I’ve been mostly silent for months now. Not because I don’t have anything to say – I don’t think we ever have to worry about that! – but because of a creativity block. All the content flowing through my brain is for me. Things I’m working through, processing through, dealing with, and learning from.
Usually I share all that thinking aloud. And I’m happy to. But this time it’s been very selfish. I didn’t want to live it out loud because I have been embarrassed by it. Or really, embarrassed by my reaction to what life has thrown at me.
I know that I’ve written about victim mentality before; we’ve all struggled with it now and again. It’s “normal,” I guess. Nothing to really be embarrassed about. But, I am human after all. And I am embarrassed by that mentality. I don’t want to be someone who falls prey to it. I’d rather be an example of how to get through it; how to not let it get you down.
But, it’s just not truth right now.
I’m currently trapped in it.
And victim mentality is where my creativity seems to die.
However, today I had a different thought. That maybe it would be best just to be raw about it all. Not to wait until I’ve had the shift in perspective and come out the other side so that I could share with you all the hope and the inspiration, but rather, so you could be in the struggle with me. And to see that I don’t always have it together. That I don’t always make it out to the other side quickly or gracefully. That while my main intention is to be a guiding light to you all through the crap life throws at us, I am, and forever will be, a regular human.
So this is more of a reminder. That it’s ok to be in pain. That it’s ok to not have it all together. That it’s ok to share the mess just as it is, we don’t have to box it up in a pretty package to make other people comfortable; to maintain an “image” of ourselves.
We are always changing and evolving anyway, right?
So why did I stop writing this past fall? Drop off social media? Hit the brakes on my “live out loud” lifestyle?
Do I have it? No. Did I find multiple lumps and spend MONTHS believing that I had it? Yes.
And it drained the life out of me.
There had been little things happening that I was ignoring: fatigue, confusion, weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes throughout the left side of my body.
Stress? Weather changes? Poor diet? All realistic possibilities having just started at a new job, taking in a roommate to my studio apartment, and pushing myself at cross-fit. I had flipped my “usual routine” on its head.
But, then I found the lumps, and I couldn’t ignore anything anymore.
During a personal training session I was working on overhead squats and my thumb just could not grip the bar, no matter how many weight plates my trainer took off. Sharp shooting pains travelled through my left wrist and armpit as I tried again and again and again to get my thumb locked in.
When I couldn’t get it even with an empty bar, my trainer decided we should dig in to whatever tight muscles were holding me back. After some quick poking in my shoulder and bicep, he brought out some crazy-looking device to knead out the rock-solid knot in my left arm. 20-ish minutes later, he said he was getting tired and the knot wasn’t getting any looser. Having already been brought to tears through the digging, I decided to call it a day. He asked that I go home and keep working on it.
After a solid temper-tantrum and a warm bath, I started searching my arm from elbow to armpit for the knots that needed some attention. I ended up in the same spot my trainer was at first. But, it really didn’t feel like a regular knot to me. It had such a hard, rough texture. Not like a muscle.
Tiny voice in my head, “lump. cancer.”
“No, no, no, who get’s bicep cancer? It’s just a muscle. It’s not my boob or anything,” logic chimed in.
My hand then wandered to my armpit. Another hard, strange bump was making itself know.
Tiny voice, “lump. cancer.”
“no, no no…. it can’t… it’s not…” logic attempted to fight.
My hand then decided it was time to explore the boob. Because if any of those things were there, logic was done-for.
Low and behold… 1… 2… 3… I stopped searching after 3. Two in particular were large, as was the one in my armpit. But they were all hard, and painless, and unusual.
Cysts were something I’ve had before. They’re painful, they move, they change from day to day and eventually work themselves out.
These were just hard foreign things.
I had only been at my new job for a week; the health insurance card didn’t even get mailed yet. I didn’t have any doctors in Chicago yet either. What do I do?
Eyes blood-shot from 3 days of no sleep, I closed them and touched the computer screen. Trusting that intuition was leading me to the right gyno, I called the number under my finger and made the first available appointment… a week from now.
Fear increasing, and weight continuing to drop, I poured all of my energy into crossfit. And drinking. If I stay busy and prevent my mind from focusing on it, I’ll not worry as much, right?
