A frightening encounter prompts the heroine to face her fear and shame from the past
|I woke up with a start. What was happening to me? I could feel invisible hands wrapped around my neck choking off my air supply. I couldn’t breathe. I could feel my heart pounding wildly and could hear its accelerated pace thudding in my ears. Then the squeezing pressure around my chest began to tighten with the force of a vise. “What is going on? I need help. I need to take my pulse. I need to get up.”
But I was suddenly so exhausted, I couldn’t lift my head. I turned my head toward my clock and attempted to drag my arm to the other side of my body so that I could take my pulse. I couldn’t get my thoughts together enough to count and at the same time track the second hand. I couldn’t take my pulse. I wanted to call out to the kids, but it seemed my vocal chords were shut down too. Nothing was working properly and I was frightened. I couldn’t make myself move, I couldn’t help myself at all. Worried thoughts started racing through my mind. “I’m probably having a heart attack. If I don’t do something, I will probably die in my sleep.”
I silently utter a small, somewhat wimpy prayer, “Oh God, don’t let me die in my sleep. Please! Will You spare my life even if only for tonight? Please don’t let my children wake up to a dead mother. Haven’t they been through enough? God spare me, help me.” With my appeal made, I relaxed. The complete exhaustion was pushing me toward unconsciousness, towing me to Slumberland. I could only rest in God’s hands and hope that His plan and my plan were the same plan! My plan was to wake up in the morning. If I did, my solemn vow to myself was to call the doctor first thing.
I have never been so grateful for the morning sun shining on my face! Even with my eyes closed, I could see the brightness beaming into my bedroom through my eyelids. I woke up with a start again. This time, there were no choking hands around my neck, no vise squeezing the life out of me. My heart had returned to a gentle thump-thump that was barely noticeable as I gazed at my wrist. I was alive!! I jumped out of bed to test my strength. Everything was working! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you! My silent plea from the night before had been answered. I was alive.
My celebratory mood quickly changed as I thought of the solemn promise I had made to myself the night before. I really dreaded calling the doctor. The apprehension of doing so began to rise into my throat. I felt like I was gagging on panic. I tried to calm myself and began to scold the frightened child within, “Ok, enough of that! Number one, you’re alive. Number two, you have to act normal or the kids will get upset too. There is nothing they can do about it and you don’t want them to worry. Do you? Get a grip!”
I took a deep breath and proceeded to get dressed. There’s lots to do, lots to do. Time to move it, move it, move it! I was my own drill sergeant. No pain, no gain soldier! Get going. After quickly picking up my cadence to obey the sergeant’s orders, I began to move silently through the house. Make the coffee. I need coffee. Brush your teeth, comb your hair. Oh geez, get the kids going. You’re going to be late…again. As the coffee was brewing, I rushed upstairs to rally the troops, “Come on guys, it’s time to get up for school. No time to waste, let’s go or you’re gonna be late.”
My miniature robot was perking away preparing my elixir for the morning rush. The dog needed fed. Bookbags? Where are their bookbags? Rush, rush, rush. Don’t slow down.“Why don’t I hear the pitter-patter of little feet scurrying about? They must be waiting for second call”, I quickly surmised. “Come on guys, I mean it. You gotta get moving! You have to leave in 15 minutes.” The coffee’s aroma drifted through the kitchen, its fresh scent inviting me to sit for a spell and partake of its magical power. No time to waste, grab a cup, fill it up, yell again. Keep moving….
“Do I have to come up there and dress you myself? Or do you want to go to school in your pajamas?” I bellowed. Kids began to scramble down the stairs, racing around, grabbing Pop-tarts, and shoving shoes on as they prepared to dash out of the door. Bookbags? Where are those darn bookbags? Finally, after the ‘good mornings’ are exchanged, the ‘I love yous’ are spoken, and rushed hugs are exchanged, the kids are off to catch the bus.
Whew! I wonder if they noticed? Probably not. I should have been an actress. I was my normal, rushed, somewhat disorganized self. Of course they didn’t sense I was fighting back tears as the terror began to dig its filthy claws into my brain and emotions. How could they know I was frightened? I was proud of myself for not letting on that I was panic-stricken. Then, almost instantly, my pride succumbed to a growing sense of sorrow. A feeling of being all alone in my distress replaced my proud facade. I need to call the doctor.
