Sunday, August 08, 2004

My life as a topo map

I’ve just been visualizing a topographical map of my emotional life. Looking at the low country and the highlands. Seeing the valleys, the peaks, and the plateaus. Charting the wide, rolling plains and the towering mountain ranges. Throwing in some literary references, like my own personal Slough of Despond [John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress], Cliffs of Insanity [William Goldman, The Princess Bride], and Mountains of Madness [H.P. Lovecraft]. Adding some movie titles so I can go from the Valley of Decision to the Valley of Gwangi

How Green Was My Valley of Gwangi! she exclaimed.

Then it’s over the Angry Hills and through the Petrified Forest until I can Escape to Witch Mountain and – okay, okay, is this metaphorical nag dead yet?

The kids shout: Yep! He dead!

If I consider the lives of my family as pages in one big topo atlas-gazetteer, here’s how they look:
The hub has gotten some very gratifying strokes and acknowledgement lately for some work he’s done. He’s been doing a lot of biking and has lost at least 20 # in the past couple of months, so he’s pretty happy about himself these days, and rightly so. The hub’s topo map page is currently all high country: an ever-rising elevation dotted here and there with rocky outcrops [a hostile, sarcastic wife going through drug withdrawal, for one]. These harsh impediments to happiness can be overcome with some effort and actually provide a satisfying challenge. And nothing but boundless blue cloudless skies overhead.

Meanwhile my two boys, ages 16 and 14, have maps that clearly situate them on the slopes of Sugar Mountain:
Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Tho you’re thinking you’ll be leaving there too soon
You’re leaving there too soon

For my "16", the map of summer 2004 includes: getting ready to take his driver test. Shopping for a cheap, safe, good-running vehicle. Girls. Hanging out with his peeps, either online or at the local coffee joint. All-night LAN parties. Girls. Football practice beginning in August. And denouncing M. Night Shyama-lama-dingdong’s “The Village” as the “Worst… Film… Ever!”
As for my "14", it’s a world of: Battlefield 1942 , played constantly with ten buddies online. Dave Chapelle. The Daily Show. Band of Brothers. IM-ing forty or fifty people all day, every day. Theater Boot Camp at the high school. Yearning for an iPod. Backpacking in the Boundary Waters for a week, which is what he’s doing at this very moment.

Finally, there’s my map. Note the warning: “Here There Be Monsters”.

No shit, Sherlock! she shrieks, bitterly.

This week I’m completing my long slow goodbye to Paxil, which I’ve taken for the past 3 and a half years. Most of that time I’ve felt like a hostage to a medication which hasn’t done much for me apart from keeping me taking it in order to avoid the hellish withdrawals I go through when I try to go off it. Others' experiences with Paxil may vary, of course.

I am a soon to be 52 year old woman deep in the throes of my “change”, as I so euphemistically put it, complete with the hot flashes, night sweats, and other icky crap that goes with it. Now, if it were just the menopause stuff going on, there would be relatively little to complain about. It can be bad at times, but not that bad, and now I’m almost done anyway. Some friends who are of similiar age have expressed amazement that I've slogged through the process with a fairly minimal level of discomfort. Why on earth should that amaze them? I think it must be because they have all been on some form of HRT, and I never have been.

I made a vow 20 years ago, before I had kids even, that when I entered menopause I would forgo HRT. Just tough it out. Suck it up. Ride it out. [Insert one more hackneyed phrase denoting survival. How about “Bite the bullet”? Oooh, good one.]
I decided against HRT after watching my mom “cope” with her symptoms. When she went into perimenopause in her early 40s, her doctor prescribed Premarin, the same as millions of other women’s doctors did, and she took the stuff for nearly 20 years. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 64, and died six months later, not from the cancer but of a massive pulmonary embolism that brought death in less than five minutes. Studies have since shown that HRT can affect not only a woman’s likelihood of getting breast cancer, but also the likelihood of blood clots forming like the one that killed my mother.

And now when it’s my turn, I’m supposed to take HRT? I don’t think so.

I know now that doing menopause without hormone replacement therapy was definitely the right thing for me to do. For me. Each of us needs to make our own decisions, of course. Informed decisions, hopefully. Personally, I've always asked myself: Why medicate women for menopause?? Jebus H Christ, aren’t we medicated for everything under the sun already?? Luckily, the symptoms I’ve had to deal with have been managed by taking ibuprofen, avoiding alcohol, and sometimes setting my blowdryer on “Cool” and aiming it inside my shirt . Woo-hoo!
And I enjoy getting older. There’s a lot of advantages to having these wrinkles, these sags and bags, and this new spare tire. Plus, best of all, you get a license to be a crank and curmudgeon for the rest of your life, and that alone is SO worth it!

But, add Paxil withdrawal to the mix and on top of the menopause side effects I get more, even more delightful reactions. Paxil leaves the body in a very short time: within 20 hours. When it’s suddenly out of my bloodstream, I get chills and sweats. Nausea. Dizziness. It’s like the worst case of flu I’ve ever had. I start to see strobe flashes of light behind my eyelids, and get a brutal headache that won’t go away, and at some point I start to think longingly about how blissful being in a coma would be. Even weaning myself off it very slowly, over the course of a year and a half, has resulted in many, many episodes of feeling spectacularly lousy.

Welcome to my world

So, here you have my present coordinates on the big topo map of my life.

Where I’m at, the terrain is harsh, rock-strewn, and desolate. It’s kind of like the “Sun’s Anvil” stretch of the Nefud Desert that TE Lawrence and his band of 50 men had to cross in order to take the Turks by surprise and attack Akaba from the landward side.

Oh come on, you know what I’m talking about. I’m not the only Lawrence of Arabia fanatic out there. Someday I’m going to have to write about being a Jeopardy contestant back in 1993, and how I ended up chatting on-camera with Alex Trebek about LOA, and how he then performed 6 minutes of dialog from the film in front of the studio audience, because it’s also one of his all-time favorite movies.

I go through some days as the noble Sherif Ali [Omar Sharif], poised and in control, looming up out of the desert like a mirage, graceful and elegant. Other days, I swagger around hollering obnoxiously at everybody like Auda Abu Tayi [Anthony Quinn], which drives the hub and kids right out the door. Then, another day a word or a thought will start me crying uncontrollably, or I’ll throw up without warning –and this will happen repeatedly throughout the day. That’s when I’m like the hapless Gasim, staggering around lost in the furnace-heat of the desert, dropping my ammo belts, falling down and fixin’ to die. After suffering through that a while, I somehow buck up, turn into TEL and go back to rescue my Gasim-self, and then come trotting triumphantly out of the desert, wild-eyed, delirious, quixotic.

Oh, it’s fun being me these days, I tell ya. I could draw you a map.

This post also appears over here.

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