I was pretty disappointed with the “close your eyes and point” method. The gyno that sat across from me barely made eye contact as she asked the routine questions for new patients.
I interrupted her robotic probing into the patterns of my menstrual cycle to aggressively state, “I’m here because I have lumps in my chest and I’d really like it if you told me what they were so I can stop freaking out!”
She put her clipboard down and did the necessary feeling around.
“Ok, well you’re going to need an ultrasound and a biopsy.”
“Ok, great. I told work I may not be in today, let’s do it.”
“Oh no, we don’t do those here. You have to call this number and set it up.”
I got dressed and call the number from the waiting room. The office was literally right below me. Same room, 1 floor down. I was in the building with all the time in the world, ready to get it done.
“So we can do next Tuesday at 9 or two Saturdays from now at 7:30.”
I kept drinking.
I kept lifting.
I kept running.
I kept drinking.
I kept not sleeping.
I kept not eating.
I kept touching the lumps over and over and over and over hoping they’d just disappear.
I kept opening my laptop and searching “cancer lumps,” “breast cancer,” “cancerous ultrasounds,” and “other symptoms of cancer.”
I kept believing “I have cancer.”
I kept drinking.
I kept crying.
I kept shutting people out.
I kept shutting down.
During the ultrasound I stared at the technician’s screen, comparing it to what I had seen on the internet.
“Black spot there. Black spot there. Why is she drawing a box around that one? She’s circling all the cancer for the doctor to see.”
I have cancer.
I definitely have cancer.
What if I die from this?
I’m at least going to lose my left boob.
Who’s going to want to date a girl w/ one boob?
Who’s going to want to hang out with the girl who’s dying.
1 day passed. 2 days passed. 3 days passed.
My phone didn’t ring.
The technician said she’d have the results to my doctor within 24 hours. It’s not a weekend, what gives?
During my lunch break I hid out in the building stairwell and called the doctor, frantically asking if they got the results.
“Oh yea, we got those on Wednesday. (It’s Friday…) When would you like to make an appointment to read them? We have next Tuesday at 9 or two Saturdays from now at 7:30.”
what. the. actual. fuck.
Shaking, I stared at the beige door waiting for the doctor to knock.
“Ew. Maggie, please.”
“So yea, we don’t see anything. Do you want to schedule your yearly exam today or should we call you in 6 months?”
“What about the lumps? What are they? I saw spots on the screen? What? Wait! The technician drew boxes. You said the word ‘biopsy.’ What… how… what…?!”
“Yea, no there’s nothing there. I don’t know why you have lumps.”
K thx bye. You can schedule my yearly exam for never.
OK… new doctor… different method. Let’s try researching this time.
Northwestern is a ginormous hospital with a pretty great reputation… try there? Ask a friend of a friend who actually had a cancer diagnosis what doctors she used? Try a GP instead of a gyno?
2 weeks later I’m in a new office, with a new lady, with a new grasp on hope.
I explain to her the experience I had with the gyno. I explain how I found the lumps. I explain the other symptoms. I explain the fear.
She poked and prodded and asked a few questions.
She typed a few things into the computer.
She rolled her stool up in front of me and looked me in the eyes.
“There’s a couple things this could be. And you and I both know cancer is on that list. I don’t want it to be, but we have to check.”
At that point the room started spinning. I don’t remember much else of what she said to me that day. I heard the words “lymph nodes,” “oncology,” and “one step at a time.”
When I weighed in at that appointment I was down 16 pounds from the doctor appointment I had 6 weeks prior.
My Google-searches morphed form “breast cancer” to “lymphoma.”
I kept lifting.
I kept running.
I kept drinking.
I kept not sleeping.
I kept day-dreaming about how I’d survive the dating world with one boob and no hair. Priorities… am I right?
I kept wondering if I should tell my parents.
I kept drinking.
Scans. Blood tests. Specialists. Everything coming back negative. The process of elimination aiming me towards the oncologist.
Weird things were happening to me in between appointments, too. One night after a shower I looked in the mirror to see the lymph nodes in my armpit swelled to the size of golf balls. One weekend I didn’t rise from bed because I couldn’t figure out if I was awake or dreaming, so I just kept laying there.