That thought brought me back to the previous encounter with my doctor. I had been experiencing some rather odd symptoms and decided to have the doctor check me out. The ‘C’ word was mentioned in passing as a possibility for my ailments. From that moment on until the doctor gave me the good news that it was not cancer, all I could think about were the likely consequences associated with that diagnosis. The fear had tormented me and the scenes began to replay in my mind like an old movie. The fanged mouth is mocking me and laughing at me while it spews its venom. “What will you do then? Who will help you? Who will take care of the kids? You are alone. All alone. Hahahaa!!”
“It wasn’t meant to be this way, I wasn’t supposed to have to do this all on my own,” my thoughts weakly replied to the fanged villain as the grief of my divorce tore at the scar that was left behind. “Snap out of it! That was then, this is now.” I scolded myself yet again. “You have to get going or you will be late.” I repeated the same rushed routine as the kids had a few moments earlier and I hastily exited through the front door. Time to do the bus run. The actress returned and I forced a smile onto my face as if I didn’t have a care in the world.
As I began my morning routine, I started picking up the preschoolers assigned on my route. Each parent stops me for a moment to tell me their latest triumph or sorrow. Politely I try to remind them, I must keep my schedule. The van door slams shut and we rush off to the next student’s house. Later as I pulled into the school parking lot, I see the familiar scowl on the face of the school’s director. Late again are we? Oooh, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get the job done right. “You are such a failure. Why can’t you do anything right?” my tormented thoughts accuse.
The actress smiles at the director, it’s like a short commercial. I begin explaining that Bobby Sue was on a crying jag this morning and fought Mom the whole way to the van. And then, Jamie’s Mom was a mess because she had a huge fight with her husband the night before, she needed to vent. Each student’s parent needed someone to share their sorrows with and it appeared I was the chosen one. How do you tell someone you don’t have time to hear their problems? My sensitive heart could not pull away and leave them standing there holding their hearts in their hands. I’m too nice. My mom tells me that all of the time. I’m just too nice. It causes me problems every morning, every day.
“I’m sorry Ms. Beck, I’ll leave a few minutes earlier tomorrow to try to account for the delays. I understand you have a strict schedule. Yes, I know I am holding the whole class up with my late arrival. Of course, I can’t afford to lose my job, I will do better, I promise.” Even as I speak the words, I know they are hollow. I pull out of the parking lot and head home as my thoughts repeat the sincere, but flimsy promise. I never do ‘better’ at anything. I always seem to fall short of the mark; sometimes by a little, sometimes by a mile. My familiar adversary Shame calls my attention to the fact that my promise to ‘do better’ will probably be met by another miserable failure.
Ok, home again, my safe haven. I immediately go for another cup of coffee, this one is cold. I look at my list for the day, Ugh! I will never get it all done. Then the nagging promise I made to myself the night before reminds me. It shouts and pleas at the same time; Doctor, Doctor, DOCTOR! Time to face the music, I must call the doctor. I want to ignore it, pretend the episode didn’t happen, escape the fear. The foreboding has a hold of my heart again. I take a deep breath to quell my tattered nerves as I pick up the phone. As the receptionist cheerfully repeats her well-rehearsed greeting, I fumble and choke on my words.
“Yes, I..aah...umm..need to make an appointment to see Dr. Smith. Yea, I am having a problem. No, I’m not sure what the problem is, that’s why I need to see the doctor. Symptoms? Well….” I tell the cheerful voice on the other end of the line about my frightening episode. How can she be so perky after hearing about my troubles? She doesn’t seem to be concerned. It’s like I told her I stubbed my toe. I feel the anger and annoyance rising up within me. She doesn’t give a lick about me! “Ok, thank you. Yes, I got it. Tomorrow at 10:00 am.” I repeat the appointment back to her with some irritation in my voice.
The anger I feel toward the unwitting receptionist begins to turn on me. “Why are you so afraid? Even after your last visit, with the possibility of the ‘C’ word, it turned out that you were fine; all of that worrying and fear for nothing. Get a grip!”
But as I try to calm my anxiety, the sinister voice returns, “What if it’s different this time? Afterall, ‘it’ is obviously ‘something’! You don’t wake up in the middle of the night like that unless something is very wrong.”
