My emotional state

A couple weeks ago, I sat down to write a blog entry about how I was doing with regard to Mary Anne's cancer diagnosis.

But I felt that discussing my emotional state required giving some context, which meant talking about my friends' parents' deaths. And that part got long, and complicated, and hard to write about, and I ended up turning it into the three posts preceding this one: Talking to people who are going through tough times, People's parents dying, and other hard times, Thoughts on deaths of parents.

But I still haven't posted the part about how I'm doing these days, so that's this entry.

As with the previous one, anyone who'll be stressed or upset by my focus here on ME ME ME may be best served by skipping this entry.

In addition to being sort of vicariously sad about stuff friends have been going through, I've also been continuing to deal with ongoing anxiety, though that hasn't been quite as bad lately as it was for a while, and I've still been regularly getting sad about my colleague Sara's death (from breast cancer, last summer), and I've been stressed about various work-related things. But in early February, none of those were really big/difficult/serious emotional issues; I'm just mentioning them as backstory/context.

On the morning of Friday, February 6, something reminded me of Sara and made me cry, I don't remember what at this point. And so I was feeling pretty fragile that day already. And then midafternoon Mary Anne told me about her breast-cancer diagnosis, and I fell apart. Collected a hug from a friend who works near me, went home early from work, spent the rest of the day pretty distressed.

(I had known that Mary Anne had gone in for a test, and I had been fretting about whether it would turn out to be cancer, but I had avoided worrying about it too much before the results came back.)

Since then, I've had periods of being okay and periods of barely holding it together. The first half of the following week was okay; then the following Thursday, the 12th, Mary Anne posted publicly about her diagnosis, and I linked to her post, and she got a couple hundred sympathetic Facebook comments. And I got a couple dozen sympathetic and lovely comments on my post that linked to hers, and I fell to pieces again, though not for the reasons I would have expected.

I had been dreading the public posting, because I expected it to result in that diagnosis-and-advice thing that a lot of people on Facebook do whenever anyone mentions anything medical. (I'm sorry to bring this up, friends who do that; I know that you mean really well when you do that, and I appreciate your desire to help. But those kinds of comments stress me out a lot, which is why the last couple of times I've posted about medical issues I've explicitly asked for no advice or diagnoses. And I very much appreciate that y'all have gone along with that when I've asked; thank you.)

But this time, the response was really great. I don't know whether the responses that Mary Anne got were helpful to her, but it sounded like they were (and they mostly looked to me like people were saying appropriate things). And every single one of the responses I got were perfect for me, exactly what I needed. I really really appreciate all of the kind words and sympathy; that meant a lot to me.

But I was pretty much a wreck that day. I think that part of my reaction was an irrational feeling that publicly talking about it made it more real—it's not real 'til it's posted in social media, or something.

Another part, I think, was that friends being sympathetic to me kind of gave me permission to feel sad. Because this isn't something that's happening to me; it's something that's happening to Mary Anne, And so I was feeling sad and distressed but also feeling like it wasn't legitimate for me to feel that way.

(No need to tell me it is. I intellectually understand that it is, but that didn't help.)

So people expressing sympathy (without my even saying that I was upset) gave me some validation for my feelings. Which helped, a lot, but also let those feelings express themselves a little more than they had been.

(The work tension was also ratcheting up at the time; I spent most of that week significantly behind on multiple important urgent projects in which people were waiting for me before they could proceed.)

After that Thursday, the next few days were a little more manageable. But it occurred to me sometime around Thursday or Friday that I was being really irritable. For example, every time I read something online, I wanted to pick it apart and say obnoxious critical things about it. My patience was much thinner than usual. That Saturday evening, I watched a couple of movies that I used to like, both comedies, and didn't find either of them funny or good. Sunday, I drove up to Oakland to see Kam, and kept having a ridiculous gut feeling that everyone on the road was being intentionally slow (including the person who had the motorcycle accident a couple miles ahead of me) just to make me late. And so on.

And at some point over the next few days, it dawned on me that March 7 was going to be the tenth anniversary of my father's death.

I think I tend to get particularly irritable and easily distressed for a couple of weeks before that anniversary every year. So although there was no conscious connection, and I wasn't particularly thinking of him more than I usually do, I'm pretty sure that that's been a major factor in my mood lately.

I wrote most of the above two weeks ago. I wanted to post it then, but I kept getting hung up on various things.

Since then, it's been a pretty steady state. Work stress has increased substantially (my group, of which I'm the lead, is heavily involved in two and a half unrelated major reworkings of major pieces of infrastructure; my colleagues are doing most of the heavy lifting, but just trying to stay on top of what's going on is exhausting). My irritability levels have remained high. I've started intentionally avoiding commenting on most articles that friends link to, because I know I'm only going to complain about ridiculously small and unimportant things in the articles. (That nitpicking isn't new; I do it all the time. But I'm even more inclined these days than usual to do it, and to get myself worked up about even smaller issues than usual.) I've been expressing impatience toward colleagues occasionally, which I usually try not to do. (If any of you see this, apologies.) I've been grumpy about my impending birthday. I think most of this stuff isn't really about the specific things that are the proximate causes of my reactions; I think it's really that I'm stressed and sad about Mary Anne's cancer and about the anniversary of my father's death, and it's easier to be irritated at small things than to think about the big things.

Mary Anne has been posting regularly about her cancer; in addition to the other good things about her posting, that means that people (like me) who aren't right there with her can keep up-to-date without pestering her, and without making her repeat all sorts of things over and over.