The one that really got me scared was the day I was going to a follow-up appointment with my new GP. This would’ve only been my 3rd visit since starting with her, but the route to her office from my office was less than half a mile with 2 easy turns. After the second turn I stopped mid-stride; I had no idea where I was. Nothing looked familiar. I couldn’t remember where I was going. I leaned up against the wall of the building and sobbed uncontrollably, unsure what to even do. Shortly after that my phone “dinged;” thank god I had put a reminder in my calendar for the appointment. I copy/pasted the address into Uber and low-and-behold I was one block away from where I needed to be.
That was the appointment where we decided to contact oncology. We set the date for the same afternoon just before Christmas, a month from now.
I finally decided to let my family in on what I was going through. It felt good to share with them. I knew I could call them and just cry if I wanted. I had shared with a few close friends, but always felt guilty that during all of our conversations I could only focus on myself. They told me to get over it and let them love me… but, I couldn’t help it. I prefer to be a giver.
It was just before Thanksgiving at this point. I had plans to fly to a friend’s for the long weekend and forget about this whole things for a while.
Or at least, that was my plan.
I remember walking home from the train and thinking how weak I felt. I had cancelled my crossfit membership at this point; I could barely make it through a day of work, let alone get myself to lift any weight. My body was weak, my brain was weak, and I didn’t want to do anything but lay in my bed.
But that night in particular something was “off.” My stomach hurt, I was sweaty from the 2 block walk in Chicago’s mid-November weather, and I couldn’t hold my eyes open long enough to get through a glass of wine with the roommate.
I went to bed curled up in a ball as the pain in my stomach grew more intense. I was restless, writhing, and so damn sweaty.
The alarm went off and I peeled myself off my mattress. I kept stumbling as I tried to put on pants and boots and brush my teeth. I don’t know what in my mind told me to go on as normal, to go to work, to ride the train… crazy. But, I did it. I got to work and we started our ritual morning meeting.
As soon as my boss asked, “what are you grateful for today?” I burst into tears. In between sobs I was able to burst out “so…much…pain…not…okay…!”
After a hug from a teammate and about a hundred questions regarding what I needed and how they could help, I shrugged them off and asked that we just go about the day, not to worry about me; I hated the attention.
Next came the office meeting. For an hour and a half I fidgeted in my chair, holding my breath, gripping the edge of the cushioned seat until all 10 knuckles were white. The pain in my stomach, now very sharp, shot through me; I had sweat through every layer I was wearing.
Finally, the meeting ended and I limped my way up the stairs and back into my office chair, hidden in the corner. My boss returned shortly after with an enthusiastic clap, trying to re-set the mood I had created form our earlier small office gathering.
I turned to him and said through grit teeth, “I have to go to the hospital.”
I gathered my stuff and started out the door; he stared at me with panicked eyes. “What are you doing? I’m driving you.”
“It’s fine I’ll take an Uber. Or walk. It’s right there. I’m fine.”
“Maggie. Sit down. I’m getting the car. I’m driving you.”
You want to know what’s funny? (AKA not funny at all, but really ridiculous and annoying…) This hospital story is completely irrelevant to my not-cancer story. They were two separate illnesses. Two separate happenings. Two. Separate. Body. Failings.
But the timing of it all? I continue to feel crushed by the weight of it.
Just so you’re not left on a cliffhanger… I spent 4 days, including Thanksgiving, in the hospital. A severe infection, pelvic inflammatory disease, and an immense amount of confusion, pain, and frustration raged through me and I was given a solid supply of morphine and let myself catch up on all the sleep I had spend the last 2 months missing.
You can Google all that if you feel like it. Or ask me. Sharing how I got said infection and disease is another 10,000-word essay I’d rather not type up. Because I’m tired. Tired of being sick. Tired of being tired.
I told the nurses my story, begged them to contact my GP, desperately hoped they could do whatever necessary scans were on my list so I could just know why all this was happening to me.
But I kept getting “no’s.” They weren’t allowed to do any tests unrelated to why I had walked into the ER.