I learned that this kind of foe is not easily convinced with logic. Anxiety does not listen to reason. It is irrational. I have fought this battle with anxiety, fear, and shame for years. Even though I occasionally win a skirmish, the war continues to rage on within me. It is exhausting and my life is overwhelming enough, I don’t need this constant battle too. But, I can’t figure out how to win a final decisive victory. Realizing that I ‘should’ be winning more battles, ‘improving’ my performance, ‘gaining’ a foothold in this battle, I again resort to my solution of self-loathing. “If I was just better… I will never meet the standard. I am a loser.”
According to my counselor, I am a compulsive thinker and hyper-responsible. I needed to work on these things. Add them to the list. More things I need to ‘fix’. I was on board with that, but how? How do you stop thinking? How do you know where to draw the line between what you are responsible to do and what you are not responsible to do? I was overwhelmed. What can I eliminate? A kid? A job? Cooking? Cleaning? Sleep? Which essential life task can go?
See? There I go again, compulsive thinker. I need to talk to someone, but I don’t have time. I have paperwork to do. I must turn in my TSS reports or I won’t get paid. And I have to study, my final is tomorrow. If I don’t study, there is no way I will pass this test. It is my last chance to pull out an ‘A’. This has been a challenging course. The time constraints added to my other responsibilities have taken a toll on my body. I was not getting enough sleep.
And now I have to take several hours out of my day to go to the doctor? I immediately feel guilty to take the time to go to the doctor, but argue with myself, “What good will an ‘A’ do if you’re dead? What do you think they’re going to do? Display your report on your casket?” I am aware I am being ridiculous. I really need to call Sandy. What would I do without Sandy?
Temporarily distracted, I suddenly remember I am out of clean towels. I scurry down to the basement to put a load of towels in the washer. With each step down the stairs and then back up, the anxiety builds to a crescendo, tormenting me with its feigned knowledge of my imminent demise. Oh, Sandy… Yes, she will help me quell my fears. She’s a saint.
I pick up the phone and dial my friend. We have a lengthy conversation. The actress has stepped off the stage and the real me begins to voice all of the thoughts that are shouting from within. The tears come, my voice begins to shake, and my chin quivers erratically. Her soothing voice washes over me like a waterfall. Her measured calmness creates a space for my heart to rest. My tormentors are quieted. She offers to come with me to the doctor, but I refuse the offer knowing, as she does, that I will be fine. Her love has saved me again.
God knew that I needed someone with skin on. In his love, he sent Sandy into my life. Her quiet and gentle spirit had been a well of healing on more occasions than I could count. I often felt guilty for leaning so hard on her when she had so many of her own battles to fight. But she never shied away from my pain or my problems. She always stood right there, bold and courageous. Yes, she was Jesus with skin on. I know in my knower, it is God who has saved me. I know it is He who gives me the breath I breathe every day. I know He said He would never leave me nor forsake me. But sometimes, I still feel so alone. Being the single mother of five children overshadows the truth that I know in my knower. My thinker takes control and I begin to doubt His goodness.
Although I felt strengthened and calmed by the time Sandy and I hang up, the busy day challenged my resolve to stay composed. To my surprise, I was able to muddle through my routine. I finished my paperwork, completed my mid-afternoon bus run, concluded a session with a client, and returned home to start dinner. With dinner in the oven, I was off again to do the last bus run of the day. After returning home from the final bus run, we ate dinner in a rush. Dance lessons are next on the list. The hurried pace continued. I began to panic. I had not had a moment to study. And the towels? I forgot to put them in the dryer. I start to bark orders at my little minions realizing there was still much to do. They would have to complete the tasks at hand before we could scamper off to dance class.
The inevitable argument about whose turn it was to do this or that broke out. Frustration and pressure began to wear on my nerves. We’re going to be late, again. These things need to get done. Anxiety begins to taunt me. I can feel the volcano about to erupt! And so the day continued. By the end of the evening, the kids were exhausted and I was one giant twitching nerve. It’s time for the kids to go to bed, finally. Now I can get some schoolwork done. I stayed up late to study for the test. I knew with tomorrow’s doctor appointment, this would be my last chance. I had to make the grade. Beyond exhaustion, I pushed myself to keep going. At 2 am, I finally crawled into bed.
