The emotional rollercoaster. It sounds like it should be the name of an amusement park ride that evokes such strong feelings that it makes you confess your sins and beg God to grant you safe passage into the afterlife. You know, the kind of ride where you just as soon punch your friend in the face as hug him those first few seconds after you safely disembark. Oh, if ‘twere only true.
Instead, the emotional rollercoaster actually describes the sudden and passionate reversals of fortune that are often part and parcel of living with autoimmune illness. Sounds much less fun, doesn’t it? Maybe not for a few sadists out there, but for the rest of us, it’s quite a shock when it happens. Being able to weather the storm without letting it get the best of you takes practice, and many of us who live with chronic illness have more experience than most.
But sometimes when something solid that you’re counting on suddenly goes from extremely hot to very cold within a short period of time and ends up completely cracking and going south, a mind can suffer a similar schism when emotions quickly reverse polarity.
What is cracking my mind, you may ask? Well, sit down, relax, and find a good seat so you can hear my sordid tale of woe. It’s a tale of the little guy versus a committee of dark, powerful men who hold our hero’s very life in their hands, and the ending is one that’ll shock you and rock you to the very core! Or something.
As some of you may or may not know, my right ankle has been slowly but surely curling under, leaving me with what, for all intents and purposes, is a club foot. Now, my chiseled good looks and coquettish charm frequently distract from my physical limitations, but if you look behind the curtain, you will see that my body is not what it used to be – and I didn’t exactly start out as Slim Goodbody (look it up). Because this most obvious of handicaps not only affects my gait, but my hip, spine, and neck as well, I was very anxious to have it corrected. So, I scheduled a surgery to have exactly that correction made, and I began to mentally prepare myself to go under the knife, yet again.
Those of you who have had experienced the unique event that is called surgery know what I mean when I say that it’s an emotional tempest. Those of you out there who have never had bed enough luck to enjoy a stay in the O.R., all I can tell you is that I hope you never do. The best way that I can relate it to a layperson is to explain the four stages that I always seem to go through before any procedure.
First there’s the anger/denial phase. This phase can last for a while, and consists of me telling anyone who will listen just how upset I am that this wretched disease has caused me to have to go under the knife yet again. In between rants, I will try to think of reasons that the surgery shouldn’t or can’t happen. The reasons can range from valid concerns, such as “is it really necessary?” to utterly farcical justifications like worrying that my cat will miss me too much while I’m in the hospital (he’s extremely temperamental).
Once that’s past, there’s Phase Two, the gung-ho phase. This is where I am full speed ahead on the surgery, and I get everything set up and ready to go as fast as possible. Calling doctors, scheduling tests, obtaining insurance pre-auths – this is a non-stop train running at full speed until the procedure is scheduled and on the calendar.
Next is Phase Three, the contemplation phase. This is where you begin to get your mind ready to undergo a procedure that less than 75 years ago would kill anyone who had the lunacy to try it.
Finally, Phase Four, the last stage, is a kind of calm that comes maybe a day or two before the actual procedure, where you are finally at peace with whatever will come.
Now, it’s Phase Three, the contemplation stage that really cooks the old noodle. Healthy individuals don’t normally have occasion to contemplate their own deaths, but those of us with autoimmune illness get to do it on a semi-regular basis. It’s a funny thing, getting your affairs in order just on the off chance you don’t wake up from anesthesia. The night before the last surgery I had, my wife (just a girlfriend at the time), laid in bed, and neither of us said anything for a while. I finally turned to her and said, “if for some reason, I don’t come through this, please find someone and live the life you deserve.”
Of course, at that point we both had tears in our eyes and she told me everything was going to turn out fine, and while the ankle replacement was a bust, I am still alive to tell you about it. So there’s that.
So, you have a picture now of what it takes to get ready, mentally, for surgery. It’s not an easy or quick process, and when you are finally ready to go, you have earned the Zen-like state that you find yourself in. Well, I was just getting into this state when I learned my surgery was off, cancelled on account of infection risk.
It was like hitting an emotional brick wall at 100 miles an hour. My brain was hurting, and I was cast into emotional turmoil. Not only was the surgery not happening, but I now had to tell everyone I had made plans with or postponed events with that, well, “just kidding!”
Embarrassment, anger, and confusion were just the beginning. As I said to my wife, I felt like I had done something wrong, like I had disappointed everyone in some way, let them down. It was as if I had somehow conned my friends and family into giving me caring and positive thoughts that I was now not really entitled to. I was an emotional embezzler, a sympathy swindler, a compassion crook – I felt like I had pickpocketed the well wishes of an entire social group without rewarding the providers with the requisite mortal danger.
I had signed an unwritten social contract whereby people proffered their empathy and I agreed to provide them with a touchstone for a level of danger that they seldom had cause to interact with, and now I was unable to hold up my end of the bargain. I briefly considered engaging in some reckless behavior with a wanton disregard for my own safety to fulfill my obligation, but as it’s not Alaskan crab fishing season and I don’t know how to juggle chainsaws, I quickly realized that I simple “thanks for your caring,” though wholly inadequate, would have to do.
I truly am sorry I was unable to go through with the surgery, and I do apologize to everyone who wished me well and kept me in their thoughts and prayers. I will undergo the procedure sometime within the next year or two, though, so please contact me privately if you want to parlay the sympathy you’ve already expressed into my sensitivity layaway program (low rates!). As for the emotional ride that people with autoimmune illness ride, well, my experience isn’t an uncommon occurrence and counter to real life, the older you get, the scarier this coaster becomes. Tickets, please.