At the end of the day, I still didn’t know what the lumps were. I still didn’t know if I had cancer. I still didn’t know why my lymph nodes were swollen, and I still couldn’t focus on anything else.
What I did know is why I was so weak and confused. Apparently that infection had been working its way through my body long enough to be threatening my life. Cool. At least we could check those two symptoms off the list. And I wasn’t crazy for feeling like I was dying, it just wasn’t for the reasons I originally suspected.
As you can imagine, everything between the hospital and the oncology appointment was a blur; the ritual I seemed to have adopted continued: work, drink, research cancer, cry, drink, stare at the ceiling from my sweaty sheets, sunset, sunrise, repeat.
Then the day of the appointment arrived. I slipped into my favorite jeans and let the bulky winter sweater drown my now skin and bones. I had to take the green line further than I ever had before. The end, in fact. It felt like the shortest ride on the planet; my mind was unable to focus on anything.
I walked into the waiting room, taking note of the fact that I was the only young person there. The receptionist was kind and soft spoken, guiding me through the paperwork.
I couldn’t breathe. I had no idea what to expect in there.
They called my name and I found myself behind another beige door. Staring. Waiting.
Knock, knock. “Margaret?”
“You shouldn’t be in my office.”
I kept staring, “What?”
“I looked over everything your doctor sent me and you don’t have cancer.”
I just kept staring at her. I did not think I heard her correctly. How could this be possible?… “what?”
She took hold of my hands.
I burst into tears. Shoulders-shaking, snot-running, voice choking, “what?”
She explained to me that despite all of my symptoms, there was nothing leading her to believe that she even had to check for it. My blood tests were non-cancerious, my ultrasound, albeit full of cysts, was non-cancerous, and I as a human-being was non-cancerous.
I continued, uncontrollably.
She held my hands tighter and insisted I look her in the eyes, “I am so sorry that you are here. I know that this process has been terrifying. You should never have to end up here. I hope you never do again. Take as much time as you need.”
I spent almost a half an hour in that room composing myself.
There are no words that I feel could truly capture that moment. I was relieved, of course, but not happy. Months of anticipation, of anxiety, of believing that I was dying… long enough to become a piece of me that I had accepted.
I had prepared for the worst; I couldn’t just wipe my brow and move on.
I had been putting on a face, overcoming the fears of the possibilities, building a foundation of strength that would get me through the fight I believed I’d be facing. And now that I didn’t need to focus all of that energy…
I felt it.
I felt all of it.
All at once.
Christmas came and went. I spent most of it asleep on my parents’ couches. Not eating, not drinking, not moving.
My phone endlessly rang with friends and family and coworkers checking-in, asking how I was doing, being supportive. Everyone piling on with “we were praying for you,” “we told you you’d be okay,” “buck up, it’s not cancer!”
After a week of sleeping, I realized I had to get back to my life.
Work. Exercise. Friends. Maverick.
But, it didn’t happen. Instead, I kept sleeping. I was going to work, going home, ordering take-out, and binge-watching whatever crap I could find until I fell asleep in my still sweaty sheets.
I am still sick, mind you. Or, at least, something in my body isn’t right. I still have over 18 cysts in my left side, I still have out-of-control lymph nodes, I still have an unexplained lack of Maggie-energy.
But it wasn’t cancer. I wasn’t dying.
This is good news. I should be happy.
I should be happy.
I should be..
But I’m not. I’m pissed.
Negativity came spewing out of my mouth. I stopped smiling at strangers. I stopped initiating conversations with my friends. I stopped going out for beers after work. I did not pursue further investigations into my health.
I just wanted to sit at home in my bed with my pizza and my Shameless.
Rage mixed with embarrassment, which morphed into shame, which developed into full-on depression.
But it’s not cancer. I’m not dying. I should be happy.
We don’t need to go through every detail of my life since then. It’s really not much to tell, anyway. I’ve been going through motions, hoping that Maggie THE MAVERICK shows up in all her intoxicating glory ready to pick up where she left off and sprint forward.
I moved north of the city, I entered a relationship, I made new friends at work, I even signed up for a 50-mile run and hired my favorite coach to help me get there. (One of the goals on The MAVERICK’s vision board.) And I’ve had moments where I have been myself again; blips of positivity, creativity, hope, and that MAV-energy. But I feel off. And beyond that, I feel trapped.