I pray a heartfelt, but barely existent prayer. “God help me.” That’s all I could manage. It will soon be 6 am and time to begin again.
Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…. The starter’s gun fires!
The alarm clock’s furious call startles me from my peaceful repose. My body laboriously fights to summon the strength to follow my mind’s order to arise. Slowly it obeys the command. I must not delay.I think I need a vacation. Not a beach vacation, a life vacation. You know the one I long for, right? The one where you get to stop the madness long enough to catch your breath, regain your balance, and lean back? But it won’t be today.
The tired actress steps back onto the stage for the morning’s first act. The painted smile and the forced cheerfulness take their place. I cannot share my weakness with the kids. I stroll into their bedrooms and one by one rouse them from their slumber. As I gaze into the sweetness of their sleepy morning faces, I know they are worth every ounce of effort I can muster. My heart begins to swell like the Grinch’s when he hears the Whos in Whoville singing theirChristmas carols despite the fact that they have no Christmas presents or roast beast. I am reminded that they need me and their love keeps me fighting. A knowing smile sweeps across my face and this time, it is not painted on.
They are unaware of the darkness that continues to hover over my thoughts. Like a snarling wolf crouched at my feet, the fear returns with a vengeance posed to devour any semblance of normal I try to maintain. I give the angry foe a kick in the chops! “Go away you filthy animal! I don’t have time to deal with you this morning! You don’t belong here. Why don’t you leave me alone?” my wearied soul bewails.
The morning routine begins anew; the rushing, the stress, the constant demand for a better performance. Even as I long for a respite from the demands, the bustling sounds of children getting ready for school reminds me that I am blessed beyond measure. “Keep going, you can do this!” I chide myself. And so I keep going.
Before I know it, I am walking into the doctor’s office. I am greeted by the sounds of a wailing child, hacking coughs, and the distinct smell of antiseptic. Sickness surrounds me and seems to be within me. “Why did I turn Sandy’s offer down? I don’t feel so brave right now.” The urge to flee is overpowering. I don’t want to face what I fear. “Oh God, what is wrong with me? Please, help me. Will you hold my hand?”
“I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you.” A third gentle voice inside of my head soothes. I recognize it as that of my Father. A dot of confidence enlarges and replaces the urge to flee. He is holding my hand.
By the time it is my turn, God’s peace has given me a hiatus from the consternation. I make polite conversation with the attending nurse, explain my terrifying episode, and wait for the doctor to make an entrance into the small sterile cubicle of an exam room. I self-consciously change into the required attire; a flimsy worn-out hospital gown. Being clothed in the thread bare gown only makes my vulnerability more evident. I hope they don’t have some sort of camera in here. Trying to distract my mind from a growing sense of embarrassment, I pick up a magazine and start to read all of the latest Hollywood gossip.
A hurried and barely audible knock announces the doctor’s arrival. She greets me with a cheerful smile which helps to quiet the apprehension that has been steadily growing as I waited. We recount the symptoms of my episode and a few other symptoms I had been ignoring for months. By the time we are finished, the doctor has written an entire page of symptoms. She looks at me quizzically and asks, “Why have you waited so long to address these issues? “
Racing thoughts hit me all at once. “Should I be honest? Should I tell her how I am hounded by the fear that my children will be left as if they are orphans if the worst befalls me? Who could ever love them as much as I do? Who would wipe their tears away with the tenderness of a mother’s love? Should I explain to her that I am afraid if I am sick, I won’t be able to work…and if I don’t work, how will we survive? Who will take up the slack? Should I tell her about the big black ‘X’, the one I feel marks my soul from the divorce? Or how it has left me with a grief from which I feel will never fully heal? The sorrow of it all still haunts me even after five years.” In a nanosecond I decide to tell a small portion of the truth, “I have just been really busy. I thought they were minor problems that would go away on their own.”
As she pokes and prods at the specimen beneath the threadbare gown, I instinctively squeeze the invisible hand I know is squeezing back then I give my thoughts permission to wander. The compulsive thinker takes control and attempts to fill the emptiness created by the perfunctory exam. I initiate an imaginary conversation with the doctor.
