No good deed goes unpunished. That's what my friend's mother always likes to say. Of course, it's a terrible mantra, but I my baser self relates to the sentiment precisely. This trip North has not been at all what I expected. Silly silly me.
Let's talk about the horrible things that happen in the name of Love. People do perfectly rotten things to one another when they are trying to be protective or helpful. Optimistically I'll say they don't even know they are doing it.
A quick caveat (that assonates with Dick Cavett): the following will be quite tedious, I'm sure. Unless you want to feel aggravated (probably mostly at me), then I suggest you turn the page. Or close the book.
I came to Oregon to aid my family through a rough patch. Somehow, I got caught in the eye of the cancer hysteria storm. My mother and step-father, in an effort to safeguard my health, asked me to undergo some screening, as we now have a well established matrilineal history of breast cancer. Warily, I conceded. Next thing I know, I am being subjected to not only my mother's emotional projections and outbursts, but her old violations as well.
Let me be clear: I can weather most anything she needs to go through as regards her body. However, I will not put up with it in regards to mine. I don't need the weight of her tears in the exam room with my doctor, and I clearly don't need her to answer for me, especially as she has nor discernible critical faculties when dealing with people who know more than she does. Doctors are human, mom. They aren't infallible. Just because they suggest something, it's not always to be met with an unequivocal, "Yes!"
Directly I told her that she needed to respect my boundaries about all of this (she was trying to make decisions for me, and answering for me the first and LAST time we were in the room with the doctor together). I am not a person who likes to be cornered or manipulated into anything. I don't really fight, spit or claw, though it would probably be healthier if I did. Instead, I become as immovable and silent as a stone. That, of course, drives my mother insane, as she as about as reactive as a stray hydrogen atom. She's a free radical.
Anyway, I made my point with as much calm and kindness as I could muster. Inside, I was so angry that my head was close to exploding off my body. It was literally dizzying. I didn't hold it against her. I released it fast as I could, and resumed my role as a dutiful and loving daughter.
Unfortunately, the outcome of the exam was vaguely worrisome. I have a tiny calcification in my left breast (when I say tiny, we must remember that everything is relative to its context), which, as Dr. Fox put it, "may well have been there since you were a little girl. But we have no way of knowing that for sure." She felt 98% sure that this was not malignant, but recommended three options to secure the grey and currently unknowable 2%.
2%. The milk I drink.
2%. "Britney Spears Among Least Intelligent 2% of Americans"
2%. less than half of that number is the area of difference between us and the chimps.
2%. Your life hinges on such tiny things. Tiny things are all it takes.
I can only recall two of the options, those being a follow up ultrasound in six months to monitor any potential changes in my little calcium deposit, and biopsy. Dr. Fox (rather aptly named), was "quite sure" that was the option I'd want to sure.
Sure, you're thinking I'm in denial. Maybe. You're thinking I'm foolish. Oftentimes. Or maybe I'm just being obstinate. Entirely possible. But what I think is that I don't have cancer. What I think is that a follow up in six months or even fewer, seems perfectly cautious to me, especially when the esteemed physician feels 98% sure.
And how am I to handle and convey this news to my mother on her first day of radiation treatment. She was stone asleep when I returned to the waiting room (wherein the Armand Bender comedrama unfolded forty minutes earlier). I told her this: they found a spot that may have been in me since elementary school. She's 98% sure it's benign. I'll get an ultrasound in six months and monitor it.
She received this news with no visible unrest. I was grateful. We finished up the week of daily double treatments without much ado.
Then Saturday night arrives. I come home after dinner with an old friend. There is mail for me on the kitchen counter from Providence hospital and Dr. Harvey's office (this man is the "family doctor," which means that he attends my parents. I have been in his office twice, once for strep throat and another time for something I cannot recall. I never saw him at any age resembling that of a child). One of them is missing an envelope. Of course Portland is a very trusting sort of a place, but not so much that they deliver your correspondence to you naked. Mom's opened it. I take a deep breath and tell myself to remain calm. Don't make assumptions. Maybe she thought it was a bill. This is not of course what I think, but what I hope.