I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to be, and I don’t know where I’m headed.
All things that were clear just 7 months ago.
It finally occurred to me to stop trying. To let go of what I think are the right motions out of this, and just FEEL. Out came the notebooks, the colored pens, the inspirational music, and the whiskey.
The first 12-15 paragraphs were all the “I should’s” I’ve already mentioned. I don’t have cancer, I’m not dying, I should be happy. But, after enough glasses of whiskey (Ok fine, after only 1 glass of whiskey. Even after months of drinking consistently, I’m still a light-weight!) the real stuff came pouring out:
My body is failing me AGAIN! (See Chapter 3: Bodies Fail) After I had just faced it and come to terms with it! And death!? Are you fucking serious?! Death was an option here?! It may not be cancer, but it sure as hell was a cancer-scare and it DID IN FACT SCARE ME!
How dare you, Universe. I have done all the right things: I eat healthy, I work out, I inspire others and coach them to do the same. I listened to and accepted this MAVERICK-mission and was working hard towards sharing it with the world, and you have the audacity to kill me off?! Before I even get to see it come to fruition?!
What is this all for?
What do we do anything for?
What does any of it matter?
Who cares if I eat healthy? Who cares if I work out? Who cares if I share my writing with the world? Who cares if I ever get MAVERICK going as a business?
And I wish I could say when I was done writing all that (imagine 10,000 more words expressing the point above in a composition notebook…), that I felt better. I didn’t. There was relief, of course. I needed to get it out of my system; I had to feel the feelings. They were rotting me from the inside-out. But, I still didn’t know what to do. Because the answers to the questions that I asked are that none of this does matter.
We get to create what “matters.” And not everything matters the same to everybody else. We have the freedom to apply meaning to whatever we want.
That’s good. That helps.
So, MAVERICK means something to me. Something that stirs me in my core, that motivates me to want to take risks, and live out loud, and inspire others to find what means something to them.
THAT is what matters. I can do this.
Cue mid-March COVID lockdown. I don’t have to go to work (yet, blessed to still be employed and working form home). I am bunking with a cute boy. And I have nothing but time.
For the first time in months, I feel excited! I think to myself that the Universe must’ve coordinated this just for me, so that I could finally work on my business and get to where I’ve been wanting to be since this beautiful acronym displayed itself to me on that sheet of paper.
I have nothing but time: time to write, time to plan, time to execute, time to take risks, time to share, time to ask for help, time to focus, time to dream, time to MAKE. SHIT. HAPPEN.
I find that I am more productive at home than I ever was at the office. Maybe because the kitchen wasn’t 3 feet from my desk, maybe because I didn’t have to wear pants or a bra all day, maybe because I wasn’t surrounded by gossip… it didn’t matter! I felt great! I was focused, checking things off the to-do list, workout out for an hour over lunch time, eating healthy, all because I WANTED TO! I felt inspired to!
After work hours, I’d write, I’d draw, I’d jot down all of my ideas in my notebooks, planning the next launch, the next phase. MAVERICK was going to make a comeback! My mission? To NEVER go back to the office. When Lockdown 2020 was over, I’d be welcoming my new normal.
Lockdown 2020, Day 8:
My 10th alarm goes off. It’s a different sound. The one that lets me know I’ve overslept and I have 5 minutes until my morning meeting.
I scramble out of bed, throw on a sweater, and grab my laptop as I make my way to my “office” in the kitchen.
As Zoom loads, I take a deep breath. Wake up, brain! Just hold it together for 20 minutes. Coffee will be ready in a few…
But, my brain feels sluggish. And my body aches. And my deep breath wasn’t so deep. Also… why am I sweaty? Why does my body weigh 500 pounds? I didn’t drink last night did I?
The meeting starts and I begin to talk, but my chest tightens up and words aren’t coming easily. Thank goodness the questions are just “how are you? what are you weekend plans?” I stick with short answers, hoping we can get through this meeting more quickly.
Daily to-do’s start forming and I am struggling to focus, my body begging me to go back to bed.
I don’t feel good.
