each other up, there for the bumps and the scrapes when our kids were young, and now for the heartaches and disappointments as they age. But how much can I talk about the size of my tumors, lymph node involvement, and the expansion processes. They are happy to pick up my kids, bring me dinners, and take over my volunteer functions. Happy to listen if I want to talk, but I don't want to talk. I really just need a pill. I am not in need of support, not like when we first moved here and the only friend I had was the Mormon mom next door who I hid my wine from.
"Well, it sounds like you could benefit from an antidepressant to get you through this. I'll write you a prescription that's been pretty successful for situations like yours." She grabs her pad and begins to write in long, loopy, streaks. "It is fairly new and seems to have the fewest side affects. There is also a cancer group that meets in the main building on Thursdays. That would be helpful for you too." She hands me both the prescription I have been waiting for and the note for where the group meets and again, she gives me that concerned face. I think for a moment of her driving to her home tonight, rushing to get to the lecture on the new world economy.
I stand up and head for the door as I say, "Thanks, I'll check it out." But as I walk out of the building into the sunshine, I drop the therapy group note in the trash. Clutching the prescription I head off to the pharmacy.
Wanda Hillsbery lives in Northern California with her husband and three children. She manages an accounting/bookkeeping business and has contributed work to various publications including Siliconmom, Siliconvalleyvoices, and The Almaden Times.