Can You Have A Mid-Life Crisis in Chronic Town?

July 16, 2011 at 5:55 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ll be turning 40 in 40 days. Not that I’m counting.

How did this happen? It seems like just a few heartbeats ago, I was 100 pounds lighter and 14 years younger, walking down the aisle to meet my Jay at the altar. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I held my squawking baby boy, Andrew, for the first time? But no, that was already more than 7 years ago.

How did I go from feeling like I was just barely launching my life to reaching its mid-point?

I know, I know. My realization is nothing special. Life goes by very quickly. We all watch decades swoosh past in the blink of an eye. We all don’t want to get old. We all can’t keep up with the roaring currents of time. At least a thousand writers—far more eloquent than this lowly blogger could ever be—have expressed how the grinding maw of time chews through our best years.

Time passes. Time is elusive. Time accelerates when we want it to slow down.

And time is different in Chronic Town.

I was 33 when I moved to Chronic Town. Andrew was three months old. I was filled with creative energy and ready to start taking my writing seriously. I’d spent my adolescence and twenties figuring out who I wanted to be. I thought it was my time to get going.

That was seven years ago—and also three major surgeries, two implanted medical devices, dozens of tests, three years of different chemotherapies, months stuck in bed, weeks stuck in the hospital, thousands of miles of medical travel, and thousands of miles of medical travel ago. I’m still ready to start taking my work seriously, to live the vision I saw for myself. But I’m turning 40, not 20. My husband and my friends have established solid careers and are saving for retirement, not figuring out how to break into their lives.

What the hell happened to my life? I had to fight for it so fiercely that I lost track of it. While Jay was at his office becoming adept at his job, I was getting infused with Cytoxan, a chemo drug derived from mustard gas (yes, you read that correctly). When I say that I lost two years of my life to the Cytoxan infusions every-other week, I’m not waxing metaphorical. Those months were consumed by my illness and the terrible side-effects chemo carries.

That feeling of lost time—as if I’ve been trapped in a time warp—isn’t just from the years of chemo. Chemo time was grueling, but I’ve mercifully blocked out much of it. (Really, how many memories of barfing up bile or of sleeping all week do I need?) But my years in Chronic Town when I wasn’t enduring Cytoxan have passed just as mysteriously. I think it’s because the experience of chronic illness can be so disorienting and confusing. Becoming sick with a chronic or serious illness is more dislocating and disruptive than moving to the other side of the world to live on a tiny tropical island. I know because I’ve done both.

I’ve also wasted time in Chronic Town. It’s time I can’t get back. For a long while, I waited to get cured so that I could return to my “real” life. That wasn’t an entirely conscious or deliberate choice. But I spent a long time putting off learning how to live in Chronic Town by yearning for how things used to be. For example, before sarcoidosis, I was an avid hiker. Jay and I loved hiking together. Walking—and talking—side by side was our exercise, our special time together, and our way of interacting with our world. We hiked up Mount Helena after work when we lived in Helena; we bushwhacked through the jungle in Palau; and we hiked like lunatics when we were on vacation in Hawaii, New Zealand, or Thailand. When I suddenly became too sick to hike, I stopped walking at all. Rather than learn how to live with new limitations, I simply quit. “I’ll get back to hiking when I’m well,” I told myself dozens of times. I engaged in different versions of this behavior for too long before it finally sunk that the “chronic” in chronic illness means what it says – the disease isn’t likely to go away. Keeping myself on hold wasn’t stopping time. I was merely not living as a denial strategy.

In my defense, I’ve got to say that it’s difficult to fully inhabit your life when you’re sick. While it’s true that I could have done a better job of walking around the block with Jay instead of waiting to be well enough to trek in Nepal with him, it’s equally true that it’s nearly impossible to walk around the block when you’ve got a piercing migraine, you’re vision is blipping out, and your vertigo is so bad that you fall over trying to get from the bed to the toilet. Sometimes it’s not a question of adjusting your mindset. Sometimes your health—and thus your life—deeply sucks.

I’ve worked like a demon to learn to appreciate the “small” joys of life—like drinking a cup of hot Earl Grey tea with just the right amount of milk, or sitting on the deck with Jay and watching the sun slink below the horizon on a warm summer night, or inhaling Andrew’s smell of sunscreen, mown grass, boy sweat, and shampoo as I lie next to him. I’ve learned these small moments aren’t small at all. Appreciating the thousand blessings each day brings has been sarcoidosis’ great gift to me. But I still miss the “big” joys of life—finishing a long, hard hike, wandering Bangkok’s alleys in search of the best green papaya salad, getting an article accepted, or becoming respected and successful in my profession.

I also yearn for easy stretches when I don’t have to try so damn hard. I’ve learned to love the details of living, but I wonder what it would be like to live without chronic pain, regular chemo infusions, periodic blindness, endless exhaustion, and the constant, gnawing worry that the disease will flare-up, worsen, or kill me. What would it be life to wake up with energy? What could I accomplish if I didn’t have a neurological disease?

Before I start sending out engraved invitations to my personal pity party it’s time to stop and think. Aren’t these questions—and the anxieties that underlie them—the essence of the mid-life crisis? Don’t we all sit up at 40 (and then 50 and 60) and wonder, “How did I get here?” or “Do I really like it here?” or “Is this all there is?” or “What if…?”

One blog reader e-mailed me long ago that whether or not we’re diagnosed with a chronic or serious illness, we all live in Chronic Town. She’s right. Although we don’t always want to face our diagnosis, we’re all living with one: it’s called life. There’s never enough time or energy to become everything we want to be. Life is too short; it’s unpredictable; it’s unfair; it’s needlessly difficult.

When I complained to a friend recently that I was feeling professionally unaccomplished and that I wanted back some of the years sarcoidosis took, she smiled and said, “You must be feeling better.” I gave her a blank look in response, so she went on, “You were too sick to worry about work last year.” She’s right. I was. And the year before that, and the one before that. I suppose it’s a sort of luxury to have a mid-life crisis. You can’t worry about your résumé or the meaning of your life when you’re losing it, or fighting for it.

As if to teach me to count my blessings, I had a terrible week of vertigo, blind spells, and headaches. It lifted, but I was left weak and frayed. And very thankful that the pain had ebbed, that I was alive, that the sun poured through the blinds, that Andrew came to kiss my hand, that Jay brought me tea, that I can write and think.

So I’ve decided to postpone my mid-life crisis until my 50th birthday.

8 Comments

  1. Marianne Hansen Rencher said,

    Let’s rent a convertible and drive to Canada for a chocolate bar and then drive back. That sounds midlife crisis-ish and I would like some chocolate.
    And your friend is right. I would never have thought of it like that.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Convertible and chocolate…now that sounds like an excellent way to diffuse a mid-life crisis.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Nan said,

    Very nicely put – Happy Birthday to you – every one of them is a gift – another sarc-message that everyone should know. n

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Nancy. Every one really is a gift. I appreciate you reading and commenting. I hope you are doing well.

  3. Debbie in Palmdale said,

    I just love this post from beginning to end….. Happy birthday to you and many more.

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Debbie! I’m so glad you liked it. It’s wonderful to hear from you again. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment here. Hope you are healthy.

  4. Rayna said,

    Insightful and inspiring, as always. Happy birthday! Make it a great one!

  5. Drew Dixon said,

    A HS friend of Jay’s says, Hang in there!

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