Sunday morning. Not a peep out of the parental front. Mother and Step-father are quite normal. I think, okay, she hasn't read it, or if she has, she's leaving it up to me.
Sunday 3 pm. I am summoned by my step-father into the family room, as they would like to have a word with me. Here we go.
It seems that not only has she opened my mail and read it, but Dr. Harvey had phoned her Friday evening and had a long discussion with her about my situation.
He did WHAT?
It is my understanding that day one of medical school includes discussion of doctor-patient confidentiality. In fact, I signed a HIPAA form, which = patient health info PRIVACY. My mother stares amazedly at me and asks some asinine question tantamount to "what are you talking about?" "Mom, you know those permanent signs in the St. Vincent's ELEVATORS that say "Remember Confidentiality"? That means that my doctors don't talk to you or anyone else about me and my body." In fact, I have to give expressed permission for that info to be transferred to another specialist's office for review. "And why would the doctor call YOU with MY results. Why didn't he ask for me?"
I am not a minor. I am not an invalid. I am probably a little neurotic, but not insane. I am a person who is really pretty open about herself, but I get to have control over who knows what.
The best part was my stepfather criticizing my mother one moment for opening the mail, then defending the conversation with Doctor "Should Be Medically Disbarred" Harvey in the next breath. He was aggressive with me about it. "I'm REALLY clear on THAT issue," he said in that puffed up and stuffed way he gets when somewhere deep inside he knows he's not only being illogical, but also just plain wrong. "If we were the insurance company, Dr. Harvey would discuss this with us, and since we're paying, we're like the insurance company."
Oh... it's because you are PAYING. I see. So your generosity means that I get to have zero boundaries with you about my life. Because you are helping me.
Even if what he said were legally valid (and I have it on good Counsel that it is, as I suspected, not), it is completely in contradiction to the spirit of what he said before. This breach of privacy is a violation, whether the information was taken off printed paper or the talking wires. You don't get to know unless I want you to know.
And the worst part is, not only would I tell you, but I DID TELL YOU. So what was the need to take this into your own hands? If you wanted more, or you wanted to question my choices, you could have confronted me without ferreting. This is not intervention time. I am and always have been a careful person. I don't take unreasonable chances. I am not wild, unruly, irresponsible, daft, dicey, etc. If anything, I am guilty of holding myself back with the safety of my choices. And why? Because the people who raised me, the ludicrous, often untrustworthy, abusive fuckers who left me almost entirely alone most of the time from the age of seven onward, spent the other part of the time undermining nearly every decision I have ever made.
I fear I am being overreactive about all of this, but it shoots straight to the core of everything that is so wrong with my relationship with my mother and consequently with me.
- It's a reminder of the old symbiosis: my mother's narcissism, and her constitutional inability to recognize that we are not, in fact, the same person. Whatever happens to her, happens to me. If she has cancer, I have cancer. It's almost some variation on Munchausen by Proxy.
- It pulls into focus one of my greatest fears - that I am NOT actually an adult. That I am not a success in my life. That I will never be either.
- It causes me to feel, yet again, entirely alone in the world. I really have felt in the last week that if I did have cancer, this would be that last place I could turn for help. Help that is healthful, that is. I feel that the emotional toll of dealing with them would exact such a great price that it would impair my body's ability to heal.
- It makes me feel like a complete ingrate. The are trying to help me, and I am such a complete shit that all I feel is anger towards them.
But it is how I feel. I know that in their minds they are trying to love me, that they desperately want to protect me, but what of all of this is really a way to displace the lack of control they feel over my mother's situation? Because that's what I see. It's like Christian Missionaries coming in to save the heathens. We care so much for your immortal soul that we will strip you of your identity, your individuality, your dignity. Of course I am overdramatizing, but this is precisely what I feel. It's devastating. The gulf has opened and mother and I are as far apart as ever we were. We had made so much progress. She doesn't even know what she has done.
Maybe I should be grateful. The old wounds are still there, and they need dressing. I haven't done enough yet. Go back to work. That's the message. I should have known it was coming.
Because I am not there yet.