Truthfully speaking, addressing my health concerns had been on my list for some time. There were aches and pangs I could not stretch out or alleviate with home remedies. A constant nagging pain in my chest made me fearful as I remembered my uncle’s battle with esophageal cancer. He had a constant pain in his chest too before his diagnosis. He lost his battle. But somehow, the immediacy of my concerns never prompted me to put the task at the top of the priority list. I had resolved to take care of my concerns as soon as the semester was over and I had more ‘free’ time. Now, with the current crisis at hand, the issues were suddenly forced to the top of the list.
The irony is that I do not fear death itself. In fact, I often think of death as a release from the toils of this world. I consider the words of the Apostle Paul as he stated, “To live is Christ, to die is gain”. I understand his thoughts. To be with the Lord in His heavenly kingdom would be a definite gain for me. I reflected on the scriptures that describe the beauty of heaven. A place where every tear is wiped away, no more pain or sorrow. To be in the company of those I had lost and in the presence of the Risen Lord. To be warmed by the light that shines from the Throne of God. He is the sunshine in heaven!! How could I dread such a place as that?
But to live ‘is Christ’. That signifies a sacrifice. To live for others and to be present for those who count on me is a portion of my purpose here. Not being here for them is a component of the fear that chases me so often. To envision those five sets of eyes gazing at my coffin and wondering what they will do now that they have no mommy to care for them torments me. And there are others too. My Mom is one of my best friends and I know it would devastate her to loose me. My brothers, my Dad, the rest of my family and friends, they would all be overcome with grief if I was not here. We are all interdependent. The circle of dependence has a delicate balance which would crumble like a set of dominos if one of the tiles were removed. The loss of my love for them would leave a gaping hole in their hearts. I know my presence, here, is needed by many. I have to fight on and live.
There is one more concern about death that makes me want to run away and hide from its eventual claim on my body. I am afraid of the suffering. What if I cannot be brave in the face of some painful and wasting disease? I cringe at the thought my inability to cope with the agony would further torture those who had to witness my anguish. How could my innocent children endure yet another parent’s loss to some horrific tragedy? I cannot be sick! That is all there is too it. I will ‘will’ myself to be healthy I thought. Until the night before last ….
The doctor’s words snap my thoughts back to the present reality. She begins to identify the tests that will be needed: blood tests, X-rays, EKG, stress test, and a barium swallow. “You could have lung cancer or esophageal cancer or heart disease. These tests will rule out those possibilities.” She stated the ‘possibilities’ in the matter-of-fact tone that doctors use when they are trying to keep their objectivity. I know she likes me on a personal level, but that must be laid aside as she investigates my bodily functions to uncover the cause of these unpleasant symptoms. Her admonishment continued, “Don’t do any strenuous activities until we have completed all of the tests and have the results. The nurse will set up your appointments and I will see you back here in two weeks.”
“Yay! Sounds like good times are ahead.” I quip in a joking manner.
But she recognizes the overwhelming dread brewing beneath my flippant humor. I imagine my shaky voice and sweaty palms have been a clue. Or maybe it was the lifestyle she heard me describe, afterall; she did frown when she heard me describe the hectic pace of my schedule. Another clue might have been when she asked how I was feeling emotionally. Did I often feel guilty or hopeless? Did I feel alone? Did I have a sense of sorrow I could not seem to shake? My honest answers to those questions were affirmative.
Offering a small ray of hope to quiet the obnoxious anxiety constantly nipping at my heels, she prescribes some Xanax to help me cope for the short term. She then adds a Lexapro prescription to the list for a long-term solution. I reluctantly accept the crutch feeling defeated in my weakness. I leave the doctor’s office with nothing on my mind but sleep. The surge of energy I had gained from the pot of caffeine I drank earlier and the rush of adrenaline that pulsed through my veins when the ‘fight or flight’ instinct was activated have lost their power. The days’ activities have left me completely drained. In light of the present crisis, I don’t think I will study. Who cares about an ‘A’ anyway?
With prescriptions and medical orders in hand, I trudge to the van with a deliberate intent to take a nap as soon as I can escape to my little hut. If I hurry, I can sleep for a couple of hours before the kids get home. I will need my rest to be able to continue the battle against the dragon that is poised to swoop down and carry me away to its lair of gloom and doom.