But I've been feeling a little cut off. Mary Anne and I don't manage to talk all that often even at the best of times, and lately it's been harder than usual to manage. She's even busier than usual, and tired; I'm even busier than usual, and stressed; and given the whole Ring Theory thing, I don't want to be dumping my stress about her situation onto her. It would be ridiculously unfair for me to ask her to comfort me. And so if I'm not up for talking about other stuff, and for avoiding focusing on my reactions to her cancer, I don't call. Some other folks have provided me with some comfort and listening ears and hugs, but (except for hosting a couple of small social events during Jim's visit the other week) I've mostly been kind of in retreat mode, more or less hiding from the world.

I suppose I should mention my reaction to Mary Anne and Kevin getting married. Mary Anne called me to let me know about it before they had fully decided, and I totally agreed with her that it was a good idea; I think it'll ease the path in dozens of small ways over the next few months. Sure, Kevin could pull out his Power of Attorney papers every few minutes. But I suspect that just saying the magic word “husband“ will make things a lot simpler. I think it's deeply unfortunate that our society privileges marriage in this way (see also Mary's Anne's followup post); but given that it does, I'm glad that Mary Anne and Kevin will be able to get the benefits. Even as I'm sad that so many other people can't.

It is not all compersion and sunlight and roses here in my head, of course. Their getting married does feel a little bit, irrationally, like I'm being a little further pushed away from the core of Mary Anne's life. But only a little bit. They've been effectively married for a long time; I don't think this'll change anything between Mary Anne and me, and I think it'll be a significant help with medical and legal issues, and I'm glad that it's making Mary Anne happy.

Even after all that verbiage, I still seem to be circling around what I intended to be the main topic of this post: my reactions to Mary Anne's cancer. Mary Anne posted an entry (cancer log 7) that started out “It’s hard to know how seriously to take this” I share her ambivalence, and echo most of what she said in that entry. My inner dialogue goes something like this:

—Gah! It's CANCER! It's this terrifying overwhelming thing that kills people!

—Chill, dude. If she's right about the stage it's at, then the survival rate for people in her situation is likely upwards of 95%, which sounds like great odds.

—Unless you think of it as a 1 in 20 chance of dying from the cancer within the next five years; I've rolled a 1 on a d20 enough times that I would not want to risk my life on those odds.

—But for all sorts of reasons, she probably has significantly better chances than most people.

—But that five-year survival rate includes people like Sara, who went into remission and then it came back, and she died about eight years after first diagnosed.

—But ever since Mary Anne's diagnosis, you've been seeing lots of people mention that they survived breast cancer years or decades ago and have been totally fine ever since.

—But I know very few such people personally. My main model for breast cancer in my recent experience is Sara. And she died.

—Hey, Jed? I mean this gently and with respect, but are you thinking about Mary Anne or about Sara? Or for that matter, are you thinking about Marcy? Remember that leukemia isn't remotely the same as breast cancer; also remember that breast cancer treatments have gotten a whole lot better in recent years. And Mary Anne's situation is not the same as Sara's. Regardless of odds and percentages, each person's situation is different.

—But what about all the scary stuff I've been reading lately about metastasized breast cancer and low survival rates?

—How about cross that bridge if we come to it? That's not what Mary Anne is dealing with right now. There is no point at all to worrying about possible future developments that might not happen. And as Mary Anne pointed out, she or you or anyone else could get hit by a bus tomorrow. The future is inherently uncertain.


So that's where I am with all of that.

This weekend I'll be at FOGcon, in Walnut Creek. Given my general distress levels, I would probably have decided not to go at all, except that Mary Anne is in town for it, and it'll be good to see her. But even so, I may well end up spending all day Saturday holed up in my hotel room.

I'm hoping that after Saturday, things will be a little easier. We'll see.

I hate to end on a note like that. I want to add that there have been some good things lately. For example, the two new young trees in my front yard, which I had feared had died during the winter due to my failure to give them extra water during the drought, have made clear that they are not dead: one has sprouted dozens of leaves, the other has burst into tiny pink blossoms. Seeing those lifts my heart every day.

The warm sunshine has also been lovely, though I hate to say that given y'all East Coasterners' endless winter.

When Jim was visiting, we had a roundsing. I was pretty tense about singing at the start of it (long story), but I relaxed into it and it ended up being lovely.

I rewatched the 1938 movie Holiday the other night (Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Edward Everett Horton), and enjoyed it quite a bit. Lighthearted and funny, especially Horton.

I've been playing and enjoying a new iOS game, Alto's Adventure, in which you control a snowboarder zipping down a mountain, catching escaped llamas. Gorgeous graphics, and a kind of gentle relaxed feeling to the game.

I replayed the ending of the PlayStation game Journey; unfortunately, I picked it up right before the most stressful part, the only place in the game where you can get violently attacked, but after I got through that part, I got to play through the joyous and playful final flight sequences.

Plans for my new bookcase are proceeding; some aspects of that are a little stressful, but we've got a near-final design for it that I really like.

My uncle sent me an amazing trove of old family photos and clippings. And Kathleen has continued to get my photos digitized; I continue to be really pleased to have digital copies of all these old photos.

Friends have been dropping me sweet and comforting notes, and providing hugs when they see me in person, and occasionally talking with me by phone when I'm up for it.

And the above list doesn't even touch on most of the ongoing everyday good things and people in my life.

So ... I'm going through a rough patch right now, and things will probably continue to be emotionally difficult in various ways for a while. But there are good things too. And I particularly appreciate all of the care and support and sympathy that y'all have been sending.

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