Days continued to pass: my fever tottered between 101 and 103, my chest continued to constrict my breathing, and I could barely stay awake for more than 3 hours at a time.
Refusing to admit that I was sick, I continued to work. I’d sit at the computer long enough to complete one task before crawling back to the blanket-nest I had created on the couch, gathering up as much energy as I could for the next one.
After a week, I gave in and called the doctor. The same doctor I refused to contact again, regardless of liking her, after my oncology appointment; fearing the long journey of discovering what was wrong with me.
We started there, with the elephant in the room. “You never came back to see me.” “Yes, I know. I couldn’t take any more. I’m sorry.”
After 5 minutes of questioning she diagnosed me with COVID. From now on I’d start every morning filling out a “how do you feel?” survey, followed by a nurse call every 12 hours to monitor my symptoms and decide whether or not the ER was necessary.
“You know, you definitely have something going on… that we do know from before. It’s going to make all this a little more complicated. Your immune system isn’t 100%. I want to keep a close eye on you. And when this is all over, I want you back in my office.”
So here I am. I’ve had a fever for almost 4 weeks now. I’ve been mostly asleep for 4 weeks. I’ve been unable to breathe, or think, or function…. for 4 frikin’ weeks.
After I had JUST come to terms with the last struggle. After I had JUST found my stride again.
It’s frustrating. It’s hard not to exist in victim mentality. I could sit here and list all the things I can’t do because of this stupid virus. I’m annoyed and I just want to GET UP AND GO! I feel like I’m wasting the precious time I have to actual make my business come to life.
Part of me questions whether or not my defeated mentality is what’s keeping me from getting better. 4 weeks is a long time to be sick. 7 months is a long time to be sick. I know my immune system isn’t great, but could it be great if I believed I was great?
We won’t ever get time like this again. It’s really now or never.
As I slowly regain my consciousness for small snippets of the day, I’m starting to remember the power of being the author of my own story.
“If you want your life to be different, you have to change what you’re doing.”
So instead of rolling back and forth from the bed to the couch, letting the illness overtake my body and my mind, I’m starting to be intentional with my day. If I have a fever and feel tired, I sleep. If I feel awake enough to watch TV, I steer my eyes towards webinars and chat rooms with creative like-minded people I’ve interacted with before at the height of my creativity. If I feel like I’ve got a little oomph, I pick up my pen and get to writing. It may only be for an hour or two a day, but it’s happening.
Using my brain instead of letting it waste away in front of the screen. Surrounding myself with positive, business-focused energy instead of letting my negativity get the best of me.
And I’m starting to not feel like “the victim.” This isn’t going to hold me captive anymore.
“Change your story, change your life.”
We are the authors of our own life. Yes, things happen to us sometimes, but we get to choose how we let it affect us. While I’ve spent much of the last few years re-writing my story, I’m finding that the focus is still on all the things that have happened to me. Which I’m realizing leads to one extreme or the other: “I can’t help it, it keeps happening,” or “I will never ever let this effect me again.”
And those story lines aren’t working for me. One is negative and keeps me down. The other puts so much pressure on me to get everything just right, to show that I am the strongest, and the best, and that I can overcome every adversity with ease and grace.
Sometimes your story is what’s in your way.
Is your story in your way? Is it boxing you into a corner of expectations? Or is it setting you up for greatness? Is it guiding you on the path you desire?
You are in charge of that.
So now begins the journey of seeking a new narrative. Because at the end of the day, everything we experience is part of our story; it all makes us who we are. There’s no reason to run from any of it. The narrative comes in how you are letting it affect you, letting it drive you, how you are harnessing it for good, how you are sharing it.
Right now, I feel challenged. But, in the good way. Like when someone says, “show me what you really got!”
What I want more than ANYTHING is to come out of this quarantine with a full-time MAVERICK salary. I want to say goodbye to working for anyone else ever again. I want to come out of this with hope, that the life I am creating is one I can be proud of and continue to work on every day no matter what is happening in me or around me.
I want to get there by being my authentic self, by relating to others through my story, and by having a hell of a lot of fun. And it would bring me such joy if I could help others do the same.
So please, reach out. Let’s do this together.
We are one, MAVPACK!
And thank you for listening.